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The Lectionary (part 2)

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.

The alternative

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.

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15 thoughts on “The Lectionary (part 2)”

  1. I use the RCL myself, and have done so for most of my 20+ years of ministry. I have one primary complaint about it, and that is how it treats the gospel of John. I loathe the fact that this most complex and rich gospel is divided among the lectionary years instead of having its own year. Instead of focusing on only the synoptic gospels, it would be nice to have one of the years focus on John exclusively.

    1. I think your point a good critique, Will, and you may have seen I wrote about the four year alternative in my previous lectionary post. It is highly unlikely we will see such a change for quite a while and for some to do it and not most means the greater losses I mention. I think the better way forward is to be creative within the context we have.

  2. I was really interested in this post, being just a “new” Anglican. Possibly without the Lectionary one might end up with the sort of situation that pertained in the Tridentine Rite as practiced until the late 60s, when almost the only Gospel read was St Matthew’s, as it was seen to be the first. (Ironically, the “Magdalen fragments”, found in a cave reckoned to have been shut up in around 65AD, suggest this may have been right! But I think the point still stands.)

  3. Something important to me, as a preacher, is that the RCL “forces” me to preach the wideness of God. If I had my way, I’d never on my own choose to preach on the slaughter of the innocents or the beheading of John the Baptist. And yet these texts are important to the whole picture of God’s story as narrated in the Bible. The lectionary keeps me from only preaching the easy texts, and encourages me to see God’s grace (and preach God’s grace) in a variety of situations. It reminds me that I have a responsibility to preach the whole of God’s message, not just the bits and pieces that I myself prefer.

  4. Bosco+,

    I am enjoying your posts on the Lectionary. I am not a huge fan of the existant 3 year lectionary, and I become even less enthusiastic about the idea of having three totally separate tracks of narrative readings in a given day’s liturgy (when following the semi-continious OT track in RCL).

    In my experience, having used the Roman version of the 3 year lectionary, the traditional one year lectionary in the BCP, and now going back to the 3 year again (albeit a locally approved trial version) as a result of a new assignment, I am glad that the version of the 3 year that I use provides thematic alternatives for the first two readings. I would prefer to use the course readings at Matins and Vespers, reserving thematic unity for the Divine Service.

    We get one hour a week, give or take, to touch most of our parishoners. I want to present them with something they will walk away from the Liturgy with that will enrich their walk of faith and their week. I am not saying that this cannot be done with the 3 year lectionary in the RCL format, but it becomes difficult. Further, while I would never go so far as to say the Word is useless when not presented thematically/typologically, I would say that I still scratch my heads on Ordinary Sundays when readings that have no bearing on one another are read.

    My own preferences aside, our Diocesan prayerbook is an interim edition, and there has been some talk of going back to the old one-year lectionary, while providing two years of supplemental texts (derived from several Lutheran lectionaries from the late 1800’s) for those desiring a greater variety of texts for liturgical usage.

    No lectionary is perfect, and no matter how much I may dislike the RCL in specific, or the 3 year in general -as produced-, I’d prefer a lectionary any day to ‘freewheeling’ my way through the Bible.

    Now, give me a good four year lectionary with a year to John, and we might be talking… Or better yet… oh wait, this isn’t Dream Lectionary R&D. Let me know when that committee meets 🙂


  5. Hey, let me join that four year, John’s Gospel treated right and proper bandwagon!

    On the matter of apparently ‘disconnected’ readings on some or most ordinary Sundays, I have found the experience of close reading yielding some interesting if not inspiring connections between the readings set down (even if only, say, one point from the OT connecting with one point from the Ep and feeding into the depth and breadth of the Gospel) … but then there is only one Spirit of God breathing through Scripture, so perhaps such connections are not so surprising 🙂

  6. It is also interesting to me that some who would claim to stand in the Reformation tradition appear so uncomfortable with allowing scripture to be read to a congregation and speaking directly to an individual’s heart without passing through the preacher’s interpretation. A worship-leader-controlled service can weave a message-music-reading(s) so tightly that it “addresses” only a relatively small band of individuals. Common worship has breadth enough for many many to find a connection with God – even if it be in a “disconnected” reading.

