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Revising the Lectionary?

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It’s a hardy annual: someone has a theory how they could improve the 3-year Sunday lectionary. The latest off-site conversation I have had about this was arguing for a fourth year focusing on John’s Gospel.

Currently, we have a three-year cycle: one year for each Synoptic Gospel (Mt; Mk; Lk). In the Seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter, there are often connections between the three readings and the Psalm. Outside these seasons, usually the three readings and the Psalm do not tie together in this closer manner (other than proclaiming the actions of God throughout the scriptures). [Those who are confused by this and still seek a theme for every Sunday across the readings might start by reading this]. RCL provides two options for the first reading. One set of RCL readings follows the RC approach (the originators of the lectionary) tying the first reading (from the Hebrew Bible) to the Gospel. The other set uses the same approach to the Hebrew Bible as it does to the rest of the scriptures, reading semi-continuously.

The essence of the off-site discussion was that not having a fourth year focusing on John’s Gospel might stem from suspicion that somehow the Fourth Gospel is not as reliable or trustworthy or ‘authentic’. I do not think that is the case [notwithstanding that there is a different attitude to the historicity of John’s Gospel even amongst those who are at the more conservative scripture scholarship end of the spectrum – see as a recent example the discussion here].

Rather than thinking of the Fourth Gospel as holding a secondary place in the Three-Year Lectionary, one could strongly argue that it holds a primary place. The Fourth Gospel is read in every year. It is read at Christmas; every day of Holy Week – including at length always on Good Friday; every Holy Saturday; every Easter Day; The Day of Pentecost; Trinity; All Saints…. and so on… Some verses are omitted – but essentially the whole Gospel is covered. That cannot be said of, say, Luke’s Gospel.

I’ve done the adding quickly, but it looks to me that we need to cover 53 possible Sundays each year, plus about four ‘extras’ (Christmas; Good Friday;…). Across three years that’s about 171 ‘propers’ [53+4=57; 57×3=171]. Matthew is read 46 times; Mark 34; Luke 52; John 39 [total 171]. John is read on average about 13 times a year – a quarter of each and every year is John’s Gospel.

A penultimate point: each year using The Three Year Lectionary has a similar ‘feel’ – a ‘Synoptic Gospel feel’ outside the two great seasonal blocks, and more of a ‘Fourth Gospel feel’ within those seasons. I think that is genius – unrecognised, possibly, but superb nonetheless. Aside from the impossibility of garnering energy to change the three-year tradition (used by well over half of the world’s Christians – and supplemented by wonderful and ever-increasing resources) to a four-year cycle, an imagined four-year cycle would have three years of a ‘Synoptic Gospel feel’ and every fourth year would ‘feel’ quite different.

Finally: as I have said so often before – I challenge those who complain about the Three-Year Lectionary to actually, concretely provide the alternative being used year in year out in their church. From my experience, the complainants generally in their own context have not given the Three-Year lectionary a fair go. Often, they use one or two lessons, and regularly no psalm – rather than the full meal of three readings and a psalm.

Ps: No, I haven’t been ignoring the meeting of GAFCON and the Kiwi parishes that are voting to leave the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (or might they argue that they are the continuing ACANZ&P, and the rest of us have left?). The Kiwi contingent at GAFCON’s Jerusalem conference talked about how they are loyal to the vows they make and the declarations they sign. I’m wondering how that will work out in terms of commitment to using the Prayer Book, vesting, and (with this post in mind) faithful use of the Three-Year lectionary they sign up to. Would anyone protest that those intending to leave are adhering to their vows and declarations?

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11 thoughts on “Revising the Lectionary?”

  1. Peter Kershaw

    Our church (Church of Scotland) has decided to abandon the RCL in favour of the Narrative Lectionary. After a couple of years experience from the pew side of the readings, I wish we would go back! We didn’t know when we were well off.

    1. That is a fascinating comment, thanks Peter. I know little to nothing about the Narrative Lectionary – maybe someone could outline its principles, approach, and how it works in practice, and the weakness you perceive (the benefits of RCL). I will also do a bit of reading about it. Blessings.

  2. Fr Richard Peers

    The mis-use of the 3 year lectionary is a real problem here in England. I am at a different church almost every Sunday, I almost never hear a psalm being used, many churches use only the NT reading before the Gospel and a substantial number of churches use only the Gospel. Not to me tion those churches who say to me “tell us what readings you want”!

