Whenever I plan a Maundy Thursday service, I get annoyed with the lectionary. Why isnât the second reading 1 John 4? I get that Paulâs account of the words of institution for the Lordâs Supper in 1 Corinthians is assigned to cover for the lack of an account in Johnâs Gospel. Still, the day is named for the New Commandment. Jesus, gearing up for the most terrifying experience he and his disciples will ever know, commands them to love one another. Itâd be nice if 1 Johnâs glossâthat such love casts out fearâalso made the cut.
This fairly arbitrary objection may be mine alone. But lots of us worship planners have pet frustrations with the Revised Common Lectionary (1992). My Facebook newsfeedâa place much like the wider world, if half the population went to seminaryâattests to these regularly.
Why pair these readings? Why skip those verses? How will we survive an entire month on Jesus the long-winded bread of life? Does Christâs appearance to Thomas really need to come up every Low Sunday (leaving young associate ministersâpreaching while the senior pastor takes the week offâwith thick files of sermons on doubt or woundedness or bodily resurrection)?
Most of all: how could the RCL leave x out altogether? Lectionary Jesus goes easy on the religious authorities in Matthew; come John, they remember his kindness by not once trying to stone him. The RCL silences Zechariah before Gabriel canâleaving only an anonymous Benedictusâwhile Stephen doesnât turn up until his gallows sermon, a martyr without a ministry. Lectionary James praises good works but demurs from overmuch denunciation of the rich. Thereâs not space here for even a brisk highlight reel of whatâs missing from the Old Testament.
Even Paul suffers some notable omissions. Take his teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 on the ethics of receiving communion, a relevant word at a time of little consensus on the subject. In the lectionary, all that remains is the aforementioned institutional narrative, extracted to plug a hole on Maundy Thursday.
Yet Maundy Thursday is also a good example of how the RCL improved on its predecessors. It added the New Commandment verses to Johnâs foot-washing story. Anyone in the pews who actually knows what maundy means, and why this Thursday is maundier than any other, has the RCL revisions to thank.
The RCL, after all, didnât insert itself into a status quo of a rich biblical diet in North American worship. Decades ago, Catholics used a one-year lectionary, and those Protestants who used a lectionary at all typically employed variations on the Catholic one. Many churches rarely cracked open the Old Testament.
Then came the Vatican II reforms and the Ordo Lectionum Missae (1969). This Roman lectionary established the now familiar pattern: three weekly readings plus a psalm, with a different synoptic Gospel the main focus in each of three years. Protestant churches took notice and soon adapted the OLM to their own needs, resulting in several lectionaries with minor differences. In 1978, the Consultation on Common Textsâformed after Vatican II to develop English liturgical texts for ecumenical useâturned to the task of harmonizing these into one.
The CCT lectionary committee was also charged with revising the OLMâs OT lectionsâchosen to echo the Gospel readingsâin favor of a less typological approach. It accomplished this by treating the first readings in Ordinary Time much as the OLM already treated the second: as an independent, semicontinuous stream. This was the major innovation of the Common Lectionary (1983), which Taylor Burton-Edwards of the CCT characterizes as a âfirst draft.â The plan was always to solicit feedback and produce a revision.
Among other things, the RCL added a lot of important texts: the wages of sin, the day of salvation, the tree of life, the nontaming of the tongue. The lectionary Herodsâonce practically nonviolentânow slaughter the Holy Innocents and execute John. And there are many more women mentioned, especially in the OT selections.
The RCL has lots of space for OT texts, because its biggest revision was to include two separate OT tracks during Ordinary Time: one complementary (like the OLM), one semicontinuous (like the CL). This development and the subsequent popularity of the complementary track might be seen as a setback for the CLâs antitypological aims. But Burton-Edwardsâwho is also the United Methodistsâ director of worship resourcesâviews such flexibility as all upside, noting that âthere has historically been much wider divergenceâ during Ordinary Time than elsewhere.
And even within each OT track, the RCL offers improvements. For instance, it retains the CLâs Davidic sequence but introduces Goliath, Saul, Solomon and the adult Samuel. Still generally omitted: Davidâs ambiguous relationship with Jonathan. The 20th anniversary edition of the RCL (2012), which details the above history, also explains some omissions. With Jonathan, the CCT was concerned about subjecting such a story to the first readingâs common fateâread aloud, never mentioned againâso it added it as an optional lection, subbed in at the preacherâs discretion.
