In the last post on the lectionary I gave background to the RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) and highlighted that a community discipline of following the lectionary frees us from the vagaries and some of the eccentricities of allowing pastors total discretion to pick their own favourite Bible passages.
I think there is always a danger from some to turn liturgy into rubrical fundamentalism – always following the instructions of our liturgies to the letter solely because these instructions are there. I am far more interested in understanding the reasoning and principles underneath our rubrics (liturgical instructions). This post, hence, will look at some of the advantages of following the lectionary as well as examining some alternatives.
The Lectionary is part of Common Prayer
- The lectionary is a whole church or denomination sharing a unified, common pattern of biblical proclamation. For example: the gospel book we are all focusing on together this year is Mark. This is the experience of over half the world’s Christians – a remarkable movement of the Holy Spirit in our own time.
- The lectionary means that all in a community can prepare ahead: clergy, preachers, those worshipping in the congregation, musicians, Sunday School teachers, and so on.
- Clergy, worship leaders, and preachers meet, discuss, and pray together, share resources and ideas around the lectionary. Because the lectionary is shared ecumenically, such meetings can happen locally between many churches and denominations, and even virtually online.
- There are wonderful shared resources around the lectionary, ecumenically, internationally, and including online. These include preaching resources, commentaries, Sunday School material, and devotional resources.
- Individuals and groups reflect prayerfully on the following Sunday readings in the style of Lectio Divina or systematic Bible study or other methods.
- The lectionary provides a dynamic direction with a carefully thought out pathway and flow in the church’s seasons as well as in Ordinary Time.
In my experience, the strongest criticism of RCL comes from those who claim they want to “preach through the whole Bible systematically.” For some time I have been involved with online and offline discussion and critique of RCL. One ordained minister criticised RCL for skipping gospel passages from one week to the next. I am sympathetic to this critique. But what interests me is that when I check that ordained minister’s community website it is noticeable that when the lectionary is abandoned 2 Peter 1:20-21 is followed the next week by John 14:1-6 then Luke 10:25-28 then Isaiah 53:5 then Matthew 23:1-37 then Hebrews 10:24-25! My point is that those who abandon the lectionary appear to have scripture-reading systems that are inestimably impoverished in comparison to the RCL which they criticise.
Another supposedly “systematic-Bible-preaching” site I examined, in a year apparently dedicated to preaching systematically through the book of Jeremiah, there were actually only 14 sermons and Sundays devoted to the Book of Jeremiah. That is, in fact, about the same number of Sundays that RCL devotes to Jeremiah. With a bit of planning, that community could have used the RCL AND had as good a preaching series on Jeremiah! Another similar style of site I visited had five Sundays devoted to Romans 1, another to Romans 2:1-16, nothing for Romans 2:17-3:8, a Sunday for Romans 3:9-31, and then… no more on Romans!
My challenge to those who abandon the lectionary is: show us how your community is doing something so stunning that the negatives of abandoning common prayer are outweighed by your own system.
The Protestant Bible has 1189 chapters. Read and preached on a chapter a week (the systematic manner that many RCL-criticisers mostly suggest) – this results in…. 23 years of preaching to get through the Bible! I can just visualise the Christian formation being provided to the University student attending your church for the three years of her degree when those years just happen to coincide with the systematic preaching through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy!
The RCL as a preaching tool
Each Sunday the RCL provides a Gospel reading, another New Testament reading, a psalm, and normally two tracks for the Old Testament. One track of the Old Testament links it with the Gospel reading, the other follows the Old Testament semi-continuously in the same manner that the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are read. [Consistency demands that once a community starts following one track, that is what is used at least for that liturgical year]. Those so inclined can see that these five biblical readings for three years provide fifteen years of exposition before one even needs to return to examine a text for a second time!
It may very well have been possible to have produced something better than this three year cycle we share with more than half the world’s Christians, but that opportunity has now passed. Whatever we alter in this treasure will lead to greater losses than gains in my opinion.
Whilst I rejoice at the liturgical renewal that has put the Eucharist back at the heart of the Christian community, this has not happened without some loss. The Eucharist is the jewel in the crown of Christian worship. For some (many?) that is all they experience – the jewel, no crown. The Eucharist, hence, becomes the sole place for worship, prayer, contemplation, education, fellowship, and so forth. This is a weight too much for the Eucharist to bear.
The Sunday Eucharist ought not to be the only encounter that Christians have with the scriptures. Christians ought regularly to be encouraged to read a book as a whole, for example. Mark’s gospel, our focus this year for example, takes only little more than an hour to read. A Christian community can provide other opportunities for encountering the scriptures in a deeper way – not just individually or in small groups, but online. I am amazed when communities are not providing online resources and discussions to facilitate the deeper, ongoing, systematic, continual working through the scriptures to complement what is provided Sunday by Sunday in their common worship.
RCL, then, is not merely one cool resource alongside others that people might choose from or create their own. Just to take the example of the NZ Anglican Church: the RCL was brought to General Synod where it was passed without amendment, then all the diocesan synods and Hui Amorangi unanimously passed it, then General Synod passed it for a second time, and then a year had to go by allowing for anyone to appeal this new formulary – plenty of opportunities for the sort of discussion and amending by the sort of people who now do not use it. Everything passed unanimously. Clergy promise and sign at their ordination that they will use only authorised material in leading services, and sign again each time they get a new position and licence. Our church’s pledging not to depart from formularies like this is even binding on us as a church by Act of Parliament.
The next post on the lectionary will provide links to some of the best online resources connected to the RCL.