Ihave lived with the Revised Common Lectionary and its Consultation on Church Union precursor for more than 40 years. Both reflect a drift from the lectionary principles at the heart of the Anglican tradition since that time when Cranmer and his colleagues were radically reforming what they had received from the medieval church during Edward VI’s reign. Maybe the eucharistic lectionary in the classic Books of Common Prayer is inadequate, especially with the absence of Old Testament readings, but historically, both during the week and on Sundays, Morning and Evening Prayer had a far higher profile.
The Reformers were determined that worshipers in the Church of England should receive a thorough exposure to Scripture. This principle was reinforced 60 years later, when those compiling the Authorized Version of the Bible deliberately created a text that read well in public worship.
While the prayer book lectionary evolved, the goal was that at Morning and Evening Prayer nearly the entire Old Testament should be read within the year, while the New Testament should be read three times. This was later cut to twice during a modest revision in 1871. The Psalter was set to be read in its entirety each month.
Such values have eroded amid liturgical revisions that began in the 1960s. After moving to the United States in 1976, I guided two different parishes through revisions that became the Book of Common Prayer (1979). I did some careful work with the lectionary and discovered its abundant inadequacies.
Behind the lectionary lurked a discomforting theological agenda. Huge portions of Scripture disappeared, never to be used in public worship, nor even to engage the hearts, minds, and souls of clergy and laity conscientious in their use of the Daily Office. Vast swaths of the Old Testament, the foundation upon which the New Testament rests, had suffered what amounted to a Marcionite death and burial. While there were Old Testament readings in the Sunday eucharistic lectionary, they were often little more than trifling adornments for the Gospel and epistle. The Psalter was eviscerated.
Then came the Revised Common Lectionary. In the last 15 years I have become deeply immersed in the RCL, as it is the template for an online daily devotional I write. Each devotional is a passage of Scripture, accompanied by a short exposition, suggestions for prayer, a collect, and further Bible readings. I draw the readings from the eucharistic and daily portions of the Revised Common Lectionary.
As my working knowledge of the RCL has grown, so has my irritation. My goal has been, as much as I can and in obedience to my ordination vows, to expose readers to as much of the whole counsel of God as possible within several years. While there are inadequacies in most lectionaries, the Revised Common Lectionary actually conspires against an orderly opening of biblical faith in its fullness.
Continuity is sometimes impossible. I suspect that rather than opening the breadth of the Faith to its users, the RCL often impedes biblical literacy. My remedy has been to occasionally break from the RCL to fill gaps. Over the years I have carved space for whole books like Esther, the Minor Prophets, or some of the massive portions of Job, Isaiah, and Revelation that do not appear in the RCL. I have attempted to cover most of the Psalter, rather than just those portions that contemporaries consider appropriate.
Since joining the staff at St. George’s, Nashville, I have participated in the daily celebration of the Eucharist. This has brought me face to face with a welter of minor saints and holy days, all with specific readings. We are back to the sort of lectionary that Cranmer and his liturgical colleagues were determined to reform. Continuity and sequential reading is one reason for the limited number of red-letter saints’ days in classic Books of Common Prayer. A further irritant is the tendency to supplant the Old Testament with large sections of the Apocrypha, often without an Old Testament lesson designated as an alternative.
Add to this the manner in which individual texts are sliced up. In one recent example, the epistle reading came from Romans 11. This is a fine and meaty text, except that verses 2b-28, the very substance of the passage, were excised, so the passage was like a sandwich without meat. The whole substance of this crucial chapter was omitted in favor of a couple of blessed thoughts at the beginning and the end. Can such obliteration of substance be considered responsible?
There are four reasons why texts might be treated in this cavalier manner:
- Length and a contemporary congregation’s limited attention span.
- Liturgists do not want the congregation to hear certain theological notions and doctrines that they have deemed inappropriate.
- Liturgists have judged listeners incapable of understanding a text.
- An inability or unwillingness of clergy to help believers grasp the substance of a text.
This is a well-orchestrated tidying of Scripture according to editors’ theological assumptions, and it accelerates the biblical dumbing down of congregations. That is a far more serious matter than the placement of commas in liturgical texts, ceremonial, ritual, and vesture.