By Drew Nathaniel Keane
In an essay on the shortcomings of the Revised Common Lectionary, the Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver proposes:
I have long wondered whether it might be a useful exercise for a number of parishes to experiment with the use of the old one-year BCP lectionary in a conscious and deliberate way. To make the insights from such an experiment useful, it would need to be practiced by at least 10 or 15 parishes of various sizes, in various geographical locations, and of various churchmanships.
This experiment is already underway. There are places in the Episcopal Church where the old one-year lectionary found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has remained in continual use. St. John’s in Savannah, my home parish, is one such place. The rector of St. John’s, the Rev. Gavin Dunbar, has written several times about the advantages of the old lectionary and suggestions for parishes wishing to try it on. I’ve also heard anecdotally of several parishes that have switched back to the historic lectionary in recent years (St. John’s in Detroit, for instance). While I am not aware of any current list of these parishes, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music is working on a means for gathering this data.
There is a parallel conversation happening among Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Just as Fr. Olver proposes, some who have experimented with the old lectionary have blogged about the experience. Mark Surburg, a pastor of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, writes about why he came to prefer it. The Rev. Randy Asburry, another reluctant convert to the old lectionary, made a thorough case for its use along with suggestions for its implementation in a presentation at Concordia University’s Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music in 2008. In the Roman Catholic blogosphere, I have seen Ryan Grant’s 2008 essay about the ancient lectionary shared on several blogs.
The clergy and laity in parishes where the old lectionary remained in use or has been tried have something valuable to add to this conversation about the way in which the Church publicly reads through the Scriptures together. In 2010, I became a member of St. John’s and began to experience the old one-year lectionary in the 1928 prayer book for the first time. Since then I’ve been through the cycle six times complete times.
One of the first differences I noted as I transitioned from regularly using the 1979 prayer book to the 1928 is that the Propers — the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for each Sunday — are provided in full in the codex. The entire annual pattern is there between two covers. I also noted that the scope of Scripture read at the Eucharist was less than the current prayer book prescribes. Though I was at first troubled by the idea of having less Scripture read in a service, the reality of experiencing it dispelled my worries. There is a decided advantage to using fewer readings. With less text at each service to mark, learn, and inwardly digest, I found it far more likely that the sermon would touch on everything read and that I would walk out of the service remembering it. Less proved to be more.
I also began to feel a more thematic unity across the Propers. This unity is something I often wanted but felt was lacking in the RCL. Regardless of whether a harmony of the Propers was originally intended — the history of the development of the old lectionary is long, complicated, and full of holes — these texts have been bound together for many centuries. The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels do harmonize; the more times I go through the cycle, the more I feel this to be so. The advantage of thematic harmony is incomparable from the perspective of the parishioner listening to the readings and sermon. I imagine this offers a similar (if not greater) boon for the preacher. So too does this feature benefit choirmasters and composers, whose office, for many parishioners, is as instrumental in implanting the Word in their hearts as that of the preacher. The old lectionary has, not surprisingly, greatly influenced the music of the Church.
The pattern has begun to sink in deeply. The new three-year lectionaries do not lend themselves as easily to internalization. Three years is too long a span of time, too infrequent a repetition, for a pattern to sink into the bones, especially if a parish switches back and forth between track 1 and 2 from time to time during the Season after Pentecost. These three distinctives of the old lectionary — less text each Sunday, thematic unity, and annual cycles — offer a significant psychological benefit compared to the RCL.
After only a few times through the old lectionary, I was able to anticipate the sequence. For example, when Lent looms on the horizon, I eagerly anticipate hearing St. Paul’s paean to agape (1 Cor. 13) every Quinquagesima (the third of the pre-Lenten Sundays removed in the 1979 Prayer Book). Hearing this same Epistle each year on the Sunday before Lent has permanently altered how I experience the season. It has reframed the penitential for me. Lenten fasting is not morbid love of self-deprivation, not an effort to placate some angry God, nor, worst of all, a grand show of penance so we can take pride in our piety. It’s about learning to love. Love moves us to forgo other goods in order to concentrate on the object of our devotion. This is not the kind of love that comes and goes with whims. No, Lent is about learning to love like Christ loves the Church: self-sacrificially, bearing all things, even when we do not feel like it, for the long haul. I would not want to begin Lent any other way now.
Along with internalizing the annual pattern, I’ve discovered a means of measuring development. While the text for each Sunday remains the same from year to year, I am different each time it comes back around. Sometimes the light will shine in the same way, but other times the light shines from an entirely different angle and I see bright colors that were not there before. As I listen to the sermon, I hear echoes from previous years that prompt me to reflect on what has changed, to assess the cyclical journey. The longer I have lived under this discipline, the more it has led me to reflect on its progressive effect.
