In July, my friend Fr. Matthew Olver wrote a provocatively titled two-part post, “Why the RCL is killing churches” (see here and here). He traced the development of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and its roots in the lectionary reforms of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. This development arose from a wonderful pastoral concern: that the faithful would benefit from more engagement with Scripture. But this concern produced a questionable judgment: this greater exposure ought to happen on Sunday mornings, within eucharistic worship.

I won’t summarize his whole argument here, but as Fr. Olver notes, moving away from the familiar and salutary themes of the traditional Christian Year and shoehorning three years of systematic Scripture reading into those old structures has brought about at best questionable results. His most effective observation is that the goal was not met: our people are not better-versed in Scripture. If anything, ignorance has grown.

The three-year lectionary assumes more is always better, yet the result has been to provide Scripture readings with little to no connection to one another, all of which are heard infrequently. Yet repetition of familiar passages and themes surely aids the memory far more effectively than constantly drinking from the fire hose. Simple, nutritious fare — recounting familiar themes repeatedly — has a catechetical brilliance few seem to appreciate. The best restaurant menus are those that offer a limited selection, all creatively and excellently prepared. Such menus are easy to read, and they allow the cook to excel in the preparation of each dish.

My intention here is not to respond or even object to the substance of Fr. Olver’s post, but rather to his premise that the RCL is killing churches. In spite of all the RCL’s shortcomings, I have to ask: Come on, Father, is the RCL really all that bad?

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We can’t blame it for our woes, past or present. The RCL (not to mention the first three-year lectionary) may have been misconceived from the start; and it may be full of theologically impoverished and awkward editorial choices, but the lectionary still comprises nothing but Scripture (debates over Apocryphal texts notwithstanding).

It’s possible to make beautiful jewelry out of a pile of precious stones, no matter how artlessly jumbled they may be at times. This is perhaps my favorite image from the Fathers about how the Christian teacher ought to handle the Scriptures. Some may be familiar with the justly famous passage from Irenaeus, in which the genuinely Christian teacher takes the various bits of Scripture, like pieces of mosaic tile, and arranges them into the image of the King, whereas the heretics take those same pieces of text and produce the image of a fox, unrecognizable to the faithful (Against Heresies 1.9.5).

Augustine provides us with a similar illustration regarding the art of scriptural exposition.

[T]he simple truth of the explanation which we adduce ought to be like the gold which binds together a row of gems, and yet does not interfere with the choice symmetry of the ornament by any undue intrusion of itself. (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 6.10).

The metaphor is telling. Just as Irenaeus knew it was possible to make a false image out of the tesserae of Scripture, so Augustine knew it is entirely possible to make very ugly and unsuitable jewelry out of beautiful stones.

The difference lies in the artistry of the craftsman. A skilled craftsman, who knows the tradition and the beauty and suitability of the materials, intuitively arranges gems rightly and harmoniously, sensitive to the right use of gold to present the stones in a complementary rather than imbalanced way. It is similar to framing a painting in a way that enhances and draws attention to the art, to the point that we do not even notice the frame when we gaze at it.

Such is the art of rightly handling Scripture, as best I can understand it. Our duty has never really been to preach the lectionary, but to proclaim Christ crucified, using the bits of tesserae provided us each week in the lectionary. Granted, the choice of lessons we’re given every Sunday might not be as good as that enjoyed by folks like Augustine (who probably chose his own much of the time) or, say, the great Tractarian preacher Isaac Williams (who used the now-classic Western lectionary). We should perhaps look in our day and age to MacGyver, who made some amazing stuff out of duct tape, paper clips, and bits of lint from his pocket. Surely with God’s help we can do at least as much with the far better materials we have at hand!

Our congregations are not dying because of a lectionary; they’re dying because we bishops and priests have relinquished our duty as stewards of the mysteries, in spite of having had a wonderful lectionary at hand for hundreds of years. Indeed, the poor judgment that produced the three-year lectionary came from scholars and priests living under the authority of the classic lectionary! Enough of us plainly didn’t and don’t have an eye for the right and due proportion of the gems; we’ve forgotten the more beautiful details of the image of the King, whose image is now morphing into something unrecognizable, perhaps not unlike the ape-like image produced a few years ago in Borja, Spain: an elderly woman unskilled in painting snuck into a church and attempted to restore a beautiful Ecce homo fresco. The authorities in Spain were dismayed by the result and are now attempting to restore the image according to sketches of the original.

