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Why the RCL is killing churches, and what you can do about it 

In yesterday’s post, I explained why I believe the RCL is killing churches. Although this lectionary (and others like it) are supposed to help develop biblical piety in congregations, I contend that most post-Vatican II lectionaries have not succeeded in their goal and that they can even hinder the development of faith. In this post, I further my critique of the RCL and offer some suggestions for remedying our current lectionary confusions.

The changes in the RCL

In 1983, under the auspices of the Consultation on Common Texts, the Common Lectionary was produced and used, comments were made, and as a result the Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992. Both were based on the post-conciliar Roman lectionary, but with some major changes. The RCL, we should note, was first authorized for trial use in the Episcopal Church in 1994 (A0274) and finally replaced the 1979 BCP lectionary in 2006 (A077). However, in 2012 the General Convention newly authorized the use of the 1979 BCP lectionary, at the discretion of the ecclesiastical authority (B009) so that a parish is free to use either lectionary.

So what’s the problem with the RCL? In point of fact, the RCL only exacerbates the systemic problems of the three-year lectionary, which I recounted in the previous post: too much Scripture, often unrelated to the collect of the day, frequently chosen without sensitivity to the context or purposes of eucharistic worship. The length of the new lessons is a particular problem: a Gospel lesson will frequently contain two pericopes that are unrelated to each other. But in addition to these issues, the RCL introduced at least two additional weaknesses to the three-year lectionary in the 1979 BCP.

First, the RCL changed a great number of the lessons from the BCP (hence the felt need for the 2012 General Convention to alter the lessons in the BCP for the services of the Triduum). None of the changes seem to me an enhancement; indeed, the RCL sometimes proposes texts that are superficially “at odds” with each other, creating theological tensions that the preacher must then attempt to solve or leave unaddressed.

Second, two patterns (titled “Track 1” and “Track 2” on lectionary inserts) are provided for Ordinary Time in the Sundays following Pentecost and Trinity Sunday (the OT-Gospel connection is maintained during the Sundays in Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday). In Track 1, OT lessons are read in a semi-continuous fashion, like the Epistles and Gospels, but now without any correspondence between the OT and the Gospel. The purpose of this is to allow “a larger variety of Old Testament themes to be presented” (§20) and the commentary claims somewhat disingenuously that this new option carries out “the logic of the Roman model more consistently than it has done itself” (§31).

This scheme redressed the lack of the OT in previous lectionaries, and allayed concerns that the typological approach of older lectionaries evidenced Christian supersessionism. On the latter point, even in Track 2 of the RCL, where the OT and Gospel passages are related, the connection between the two is far broader than in the Roman Catholic approach: more thematic and complementary than specifically typological.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that most seminaries pushed Track 1, and so it has become the dominant approach in most congregations. Thus, most people in our churches hear three disconnected lessons, plus a psalm, for nearly half of the calendar year.

Recall that the pastoral concern that motivated the new lectionary was both that most people weren’t praying the Daily Office and that they didn’t know the Scriptures very well. Fair enough.

But has the solution done much to address this lack in most churchgoers? I’m not so sure. Biblical and theological literacy in mainline churches remains low. As a result, public recitation of these huge swathes of Scripture, all of which are basically unrelated to each other, can easily have a detrimental effect on nascent faith. Why? I see at least two reasons.

First, a barely-catechized person (perhaps the new norm) is likely not in the right spiritual place to appropriate all of the Scripture heard in the span of 10 minutes. This is especially true if most of the passages receive no comment in the sermon. In fact, can any Christian really “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all this Scripture in such a short period of time? And would that even be a worthy goal? Further, how many pastors can preach a rich 15-minute sermon on four unrelated passages?

Second, the barely-catechized person in the congregation lives in a cultural situation in which taking the Bible seriously is for many people strongly associated with being a “fundamentalist” and thus with reading the Bible “literally” (the definitions of both words are moving targets). Reading portions of Scripture without exposition to people who are still babes in spiritual infancy and who live in such a cultural context can often have the effect of confirming their nascent mistrust of the Bible.

“It was already wrong about slavery and women and sex and [add your favorite phobia],” they think. “No doubt the Bible is also misguided about a whole host of other matters and thus reflects primitive and unenlightened religious impulses that we as progressive and enlightened Westerners have left behind.”

For example, after preaching on Trinity Sunday in Year A, when Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the OT lesson, a parishioner approached me and revealed just how embarrassed he was. “Can you imagine if anyone was visiting today and heard us read this? They probably would have thought we believed in that seven-day creation nonsense.”

Where to begin? I told him that Augustine’s famous commentary On the Literal Meaning of Genesis was, in fact, a figurative reading of Genesis and that this was representative of the vast majority of (at least, pre-Reformation) interpretation. I also suggested that the primary reason we would read Genesis 1 on Trinity Sunday is because it tells us something important about God.

He looked at me blankly.

