Monday, May 3, 2010

Is the lectionary nuts?

I confess to being something of a late appreciator of the lectionary. That is partly because I never understood the advantages of the three year cycle Revised Common Lectionary (following, for at least the months Advent to Pentecost, the two year cycle in our NZPB instead); partly too because I did not appreciate the significance of the words "the appointed readings" in our prayer book services: "appointed" meaning "as appointed by the lectionary".

But being a late appreciator does not mean I am a zealous convert, enamoured of all the virtues of the lectionary (RCL) and blind to all its faults.

Preparing for the next two Sundays' sermons (9th and 16th May) I discover that the readings as set down are:

9th May: Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22.5; John 14:23-29 or 5:1-9

16th May: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

The virtues are straightforward to see in this little sequence:

there is a nice sequential reading through Acts 16 across the two Sundays

there is a sequential reading through Revelation 21-22 across the Sundays

there is a sojourn in John's Gospel.

But the vices are not hard to detect either!

What is with the omitted verses in Revelation? (More below)

What explanation of the sequence of gospel readings is detectable (whether John 14 then 17 or 5 then 17)?

Why is a choice of gospel readings given for the 9th May?

Let's look a little closer at the Revelation readings:

Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22.5 and Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

The first reading does not involve omission so much as addition. The passage Revelation 21:22-22:5, concerning the new Jerusalem being without temple, sun or moon for the Lord God is its temple and its light, could do with an introduction, so Revelation 21:10 is supplied to begin the reading.

I think this is nuts, myself! An introductory verse is "nice", but it raises the question why we would not wish - being Scripture-minded - to hear Revelation 22:11-21. What are we missing out on? As a matter of fact that question is also raised by looking back to Sunday 2nd May where we find that the sequential Revelation reading is 21:1-6. Knowing that, we may also want to ask what we are missing by omitting Revelation 21:7-9.

This is what we are missing in the latter case:

" 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” "

Looks like we do not get to hear the politically incorrect stuff!

In the former case we are missing in Revelation 21:11-21 a vast amount of symbolic detail about the new Jerusalem: its cuboid shape, its encrusted jewels, etc. All potentially rich spiritual mining in the hands of a competent preacher!

Then we have our 'selected verses' in the second Revelation reading, 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21. What are we missing?

First we are missing, between Sundays, Revelation 22:6-11:

"6 The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

7 “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”

8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. 9 But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”

10 Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. 11 Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”

Then we are missing the italicised verses in this passage, 22:12-21:

"12 “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

14 “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you a this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen."

Yep. That message is coming through loud and strong. Keep the verses speaking of reward and blessing. Jettison the verses which speak of punishment and bad consequences.

This is nuts! The lectionary "selectors" are excising from the reading of Scripture pieces of uncongenial Scripture. The uncongeniality may be for different reasons (difficult symbolism to understand, difficult "negativities" to explain) but it seems to be all uncongeniality to the selectors. Out it goes.

Do we believe Scripture comes from God or not? If we do not, let's just say so!

Perhaps we think that some passages are "not suitable for public reading". I can think of a few passages in Judges of that kind. You can think of others. Well, if something is not suitable for public reading, then omit the whole passage, please. Do not retain awkward passages and then (so to speak) cherry pick the nice cheeries and pass by the sour ones.

Who appointed the selectors of our appointed readings?


  1. Good questions, Peter! For all you need to know about the origins and rationale of RCL, and much much more, go to It seems those +*!#$* Americans and Canadians are to blame, once again...

    I agree that mangled selections from scripture make for very poor theology, whatever they may do to keep our Sunday readings suitable for younger ears. Those who hold a very high doctrine of scripture should be regularly reminded of its difficult aspects. Those who do not should have no reason to cherry-pick, as they have no theological reason to override the literary integrity of the text. None of us should have our doctrinal preferences pandered to.

    I have believed for some time that the church's lectionaries, including those set for the daily offices, are a great way of stimulating us to attend to parts of scripture we might naturally avoid. We all need to be prodded to wrestle with the complexity of the canon if we are to grow up and grow together, and weekly eucharistic readings are not sufficient for this to happen.

  2. The lectionary is not perfect.

    If you, Howard, and I got together we would be able to produce a much much better lectionary, and the whole church would abandon all current agreements across different languages and denominations using the RCL and immediately opt for the far superior Peter-Howard-Bosco lectionary (PHB).


