Vol I No. 7

The Fullness of the word: Lectionaries Revisited

Gavin Dunbar

“Grant unto thy Church, to love that Word which he believed, and both to preach and receive the same”. (Collect for St. Bartholomew, Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

For much of Christian history, there have been two principal approaches to the reading of Scripture in the liturgical assembly, both of which can be traced to late antiquity. One is to read through entire books of the Bible in sequence (lectio continua or semi-continua) with a view to expository preaching, such as that modeled in the sermons of John Chrysostom and John Calvin. Though a common practice since the Reformation in Reformed and evangelical churches, this approach was not practiced in the millennium after Chrysostom and before the revival of the practice by Zwingli in 1519. In churches where this manner of (often lengthy and well-crafted) expository preaching through entire books is the norm, it is often decoupled from the Lord’s Supper. Even the reading of Scripture is often restricted by the passage under consideration in the sermon, with the result that the Sermon, rather than Scripture or the Sacrament is the main focus of the liturgy. The aim, however, over the course of time, is to provide maximum exposure to the whole of Scripture, or those books thought to be of greatest importance. The point is to teach the content of all Scripture to Christians, even if in practice certain books get priority (e.g. John, Romans, Ephesians, Isaiah).

The other approach, which also appeared in late antiquity (as exemplified, for instance, in the homilies of Gregory the Great), and dominated the medieval church in east and west, is to appoint a number of short passages (of which the final passage was always from the gospels) from different books of the Bible (chiefly, the New Testament) for each Sunday and other holy day of the church year. Thus, each Sunday or holy day eucharist had its own set of lessons (and also psalmody), known as the ‘proper’ of the day, chosen as appropriate for use on that day and (with few exceptions) used on no other occasion. The propers in turn are collated in lists called lectionaries. In churches where lectionaries of this kind are used, preaching often was shorter, optional, or omitted altogether: the reading of Scripture appointed by the lectionary, and the administration of the Sacrament, is the main event. Whether there was a sermon or not, however, the intention of the ancient lectionaries was not to provide exposure to the whole of Scripture, but as the Revd. Matthew Olver has observed, ‘to lead to “the fullness of saving doctrine”, or what the early Church called the regula fidei (“rule of faith”)’.1https://covenant.livingchurch.org/2016/07/01/why-the-rcl-iskilling-churches-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/, the mystery of Christ and his Church celebrated in the Eucharist, and to our participation in that mystery in repentance and faith.

Each of the greater churches in the late antique world (Constantinople in the eastern empire, Milan in the western empire, Toledo in Visigothic Spain) seems to have devised its own eucharistic lectionary. It was the eucharistic lectionary of the city of Rome, thought to have achieved definitive form about twenty-five years after Gregory the Great’s death, that was brought across the Alps by the Franks and became standard throughout most of the western church in the Middle Ages. Three versions of it were preserved in the early modern era; in Lutheran church orders (anchored by Martin Luther’s own sermons on the traditional lessons), in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (until the revision of 1979), and in the Roman Catholic churches by the Tridentine Missal (until 1969). The Anglican and Lutheran liturgies dropped most of the weekday propers of the medieval lectionaries, and sharply reduced the extensive propers for saints’ days (the sanctorale, always the most variable element in the lectionary); but in retaining the proper collects, epistles, and gospels for Sundays and major holy days they followed the ancient lectionaries with even more fidelity than the Tridentine missal of 1570, whose propers (especially in the half of the year between Trinity Sunday and Christmas) had suffered dislocations from the 10th century onward. The dislocation was significant since the epistle and gospel lessons of the ancient Roman lectionary (as preserved in the classical Prayer Book, for instance) are demonstrably chosen to complement one another thematically. In the proper of Sundays and major feast days, the chief alteration in the Anglican Prayer Books was the lengthening of a number of lessons, sometimes (as in the epistles) to the full extent of the pericope from which the ancient lection had been an excerpt.

