Sunday, 16 August 2015

Lectionary Reform, Anyone?

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is a good illustration of the power of editors. When one considers what has been left out of both the lectionary (the imprecatory Psalms, Jesus' conflict with the religious authorities in Matthew & John, the stoning of Stephen, the Apostles' miracles, Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality...you get the idea) and individual lections it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such decisions have been influenced by the liberal theology of the editors, who were representatives of mainstream Catholicism and Protestant churches in North America. At the very least, the lectionary seems designed not to offend progressive sensibilities. The result is that we have an apparent feast of readings over a three year cycle which, nonetheless, almost invites the preacher to depart from it if the whole counsel of God is to be taught. 

Pastors and others who must prepare Divine Service week after week can also testify to the odd choices in the RCL that make their life difficult, like the present focus on Jesus' bread of life discourse in John 6. I appreciate the opportunity to preach through this chapter slowly, but I know many pastors don't and opt instead for a series of topical sermons during this time of Year B.           

What chance, then, of lectionary reform? 

Slim, I think. Despite murmurs here and there in both liberal and conservative liturgical circles, most churches have apparently far bigger issues on their plate at the moment, not least being steeply declining attendance and the difficulties of passing on the Faith to the next generation. But Lutherans do have a ready made alternative if they're prepared to address the question of lectionary reform.

There is surely a case to be made on several grounds for Lutherans reverting to the historic one year lectionary:

Firstly, the educational benefit of increased repetition at a time of increasing Biblical illiteracy - 'repetitio est mater studorium'. The editing of the RCL assumes a familiarity with Holy Scripture which simply doesn't exist among our people anymore (if it ever did); too often, as a result, hearers are unaware of the context of a reading and unable to make the connections the editors seem to expect. A one year lectionary would enable hearers to become more familiar with key Biblical texts - and let's face it, for many of those in the pews the lections are the only scripture they are exposed to.    
Secondly, historically Lutheran homiletics and hymnody was to a large degree shaped by the historic one year lectionary of Western Christendom, providing contemporary preachers with a wealth of material to draw on, even in English translation - the sermons of Luther, for e.g..

Thirdly, it would re-align, so to speak, the lectionary readings with the traditional Collects, which follow a one year cycle based on the traditional Christian year. The power of the Collects, which are an important part of our catholic heritage, is obscured by the RCL readings and I'm afraid most alternatives I've looked at designed to fit the RCL readings don't come close to them in language or content, although versions of the traditional Collects slightly revised for modern usage are helpful. 

There are also other benefits like the full restoration of Palm Sunday (for many years now I have simply reverted to the one year readings for that celebration, as the Palm/Passion mix of themes in the RCL just doesn't work, in my view). Palm Sunday may be only a late medieval development in Western Christendom but long before that it was one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern church's calendar and for an obvious reason: its observation best serves the liturgical celebration of the unfolding narrative of Holy Week. It also provides rich homiletical material for the preacher heading into Holy Week.

Of course, there are advantages to the RCL which  a one year lectionary cannot match; the question is, which option best serves the church's needs at present and in the future? I am leaning towards the option which will promote a deeper knowledge of the Holy Scriptures among our people and which offers historical continuity, both features which seem to me to be particularly important as we head into the "post-Christendom" era.       

4 comments:

olarmy02 said...

Thanks for this article my Caledonian Brother. I've been wanting to make the shift to the One year for a while now, although I have been using the Missouri Synod's version of the 3 Year Lectionary, which is better than the RCL. Still I think the benefits of the One year are too important to ignore. repetitio mater studorium est (Latin verb is at the end, isn't it?), and when people come so infrequently as it is the repetition would be a advantageous. Thanks again, I may well make the switch this year.

Pax Christi,
Sean Mc., Vic.

Acroamaticus said...

Hi Sean,

Welcome to the virtual old manse!

I'm a late convert tot he one year lectionary but I don't think my congregations would accept it. If I were starting a mission congregation I'd definitely use it.

See you at synod?

Mark

(Re Latin verb endings I'll have to check the rules - while verb at the end is most common I think word order could vary...but I'm certainly no expert).

PS What part of Scotland did your ancestors come from?

olarmy02 said...

With Massies, Haliburtons, Johnstones, and Hendersons in the family, take your pick. Clan Matheson and Clan Henderson are the most represented. Massies came to States (North Carolina) from near Inverness. That was 18th century.

I'll be at Synod, not that I want to be there based on the last one I was at in Adelaide, but duty calls. Clan Matheson motto - Fac et spera - Do and hope.

VDMA,
Sean

Acroamaticus said...

Good - I'll see you there D.v..

My Henderson ancestor was from Caithness, so not part of the Glencoe Henderson clan. Most likely Norwegian in origin.