There is no theme

I recently gave a talk to a group of clergy, and one approached me at the end to strongly thank me for pointing out that the Sunday lectionary normally does not have a “theme”. This priest spent a lot of time poring over the readings trying to find the “theme” of the readings. Our lectionary booklet reinforces the misunderstanding that somehow the three readings and the psalm are “Related“:

Lectionary 7 September 2014

I regularly find this misunderstanding. There is nothing in the lectionary booklet itself to help. In its explanation, “Understanding the Lectionary”, it merely states, “For the Sundays after Trinity Sunday two alternatives are provided: Continuous and Related. Choose one of these options and remain with it throughout the period. It is unhelpful to move from week to week from one column to another.” (page 8).

On Sundays, we have been reading systematically through the letter of St Paul to the Romans since we started back in Ordinary Time after the Easter Season. This is the second reading, following the Psalm, Sunday by Sunday. The Gospel reading is systematically working through St Matthew’s Gospel. So if there is any connection, any “theme” between these two readings, it is purely coincidental.

It is not the fault of the clergy here – liturgical study, training, and formation continues to be at a low point here, something that continues to amaze me, considering that leading worship is a primary role of the ordained.

NZ, in the first flush of liturgical renewal in the 1960s, developed a thematic Sunday lectionary. It chose a list of themes, Sunday by Sunday, and then, concordance-like, chose readings to fit with those themes. Soon tiring of this cycle, it chose a second set of readings, concordance-like, making a two-year “thematic” lectionary. Obviously, readings were repeated, important ones omitted, and some preachers discovered that the reading had nothing really to do with the “theme”, but were actually more about something else entirely. But this Two Year “thematic” Sunday lectionary (still dominating much of A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa) set up a “theme culture” which is still being passed on from training vicar to curate and in the minds of many congregants members and communities.

The Church of England (in the Alternative Service Book) approached things slightly differently. They produced a list of important readings, and then tried to cluster readings together sort-of-thematically.

In Celebrating Eucharist I wrote:


The Eucharist is a thanksgiving for creation and redemption. That is the primary theme and anything “more” is icing on the cake. Human celebrations are normally of events rather than abstract concepts. Similarly, the scriptures tell the story of a God who acts (action again) and through our remembering and thanksgiving we are renewed to act in response. A theme may be one attempt to summarise briefly a message in the readings within the context of this present gathering. Preoccupation with finding a theme for each service, however, may limit the impact of a service. Community worship is like a lake upon which liturgy can cast a number of stones, each sending out its pattern of ripples. One person (a new Christian) may connect with the opening hymn, another (a person who has worshipped since her youth) with the Collect, another (just unemployed) with the first reading, another (coming to church for the first time since her husband died) with the Psalm, and so on.

Often the feast or liturgical season provides “theme” enough. Advent prepares for Christ’s coming. Christmas celebrates Christ’s birth. Like a particular type of restaurant (Mexican, Chinese, Indian,…), such a “theme” provides the mood in which the meal is enjoyed rather than a straightjacket for the service.

It is often said that people gave a sigh of relief at the abandonment of the ASB two-year Sunday lectionary and its artificial themes. The Church of England has gone further, and in Common Worship the collect is not tied to the readings. New Zealanders, on the contrary, regularly continue to search for a theme even when there is no theme! To the extreme of trying to force the three year readings into an unfitting straight-jacket by announcing the Sunday’s theme from the Two Year thematic cycle (so that, for example, next Sunday, being the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, has the theme of “The gift of hope” NZPB p622)!

So, read my lips: there is no theme! Read the readings set for the Sunday, pray about them, read commentaries about them, discuss them – and then preach about what the Spirit is saying to the Church through them.

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