Faith seeking understanding

There's beauty and practicality in the Lectionary

The fact that it can be an expression of unity, bringing together Christians of sometimes disparate theological perspectives to ponder common readings, is just one of the ways in which the Revised Common Lectionary is valuable, writes Robert Derrenbacker, the Dean of Trinity College Theological School.

By Robert Derrenbacker

November 13 2019ne of the distinctive features of Anglican worship is its use of and reliance on a common lectionary – that is, a calendar of set readings from Scripture for Sunday public worship, along with daily prayer throughout the week. As is well known, the Anglican Church of Australia officially follows the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday worship, as do a number of other Anglican provinces around the world, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The RCL provides three readings plus a Psalm – a first lesson (usually from the Old Testament), a second (typically from one of the New Testament letters), and a Gospel reading. The RCL is an ecumenical, Protestant lectionary that was first published in 1994, a revision of the previous “Common Lectionary” (1983), which itself is derived from the Roman Catholic three-year calendar of readings coming out of the Second Vatican Council known as the Ordo Lectionum Missae (1969).

But the roots of the use of a lectionary in worship are much older. For example, the Mishnah (a written collection of oral traditions around the Torah from as early as the third century CE) identifies various readings from the Hebrew Bible that were to be used in Jewish worship at particular times during the year. As well, Christian scribes produced handwritten lectionaries prior to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century; there are at least 70 examples of Christian lectionaries from the ninth to 15th centuries that bear witness to the Greek New Testament and often preserve its older and more reliable readings.

Anglicans, too, have a particular experience with lectionaries for most of their history. The lectionary from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer identified a Psalm, a New Testament lesson and a Gospel reading for each Sunday of the Christian year, plus a cycle of readings from the Old and New Testaments for daily prayer. Over the past two decades, General Synod has authorised a calendar of readings for Sundays, Principal Holy Days, and other Festivals that essentially follows the RCL, as well as readings for weekday prayer, all of which is contained in the annually published booklet An Australian Lectionary (Broughton Publishing).

It is recognised, even by its regular users and advocates, that the RCL is not a perfect lectionary. It sometimes skips over more “difficult” portions of Scripture; it will connect readings from the Old and New Testaments that often seem to have little to do with each other; and it will, at times, omit altogether some of the more memorable and powerful stories from the Bible (e.g., the “fiery furnace” from Daniel 3). As a result, some Christian users of lectionaries have begun to develop supplemental and alternative cycles of readings (see, for example the “Narrative Lectionary” from Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota, USA, or the “Year D” supplement to the RCL).

Yes, these alternatives do bear witness to some of the inadequacies of the RCL, but also bear witness to the importance of keeping a common lectionary as central in Christian worship. And despite its imperfections, the RCL (and other common lectionaries) have a lot going for them. I identify five interrelated areas:

First, the RCL allows worshippers to experience the fullness of the Christian year, reminding us as Christians that we need always to “know what time it is”. Here, we recognise how the rhythm of the Christian year shapes our lives and allows us to relive the Christian story, beginning with Advent, through the myriad of feasts and festivals along with Ordinary Time, all the way to Christ the King Sunday at year’s end.

Second, the RCL can compel preachers to deal with “difficult” texts by taking them out of their (and their congregations’) “comfort zones”. Here, I’m not just thinking about texts that have challenging content (e.g., Matt 18:21-35 [Peter’s question about forgiveness and the Parable of the Unmerciful Slave], Year A), but also readings that are exegetically difficult, whose original meanings are sometimes difficult to ascertain (e.g., Mark 3:20-35 and Jesus’ words on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit [Year B]). This feature should allow preachers some more time to be engaged in the task of exegesis, and allows hearers of their sermons to recognise that often a text’s meaning is not always simple or straightforward.

Third, the RCL is an expression of inter-parish, cross-diocesan and cross-provincial unity and synergy. Common lectionaries provide common, simultaneous opportunities for Anglicans (and other Christians) across cities, regions, countries and internationally to ponder shared texts from Scripture and be nurtured together at the same points throughout the year as they meditate on (and marinate in) the common readings for the week. As well, it can be a tangible and meaningful expression of unity, when Christians from disparate denominations with sometimes disparate theological perspectives ponder together common readings from Scripture.

Fourth, while it does not take worshippers through the entire Bible, the RCL does take worshippers through a good chunk and representative swathe of Scripture. Over three years, for example, we encounter much of the content of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plus numerous readings from John’s Gospel. And as a series of usually sequential readings, the RCL often provides an opportunity for worshippers (and the preacher) to better contextualise the readings from each Sunday.

Fifth, there are some fabulous resources that are tied to the RCL. These include the Feasting on the Word series (Westminster John Knox Press), as well as the excellent collection of resources at www.textweek.com (always my first stop in sermon preparation). There, one finds a superb trove of commentary (both current and historical), sermon illustrations from art and film, and liturgical resources, all keyed to the RCL texts of the week. “Working Preacher” (from Luther Seminary in St Paul) features prominently at textweek.com, and is my particular favourite (www.workingpreacher.org). Included are numerous commentaries on the RCL texts, plus a weekly podcast where three faculty from Luther Seminary discuss together the RCL readings for the upcoming Sunday. And the beauty of these resources is that you don’t have to be a preacher to benefit from them!

Lectionaries have been an important characteristic of Anglican worship since the early days of the English reformation, and they have been an essential feature in Christian liturgy for at least a millennium. In my mind, there is both a beauty and a practical benefit to us as Christians – for clergy and laity – as we seek to draw closer to each other in faith and to the Scriptures. Let’s not overlook the practical power of the Lectionary to bring us together into the richness of God’s Word as expressed in Scripture.

The Revd Dr Robert Derrenbacker is Dean and Frank Woods Associate Professor in New Testament, Trinity College Theological School

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