Suggestions for the pastor

  1. Free yourself of the obligation to use all three lessons in Ordinary Time.[1] In the major seasons, and always on Principal Feasts, all three lessons along with the psalm usually have a rich theological and thematic unity. Combine this with a solid sermon and good music choices, and the beautiful, polyphonic glory of this or that mystery of the Gospel will be displayed with marvelous resplendence. But at least in Ordinary Time, the best pastoral approach for most congregations is two lessons, along with the appropriate psalm (combined with the other suggestions that follow). And even though the psalm is not obligatory, never replace the psalm with a hymn.
  1. Plan your sermons ahead of time. The only way to omit a lesson wisely and in a pastorally responsible way is to plan ahead. The semi-continuous approach with the Epistle means that the preacher can preach through a book for a number of weeks. If this approach is being used, it makes sense to skip the OT lesson during the preaching series. Obviously, a similar thematic series could be preached on the OT and Gospel lessons. But the point remains: this choice only has spiritual and pedagogical possibilities if one plans with care.
  1. Use the BCP lectionary if your bishop allows it; consider very carefully whether to use RCL. Thanks to Bishop Daniel Martins of the Diocese of Springfield (and, full disclosure, a writer for Covenant), General Convention gave permission for the use of the 1979 BCP lectionary with the permission of the ecclesiastical authority (2012-B009). So if your bishop gives permission, go for it. One additional benefit: current Gospel and lectionary books are only printed in the NRSV translation for the RCL, and not in the RSV. The former leaves much to be desired as a translation for reading in the Eucharist. Thus, if you use the BCP lectionary, you can still find used copies of the lectern and gospel books for use in your church.
  1. If using the RCL, always use Track 2 (where the OT and Gospel are connected). This unity of the Scriptures is absolutely essential to a mature Christian faith. Jesus preached the Old Testament as a disclosure of himself; in the Emmaus account, Jesus’ preaching of the Old Testament precedes the eucharistic disclosure of him as Messiah, God, and Savior. Asking the Sunday Eucharist to be the principal place where the average Christian learns the whole of the Bible is simply asking the engine of the Eucharist to pull freight it was never built to pull. This is the same problem with making the Eucharist the principal place of evangelism. People will learn more of the Bible by coming to Mass, just as people will hear the Gospel disclosed. But these are not the primary purposes of the Eucharist. Rather, these natural secondary results must be supplemented with the Office and Bible study on the one hand, and winsome evangelistic explications of the Gospel in the context of loving relationships on the other.
  1. Teach the Bible outside of Sunday Eucharist and always provide multiple ways for people to learn the Bible. I heard one priest tell me that on Sunday mornings, he teaches an adult education class on the Psalm appointed for the Mass. A different approach could be to preach on the OT/Gospel combo, and use just those two lessons with a sung psalm between them in the liturgy. Then, in adult education classes (whether Sundays or weekdays), teach through the Epistles in their full and unedited form (the lectionary often edits out difficult or possibly offensive portions). Episcopal churches are known for “adult forums” where all sorts of sexy contemporary topics are discussed. But one actually has to know the Christian faith — scripturally, doctrinally, morally, and liturgically — for such a discussion to really be fruitful and grace-giving. Otherwise, the situation is like what a friend described to me. His parish loves to explain that the Episcopal Church is the church “where you don’t have to check your brain at the door.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “but with the sermons I hear each week, it often helps.”

One final idea: A three-year experiment with the one-year lectionary

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 (for lack of a better word).

Real care would need to be given in the preparation of sermons, to be sure. But to make this available to the rest of the church, I would want to add an online component: each church that does this could keep a blog where the sermons are posted, where the priests produce some sort of weekly reflection (i.e., what it’s like to preach Advent with this lectionary compared with the three-year lectionary), and where a number of parishioners are given a place to also articulate their experience of the old lectionary. Since the three-year lectionary was constructed with the intention of teaching people more of the Bible, I think it is really important to determine if using less of the Bible in the Eucharist — but using it in a more focused and ordered way — may actually lead to greater biblical knowledge. Why? Because the intention of the older lectionary’s structure was to lead to “the fullness of saving doctrine,” or what the early Church called the regula fidei (“rule of faith”).

The Bible can only really be learned if it is presented to us by its ecclesial Guardian, who gives us the Creeds and Rule of Faith as the Scriptures come to their natural two-Testament conclusion (to use a phrase coined by Christopher Seitz). It is only in and through these instruments that we can read the Scriptures and thus come to know and love God’s eternal Word and Son made flesh.

Is the goal of the Christian faith really the knowledge of the Bible? Not exactly. Knowing the Bible is, rather, one of the principal tools by which we know the trinitarian God of the Bible, whom Robert Jenson famously describes as “whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” The relationship and unity between these two events can only be known through praying the Scriptures, studying the Scriptures, joining in the celebration of the Eucharist, confessing one’s sins, seeking after holiness, embracing the discipline of the Gospel, serving the poor, caring for widows and orphans, and visiting those in prison.

I believe wholeheartedly that in Christ’s institution of the Eucharist, he meant it to be the center of the Church’s worship life. But let us not try to reduce everything to the Eucharist or make it the literal means for accomplishing everything in the Christian life and mission.

Bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, licensed preachers: Teach the Bible. Teach the Bible. Teach the Bible.

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver is teaching fellow in liturgics at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a doctoral student at Marquette University. He also assists at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee. His other Covenant posts are here.

The featured image of a Gutenberg Bible was uploaded to Flickr by Parker Malenke. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


[1] The rubrics in the Holy Eucharist in Rite I and Rite II both read: “One or two Lessons, as appointed, are read, the Reader first saying”; this would appear to indicate that it is permissible to read only one lesson before the Gospel, since the 1979 BCP lectionary never appoints only one lesson and a Gospel. Marion Hatchett confirms this in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book: “In this [1979] revision a full liturgy of the word, including Old Testament, psalmody, new Testament, and Gospel is provided, though one of the two lessons which precede the Gospel may be omitted and the use of the psalm is not obligatory” (p. 326).


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