Not without reason, as we shall see, these two ways of reading Scripture at the principal Sunday service – lectio continua for expository preaching, thematic reading based on the church year for the celebration of the Eucharist – have often been treated as mutually exclusive alternatives. As noted above, in many Reformed churches, the ancient church year lectionary was abandoned for the sake of lectio continua and expository preaching, and in the Roman communion, the defective form of the one-year lectionary was retained, while proposals to allow for fuller reading of Scripture at the office (such as those made by Cardinal Quiñónez) were abandoned. The Anglican reformers of the 16th century took a different approach, with the provision of two lectionaries designed to complement one another – a lightly revised version of the ancient lectionary for Sundays and holy days, at the Eucharist, devoted to doctrinally-thematic reading according to the church year; and the other for daily use (including Sundays and holy days also), at Morning and Evening Prayer, devoted to continuous reading of Scripture in quantity. This solution was elegant and masterly. It provided at the Eucharist (at which a sermon was now required) a unified teaching of the faith for the principal service of every Sunday and holy day, in accord with the Church’s year, and it also provided for a sequential reading of the greater part of Scripture in lengthy passages, at least once in the course of a year (the New Testament, being shorter than the Old, was read through about twice a year, and the Psalter monthly). Moreover, since the Sunday service, until the late 19th century, was comprised of Morning Prayer, the Litany, Holy Communion (or at least its first part, the Ante-communion), and Evening Prayer, Anglicans were exposed to six lessons from Scripture, four of which were usually full chapters, as well as lengthy psalmody (often 50 to 100 verses a day, depending on the length of the psalms), plus at least one sermon.

In the 1960s, these traditions, Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran, came under increasing criticism, fueled in part by critical biblical scholarship, research into the history of liturgy, and a new interest not just in the ancient church’s doctrine (the concern of the magisterial Reformers) but also its liturgical praxis, now proposed as normative. In the Roman church, there was impatience with the limited number of passages available in the old eucharistic lectionary. As the Liturgical Movement’s insistence on every-Sunday eucharist effectively abolished Sunday Morning Prayer, the Roman discontent with the one-year lectionary spread to Anglicans as well. Criticism of the older lectionary mounted, often one-sided or inaccurate: the assertion, for instance, that the epistle and gospel lessons in it had been chosen without regard for thematic unity. In general, it was agreed that exposure to a much larger range of scripture was desirable at the Sunday eucharist, and grand hopes were entertained for a spiritual revitalization of the churches through greater exposure to Scripture informed by the higher Biblical criticism and the revival of patristic liturgical practices – hopes, which in light of the ongoing decline of the churches and the rampant biblical illiteracy of Christians, now seem naïve.

The Roman church was the first to break away, with the adoption of the Ordo Lectionum Missae (OLM) in 1969, but it was soon followed by churches of the Protestant mainline, including Episcopalians in the American Prayer Book of 1979, (which included an Episcopalian version of the OLM), in the very similar Common Lectionary of 1983 (CL) (an ecumenical version of the OLM), and in its successor, the Revised Common Lectionary of 1992 (RCL). The RCL has been the official lectionary of the Episcopal Church since 2010; the Anglican Church of North America employs a version of the 1979 lectionary. These all follow the pattern set by the OLM: in accord with a truncated version of the western church year, it provides a three-year cycle of three lessons plus psalmody, in which the third lesson is always from one of the gospels read in semi-continuous sequence (Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C, with passages from John read at the major seasons, and also during Year B). The first lesson is often from the Old Testament, and the second from the New Testament outside the gospels, though there is considerable variation in these provisions. During the major seasons of the year, lessons are predominantly chosen for thematic reasons, but in so called ‘ordinary time’ (formerly known as the seasons after Epiphany and after Trinity) the principle of semi-continuous reading prevails for the New Testament readings (and in the RCL, for the Old Testament readings too).

The three-year three-lesson eucharistic lectionaries based on the OLM are an attempt to combine both historic approaches to the reading of Scripture within the Sunday eucharist or other principal Sunday service. They provide exposure to much larger amounts of Scripture than in the one-year lectionary, much of it read in lectio continua or semi-continua; and they provide doctrinally thematic readings for those seasons of the Church year thought to be more important (Advent to Epiphany Sunday; Ash Wednesday to Trinity Sunday). It is precisely as such, however, that their weaknesses emerge, because the two principles are not in fact compatible in one lectionary, much less in the proper for one day. As a result, the three-year three-lesson lectionaries are at best a mixed success, as measured by the standards both of lectio (semi-) continua and also of thematic unity.

