Becoming More Common: Why more and more congregations are turning to the Common Lectionary for worship planning

How does your pastor choose next Sunday's Scripture lesson? Is he doing a series on the fruits of the Spirit? Following the Heidelberg Catechism? Preaching his way through a gospel or an epistle? The approaches that pastors in Reformed and Presbyterian churches take to planning what they will preach on from Sunday to Sunday are almost as varied as the people in the congregations they serve.

Considering the Lectionary

Roman Catholic pastors are permitted no such freedom of choice. Every Roman Catholic congregation reads the same Scripture lessons on the same day— throughout the church year. The Scripture lessons follow the calendar of holy days and festivals.

How is this schedule determined? By something we call a lectionary, that is, "a calendar of preselected lessons for the public reading of Scripture within the liturgy." The particular calendar that Roman Catholics follow is called the Roman Mass Lectionary, and churches are not supposed to diverge from it. Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches have their own lectionaries and use them in a similar way.

What's nice about a lectionary is that it allows a variety of people in a congregation to take part in planning future worship services. Musicians can know what the pastor's going to preach on before the pastor does! And it's possible for the Sunday School to reinforce the sermon by following the same calendar of lessons.

Of course, a lectionary only makes these things possible. It doesn't guarantee that they will happen, as many discouraged Roman Catholic and Orthodox laypeople could tell you. And lectionaries do have their drawbacks. The following questions about lectionaries have troubled many church leaders:

  • The Bible is much too big to fit in any calendar, so who gets to pick which Scriptures to include?
  • What happens to passages that are left out? Does a pastor ever get to preach on them?
  • Since the lessons are arranged according to the church year, Scripture gets chopped up into little bits—always appropriate to the occasion, yes, but almost never within the original context or sequence in which the Bible authors wrote these passages. Doesn't this do harm to the congregation's understanding of biblical context and sequence?

It is this last drawback in particular that has traditionally led Reformed churches to discourage lectionaries. Indeed, the birth of the Reformed wing of Protestantism can be dated to Ulrich Zwingli's rejection of the medieval Roman lectionary. On New Year's Day 1519, Zwingli announced that on the following Sunday he would begin preaching through the gospel of Matthew, from beginning to end. He did, and the effect was astounding. It was as if the people were hearing the Bible for the first time. So when he finished Matthew, Zwingli kept on going, book after book, until, over the span of six years, he had preached through the whole New Testament. We call this practice lectio continua, the continuous public reading of Scripture as Scripture presents itself.

Zwingli's conviction is still basic to the Reformed faith. Reformed Christians maintain that the Bible, though given to

the church, is not the property of the church, and should not be imprisoned in the church's traditions or its traditional interpretations. Another related conviction is that, since each pastor is responsible for the Scripture's relevance to the local congregation, no pastor should be bound to follow any lectionary.

But there is another conviction, often forgotten today that should also be basic to Reformed Christians—the belief that freedom means self-discipline. Freedom from the lectionary was never intended to become license for the pastor's whims or favorite passages. Unfortunately, many Protestant pastors enslave the Scriptures (and their congregations) to their own internal lectionaries.

How do we make sure that the whole gospel is preached to the people, no matter how good or bad the local pastor is? The Reformed Church solved this problem with the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg is a preaching catechism, and is therefore a kind of lectionary, though it's not tied to any holidays. Every year, over fifty-two Sundays, the pastor who follows the plan of the Catechism must select appropriate passages from Scripture without regard for their original sequence. So apparently even the Reformed leaders realized that there can be good reasons, educational reasons, to read Scripture lessons out of context!

New Lectionaries

Roman Catholic
The medieval lectionary that Zwingli scrapped continued in the Roman church for centuries, but caused increasing discontent. In 1969, the Second Vatican Council published a brand-new Roman lectionary, the Ordo Lectionum Missae, with three innovations:

  1. The cycle of readings has been spread out over three years instead of one, giving the Bible room to breathe. In the first year, the gospel of Matthew is read as continuously as possible; in the second year, Mark; in the third year, Luke. The gospel of John is read every year during the Easter season.
  2. Every week there is an Old Testament lesson that is related to the gospel, witnessing to the unity of the Scriptures.
  3. There is also a weekly reading taken from the epistles, plus a psalm.

Through using this lectionary, the average Roman parish is likely to hear more of the whole Bible in three years than most Protestant churches do. No wonder the new Roman Lectionary has caused such a remarkable revival of the Bible in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the 1970s a number of Protestant denominations made their own versions of the Roman lectionary, some (e.g.,Episcopalians) for obligatory use and some (e.g., Presbyterians) for voluntary use. A wonderful thing began to happen. Pastors from different denominations began to study the Bible together as they prepared for their sermons, and churches began sharing educational and music resources. Unfortunately, there were now as many lectionaries, each slightly differing from the others, as there were denominations.

