I am doing a series on the blog about why I became Anglican, and thefirst week I looked at the church calendar and last week at worship, and this week I want to dip into “worship,” by which I mean Sunday morning worship service. (I do not equate worship with Sunday morning worship, but Sunday morning worship is worship.) This week I look at the Lectionary.
I’m not a historian of the lectionary, and it is common property to a wide range of churches and that is why today it is called “The Revised Common Lectionary” and it is available online here.
In essence, the RCL is a 3-year cycle of Bible readings for Sunday worship (and daily readings as well). The lectionary is built on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, with John weaved in over the three years. The Bible readings in a lectionary-based worship service are ordered into an Old Testament lesson, a reading from the Psalms, a reading from an Epistle, and then “The Gospel.” As the church calendar is rooted in the life of Jesus (see the image above), so the lectionary readings from the Bible aim at the Gospel reading and prepare for it and enhance it. This squares the church on the Gospels as the gospel.
There are of course omissions from the the RCL: many passages from the Old Testament are not a part of the 3-year cycle; most of some books (Leviticus, Numbers, 1-2 Chronicles) are either absent for a variety of reasons, not least is that some are repetitious or difficult for public consumption (at least in the presence of children). If you want to see a good charting of percentages, see here. Here are the graphs from that page that summarize the percentages:
One may sniff about the low percentages from some books in the Bible, but care to compare these numbers with the display from non-lectionary churches? (Many churches today don’t even have Scripture readings in the service other than what the preacher reads for the sermon.)
I have three personal responses to the lectionary that attract me not just to Anglican worship but to lectionary-based worship:
First, the preacher/pastor is not in charge of which texts to preach but the lectionary is. Pastors and preachers will favor what they want to preach and this means over time hobby horses, favorite themes, texts that cover topics the preacher/pastor wants to focus on. Fine, but over time what one likes and what one doesn’t like will have too much influence.
Mind you, lectionary based churches provide the pastor/preacher with flexibility and at times one must pastorally vary from the lectionary text.
I provide an example: during my teenage years our pastor preached one by one through some of the Pauline letters. 1 Corinthians, he skipped 2 Corinthians if I recall accurately, then he went to Galatians and Ephesians and about the time he got to Colossians I went off to college. Sunday evening and Wednesday evening allowed the pastor to preach on other topics, but they tended to be topical or about prayer. This is not a criticism of my pastor’s sermons but evidence of what happens: I went through my teen years without an exposition of a Gospel. Perhaps this was the reason I fell so hard for the Gospels when I got to college and seminary.
Second, the wisdom of the lectionary is that over three years the three Synoptic Gospels and most of John will be covered and will form the center of the Bible readings. This means in a lectionary based worship, if done consistently over years, Jesus becomes the central topic.
One can’t improve on a lectionary-based worship that constantly leads the listeners to Jesus.
Third, because there are four texts the preacher/pastor can choose which one to focus on or can use each in a full-lectionary sermon. A series might be done from Genesis during a Genesis period in the lectionary, or Exodus, or Isaiah, or from one of the Epistles or from the Psalms. One doesn’t have to choose the Gospel for the sermon text.
My conclusion is that: a lectionary-based worship is not perfect but it is wise. Our priest, Jay Greener, at times uses Ordinary Time for a series on a topic or a Bible book. Some lectionary preachers preach only on the Gospel and never preach on the Old Testament, the Psalms or the Epistle. This starves the church from the other direction.
The lectionary is wise.
Oh, one more point, a fourth: if you have never been to a lectionary-based church you may both be stunned by how much Bible is read aloud and really enjoy hearing more than a verse or two, may simply enjoy hearing the Bible read aloud, or may appreciate hearing from the whole Bible over time. I know I do.