To give an example: the epistle to the Romans, a letter whose content closely approaches that of a treatise, would benefit greatly from continuous reading, but in practice, only part of Romans is read in this way. Large parts of chapters 1 and 2 are omitted altogether, and those portions that are read, are read out of sequence, for thematic reasons, in Advent and Lent. Semi-continuous reading begins in June, with portions of chapters 3 and 4, and moves through chapters 5 to 8 (more fully) and chapters 9, 11 (more spottily), 12 (more fully), and 14. Portions of chapters 6, 13, 15, and 16 are read out of sequence at other times of year for thematic reasons. So a great deal of Romans is read – though a good part of it out of sequence; and much of the first four chapters (critical to Paul’s teaching on justification) is either missing, dislocated, or fragmentary. Moreover, whenever Romans is being read according to the principle of continuous reading on the Sundays of the summer in Year A, in principle it has no thematic connection with the gospel and the Old Testament lesson, so apart from happy accident the preacher may find himself forced to ignore either the epistle or the other lessons, or forge (as many do) some tenuous or even imaginary line of connection between them all. The reading of Romans thus falls short of the aim of both approaches. There is neither a full semi-continuous reading of Romans that allows one to grasp the movement of the whole epistle, nor is there thematically unified reading for most of the Sundays on which it is being read.

Similar problems appear in the treatment of other New Testament books. There is an attempt at continuous reading, but one that is only intermittently successful, because of the passages co-opted for thematic use at other times of year. In 1979 and the CL, there is no continuous or semi-continuous reading of the Old Testament, even the great narratives of Genesis, Exodus, Samuel and Kings – the last two of which are represented by a mere handful of passages (six and ten respectively), none read in sequence. This is corrected in the RCL, but with the result that for more than half of the year, none of the lessons for each Sunday have any connection in principle with each other. It is significant that proponents of the RCL often recommend preaching on just one lesson out of the three. Most glaring of all is the treatment afforded the Gospel of John, which is denied any continuous reading, except part of chapter 6’s ‘bread of life’ discourse, read over four Sundays in August of year B (expediently plugging a gap in the year in which Mark, the shortest of the gospels, is read). Everything else is scattered throughout the year. Sometimes this means that a handful of passages are read in full each year – John 1:1-18 at Christmas; 18-19 on Good Friday; 20:19-31 on Low Sunday. At other times it means that a passage is broken up into three pieces, one for each year (eg. John 10 and 17), and therefore never read in sequence. Chapters 5, 7, and 8 and the second half of 16 are not read at all.

Examples could be multiplied, but on the criterion of (semi-) continuous reading the CL is a very limited success. The aim of reading entire books in semi-continuous sequence is continually undermined by the need to read important passages out of sequence for thematic reasons. Moreover, precisely because the epistle and gospel lessons for the Sundays after Epiphany and after Trinity (‘ordinary time’, the greater part of the Church year) are chosen according to semi-continuous reading, in principle they cannot provide a doctrinally thematic unity of passages to be read each Sunday. Despite the reproaches of their seminary professors, preachers may and do strive to make connections between them, but it is often a triumph of ingenuity over texts with minimal connection to each other. No doubt there is a fundamental unity to all scripture: but there are passages which would exhibit this more strikingly and clearly than others!

But what of the other Sundays, those in Advent, Christmas, Lent to Trinity, where all the lessons are chosen for thematic reasons? Though the ‘richness’ of these selections in the 1979 Prayer Book is often celebrated, the actual choice of passages often suffers by comparison with the ancient lectionary. To give one example, the ancient gospel lesson for Advent I, Matthew 21:1-9, is excluded in favor of passages about Christ’s coming again in judgment (a theme that came to dominate the penitential preaching of the late Mid-dle Ages but was more moderately represented in the ancient lectionaries). What is lost here? The late Robert Crouse puts it this way:

From the new cycles of Advent lessons, today’s Gospel lesson has been firmly excluded, because it seems to have nothing to do with Advent. After all, it’s the Palm Sunday story, isn’t it? It’s all about Jesus’ entry at the time of his Passion; so, obviously, it can’t be about Advent. Our modern interpreters, you see, have difficulty getting beyond the literal sense of the text. The ancient Fathers, however, saw a spiritual interpretation, according to which the story became for them a dramatic parable of Advent: a story of the coming of the Son of God as Messianic King, as Judge, and as Redeemer of God’s city.2Sermon, published in the Anglican Free Press, Advent 1997

Oliver O’ Donovan agrees:

Don’t be perplexed at the choice of a Gospel reading for Advent that we would more readily associate with Passiontide; for the Passion is simply one angle from which Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem can be seen. The other is from the prophet’s cry at its center: Behold, your king comes unto you!3The Word in Small Boats (Eerdmans, 2010) pp 93, 94.

