29 September 2008

Some Railings on the RCL

Yesterday, my wife and I visited a Church in our neighborhood (relatively speaking).

But this post isn’t about the congregation, or the pastor, or the way they conducted the service. While I could choose to write on those topics, I won’t.

This post is, instead, focused on the contemporary western Lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary… and my continued contempt for it.

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is the Protestant version of the western Lectionary that was prepared in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. As a result, with amendments here and there, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran world (together with a smattering of Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ folks, and others) use, essentially, the same readings every week. (Within the RCL itself, two varying tracks -unlike the Roman lectionary- which allow for either loosely thematic or semi-continuous readings from the Old Testament during most of Ordinary Time.)

During the Sunday service I attended, the second reading (the Epistle) was utterly ignored. It wasn’t given a second thought or mention in the homily, and probably by the congregation. The first reading didn’t fare much better. Only the Gospel got any real substantial face time in the homily.

Scripture scholars and liturgists have, over the years, decried placing the Scriptures into ‘artificial’ thematic constructs, but I have to ask the question… Why?

As we look around the Christian world today and assess the landscape, what do we see? Large numbers of people falling away from essential truths, truths that often get glossed over because of our rush to focus on the Gospel in the homily (or at least the predominant theme) because of a duty to the words of Jesus (or the overarching theme). The moral teachings of Paul, Peter, James, and Jude often get overlooked as the ‘third-wheel reading’ that they are (and heaven forbid that the Psalm get a mention!).

Consider this a plea for, at least in the west, returning to thematic pericopes for the proclamation of Scripture in the midst of the assembly. I understand and embrace the desire for a more comprehensive lectionary in the Church (personally, I prefer a 4 year cycle), but the RCL and modern Roman Lectionaries fail... the only redeemable version of the so-called Common Lectionary that I can even come close to endorsing is the one from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod's new Christian Worship Supplement, which does radical surgery on the three year lectionary and ensures that more themes are present.


John October 2, 2008 at 1:44 PM  

Brother Rob+,

Having preached from the RCL for nearly 4 years now, I share some (many) of your misgivings. But, to adapt a quote about democratic government: "A lectionary is the worst of all preaching disciplines -- except for all other preaching disciplines." I don't know how seriously to take my thinking in that quote, but I do find some distinct advantages to lectionary preaching, even RCL preaching.

First, it spares the church from the preacher's own lectionary. Just as every church has its own liturgy -- even nonliturgical churches have a standard, predictable order of worship that functions as liturgy -- every preacher establishes some regular pattern for using scriptural texts. The question is not whether a preacher will use a lectionary, but which one the preacher will use. Many preachers use the lectionary consisting solely of their favorite texts. Many use a lectionary that consists of their favorite self-help books. I'm happier with a consensus lectionary, even if I don't fully agree with the consensus.

Second, a lectionary forces me, as a preacher, to grapple with texts that I would not willingly choose. This drives me to do difficulty theology and provides my community the opportunity to see me do it publically. It is a corrective to sloppy, skewed theology that I value greatly.

Third, whether we use each text or not -- and, given the way the RCL is designed it is not possible to use all the texts in Ordinary Time -- the community is at least exposed to a broad-based reading/hearing of Scripture. They at least know that it is God's Word that calls us together and forms us as a people.

There are other advantages to lectionary preaching, but I'll not belabor the point.

When I first got bifocals, my opthamologist told me they were the worst of both worlds: you have neither perfect distance vision nor perfect near vision. But, the compromise does allow for a good (acceptable) blend of each. I feel this way about a lectionary. You do not have the perfect distance vision of thematic preaching or the perfect near vision of expository preaching, but you do get a good (or at least acceptable) blend of each -- provided the preacher uses the texts faithfully and prayerfully. And, since I'm such a flawed conduit anyway, if anything good comes from my preaching it is literally an act of God. He can draw straight with crooked lines, even with the RCL.

As always, I appreciate your insightful (and inciteful) posts.

Peace of Christ,


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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