In our case, past authorities obscured the image, and we must remember the original. This has always been our responsibility. Perhaps too few of us rose to the occasion to prevent the defacing of a classic. Nevertheless, we can rise to the occasion now, and our congregations can yet again become acquainted with the timeless masterpiece of Christ, the image of the invisible God, by means of our pulpit.

The lectionary supports and affirms the rule of faith, but it is never the thing itself. The old lectionary was the work of a church thinking rightly about Christ and our life in him. The Church got by without a lectionary in the beginning; we can make it in our day and age with a bad one.

My counsel is simple. I suggest two things are needful:

  1. Know the rule of faith and how to exercise it. This will require lots of hard work in reading and self-examination, but that’s okay.
  2. Take confident ownership of your congregation’s well-being, and in that confidence discern and artfully apply the right medicine, making the most out of the tools at your disposal.

In her excellent book Paul, the Corinthians, and the Birth of Christian Hermeneutics (Cambridge, 2010), Margaret Mitchell makes a valuable point: for the best of the Fathers, it was generally true that scriptural interpretation was designed for the “case at hand,” and required pastoral insight and intuition. The aim is for a useful reading of the Scriptures according to the rule of faith, bringing the timeless into play in the temporal. It’s one thing to know the rule of faith; it’s another thing entirely to know what to do with it in a particular time and place. Such is the art of preaching.

Here too is the sense of the priestly ministry given in the Bishop’s Exhortation in the old Ordinal (1662). Reflecting on the duties and obligations of the priesthood, and how success cannot be found “but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same,” the ordaining bishop concluded with the following:

We have good hope that you have well weighed and pondered these things with yourselves long before this time; and that you have clearly determined, by God’s grace, to give yourselves wholly to this office, whereunto it hath pleased God to call you: so that, as much as lieth in you, you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way; and that you will continually pray to God the Father, by the mediation of our only Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost; that, by daily reading and weighing of the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry; and that ye may so endeavour yourselves from time to time to sanctify the lives of you and yours, and to fashion them after the rule and doctrine of Christ, that ye may be wholesome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow.

Sound pastoral judgment can do even more than counter the effects of bad, making lemonade out of lemons; it can be a witness from which sound, authentic fruit can grow once again in our church.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Bergstrom is canon for vocations in the Diocese of Dallas and priest-in-charge of St. Christopher’s, Dallas. He has been called a “Patristic fundamentalist,” and is content with the label.

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Fr Bergstrom, thanks for taking the time to reply and engage on this issue. I find myself in agreement withe everything you’ve written here. I was no doubt using hyperbole with my title: the RCL is most certainly not killing churches. You’ve taken seriously the fact that the RCL is here and here to stay, in at least some form, for a long time. That said, the cluster of issues that I tried to make with probably woeful inadequacy were these: a) that reading more Scripture is not necessary spiritually more fruitful; b) reading disconnected lessons and leaving difficult passages… Read more »
Fr. Jeremy W. Bergstrom

Your essay really was a solid piece of work; I share all of your concerns and recommend your additional advice. Indeed, it does seem that something seems to be killing our churches! My aim here was to encourage us all to move forward and make the best of what is frankly a situation of real disadvantage. Because yes, you’re right, we’re stuck working with it. And I also wanted to give you a bit of a hard time in the process, just for fun. I appreciate all your fine work on Covenant and in other arenas. Keep it up!

Your essay really was a solid piece of work; I share all of your concerns and recommend your additional advice. Indeed, it does seem that something seems to be killing our churches! My aim here was to encourage us all to move forward and make the best of what is frankly a situation of real disadvantage. Because yes, you’re right, we’re stuck working with it. And I also wanted to give you a bit of a hard time in the process, just for fun. I appreciate all your fine work on Covenant and in other arenas. Keep it up!