The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is probably the most-used family of Bible-reading plans in the world right now. The Roman Catholic Church uses a version of it, the Episcopal Church uses a version of it, various Anglican churches use versions of it, Lutherans use a version of it, and even some Presbyterians and other Protestants use it. The Sunday and Red Letter Day Lectionary in the Anglican Church in North America’s Texts for Common Prayer is also a version of the RCL.
In the interest of catholicity and ecumenism, you might think I’d be all over this lectionary for the denomination-uniting tool that it could be. But having spent about half of my preaching years using it, and half using something more historic, I came to the conclusion that it’s high time we just let it go, and return to the historic Prayer Book lectionary. And I’ve got three big reasons to back up my stodgy old-fashioned opinion!
The RCL in its various forms provides a set of three readings (usually Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel) with a Psalm for every Sunday and Holy Day throughout the year. For the Sundays it contains a three-year cycle of readings to increase the amount of Scripture that gets covered over the course of that time. But that also sets it up for its first problem.
Reason #1: Nobody has a three-year memory.
It’s all well and good to claim a lectionary that covers an impressively large % of the Bible over the course of three years. It’s certainly a leg-up from the ad-hoc approach to Scripture reading found in nearly every “non-liturgical” church. Even if the sermon only deals with one of the readings on a given Sunday, the congregation will at least hear a great deal of Scripture read to them over the course of the three-year cycle. But nobody has a three-year memory. Who’s going to say “Oh, I remember this reading from 4 years ago, isn’t it great!”?
One of the keys to learning and discipleship is frequent repetition. A three-year cycle of readings is much too stretched out for its repetitions to pay off. It might work for an attentive adult who attends church every Sunday without fail, but think of the children. The readings that my son will hear when he’s 5 years old won’t come around again until he’s 8, and then 11, and then 14, and then 17, and then 20. To him, those gaps are an incredibly long time. I might remember them decently well because I preached on those readings, but I can’t vouch for anyone else in the congregation benefiting from such a long cycle.
If we want a lectionary that disciples us through effective repetition, and we want greater Bible coverage, we’re going to have to solve this another way.
Reason #2: We already have an excellent heritage.
The historic Sunday and Holy Day lectionary, used with minor adjustments for the past 1,500 years, is a one-year cycle of readings that summarize the Gospel message. Traditional Anglican daily lectionaries cover almost the entire Bible in a single year. Together, these two lectionaries provide exactly what the RCL is trying to mash together into one. We all know how it goes when one product tries to carry multiple uses: it decreases the quality of all its output. The RCL suffers from this very problem; it tries to do too much, and (especially as Anglicans) we already have an elegant and time-tested solution.
With the same Sunday Communion service readings showing up every year, you can be sure that children and adults alike will begin to catch on after a few repetitions. The unity of the lessons (that is, the fact that the readings connect to one another, and with the Collect of the Day) will also help the congregation understand what they hear. That way, if the preacher chooses so to do, he can make his own preaching plan through a particular book of the Bible, rather than waiting for that book to appear in the RCL’s 3-year cycle. (And if you want to preach through an Old Testament book, well, forget it; the RCL never goes through OT readings sequentially!)
Is this sounding a little complicated yet? Well, I don’t blame you.
Reason #3: Modern prayer books are too complicated for the ordinary person in the Pew to use.
The way the 1979 Prayer Book is laid out, you’ve got the liturgies for the worship services near the beginning of the book, the Collects of the Day near in the middle, and the lectionaries in the back. If you’re trying to follow the Communion service strictly “by the book”, you have to be ready to flip to at least 3 different places in the book, in addition to the way the liturgy is set up. Even if our Texts for Common Prayer solves the intra-liturgy page-flipping confusion, the separation of the Collects of the Day and the Lectionary still require more page-flipping than is desirable for the average person, on top of balancing a Bible to follow the readings and looking up the Psalm.
At that point, most folks in the congregation just give up and let the priest figure out how to arrange the service and just follow along with whatever he does. He’s the expert after all.
This is precisely the kind of problem that the Reformers, especially the English Reformers, were trying to fix! The liturgy had gotten so complicated back then, with the priest juggling a sacramentary, an antiphonal, a lectionary, and various other Mass Books (not to mention the missals that the ordinary folks would follow along in) that the overall result was that the liturgy was entirely under the control of the clergy and the lay people had to have simplified versions of everything in order to follow along. One of the absolute gems of the Anglican tradition was the Common Prayer Book – a single volume with all the Church’s liturgy in it which could be picked up and profitably used by anyone who knew how to read.
The 1979 Prayer Book, and any other book with a long complicated lectionary, is not user-friendly. I’ve ministered in settings that use a bulletin for every worship service, saving people the worry of page-flipping through books, and there are still sometimes issues keeping up with “where we are in the liturgy.” I can get into trouble if I don’t put page numbers in! If this is the case with a consistent bulletin or booklet liturgy, how much more difficult will it be for people to keep up with a convoluted prayer book?
To me, the answer is simple: let’s simply return to the simpler lectionary, our historic Collects and Lessons. I’m not simply griping, though; I submitted my views and arguments to the ACNA Liturgical Task Force earlier this year, as part of their search for province-wide feedback. If you want to read what I wrote in full, I’ve made my appeal available here: Appeal for the collects and lessons.