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How scripture is now appointed to be read

06 June 2012

David Stancliffe finds real questions tackled


Making the Most of the Lectionary: A user’s guide
Thomas O’Loughlin
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

THIS short and readable book is an excellent and concise guide to the important and frequently ignored questions: why we read scripture in the liturgy at all; why we read it in a pattern and order rather than picking the bits that we like or that, we think, “speak” to our church assembly now; and why we read what we read when in the Church’s year.

Tom O’Loughlin has been run­ning study days and doing a good deal of interactive promotion of the lectionary that we nearly all use — that is, in the official provision of most Western Churches — since its inception with the Roman Lection­ary in 1969, and its adoption as a standard in the Revised Common Lectionary of 1992 and the Common Worship version of that dating from 1999. He addresses the questions that people actually ask rather than the ones the profes­sionals have the ready answers to. His breezy, informative, and down-to-earth style ensures that readers won’t get bogged down in what might seem an abstruse topic.

But it is not: it is a very key part of our common life. One of the frequently unrecognised triumphs of the ecumenical cooperation of the past 50 years liturgically is that the mainstream Churches all read the same scriptures — or nearly always, as the invaluable appendices chronicling the differences reveal — at the principal eucharist on Sunday and at festivals. Beyond the scope of this book is the question how and what scripture is read in Daily Prayer.

Part 1 deals with the basic questions: why read the scriptures at the eucharist, and how this started. Because they are the vivid memories of a community, “and this memory — in which we encounter the Lord — is activated by the performance of that memory, that restatement of identity, that is the readings.”

We are not a people of the book so much as a community of the memory of Jesus as Lord; “and that community has books whose oral performance . . . activates that memory while the Spirit gives it life.” Second, he addresses the ques­tion “what is a Gospel?”

In Part 2 he turns to lectionaries. Are they a good thing? How does this one work? What is its structure over the year? How — and when — do the three readings work together? Why do we read the Old Testament and sing the Psalms in the celeb­ration of the New Covenant?

Presiding at a wide variety of styles of eucharistic liturgy over the past 44 years, I have watched people glaze over when scripture is read. Not only do they not understand what they hear, but they do not understand why they are asked to listen to such passages. Sometimes, they read it for themselves instead of listening to its proclamation, and so turn what should be a corporate experience into an individualised Bible study — what this passage says to me personally rather than how we — the Church — are en­countering the living Christ in our midst.

I think this is a really good book. It is an introduction to the obvious questions, written in clear and un-technical language, and I hope it will be widely read.

Dr David Stancliffe is a former Bishop of Salisbury.

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