In 1980 an ecumenical group called the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) organized these various versions into a single Common Lectionary. The use of this lectionary is now spreading throughout English-speaking churches on all the continents. Though some of the denominations (e.g., Episcopalians and Lutherans) that make lectionary use obligatory are locked into their own pre-1980 lectionaries, others (e.g., the Anglican Church of Canada) have adopted the Common Lectionary. Those denominations in which lectionary use is voluntary have all accepted the Common Lectionary, so this is the one most RW readers are likely to bump into when somebody mentions "the Lectionary".

The biggest difference between the Roman and Common lectionaries is in their use of the Old Testament. The approach the Common Lectionary has taken is partly the result of Reformed input. Agreeing with the Roman Catholics that one valid use of the Old Testament is as background for the New, the Common Lectionary'?, Old Testament selections for the Christmas and Easter seasons are "controlled" by the gospel selection. But in the conviction that the Old Testament also needs to be heard on its own terms, the Old Testament lessons in that long period between Pentecost and Advent are set free from the gospel lessons. The first year has "semi-continuous" readings from the books of Moses and Ruth, the second year has "semi-continuous" readings from the David narratives plus the Wisdom literature, and the third year has "semi-continuous" readings on Elijah and Elisha and from the major and minor prophets. The result is that, every three years, every book of the Bible is read from at least once.

The 1992 Revised Common Lectionary was prepared by the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT), 1275 K Street NW, Suite 1202, Washington,DC 20005-4077, and was published in Canada by Wood Lake Books, Inc., in the United States by Abingdon Press, and in Great Britain by The Canterbury Press Norwich.

The Revised Common Lectionary (1992)

The use of the 1980 Common Lectionary continued to spread during the ten years of its existence—but not without some criticism. People noted that some lessons were too long and some were too short, that certain lections could be improved with a verse or two added at one end or the other. People questioned why so many "unsavory" stories and texts had been excluded. For example, why is the story of Hagar left out? And why not include the story of Sarah laughing in the tent, or Jacob's deceit of Isaac, or Judah's incestuous rape of Tamar? Also many people, including members of the Roman Catholic Church, remained unconvinced of the effectiveness of making the Old Testament lections independent of the gospel readings.

The problems and questions pointed to the need for a revision, a challenging process that has just been completed by the CCT. Users of the soon-to-be-published Revised Common Lectionary (1992, published by Abingdon, among others) will notice a brand-new feature: the Sundays between Pentecost and Advent each offer a choice of two Old Testament readings. One of them provides a background to the gospel reading; the other is part of a semi-continuous reading in sequence from week to week. Pastors and churches should not switch back and forth between the two, but should stick to one track the whole season through. The Old Testament readings are also generally longer (to do justice to the narratives) than they were in the first edition of this lectionary, and they include some long-silenced passages, especially concerning women.

Is It Right for You?

In Reformed and Presbyterian churches, use of such a lectionary is voluntary, never obligatory. So how does each pastor and congregation decide if the lectionary is appropriate and important for them? Honestly answering the following questions may provide some direction:

  • How important is it to you to read and respond to the same Scriptures with other Christian congregations?
  • Is your pastor committed to a serious and disciplined schedule of Scripture selection that presents the whole gospel to the congregation from time to time?
  • Is your congregation given a fully diverse diet of Scripture from the pulpit?
  • Does your congregation want to make use of the church year for purposes of music, education, catechism, adult spirituality, and children's ministry?

Take these considerations into account when you are deciding for or against the Common Lectionary 1992. You may discover it to be a wonderful tool for giving the Bible back to the congregation—which is exactly what Zwingli was after.



Finding Your Way in the Lectionary

The lectionary for Sundays and major festivals is arranged in a three-year cycle. The years are known as

Year A, the year of Matthew,
Year B, the year of Mark, and
Year C, the year of Luke.

The First Sunday of Advent 1992 begins a new cycle of readings: they are selected from Year A, the year of Matthew, and continue until the final Sunday of the liturgical year. Then a new year begins in Advent 1993—Year B, the year of Mark. Year A always begins on the first Sunday of Advent in years that can be evenly divided by 3 (e.g., 1992,1995, etc.).

Year   First Sunday of Advent

A        November 29,1992
B        November 28,1993
C        November 27,1994
A        December 3,1995
B        December 1,1996
C        November 30,1997
A        November 29,1998
B        November 28,1999
C        December 3,2000

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.


Reformed Worship 26 © December 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.