Why I Left the Revised Common Lectionary Behind

The Revised Common Lectionary, as it appears in the front of the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

On many occasions I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I do not use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in my congregation. Often these questions come from a place of honest curiosity. Sometimes they come from a place of liturgical condescension. Either way, my answer is rather simple – it’s mostly because of how the RCL treats the Old Testament. But there’s more.

So, here are the reasons why I left the RCL behind.

The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. “[T]he Old Testament reading is closely related to the gospel reading for the day” (Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary, 11). This is problematic in that Old Testament texts are chosen only in relation to a gospel counterpart. The result of this pairing is that the story of God’s grace and promise in the Old Testament is told in no sequence or narrative but only as it relates to, or previews, a gospel parallel. Whereas the gospel moves sequentially each week, chapter by chapter through the story of the life of Jesus, the Old Testament reading jumps around to provide no sequence or cohesive story of God’s work among the people Israel.

For example, for the six weeks from the Third Sunday after Epiphany through to the Eight Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, we read from parts of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. For the first reading, we read from Isaiah 9, Micah 6, Isaiah 58, Deuteronomy 30, Leviticus 19, and Isaiah 49. While these pairings are appropriate and shed light on the context of the Gospel, as a unit these selections do not tell a coherent story of God’s movement among God’s chosen people.The RCL identifies the “problem” of how to read and use the Old Testament in Christian worship (Introduction, 40-44). It paints extremes of excluding the Old Testament altogether from Christian worship (on one hand), or of reading it only as Scripture and prophesies that have been fulfilled by the New Testament writings (on the other hand). It rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is Scripture that can be read and exegeted in its own right. Yet, it oddly suggests that attempts to do so would result in reading Old Testament texts “at eucharistic worship, or Christian worship in general, as though there were no linkage with Christian belief and prayer” (Introduction, 42). The linkage that the RCL proposes – selecting Old Testament readings to reflect themes or images of the gospel selection – gives short shrift to the Old Testament, its story, and its Good News.

For about half of the year an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings is offered. In Year A this cycle begins in Genesis; in Year B in 1 Samuel; and, in Year C in 1 Kings. This semi-continuous cycle corrects some of what I find problematic in the RCL, if only for half of the year … much of which falls during the summer months (see #4, below).

The RCL is too focused on the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There’s lots of Good News throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament. And though the RCL covers lots of Scripture in its three year cycle, it does so with an unnecessarily limiting orientation to the first four books of the New Testament. Christian preachers are more than capable of proclaiming, and Christian congregations are capable of hearing, the wonder of God’s saving work without a requisite weekly reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is especially true in liturgical and sacramental traditions, whose liturgies and hymns are filled with imagery from the Gospels.

The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year, replacing it with readings from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is fantastic. But that it supersedes the Old Testament reading during the Easter season does a disservice to the relationship we claim exists between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament’s witness to the resurrection.

The year is all off. I know. The church year begins in Advent, and the RCL has a beautiful internal integrity that flows throughout the cycle of the church year. Yet, most of our congregations follow a program year calendar that closely tracks the school year. Sunday School, youth group, men’s or women’s groups, and other ministries often meet during the school year, and often take the summer off. Attendance dips during the summer, and in August or September the programming kicks up – and so does the attendance. September is the start to a new year. Many of our congregations fit into the RCL’s December-November cycle awkwardly, at best. Meanwhile, the internal integrity of the RCL is lost as major portions of the life and ministry of Jesus are proclaimed during the summer months of low attendance and suspended Christian education.

When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.

The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated. The unity of the church is found in Christ, in the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our shared witness to the resurrection. It is too easy to overstate the significance of a shared cycle of readings – as if the unity of the church depended on the selection of readings for worship! Most of the “unity” fostered by the RCL’s cross-denominational use is experienced by clergy in text studies, online clergy groups, worship planning resources, and so forth. Very few and very far between are stories of Lutheran and Presbyterian laity gathering for lunch after worship to talk about their pastor’s sermons on the same texts. And while common practices across church bodies are perhaps desirable, the churches that use the RCL inhabit a shared theological space and heritage such that any variation in their Sunday reading schedules would hardly inhibit the unity they already have in liturgical practice or public witness.

“But you’re tearing the church apart by abandoning the RCL!” Congregations that set the RCL aside are hardly abandoning the unity of the church. A Christian community that selects an alternate lectionary or develops its own is more than capable of teaching and preaching and carrying out acts of service and care. Such congregations continue to proclaim Christ within and beyond their walls. Such congregations continue to follow the ebb and flow of the church’s principal festivals. Most continue to gather around Word and Sacrament. Setting aside the 1992 RCL is hardly a crushing blow to church unity. Claiming the lectionary is a lynchpin to church unity does a disservice to the unity we share with Christian churches that do not use the RCL.

I didn’t depart from the Revised Common Lectionary lightly. I take seriously its wisdom and beauty and yes, its shared use. I’ve written prayers for Bread for the Day, a Revised Common Lectionary daily devotional. And, I have at times in my life committed to daily prayer rooted in the daily lectionary’s movement.

Nonetheless, as noted above, I find the RCL lacking mostly for its treatment of the Old Testament, but also its calendar orientation that doesn’t fit well with the life cycle of my (and many other) congregations. When I began looking for alternatives to the RCL over three years ago, I considered the Narrative Lectionary, a project out of Luther Seminary that offers a 9-month, single-reading lectionary starting with Genesis and moving through to the Epistles and Revelation; a year-long program such as The Story; or a series of shorter-term thematic series. I ultimately landed on the Narrative Lectionary, and have found it to be a wonderful guide for using Scripture in worship, and I have found its online community to be faithful, diverse, and creative.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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11 Responses to Why I Left the Revised Common Lectionary Behind

  1. Peter Carrell says:

    Hmm. On the Old Testament are you confusing the ‘related’ cycle of readings and the ‘continuous’ cycle of readings? (Our NZ (Anglican) Lectionary offers both). As for too much focus on the four gospels. That sounds a little odd!

