Common Worship texts

Lectionary - Commentary by the Liturgical Commission

This was originally published in Calendar, Lectionary and Collects.

The Seasons

The Revised Common Lectionary

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is used as the principal Sunday service lectionary, alternative to the eucharistic lectionary of The Book of Common Prayer. The expectation is that the RCL be used for the principal service, whether eucharistic or not.

Those who wish to understand more fully the principles on which the RCL has been devised and the recent lectionary history that has led to its publication should study The Revised Common Lectionary: The Consultation on Common Texts (Canterbury Press, 1992) and in particular the introduction to the RCL in that book.

In outline, the Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year lectionary cycle, with three readings and a psalm for each Sunday. In each year one of the synoptic Gospels predominates, with a semi-continuous approach to reading it, especially in ordinary time. Other books of the Bible are also read semi-continuously at appropriate seasons as well as in ordinary time. The lectionary is seasonal, but not often thematic.

Themes

The Church of England has grown used to a thematic approach to the reading of Scripture through the ASB lectionary and the published material to support it. Over the years two things have emerged: the narrowness of the themes which have worn thin and do not bear much repetition; and the reading of Scripture through predetermined themes rather than with openness. Every service and every sermon will have a theme (or themes), but they emerge from a creative use of Scripture and liturgy by those planning worship, rather than pre-determining them. The RCL approach stays with a biblical book long enough to understand its underlying shape, message and emphasis.

Why the RCL?

The RCL has been adopted for the following reasons:

  • its approach to the reading of Scripture
  • the range and balance of Scripture over three years
  • ecumenical considerations. The RCL is similar to, though not identical with, that of the Roman Church, and has been adopted by Anglican and other Churches in many countries
  • the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church in Wales have adopted it, and many other denominations in this country are doing so
  • it has been tested by a number of cathedrals, churches and religious communities, albeit for a short while, and the majority have been satisfied, though challenged, by it.

Areas of Concern

It has been important not to alter the RCL to the extent that it ceases to be a common lectionary and becomes something eccentrically Church of England. There are, however, a number of modifications:

Omission of verses

There is some disquiet that in a desire to prevent a reading being too long or unhelpful, verses are omitted. All but the most obscure omitted verses have been restored in a bracketed form that allows their use by those who wish to do so.

Shorter psalmody

Some alternative shorter psalm provision is made. At the eucharist it is often appropriate to use only six or eight verses.

Calendar requirements

A few alterations to the RCL have been made in the weeks of Epiphany and before Advent to ensure that the lectionary enriches the seasonal emphasis. These changes are minimal except in Year B in Epiphany where, for three Sundays, readings from Revelation replace readings from 1 Corinthians.

Creation

The treatment of creation in the RCL is surprisingly small, with minimal use of Genesis 1 and 2 outside the Easter Vigil. Celebration and reflection upon creation, in ways different from harvest, have led to provision of a set of readings for use on the Second Sunday before Lent (close to the old identification of Septuagesima with creation) different from the RCL. The RCL observes a Transfiguration Sunday on the Sunday Next Before Lent. The lectionary now moves from creation, to transfiguration, and then into the season that prepares to celebrate our redemption.

The Old Testament in the Easter season

The RCL, like the Roman lectionary, has the first reading from Acts in Eastertide, and the second from an epistle. The Old Testament is therefore not read in the Easter season. There will sometimes be a need for OT provision (if, for instance, the lectionary is being used at BCP Morning Prayer) and there will, in any case, be those unhappy to go without the Old Testament at the eucharist. A note allows the use on Sundays of Eastertide of the generous provision of OT readings in the Easter Vigil (including, in Year A, the story of the Flood over three weeks). A table shows how this may best be done. To go beyond that would undermine a common lectionary in an important season.

Bible Sunday

Use of the RCL does not accord well with the Second Sunday of Advent as Bible Sunday. Even without following the RCL, there is a strong case for moving that observance to the Last Sunday after Trinity or another date of the minister's choice. The Church in Wales has made a similar move.

Lectionaries for a Second and a Third Sunday Service

The RCL provides only one set of Sunday readings, while Church of England churches frequently need two or even three. The RCL is for use at the Principal Service of each Sunday (in most communities the Sunday mid-morning service). The Second Service (in many communities the Sunday evening service) will sometimes be eucharistic, and so provision has always been made for a Gospel reading in this service. The Third Service provision (which not every church will use) will meet two needs: firstly, the need for a Sunday Office lectionary (for example, for Morning Prayer before a celebration of Holy Communion); secondly, the need for a third major liturgy of the day (for example, sung Morning Prayer in those places where there is also a sung eucharist).

The provision of lectionaries for a Second and a Third Service has been devised to supplement the RCL. It proceeds along similar lectionary principles. The main intention is always to complement the RCL. In the seasons, it sets out to reflect the same seasonal emphasis as the RCL, adding to the Scriptures (including psalmody) appropriate to the particular season and using passages to be found in the RCL in years when the RCL omits them. In ordinary time, there is no attempt to relate the psalmody to the readings (and nearly all the psalms not used during the seasons and in the RCL in a particular year are used in course), nor is there any attempt to relate the first reading to the second. The provision follows a three-year cycle, like the RCL, but in the Third Service the readings in ordinary time are the same in all three years.

The psalm provision in ordinary time has, as far as possible, been arranged so that, when a psalm is used in some years in the Second Service provision, in other years it will be used in the Third Service provision. For the Second Service, some longer portions of psalmody have been appointed in recognition of a need for this in some churches, but a shorter alternative is always given.

Alternative Lectionary Provision

The RCL is recommended as the normative lectionary provision. However, there is a desire in the Church of England for a more flexible approach to the reading of Scripture. This has led to a number of churches, some of them very large church communities, abandoning the lectionary altogether in favour of packages of readings exploring biblical issues or other matters of faith. Such churches are encouraged to use the authorized lectionary, but even those who use an authorized lectionary may need to be able sometimes to explore packages of material in a different way.

The Lectionary year is divided between 'closed' and 'open' seasons. The closed seasons are the periods from Advent to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and from Ash Wednesday to Trinity Sunday. These periods have already been so designated in A Service of the Word. In these periods no departure from the RCL lectionary is allowed, and the Church will move together through the high points of the Christian year.

The rest of the year constitutes the open seasons for which authorized alternative packages may become available, but when churches would also be free to construct their own.

There need to be safeguards to ensure that opting out of the RCL be occasional, rather than frequent, even in ordinary time. Indeed, it may be that the RCL, with its semi-continuous approach to Scripture, will prove more satisfying to those who now depart from the lectionary. Equally, this freedom may help those who still feel that the liturgy is well served by a strongly thematic element to Scripture.

Weekday Lectionary

The revision of the daily office lectionary will follow with the provision for Morning and Evening Prayer. Proposals for a daily office lectionary may also include a review of the daily eucharistic lectionary in the ASB.

The Holy Days

Festivals

The eucharistic provision for festivals takes as its starting point the provision of The Book of Common Prayer, noting the current provision for these days by the Church in Wales, the Church in Canada and the Roman Catholic Church which have recently revised their lectionaries. Complementary office provision has been provided. The psalms and readings for Evening Prayer on the Eve are intended principally for feasts of title and patronal festivals, but may be more widely used when the minister judges it appropriate.

Lesser Festivals

The Liturgical Commission has made richer provision of Scripture for lesser festivals, and noted where a particular reading is suitable to a particular person in the calendar.