Have you ever wondered how the readings for each week’s service are chosen? In the Episcopal Church, as with many other churches, the selected readings are determined by a lectionary. A lectionary, according to the Episcopal Digital Network, “is a table of scripture readings that are appointed for worship" (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/lessons/revised-common-lectionary/). In the Episcopal Church, and thus at St. Brendan’s, we use the Revised Common Lectionary (which can be found on page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer) to determine which passages of scripture will be read each Sunday.
Why do we use a lectionary? Here are some reasons the Consultation on Common Texts (the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary) gives for why churches might choose to use a lectionary:
A lectionary provides whole churches or denominations with a uniform and common pattern of biblical proclamation.
A lectionary serves as a guide for clergy, preachers, church members, musicians, and Sunday school teachers that shows them which texts are to be read on a given Sunday.
A lectionary provides a guide and resource for clergy from different local churches who wish to work and pray together as they share their resources and insights while preparing for their preaching.
A lectionary serves as a resource for those who produce ecumenical preaching and worship resources, commentaries, Sunday school curricula, and other devotional materials.
A lectionary provides a guide to individuals and groups who wish to read, study, and pray the Bible in tune with the church’s prayer and preaching. Some local churches print the references to the following Sunday’s readings in their bulletins and encourage people to come prepared for the next week’s celebration.
A lectionary also shows us the relationship of the readings of one Sunday with those that come before it and after it. Within each of the major seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas-Epiphany, the flow and missional purpose of the season is reflected in the Scripture texts selected for each Sunday. (http://www.commontexts.org/rcl/)
The idea of appointing specific Judeo-Christian scriptures for certain occasions dates back to the 3rd century CE when Jewish writings outlined a list of Torah readings for several annual religious festivals. Both Jewish and Christian communities continued to develop through the centuries a pattern of Scripture readings for public worship. Jewish synagogues today complete a reading of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) each year.
Prior to the 1960s, the Episcopal Church (along with most other churches) used a one-year cycle of limited readings from the Bible. There was little relationship between readings, and the Old Testament was rarely heard at Eucharist services. The Roman Catholic Vatican II lectionary, used between 1962 and 1965, was the first lectionary to introduce a three-year cycle organized by a particular synoptic Gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke). This lectionary also introduced Old Testament readings and included three readings for each Sunday (Old Testament, Epistle [or Acts or Revelation], and Gospel), rather than just two. In the mid-1960s, the Consultation on Common Texts was established as an ecumenical collaboration to harmonize the readings in the lectionaries and to allow the Old Testament to speak out of its historical context. Today, there are 23 churches that are members of the Consultation of Common Texts (http://www.commontexts.org/members/).
In 1970, the Episcopal Church adapted the Vatican model for inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer. This version included slightly longer Old Testament readings and focused more on narratives than doctrinal texts. In 1983 the Common Lectionary was created, which was revised and published in 1994 as the Revised Common Lectionary that the Episcopal Church still uses today.
The RCL, like its predecessors from the 1960s, is divided into three years, with each year focused on a different synaptic Gospel: Year A focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, Year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark, and Year C focuses on the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John, which is comparatively distinct from the other three Gospels, is interspersed in all three years during Advent, Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Good Friday), Easter, and sometimes Pentecost. This allows listeners to hear large portions of the Gospels from beginning to end. While the Sunday readings for these three years are not able to cover the whole Bible, they “are chosen to highlight the ministry of Jesus Christ and the story of God’s people” (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ lessons/revised-common-lectionary/). Furthermore, rotating texts on a three-year cycle means that we do revisit texts within different contexts and at different stages of our lives.
You may have also noticed that we sometimes have different options for readings on a given Sunday, especially in the summer during the season after Pentecost, which is also called “Ordinary Time.” This is because the RCL offers two different tracks. Track One provides a semi-continuous reading of the Old Testament narratives, while Track Two harmonizes the Old and New Testament readings with the Gospel reading for that Sunday. It is recommended that churches chose one track and follow it for the entire season rather than jumping between tracks. Here are two handy tables, adapted and summarized by Dr. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon from Jospeh P. Russell’s (1998) book Introducing the Revised Common Lectionary to the Episcopal Church, that describe the readings you can expect to find in the different years and tracts of the RCL:
Revised Common Lectionary: Advent through Pentecost
Revised Common Lectionary: Ordinary Time after Pentecost
We are currently at the end of Year A and at St. Brendan’s we have been using Track One. The next cycle will begin on the first Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017) when we will move to the Year B readings, which will focus on the Gospel of Mark.
Today, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is used by nine different churches in the United States and over 40 churches worldwide (http://www.commontexts.org/rcl/usage/). Many churches choose to use the RCL specifically because it is an ecumenical endeavor and encourages an ecumenical approach to Christian education. The RCL, unlike other lectionaries, also makes a point to include women’s roles throughout the readings (e.g. anointing woman, Palm Sunday readings of Passion, Year B). Finally, many churches use the RCL because there are so many related resources available.
The Consultation on Common Texts also produced a “Revised Common Lectionary: Daily Readings” in 2005, which expands on and complements the RCL with daily readings that help readers prepare for and reflect on the Sunday reading. PDFs for each year of the daily lectionary, which follows the same three-year cycle as the RCL, are available on The Consultation of Common Text’s website (http://www.commontexts.org/publications/). Because the RCL is so commonly used, there are a wide variety of resources available surrounding the RCL. For example, you can find prayers written for each set of readings, as well as sermons, commentaries, podcasts, and even artwork chosen for each week.
The Revised Common Lectionary offers us many advantages. It gives us the chance to hear the voice of one Gospel in its entirety (or near entirety) and connects and harmonizes the readings with that Sunday’s Gospel or with readings from the previous weeks. The RCL challenges us to read parts of Scripture we might not otherwise seek out, gives us a framework from which to study and approach the Scriptures, and encourages us regularly to revisit Scriptures we have heard before. Finally, when we read the selected Scripture from the RCL each Sunday at St. Brendan’s, we know we are joining thousands of other Christians, from different denominations and different countries, who are also listening to and praying in relation to those same texts. Thus, the Revised Common Lectionary means that Christians around the world share these readings in “common” with each other each Sunday, uniting us in reflection and prayer.
Grace and peace,
Annemarie, with special thanks this week to my mother, and retired religious studies professor, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon
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A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.