  7. As a Roman Catholic convert, I want to say that the Lectionary is more than a blessing. Before becoming Catholic, I attended a so called “evangelical church.” The Scripture reading and preaching in this “evangelical church” was done very haphazardly. For being in what we believed was a “Bible believing church” we touched on very little Scripture. Some verses were preached on often, more than the others, and were taken out of context to fit particular “doctrines” of the denomination. Verses that did not fit in to the denomination’s “doctrines” were skipped over and never read.

    By not using the Lectionary, we did not get the entirity of God’s Word, and we didn’t get it in it’s fullest and truest meaning. If we had, well, we wouldn’t have stayed in that church! I’m so glad that in the midst of my time at this “evangelical church,” I met Catholic friends who encouraged me to attend the Catholic Church with them, and that I had a chance to read Scripture as laid out in the Lectionary. I read and studied Scripture in it’s fullness and in context, as well as spent time with my friends studying Church history, history, and the Church Fathers. Hence I am now Roman Catholic, enjoying the fullness of the Gospel and the fullness of the Faith. God be praised forever!

    krissy knox
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    1. Vincent, you will realise that the Bible is just too big to read all of it in the 150 or so Sundays of the RCL cycle, hence a choice has been made and we may not agree with some of those choices. I cannot locate your text in RCL. But you may be aware that we are reading 1 Timothy 12,19, and 26 September this year. If a community committed to the RCL wanted to do a preaching series those three weeks on 1 Timothy, one suggestion might be to read 1 Timothy 1 September 12; 1Tim 2&3 Sep 19; 1Tim 4,5,6 Sep 26. That way the required texts are read as well as the surrounding material. Another, of course, is to encourage people to read 1 Timothy in their prayer time during the week – it is short. Don’t know if that helps. The text you cite, IMO, is certainly an important one.

  8. The problem with our worship today, is that we do not spend enough time listening to God’s Word. It is true that the lectionary probably causes those that preach it to read more scripture than they otherwise would. People resist submitting to the dictates of scripture. We need a system that leads us to read all of scriptures. To do this we need a system that indicates that they read a lot more scripture. On the road to Emmaus scripture says that Jesus interpreted to them the things about him in all of scripture. We can read all of scripture in one year if we have a system that directs us to go through the whole Bible in one year. If we dedicate each Sunday to hearing God’s word, we can do that. We should do that. Let’s not settle for a lectionary devised by people, when we can hear God’s whole word. Do we have better things to do on the Lord’s day than to listen to God’s word?

    1. Jamie, your suggestion of reading the whole Bible aloud in a year at Sunday services is fascinating. Do you run such services and how are they received? I guess the reading part takes a couple of hours each Sunday. When you say “Let’s not settle for a lectionary devised by people”, your service still has such a “lectionary” in the decision how to read the Bible: Protestant canon from Genesis to Revelation; Jewish canonical order; Old Testament, Gospel, other New Testament text; or whatever system (“lectionary”) you use.

  9. I am a lay person and regularly attend a Lutheran Church. Our services follow a lectionary. I am working on developing a lectionary. I have not seen my proposal implemented. I believe such services would last about seven hours which would definitely have the effect of making the weekly sabbath a holy time which the Bible says we should do. In terms of order of lessons I believe it makes sense to try to read lessons in the time of the year in which they occur in the scriptures. Then try to link lessons that seem connected. Each week try to have comparable amounts of the various genres of readings: Pentateuch, History, Psalms, Wisdom, Prophetic, Gospel, Epistle. As children of God, we believe that we have recieved God’s Word in our Bible. We can argue about its contents but that is not helpful. If we set our hearts on God, and let His hands mold us with His Word, we will be blessed.

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