Of course, for most of us, itâs all optional. Local control over worship is the Protestant norm. And in recent years, several people have offered alternatives.
TIMOTHY SLEMMONS THINKS the RCL is pretty good as far as it goesâwhich isnât far enough. Slemmons, who teaches homiletics and worship at Dubuque Theological Seminary, appreciates that the RCL expanded the American pulpitâs canon. Heâd like more such expansion. In his book Year D (2012), he offers an impressive start: a cohesive and expansive fourth year of lections.
The seed for Year D was planted when Slemmons studied with Walter Brueggemann, whose emphasis on the lament psalms inspired Slemmons to compile the RCLâs omitted psalms and distribute them to his classmates as âThe Psalter of the Disappeared.â Besides including these psalms, Year D introduces missing OT books to the cycleâand gathers up most remaining NT passages, excluding only synoptic parallels and parts of Acts and Revelation. Taking the RCLâs three years as given, Slemmons builds a fourth year out of whatâs left.
Slemmonsâs guiding principle is that worship texts should be chosen from the whole canon. But his point isnât that all canonical texts are by definition equally suitable. Itâs that local leaders should discern this question for themselves. Slemmons insists that âif a text is canonical, it deserves a hearingââin the preacherâs study, if not necessarily in the pulpit. Yet âpreachers often defer to the lectionary, with little thought to what is missing from the churchâs diet.â
Year D encourages local picking and choosing by assigning up to nine readings for a given day. Here Slemmons is motivated partly by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which both calls for texts to be drawn from the entire canon and charges ministers with seeing that itâs done. Heâs thinking practically about context, too: âSome community somewhere is bound to find new use in worship for texts previously deemed unsuitable,â even if others appreciate having alternatives when the weird stuff comes up.
Slemmons also has specific objections to the RCLâs exclusions. Perhaps his biggest beef is that it âtends to stress grace to the frequent exclusion of texts that call for repentance.â
Burton-Edwards counters that itâs the New Testament that prefers grace, not the lectionary.
In any case, Slemmons wants more balance. And because Year D packs this corrective into a single year of lections, he worries that it âmay be perceived as too hard-going.â
Indeed, thereâs a lot of law here. But worship planners may be more startled by some of Year Dâs unlikelier assignments. Slemmons offers Gospel texts from Jesusâ adult ministry for the nativity propers; on Easter itâs the resurrection of the dead discourse from John 5. Of course, Slemmonsâs whole point is to bring in texts not otherwise assigned. He also favors semicontinuous readings over the calendarâs topical demands. Itâs easier to appreciate all this in theory, however, than it is to imagine focusing on the adulterous woman story on Maundy Thursdayâsimply because, as Year D explains, itâs âthe last remaining unused text from the middle chapters of John assigned to Lent.â
Year D does offer compelling arguments for some of these choices. But it still feels like the preacher is being handed a stacked theological deck, a particular take on a central story in place of the story itself. Slemmons argues that a lectionary is always doing theology when it matches text to occasion. Still, many preachers feel that their primary task on a high holy day is simply to tell the story, and Year Dâs lections donât help here.
Besides, itâs one thing to interpret a holiday through a particular text based on tradition or consensus. Itâs quite another to do it because one guy says so. While Slemmonsâs work is deeply informed by conversations with colleagues, itâs fundamentally his. He allows that this is a fair criticismâof his OT selections. But Year D uses all remaining psalms, epistle texts and unparalleled Gospel material. Here Slemmons makes the good point that âwe have the benefit of an objective normâ: the canon itself.
Promoting the canon as the normânot arranging lectionsâis Slemmonsâs main project. He feels an urgency about this, because âthe church today is like a body depleted of essential nutrients.â His goal is to recover âthe sense of expectancy with which we should approach even the most seemingly irrelevant text.â
To be sure, Slemmons also hopes that more churches will use Year D as heâs arranged it. The book includes helpful strategies for implementing it with minimal disruption, and Slemmonsâs current project is a series of resources built around Years A through D. Heâs also encouraged by similar fourth-year proposals elsewhere (see sidebar).
Slemmons hopes for an eventual seven-year lectionary. This could greatly increase the amount of scripture proclaimed in worship. But how much would be heard? The RCL expanded the pulpitâs canon, but this has hardly led to stronger biblical literacy among the laity. What would?