    Recently on another blog you advocate using 2 readings - rather than making compulsory 3 readings and the psalm. More cherry-picking.

    In my experience, churches claiming to be strongly "biblical" do not in fact read the scriptures aloud in this manner, but jump about the Bible, quoting a verse here and another there and stringing these together within a sermon. My preference: this imperfect lectionary.

    There is absolutely no reason why a community does not expand the set readings as you suggest (rather than contract them as you suggest). And - we should constantly be encouraging people to read more of the Bible (in groups, church, and alone). Only this morning, even before reading this post, I advocated in my sermon that people read John's Gospel in one sitting (or in a week). It takes no more than an hour and a half in total, even if read slowly.

    The lectionary is not perfect. The danger with stressing its imperfections is that it is yet another excuse for those who do not follow it.

  3. Hi Bosco,
    From memory I advocated at least two readings: the context is a number of parish services (in our church) which have dropped down to one reading. A return upwards would be a step in the right direction! Further, it is not actually required to have more than two readings for a 'morning prayer' service.

    I wonder how many of our colleagues would uniformly and consistently support three readings and a psalm? (Thinking nationally, by the way, not just locally) I wonder whether those who opted out of the psalm (as many seem to do) would suggest that, just may be, there is an argument for a song of praise in today's world of great music?

    Certainly the imperfect lectionary is better than verse jumping around.

    I think, on the whole, my point is: when does anyone who publishes the lectionary do something about the imperfections? Or is the lectionary as currently published deemed to have some kind of infallible-cum-unimproveable status?

  4. In response to what you say is your point:

    The information that Howard pointed to has, "The Revised Common Lectionary, first published in 1992, derives from The Common Lectionary of 1983, both based on the Ordo Lectionem Missae of 1969"

    In other words, the lectionary was revised after 14 years, and then again after another 9. Clearly it is not "deemed to have some kind of infallible-cum-unimproveable status".

    If you are happy to have something from "today's world of great music" replace the Biblical Psalm, would you be happy to have something from today's world of great literature replace a Biblical reading?

    I think, on the whole, my point is: is it consistent to criticise the omission of some verses within a Biblical text in the lectionary, whilst appearing perfectly comfortable to omit half of the material that the lectionary actually does provide?

  5. My main beef about the RCL is the way John's Gospel is not given a year to speak with its own voice, but allowed to interrupt each of the others at their most interesting parts, especially around Easter. And then, in one year (Mark's?) it gets a whole month on one chapter ... although that may be July which in NZ is full of special theme Sundays anyway. Start again, I say! (Now that there is a mood to disregard those troublesome Yanks and Canadians).

  6. Hi Bosco,
    One minor point: churches choosing to use a song from the world of great music instead of a psalm are choosing to use a song or hymn of praise which honours God and moves the hearts and minds of the congregation through the musical setting. I do not think there is any kind of parallel with having "something from today's world of great literature replace a biblical reading".

    I also suggest any argument here re psalm versus hymn or song of praise is not an argument with me as an individual per se, but with our many colleagues and their congregations who customarily do not say a psalm but sing a song instead (and, many of them do so while also having three biblical readings). Is the worship of these congregations improved by insisting they do what they are clearly not comfortable doing? ... I look forward to their comments on this possibility!

    As to your last question, "I think, on the whole, my point is: is it consistent to criticise the omission of some verses within a Biblical text in the lectionary, whilst appearing perfectly comfortable to omit half of the material that the lectionary actually does provide?" I would like to reflect on that a little and make a response sometime on my Preaching and Worship blog!

    And, yes, I do think there is a very good chance that a Bosco-Carrell-Pilgrim Lectionary (BCP!!!!!) would be a vast improvement on the current one. But in the meantime I am pleased to learn that improvement is possible: 14 - 9 - X Mathematically that means we could expect the next revision sometime soon!

  7. I am very very wary of "themed" Sundays, Howard. The four year lectionary of the Joint Liturgical Group is now two decades old. It may be better in principle, but it just has no real traction. So, in our ministering lifetime, I think it's probably the imperfect RCL that we need to put our energy into. Sorry.

    I don't understand why you think there is not any non-Biblical literature "which honours God and moves the hearts and minds of the congregation"? I am constantly reading lots.

    I wonder what makes a psalm appear uncomfortable for a worshipping community. Seriously.

    & I love your concept of the BCP. I hope you are applying funding at GS!