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Angela Tilby: Time to rethink the lectionary

08 September 2017


THE liturgical scholar the Revd Dr Vicky Raymer, one of my former colleagues at Westcott House, is writing a book about the lectionary, marking the astonishing ecumenical success that has enabled Protestant and Catholic worshippers to hear the same readings Sunday by Sunday.

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), with its now familiar three-year cycle based on the Synoptic Gospels, has become embedded in Anglican Sunday worship. But, as Dr Raymer points out, not everything works smoothly. Some regret that there is no year of John. This was tried, but abandoned, the reason being that John’s Gospel traditionally comes into its own at Christmas and pre- and post- Easter. Where John is used — to supplement Mark in the summer of Year B, and in Lent Year A and B — passages are sometimes repetitive, or inordinately long.

There are other more basic problems with the RCL. The Sunday readings are designed as a clear narrative of salvation history. Up to a point, this makes sense. The mysteries of Christ’s person are highlighted by the calendar. So the Seasonal Time Gospels focus on the expected Christ, the incarnate Christ, and the Christ who is to come at the end of time. The related Old Testament readings and epistles are worked round this.

But it is fair to ask whether this intense Christological focus exaggerates the Church’s identification with Christ at the expense of a wider vision of what the Bible reveals of God. Our Sunday readings leave out many important texts about God’s law in creation and society which are critical for everyday Christian life. Omissions focusing on creation are largely the result of Protestant fears about natural theology; but, with our current global concerns, these omissions seem ominous. Critics have also noted that the chosen texts tend to marginalise women and foreigners, even those who play a key part in salvation.

The pattern in Ordinary Time tends simply to follow the three Synoptic Gospels; the related Old Testament readings are chosen to fit. This, again, leads to a narrower choice from the Old Testament than might be desirable. Even the continuous readings are often focused on the great male figures of salvation history: Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, etc. Yet, surely, in our time we need to engage with the questions of Ecclesiastes and Job, and some of the hidden gems within the histories, such as the wonderfully sceptical parable of the trees in Judges 9.

Dr Raymer’s book The Bible in Worship: Proclamation, encounter and response will explore the tricky issues about how the Bible is used in worship, and will make some proposals on how we might use Ordinary Time to engage with a wider range of scripture than the RCL provision. After all, Ordinary Time is when good C of E people may keep the liturgical rules about Sunday scripture while still diverging creatively.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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