IF YEAR D IS ABOUT attending to every word from the mouth of God, the Narrative Lectionary is about understanding those words that are proclaimed. The decline of biblical literacy is a complex cultural problem, not the fault of any lectionary, but Rolf Jacobson and Craig Koester, who started the NL in 2010, are convinced that the RCL isnât helping.
âThe RCL includes a wide range of texts,â allows Koester, who teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary. âBut it does not foster a sense of movement.â The NLâs priority is not inclusion but sequenceâit seeks âa coherent sense of the whole.â
Churchgoers âhave grown used to not understanding the public reading of scripture,â adds Jacobson, Koesterâs colleague in Old Testament. âSo they donât complain, and worship leaders do not realize how little congregants grasp the overarching story.â Especially with OT lections determined by Gospel themes, âlisteners are given basically no contextââbecause âthe RCL intentionally reads the biblical story out of narrative order.â
Of course, the RCLâs semicontinuous track avoids this issue during Ordinary Time (also known as most of the year). But Jacobson points also to rearranged Gospel passages, such as the synoptic sequence of Johnâs appearance, Jesusâ baptism and the temptation. The RCL spreads these across three different seasons.
Koester highlights the apocalyptic material in Mark 13. In Mark this material points to Jesusâ imminent death, but the RCL assigns it to Advent and just before. Koester recognizes that this move serves the movement of the liturgical year, which âbegins with the anticipation of Jesusâ birth and culminates with the anticipation of his coming again. But the story of Jesus belongs within a much larger story that stretches from the creation.â
Burton-Edwards maintains that âthe calendar closely attends toâ this larger story. But if so it does this via multiple, simultaneous tracksânot the most accessible pattern for the biblically illiterate. According to Burton-Edwards, the RCL assumes a slightly higher standardâthat âa good number of [congregants] may have participated in some kind of class involving the Bible, or read it themselves.â And he stresses that âworship cannot and should not be expected to carry the entire burden.â
Yet the burden is often simply dropped. So the NL starts over from scratch, taking narrative sequence as its norm. Jacobson recounts that he âwondered out loudâ at a synod assembly why churches donât ââpreach the OT in big brush strokes from Labor Day through Christmas, preach one Gospel from Christmas through Easter, and preach early church stories and Acts until Pentecost.â After my talk, a pastor came up and said, âI have just talked 11 other congregations into doing it.ââ Word spread, and several hundred congregations recently participated in the NLâs third year.
The NLâs accessibility is appealing. Each week it focuses on a single text, so churchgoers are asked to follow just one ongoing story. According to Koester, this also âallows the OT, Acts and Paulâs letters to function as word of God more clearly, since they are not simply a preface to the Gospel.â
Koester and Jacobson initially conceived of the NL as a nine-month experiment. They now offer a four-year cycleâa year per Gospelâwith discrete series options for the summer. They call these series the Unnarrative Lectionary, because they mitigate what Jacobson acknowledges is a downside: the NLâs relative âlack of attention to non-narrative texts.â
Another objection is that one risks missing the OT trees for the forest. Each fall the NL leaps from highlight to highlight, covering the same characters each year but via a different reading. âThe goal is to expose people to preaching on the major stories,â explains Jacobson, in a way that âreinforces the importance of the biblical story.â
But does a different David lection each October reinforce Davidâs story? The RCL gives him ten consecutive weeks. Of course, RCL preachers are liable to ignore this. By assigning a single text, the NL overthrows the homiletical tyranny of the Gospels. From Labor Day until just before Christmas, itâs the OT.
Advent, then, focuses on the prophets. Thatâs a common angle but not the only oneâthe NLâs approach opens some doors but closes others. It schedules the Magi on or right after Christmas Day. But 12 days of Christmas is a valuable tradition, and not just for the opportunity to explain the song. In Markâs year, NL Jesus goes from the manger (on loan from Luke) immediately to adulthoodâbecause the Roadrunner Gospel, not the church year, sets the pace.
And something is surely lostâhomiletically as well as liturgicallyâby having only one reading. As Jacobson observes, the RCLâs thematic connections can be thin. Theyâre even thinner when the readings arenât meant to be complementary and preachers find connections anyway. Yet elsewhere the connections are rich, and the fact that preaching on multiple texts is sometimes done poorly isnât a reason not to do it well.