As the early Church saw, the triumphal entry is a message of Christ’s advent. In the CL there are vestiges of the ancient eucharistic lectionary, especially at Christmas and Epiphany, the Easter vigil, and Low Sunday. But in general, they are dislocated, sometimes mutilated, or (as in Advent 1) even excluded altogether. Equally problematic is the disappearance of the Sundays before Lent, eliminated in the interests of more Sundays after Epiphany (and more opportunities for semi-continuous reading), and because their rationale was forgotten or incomprehensible to the Roman Catholic liturgical revisers of the 1970s OLM. But it is not really so difficult to understand. Similar pre-Lenten Sundays exist in the Eastern Orthodox calendar, about which Alexander Schmemann says this:

Long before the actual beginning of Lent, the Church announces its approach and invites us to enter into the period of pre-Lenten preparation. (…) Why? because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature. Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening worldliness of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state to another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance. Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning.4Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 17.

With the elimination of these pre-Lenten Sundays, the season of Epiphany runs smack into Ash Wednesday without any modulation from one to other. The three-year three-lesson lectionaries fail because they are trying to combine incompatible principles, not only as a whole but also often in the same proper. They aim both to maximize exposure to Scripture through semi-continuous reading wars while also providing thematic reading according to the Church year, and each intention undermines the other. The Revd Matthew Olver speaks of the same ‘cross purposes’, in the tension between teaching the content of the Bible and preaching at the Eucharist. The latter ‘must always direct hearers toward the Gospel of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus: the mystery disclosed in the Eucharist, the mystery to which the Father joins us by grace as we participate in the rite.’.5https://covenant.livingchurch.org/2016/06/30/why-the-rcl-iskilling-churches/ The former, however, must address the whole of Scripture, including passages (such as many from the Old Testament) that are simply not suitable for the Eucharist, not least because they have to be read at great length to be rightly understood. It is hardly consistent with the purpose of the Eucharist, which ‘the adoration and glorification of God’, to read about David’s adultery and murder of Uriah without also reading of Nathan’s rebuke and David’s repentance under God’s chastisement – but to do so would require reading two full chapters, of over fifty verses. That’s a workload that simply cannot be accomplished in a Sunday morning Eucharist, and indeed wars with its very purpose. Olver concludes, ‘the Eucharist is not the context in which people should be taught everything it behooves Christians to learn, particularly when it comes to the content of the Bible’.

The three-year three-lesson lectionaries have been widely received, and they have been successful at increasing the quantity of scripture that is read. Yet this ‘Bible buffet’ has not produced any noticeable revitalization of churches in the west, nor have they succeeded in making a dent in Biblical illiteracy. Moreover, their success has come at a cost. There is neither a continuous reading of the books of Scripture, nor a thematically coherent teaching of saving doctrine according to the Church year, as found in the ancient one-year lectionary. The integrity of doctrine, in Scripture and Church tradition alike, have all taken a back seat to the goal of greater quantity at the Bible buffet.

Churches must find a place for the teaching of the fullness of Scripture (or much of it). In the Anglican tradition, the reading of large passages of Scripture in sequence is assigned to the daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer, and the office on Sunday or perhaps on a weekday evening could be used for expository preaching of them. Instruction in the Bible could also take place at Sunday School, in lectures, seminars, small-group bible studies, or sermons outside the liturgy. This is the place that allows for reading large passages (especially of the Old Testament) or working through entire books in continuous reading.

Churches must also find a place for teaching the fullness of saving doctrine, and proclaiming the gospel of Christ to the glory of God, the edifying of his Church, and the salvation of souls, which is the purpose of the sermon at the Eucharist. For this purpose, a much more selective reading of Scripture (which could include, but does not need to include, psalmody and an Old Testament lesson), is fitting – a task fulfilled with admirable craft in the ancient western lectionary of the western church, and in substance preserved in the classical Prayer Books of 1662 and (with some modifications) 1928.

These are not competing but distinct and complementary approaches to the reading of Scripture, and healthy parishes will provide for both (perhaps with the addition of psalmody and an Old Testament lesson to the one-year lectionary). What they will not do, is try to combine them in a mishmash for one hour on Sunday morning. In the spurned legacy of classical Anglican liturgy, we have a better way.


  • 1
  • 2
    Sermon, published in the Anglican Free Press, Advent 1997
  • 3
    The Word in Small Boats (Eerdmans, 2010) pp 93, 94.
  • 4
    Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 17.
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