Beyond my journey, I can discern something of the spiritual journey of my parish clergy as well. This window becomes especially transparent through Trinitytide, the long season in the old lectionary that focuses on discipleship, overcoming vices, and developing Christian virtues. Over time, the annual recurrence of texts and themes becomes a means of self-examination for a parish. As I hear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5.16 -23) rehearsed every 14th Sunday after Trinity, I feel compelled to ask, “What progress have we made together in the past year? Are we more loving, more joyful, more patient, kinder than we were the last time we heard this Word from the Lord?”
The Church in the West lived under this lectionary for a long time (granting, of course, some variation from place to place). The continuity and cultivation provided by this long obedience in the same direction have born rich fruit. Beyond the benefits noted for the local community, the old lectionary a channel into the Church’s history. Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic sermons, commentaries, poetry, cantatas, and musical settings are tied to the old lectionary.
As pastor Surburg has written,
I find it beneficial to know that on a given Sunday I am preaching on the same Gospel lesson that Luther and Walther used; that my grandfathers, and three generations of pastors before them used; and that very often a host of pastors and priests in western Europe have used for more than fifteen hundred years.
For the Anglican, this lectionary connects us with our greatest preachers — Latimer and Andrewes, Wesley and Farrer — and poets, from Herbert to Keble. LectionaryCentral.com has collated many of these treasures (commentaries, sermons, and poetry) and keyed them to the Propers of the old lectionary. It’s a wonderful resource, not only for the clergy, but for the laity as well, providing texts for private meditation or for discussion groups.
Because I am a chorister, this continuity has shone through the most clearly for me in the Church’s music. For almost any given Sunday of the year I can find a Bach cantata (for instance) that weaves together the Gospel and Epistle for that day or other music tied to the text for that day.
Bach’s Cantata for Quinquagesima, for example, reflects ancient Gospel reading for the Sunday before Lent (Luke 18.31-43) in which a blind man at Jericho persistently cries out to the Son of David, whom he hears passing by with a great crowd. The cantata transforms his cry into ours, his blindness into an image of our darkness, his persistence into an allegory of Lenten discipline. The beggar’s cry is poignantly expanded by the poet, adding an allusion to Jacob wrestling with God, refusing to let him go until he blesses him, another image of the Church in her Lenten fast, wrestling with God:
Ah! do not pass by;
You, the salvation of all mankind,
have indeed appeared,
to serve the invalid and not the healthy.
Therefore even I take my portion of Your power;
I behold You upon this path,
upon which I was meant
to be placed,
even in my blindness.
I seize You
and release You
not without Your blessing.
The chorale transforms the beggar’s cry into the Agnus Dei, the words sung just before the faithful receive Christ at the Altar. While the cantata does not depict the Epistle for the day (1 Cor. 13), the Savior’s healing of the blind man is an exemplification of the theme; the old lectionary’s pairing of these texts amplifies the theme of love. While Bach did not render Christ’s response into song, the Cantata was written specifically for the context of the Eucharist. The Lord’s answer and healing, the true response to or even conclusion of the Cantata, lies in receiving the Holy Communion.
Likewise, our hymnal reflects the old pattern, often weaving together allusions to the ancient Propers for the day. In Epiphanytide we sing Christopher Wordsworth’s “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise,” which reflects the sequence of Propers for the season. The penultimate stanza reads:
Sun and moon shall darkened be,
Stars shall fall, the heavens shall flee;
Christ will then like lightning shine,
All will see His glorious sign;
All will then the trumpet hear,
All will see the Judge appear;
Thou by all wilt be confessed,
God in man made manifest.
This verse is but a metrical rendering of the last gospel reading in the Epiphany sequence, Matt. 24.23-31.
The traditional lectionary provides continuity with the Church in ages past, even in her music, that I did not expect to find. As Fr. Dunbar has noted [PDF]: “It is an integral element of the ancient catholic legacy of faith and worship that is the touchstone for Christians in every age.” Ironically, in the name of fostering ecumenism, the new three-year lectionaries suppressed one of the strongest points of actual unity between Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics that had been stable since the Reformation. The more time I have spent with the old lectionary, the more I have come to love it. With all of these potential advantages in mind, I think the old lectionary is a proposal worthy of consideration. It is one of the greatest neglected treasures of our Anglican heritage. I hope that Fr. Olver’s proposal will prompt more parishes to consider experimenting with the old lectionary.
Drew Nathaniel Keane is a lecturer in English at Georgia Southern University and a member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.