    1. Thanks, Fr Richard. Losing the psalms (along with the omission of so much of the Bible as you describe) is a tragedy – it sells Christian life short. This is no way to form Christian life for the long term. Blessings.

  3. Chip Chillington

    I’m reminded of the G K Chesterton observation, “It is not that Christianity [three year lectionary] has been tried and found wanting, it is that it hasn’t been tried.”

  4. I will always remember, Bosco, many years ago when I was a parishioner in the Darwin Cathedral Parish, in North Australia, being told by an assistant curate, when I suggested we studied the Gospel of John in our weekly Bible Study, that this Gospel was far too difficult for laypeople to study without clerical supervision. I asked the Dean who immediately gave us permission to study this Gospel – without supervision. We poor laity may not have plumbed the very depths of the mind of John, but we did enjoy our search and, consequently, expanded the number of people participating in Bible study.

    As a former Franciscan and now a retired but active priest, I still think the study of the Gospel of John to be essential for a fuller understanding of the humanity/divinity of Jesus.

  5. We must be unusual among churches in the UK, in that we use the 3 year lectionary faithfully. Epistle and Gospel at BCP and three readings for CW HC. Sometimes using the Psalm instead of the OT reading. As we will this Sunday.

    We use the lectionary for Morning Prayer and Evensong and mid-week communion services.

    This pattern suits us and thankfully, no one has thought that we should so anything else.

    Using the BCP for at least 2 services a week is a commitment to those who love that format for worship, and most don’t actually need the prayer book (although they have it) as they know the responses by heart. And they are not all over 60, although a substantial proportion are.

    And I don’t hear anyone bemoaning the death of the Alternative Service Book, perhaps it passed them by entirely, as I wasn’t an Anglican when it was in use.

    I suppose that I’m content with steady as we go, but also to use common worship resources for services of the word, which gives scope for themes and innovation, although we’ll normally stick to the set readings, whatever is going on.

    1. Thanks, Ernie. I cannot judge if you are unusual in UK – all I have on that is the comments here. But, I do notice that you appear to speak of the Psalm as a reading and how it can replace the OT reading. This appears quite common. The role of the Psalm in the Lectionary (and, I would argue, in the Hebrew Bible) is not simply another Old Testament reading. It is not interchangeable. One would not read an OT reading instead of the Psalm at 1662 BCP Evensong – that is because the role and purpose of the Psalm is understood in the ingrained life of the Office in a way that “liturgical renewal” (liturgical revision) has apparently, within Anglicanism at least, damaged its understanding in, say, the Eucharist. The Psalter is our inspired hymn book, our inspired Prayer Book. Blessings.

  6. Chris Lancaster

    Hello Bosco, I hope it’s ok to revisit this thread! I agree with all the points you make… but am also increasingly confronted with the reality that we have many people who have listened to the three-year lectionary for decades, without having or gaining a basic biblical literacy and understanding. The lectionary is great when people have enough background (and ideally prior reading during the week) to be able to hear the readings in at least some of their context. But when that’s not happening, we end up just giving people far more than they can usefully make sense of. And the preacher is faced with three readings, all of which cry out for some substantial unpacking.
    I’ve been interested in the C of E’s approach, which mandates lectionary readings for Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter, but in ordinary times allows other schemes. They also provide a large selection of sets of readings (3 plus psalm) where the focus is clearly on one of those readings, allowing for a series on one book or theme: see https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/new-patterns-worshp/resource-section-themes/C-liturgy-word (scroll down to see the sets of readings). I do wonder if doing something like this at some times of the year would be more accessible and might even help people to make some progress in becoming familiar with the Bible.
    Thanks as always for stirring the pot!

    1. Thanks, Chris. I think your important point(s) dovetails into my own concern that, having (rightly IMO) recovered the Eucharist as the jewel in the crown, we are neglecting the crown in which this jewel is (to be) set. 1 hour Eucharist a week (or for many “committed Christians” once or twice a month) is not going to nourish a deep, living faith. What I read you as saying is that tinkering with the components within that hour may help. I would need convincing of this. I think this may deserve a post on its own 🙂 Blessings.

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