Actually, the NL does assign two readings: shorter Gospel lections were added last year to complement the OT and epistle readings. These are optional âaccompanying readings,â not preaching texts. Theyâre a response to requests from Episcopalians, for whom a Eucharist without a Gospel reading was a bridge too far. The addition was well received, and this year the NL made a similar move with the Gospel preaching texts, adding accompanying readings from the psalms.
Such feedback has shaped the NL throughout its short life. (The summer series came about this way, too.) Koester says the NL has benefited from an âongoing sense of collaborationââand much affirmation. Preachers appreciate being nudged out of the Gospels. Sunday school teachers find it easier to connect curriculum with worship. Congregations report growth in faith and understanding. Meanwhile, NL-based resources are steadily growing.
THE NL MAKES a good case for starting with the overall biblical narrative and prioritizing formation. But as weâve already seen, there are other starting points, narratives and priorities. The African American Lectionary raises these good questions: Whose formation, and in what story?
The AAL took shape in 2007, when Martha Simmons received a Lilly grant and commissioned colleagues to help create a new lectionary. Cain Hope Felder, James Abbington and Mitzi Smith formed a planning team to work with Simmons, president and publisher of The African American Pulpit. They wanted to âground the project in African American religious, liturgical and cultural history.â
The AAL is not dictated by the liturgical calendar shared by what its materials call âhistorically hierarchical faith communities.â It offers a different calendar, one that includes the major holidays but as part of a cycle of prevailing black church observances such as Womenâs Day, Menâs Day and Watch Night. Each week has a theme. While most themes codify existing practice, Simmons estimates that 30 percent reflect âpractices that the lectionary team came up with due to the needs of congregations.â These change somewhat each year. Additions for 2013 include Restoring the Peace/Community Action Day, Caregivers Sunday and LGBT Sunday.
Grounding the project in African-American history also means that maximal biblical exposure isnât the goal. âFor more than 100 years, it was illegal in many states for African Americans to learn to read,â explains Simmons. âThis did not anchor the reading of the Bible in our faith communitiesââand today âevery faith community is reading the Bible less and less.â While reading more Bible is important, âeven more, we want [people] to fully understand whatever they read.â
The AAL follows the common black-church pattern of a single weekly reading. And even this is framed as more suggestion than assignment. âOur aim,â says Simmons, âis not to get all preachers to use the same scripturesâ but âto get them to discuss the same issues.â The themes are the main point, and the AAL offers a rich array of resources to support themâtext-specific commentaries but also thematic liturgical, musical and cultural-historical materials by leading practitioners and scholars.
The fact that the AAL is designed by and for African-American Christians is only the most obvious of its differences from Year D and the NL. Itâs also deeply collaborativeâa priority with Simmons, who appreciates the varied voices sharpened through dialogue. But âsometimes the views are so different, consensus is difficultâ on a given issueâand Simmons recognizes that, rightly or wrongly, consensus views are often exactly what pastors are looking for.
Another difference: the AAL is clearly a tool for worship, not just or even mostly for preaching, so its offerings go far beyond sermon prep. The same is true of the RCL and its less centralized constellation of resources. But while the creators of Year D and the NL wouldnât claim that a lectionary is exclusively about preaching, itâs primarily the pulpit they have in mind.
Of course, Year D and the NL are essentially just tables of readings, the creators of which would be thrilled to see a grant-funded panoply of additional resources. The AAL is much broader, parallel in scope not just to the RCL but also to the calendar it follows and the materials that follow it. You could say the AAL isnât exactly a lectionary; you could also say that developing a calendar, lectionary and resources as one cohesive project is pretty much the ideal way to do it.
For all its uniqueness, the AAL echoes other lectionary projects, too. It begins with a calendar and themes and follows with lections; so does much of the RCL. Like the NL, the AAL is more interested in people understanding the Bible than hearing all of it. And both the AAL and Year D emphasize context and local choice.
The AALâs reception âhas exceeded what I imagined,â says Simmonsâamong both nonlectionary churches and RCL churches. The latter have mostly reported using the AALâs resources with the RCLâs lections, creating a sort of hybrid that speaks to multiple narratives and traditions.
