Why a Lectionary? by Fred Kimball Graham

Dr. Fred Kimball GrahamIn October, 2013, Dr. Fred Kimball Graham, Associate Professor Emeritus of Emmanuel College in Toronto and a Drew graduate (Liturgical Studies, 1991) presented the following in the Bard Thompson Lecture Series at Seminary Hall.

Since 1988 I have been a delegate to the Consultation of Common Texts, and served a double term as its Convener.  It is a freewill association of voices from 19 North American churches and associations dedicated to liturgical renewal. In 2013, Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, and the proclamation of Sacrosanctum Concilium: the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, out of which came so many familiar revisions to the practice of worship, both Catholic and Protestant. Out of the consultations leading up to and following the Second Vatican Council emerged the Ordo Lectionum Missae: the Lectionary for the Mass and Feast Days (OLM). One of the derivative offspring has been the Revised Common Lectionary, (RCL) used widely in North America, and according to a recent survey, by more than 50 denominations and associations around the world. The two schemes for reading “more and abundant scripture” are connected. Let us look at the principles behind the organization of the RCL and note some of the impact it has had.

In 1963, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL) document stated that the Roman Catholic Church would provide “more abundant, varied, and appropriate reading of the Sacred Scriptures.” [CSL. Art. 35. 56:109].

The existing authorized system or lists for proclaiming passages of the Bible dated back to 1570, the first organized lectionary in the West, and used in the Roman Catholic domain until 1971. That lectionary prescribed an epistle reading and a gospel reading for each of the 52 Sundays in a year, in a cycle of one year.  It was widely imitated throughout Europe in both Protestant and Catholic contexts. The whole year had only three Old Testament readings. A resurgence of interest in biblical scholarship and in enriching the liturgical year occurred in the decades before Vatican II, and as a result, the need for readings better suited to each season became apparent. A research group in Rome reviewed intensely all the Latin lectionaries from the 6th to the 12th centuries, fifteen Oriental lectionaries, and all the existing Protestant lectionaries. After consultation and critique, the new lectionary came into use on the first Sunday of Advent, 1971, year A. The OLM was organized on a three-year rotation of Gospel readings. Each Sunday and each feast-day had three constituent parts: an Old Testament passage and a thematically related psalm; an Epistle; and a Gospel pericope. The three-year format had historical antecedents, but also allowed people to refresh biblical narratives within a memorable time-frame of three years.

Since that time, many have advocated for a 4th year allocated to John’s gospel, however, the OLM (and later the RCL) opted to use passages from John to highlight certain major festivals; for example at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Essentially, all the recent lectionaries are characterized by readings focussing on Matthew and John; Mark and John; Luke and John in cycles A, B, and C respectively. It was agreed that dividing the Johannine discourses into appropriate segments for Sundays would challenge even the most able of scholars!

In constructing the lectionary, the Gospel reading was the guiding energy, filtering the passages chosen from Old Testament. Regarding Epistles, they complemented the Gospel in the Festal Seasons, but were permitted to unfold in sequence (lectio continua) in Ordinary Time.Ecumenical circles observed these changes with lively interest, and in the mid-60’s, the Joint Liturgical Group in Britain became very active in designing a new 2-year scheme of readings, all the while communicating their activity to Roman leaders. In North America meanwhile, many spontaneous efforts at emulating the Roman Catholic model erupted.

The desire to have readings-in-common almost derailed into a scenario of dis-unity. Eventually, a round-table discussion amongst 13 denominations took place in Washington, DC in 1978, and 5 years later, the members of the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) produced the “Common Lectionary” (CL). The compilers had decided to follow the same three year pattern they observed in OLM, with a few notable changes in approach. First, they opted to revise the first readings to be fully “representative of the Hebrew bible and not simply prophetic or typological.”

The word typological is allied with the concept that the gospel is pre-eminent, and influences the choice of all other readings. For example, as found  in the OLM, the gospel for October 27 was the reading about the tax collector and the Pharisee as found in Luke 18; that pericope is matched with a reading from the book of Sirach (35) – the God of justice who knows no favorites, to reflect the content of the Gospel pericope. The choice of Psalm 34 in response to the OT reading picks up the same themes. This illustrates the typology of the OLM.

While the authors of RCL opted to select readings with inter-related themes in the first half of the liturgical calendar (as in the OLM scheme), they opted to observe lectio continua in the post-Pentecost period. On the same Sunday in RCL, the Gospel is identical, (Luke 18.9) but the Old Testament reading, Joel 2.23, continues a sequence of Sundays featuring OT prophets (Jeremiah, Joel, Haggai, etc.) and Wisdom literature. Thus we see that the two lectionary schemes are very similar from Advent through Pentecost, and virtually identical in the case of the Gospel pericopes. Provisions for Old Testament and Epistle selections differ frequently for the remainder of the church year under the rubric of semi-continuous reading.