    • At least in our church, the continuous (or as it is called here, semi-continuous) reading is listed as an alternative. Plus, it gets scant attention in most preaching commentaries (which spill much more ink, or many more pixels, on the Gospel text than any other text for a given Sunday). Furthermore, at least in our lectionary, the semi-continuous readings are offered only for about half of the year (Trinity Sunday through Christ the King).

      Anyway, my point is that one need not read from the four evangelists to proclaim the Gospel, and that ordering a year-long (or a three-year-long) reading cycle around the rhythm of the Gospel narrative is limiting. For Christians, particularly liturgical/sacramental Christians, Christ is always front and center, and is found in, with, and under the hymns and text of our liturgies. I preach often on texts other than the Gospels. I always proclaim Christ.

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  3. I left the RCL behind for the SOLA Lectionary because it truly accents Law and Gospel as well as dares to truly touch accountability and the work of the Holy Spirit!

  4. Nathan Nettleton says:

    While I understand your point about the problem of all that material that falls in the summer holidays, if you remember that the whole world does not live in the Northern hemisphere, then redoing the Lectionary to take account of everyone’s summer holidays would mean that we’ve got about 12 weeks a year where we avoid saying anything important because everyone’s away. I will be representing Australia at this week’s annual meeting of the English Language Liturgical Consultation (the custodians of the RCL), and South Africa and New Zealand will also be represented, so although I intend to draw your comments to their attention, the concern about holidays will probably be dismissed as coming from an overly parochial view of the world.
    Your comments about the use of the Hebrew Scriptures are well made. But, in defence of the RCL, it is an attempt at being ecumenical, and it started as a revision of the Vatican 2 Roman Lectionary. The ’92 version introduced the semi-continuous OT readings as a response to the same criticisms you are still making. You are right that your own denomination lists it only as an alternative, but that is a denominational decision. Most other denominations follow the original book and list them the other way around. And although we could try taking it further, Rome has not even come with us this far, and your denomination elevates it to an alternative, so the dilemma is about whether we take it further and reduce the chances of a greater unity, or do we just push ahead as though such unity was of no consequence. Not an easy call, but one that we do take seriously.

  5. Thank you for your comment, blessings with your work on the ELLC.

    The summer months (and worship attendance dip) may be a parochial concern, but ultimately parochial concerns – those of my parish – are my main concerns. I don’t envy the tasks had by you who are committed to stewarding a common, ecumenical, global lectionary. That ultimately is not my commitment, and the ebbs and flows of seasonal life of our parish shape our ministry of the Word.

    Though it has its own problems, we chose to use the Narrative Lectionary (out of Luther Seminary) because it takes our September-May ministry season seriously. The primary cycle of readings is scheduled from September to May. During the summer the Word is still proclaimed, of course, but we then look at a few series, such as on the Psalms or on Parables or something of the sort. FWIW, many of my RCL preaching friends do the same, setting aside the RCL for the summer and doing series on “top questions” or on certain Biblical or current themes.

    Again, thanks for the comment and for your work.

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  9. Brie Marie says:

    Chris,
    I am curious, has anyone has addressed the time and resource differences and difficulties faced between the RCL and the Narrative Lectionary?

    As a lay leader who is often putting together the non-preaching elements of worship in two congregations, I have found that I spend substantially more time, effort, and money, gathering resources for the congregation that used the Narrative Lectionary verse the RCL. While there are resources (prayers, images, hymn ideas, etc.) available for the NL, sometimes the quality isn’t there, or it is provided in limited formatting. For small congregations who do not have the staffing, nor the volunteers, the extra hour or two a week adds up when you are functioning off of 1 or 2 PT staffers, including the pastor. From what I have seen, meant that other vital aspects of ministry were cut short.

    While I do see this improving each year, I see what the NL is now as a beta version. It is being test played by those who have the time / energy / interest to report bugs to the developers.

  10. Dale Loepp says:

    Writing as a scholar of the Old Testament, this post makes me very sad. While the rest of the world has now for some decades been aware of the postmodern critique of constructed meta-narratives, it seems that a fair number of ELCA pastors have launched headlong into a new one.

    The RCL is far from perfect, but I would say that it does a fairly adequate job of highlighting the intertextual nature of the New Testament–a feature that’s absolutely essential for understanding and interpreting the biblical text and its portrayal of Jesus Christ. Literarily—and we are speaking about texts here—Jesus is the Word as intertext, explained in the New in the categories and language of the Old. If we fail to set the two in juxtaposition, this essential hermeneutic is simply lost to the wind. I would say that the RCL is not really the problem, but the inability of the majority of preachers to effectively preach intertextually.

    The RCL also properly keeps the Gospel (here, the Evangelists) at the center of worship and preaching–truly a defining feature of Lutheran worship as Timothy Wengert recently reiterated at the ECLA Worship Jubilee. Certainly it’s possible to proclaim the Gospel from another biblical text but there’s I think good reason that the Evangelists have been at the center of the Western liturgy as far back as we know.

    In opposition, the NL strips the Old Testament of almost everything the creators deem to not constitute “narrative.” That’s an extremely poor criteria for choosing biblical texts for worship, in my opinion–however I’m sure it readily appeals to preachers who would rather preach from prose than wrestle with something like biblical poetry.

    If it were broader in scope, the NL might perhaps be a fit for certain churches in the Reformed tradition who early on departed from the Western liturgical tradition in this regard.

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