ERIC LEMONHOLM IS ENTHUSIASTIC about such mash-ups. The Lutheran pastorâs 2011 D.Min. thesis at Luther, which he turned into The Open-Source Lectionary, calls for a more fluid approach to lectionary use. Lemonholm embraces the RCL for its broad ecumenical reach and the âfeeling of solidarityâ its use instills. His criticism echoes others: âmissing and disconnected texts.â
Lemonholmâs most striking example is âlove your enemies.â The RCL actually assigns both Matthewâs version of that text and Lukeâs. But in both cases itâs slated for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, one of the Ordinary cycleâs odd benchwarming weeksâused only when the liturgical calendarâs stars align. Week seven didnât make it into the Year A or C calendar between 2001 and 2011. âA ten-year absence of Jesusâ command to love our enemies occurred,â says Lemonholm, âduring the first ten years of the war on terror.â
Another complaint, one common among RCL critics: Johnâs exclusion from the Gospel-a-year club. Of course, the fourth Gospel is well represented in the RCL; it even gets read semicontinuously for a couple of stretches. And the CCT has detailed its reasons for avoiding a John year, including the precedent set by the Roman lectionary and the history of anti-Semitic interpretation. Also, thereâs the difficulty of carving pericopes from so much monological gabfest. âPersonally,â says the CCTâs Burton-Edwards, âI think a whole year of [John] would likely be overwhelming.â
Lemonholm tried half a year. Last year, his churchâthe Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Rockford, Illinoisâbenched Mark from Advent through Eastertide and read John instead, with good results, he says. He addressed another concern, the RCLâs patchy journey through Revelation, by expanding it into a fuller series. Lemonholm tries to balance a commitment to the RCL with attention to context, to his congregationâs âhunger for going deeper.â
Along with a John year, The Open-Source Lectionary proposes a more flexible, modular approach to the non-Gospel readingsâthe better to support locally chosen series. Lemonholmâs website offers several examples. âWith the widespread use of online resources,â he says, âlectionaries do not need to be set in stoneâ as the RCL appears to be. This summer, Lemonholm used an NL series.
âMoving forward, we will have multiple lectionaries,â he says. âWe will need to be flexible and wise in our choice.â
WILL ALTERNATE LECTIONARIES grow and their use expand? If so, the gains could mean a loss for the whole notion of a common lectionary.
But what if what grows is the sort of intentional yet flexible RCL use that Lemonholm favors, systematized by well-constructed alternatives? Churches that donât follow the RCL rigidly sometimes follow it carelessly. They jump haphazardly between tracks; they go briefly âoff lectionaryâ with little attention to whatâs disrupted; they skip the first reading but faithfully sing its companion psalm. Worship planning hours are, of course, limited. So choosing from a whole folder of well-tested options could be a big improvement on choosing between the RCL and whatever you can come up with on the fly.
Or maybe the CCT will undertake another revision. No such plans currently exist, says Burton-Edwards. âGiven continued growth worldwide in the reception and use of the RCL, we see our energies being better spent on making it even more usefulâ via publications and support for new contexts. Still, âwhen a critical mass . . . call[s] for a major revision,â the CCT âwould very likely offer [its] services.â Such an NRCL might not include a fourth year, Johnâs or otherwise. But it would no doubt attend to other criticisms, including finding ways to include new texts.
Perhaps it could even move toward a more modular approach to the non-Gospel readings, as Lemonholm outlines. Such an approach would be a continuation, not a departure; the RCL already does some of this during Ordinary Time. And itâs easy to imagine a new lectionary generating mostly digital resourcesâenabling it to continually adapt, to be not revised but revising. Burton-Edwards allows that a more fluid lectionary is possible but maintains that there âwill always remain considerable value in having a core reference text, arrived at in deep ecumenical collaboration.â
What the CCT wholeheartedly supports, however, is local choice in how best to use the RCL. The lectionary is âa starting place,â Burton-Edwards says. âWe see the RCL truly as our gift and are glad for the churches to use it or leave it aside as best fits their purposes.â
On this point everyone quoted here agrees: a lectionary is not a rigid rule. Maybe the future looks much like the present: an unchanged RCL, with relatively marginal alternatives. Some RCL churches will follow it strictly; others will depart from it. All would do well to follow or depart with intention and careâand one good way of departing is to try another lectionary. The RCL is indeed a tremendous gift. So is being charged with planning for our own communities how best to proclaim the Bible in worship.