Within the schematic of lectio continua, initiated by OLM, and visible in all three years of both the CL/RCL, the narrative within a book of the Bible, or of one of the apostolic letters is allowed to unfold sequentially. This design came under subsequent critique.

After publication in 1983, CL immediately underwent a 3-year review, week by week, assisted by hundreds of practitioners and scholars. Their observations were carefully discussed, and applied in the refinement and revision of the CL, a process undertaken over a period of 4 years. Five of the aims of revising the CL were as follows:

**To expand the canon of Old Testament readings, observing the integrity of that Testament;

**To bring to the attention of congregations the biblical stories showing women to be leaders;

**To expose congregations to feminine images for God;

**To avoid intended or unintended mistreatment of ethnic minorities, Jewish persons, or others.

**To take into account the needs of several episcopal denominations requiring more extensive use of typologically oriented readings. This latter point was accommodated by providing a parallel but not competing scheme of readings called Complementary. The final version of RCL thus exhibits both the typological format and the semi-continuous format in Ordinary Time.

The task was completed and approved in 1992. It influenced United Methodism immediately as evidenced in the provision within the UM Hymnal of Psalms related to the RCL. However, the Episcopal Church (USA) only formally adopted it at the General Convention in 2006 after a period of trial use.

Availability of the RCL immediately sparked a multitude of preaching and Christian education resources, and influenced to some extent every mainstream religious organization in Canada and the USA. In subsequent years it has spread around the world under the leadership of the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC).

In 2012, an annotated version of the RCL was published by the Consultation on Common Texts through Fortress Press, marking the twentieth anniversary of the initial publication in 1992.The contents, compiled by me, present the historical development of lectionaries, and in particular the two lectionaries in use in our time.

Paul Scott Wilson, the well-known homiletics writer and teacher, when questioned about the influence of the RCL, said recently:

The Revised Common Lectionary has spurred not only ecumenical scholarship in lectionary-based resources for preachers, but has also helped those in the pulpit to be more biblical. The promise contained in this cannot be underestimated, as the church moves through a period of great upheaval. As a result there is increased likelihood that preaching in these times will remain centred on the gospel, and that is a tremendous cause for hope.

Related to my own field of Hymnology, I ask, “What if any effect did the receipt of the refreshed lectionaries have on hymn output? How were writers such as Brian Wren, Shirley Erena Murray, Mary Louise Bringle, Dan Damon, Michael Joncas, Ruth Duck and Thomas Troeger influenced by the expanded pool of pericopes?”

Ruth Duck reported recently, “I was significantly influenced by the RCL in my hymn writing. Both ‘Wine at a wedding’ and ‘Come to the Waters’ came from my daily devotional time based on the lectionary.” In the most recent Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God (2013) the emerging author Mary Louise Bringle is seen to respond to many previously untouched lectionary themes in her hymn poetry.

The lectionary has impacted other areas of the life of congregations and leadership as well, seen in curriculum design affected by the stability of lectionary schemes.

I look to my own circle in New Jersey where two friends of differing religious praxis were friends. Their relationship strengthened noticeably when they discovered,after attending their own Sunday worship oneSunday, that they had heard the same readings, and could discuss their faith views from their own faith perspectives.For me, the premise and promise of common readings came full circle in that relationship. Common story, common life, common mission.

Most of us involved in ecumenical ventures agree that being one at the Table is still far off; nonetheless, recognition of the common biblical heritage is already a huge step towards the prayer of Christ, that “all may be one.” In the meantime, other lectionaries have appeared. The Season of Creation Lectionary, the African American Lectionary, The Uncommon Lectionary, and so on. Time and context will test their worth. As a person who has been intimately connected with the design, implementation and revision of the Common Lectionary/Revised Common Lectionary–now more than 20 years old, I live in the hope that its embrace will one day touch the whole Christian world, more language groups, and the goal of unity through biblical understanding as we make disciples for Christ. That step will include, no doubt, further reform and re-formation.

Recently, I heard the renowned theologian Douglas John Hall pleading: “Remove the historical amnesia. Christians need reasons for their faith; the church is doomed if it will not think theologically. Christians are not born; they are made.” In my worldview, theological thinking starts with story-telling, biblical story-telling. That’s why there’s a lectionary…to tell the story of the birth, death, resurrection and mission of Christ Jesus.