Quantity or Integrity? the 2016 ACNA Lectionary
In recent decades, discerning food tastes in North America have been evolving rapidly. Part of that shift has been the move from quantity to quality, from super-sized portions to small plates, from an abundance of cheap food kept warm on the buffet for indiscriminate browsing to an emphasis on simple, natural ingredients freshly prepared and combined in subtle but deeply satisfying ways, based on respect for the integrity of food. Would that a similar shift were taking place in the way that liturgical churches were feeding on Scripture! In the lectionaries used by the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches since the 1970's, usually known as the "Common Lectionary" (CL), quality takes second place to quantity. If you want to browse at the Bible buffet, they are adequate: but if you are looking for a lectionary in which the doctrinal integrity of Scripture, the Church's tradition, and the Church year are most important, you need to look elsewhere.
It was respect for the doctrinal integrity of Scripture and the Church's tradition which led to the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), often at great cost. So it is puzzling that the ACNA has authorized a lectionary for use on Sundays and holy days a lectionary (its own version of the Episcopal Church's Common Lectionary)1 in which the doctrinal integrity of Scripture and Church tradition takes a back seat to sheer quantity. Is that really what the ACNA is looking for? Perhaps, however, this is just a starting point, for apparently this lectionary is being offered on a provisional or trial basis2, with a broad invitation "to the whole body of Christ" to take part in "the process of receiving and perfecting [it]". It is in respectful response to that generous invitation that this critique is offered, together with some suggestions about an alternative approach. The aims of the Common Lectionary in its ACNA form are sound, but there are better ways of attaining them.
Discussion, let alone debate or controversy, about lectionaries may seem arcane. After all, "It's all Bible, right?" A lectionary is simply a tool for a community of faith to read the Scriptures together, with the most significant passages being allotted for Sundays and holy days - but that's where things get complicated. Because what is the criterion for selecting those passages? Are they to be chosen thematically, in accord with the pattern of the Church's year? And within that pattern are they to be chosen so that the lessons for each Sunday complement or speak to one another in a coherent and unified way? Or are they chosen so that each book of the Bible is read as a whole, more or less continuously (lectio continua or semi-continua)? Or is the aim to read as much Scripture as possible within the Sunday morning service? 3 Each of these principles leads in a different direction, and it is not obvious how they may be reconciled with one another.
The Anglican Lectionaries
The sixteenth century compilers of the English liturgy solved the problem with two lectionaries - one for Sundays and holy days, at the Eucharist, devoted to thematic reading; and the other for daily use, at Morning and Evening Prayer, devoted to continuous reading of Scripture in quantity. The lessons for the Eucharist were based on the lectionary that developed from the 4th century onward in the churches of the city of Rome (although some loose ends, chiefly in the Sundays after Trinity, were tidied up in the 8th and 9th century, when this lectionary was adopted by churches north of the Alps). Its retention in the 16th c reformation was a token of continuity with catholic antiquity, and as the lessons were chosen to complement each other in accord with the pattern of the Church year, they provided a sharply focused, coherent , and unified thematic teaching of the faith for each Sunday and holy day.
To complement this very selective thematic reading, the (for the most part) continuous reading of the whole of Scripture in quantity was assigned to the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer, at each of which about a chapter was read from the Old Testament and the New. There were some exceptions to this sequential reading - the Song of Songs, Ezekiel, and Revelation were omitted, for reasons we may not think adequate, as well as a very few passages like Genesis 10 (the table of nations) or 38 (Judah and Tamar); and beginning with the Elizabethan Prayer book, lessons were chosen to complement the thematic teaching of a Sunday or holy day. But the principle was clear and effective enough - by far the greater part of the Bible was to be read in large passages more or less continuously at the daily office.
This solution was elegant and masterly. It provided at the Eucharist, the principal preaching service4, 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).
With some qualifications, this solution has still much to commend it. One qualification is that late modern attitudes to time mean that one can observe the Sunday Office or the Sunday Eucharist, but not both, at least not corporately. The expectation of a Sunday service lasting about an hour or a little more is hard to resist5. The second, related, qualification, is that in parishes where the principal Sunday service is the Eucharist, there is almost no exposure to the Old Testament and psalms. But it is or would be a relatively simple matter, to add lessons from the Old Testament and psalms to the eucharistic lectionary, chosen to complement the lessons of each day (about which see below).
The Common Lectionary
In the 1960's the Roman church was convulsed by deep discontent with its own liturgical tradition. Its reading of Scripture was based entirely on a (flawed) version of the ancient Roman eucharistic lectionary6. Its breviary preserved from the late Middle Ages mere fragments of what had once been a very extensive sequential reading of Scripture and sermons of the Church Fathers, and was not used by the laity. Naturally, the Roman liturgists of the 1960's paid no attention to the elegant solution Cranmer had crafted for the Anglican prayer books. Their solution was a radical departure from the Church's tradition: they scrapped the ancient eucharistic lectionary, and devised an entirely new one, published in1970 as the Ordo Lectionum Missae7. It subsequently became the basis of the Common Lectionary adopted by the Episcopal Church in 1979 and later the Revised Common Lectionary, as well as the ACNA lectionary. Of the various possibilities, no single principle was adopted to organize this lectionary, but rather all of them: thematic reading according to the church year, and more Scripture, and continuous or semi-continuous reading of books of Scripture.
What did this mean in practice? First, a three-year cycle of readings was adopted, with one of the synoptic gospels being read in each year, and the gospel of John distributed throughout. At each service there are four lessons: the first, usually from the Old Testament (but sometimes from the New); the second, a psalm; the third, an epistle or other book of the New Testament that is not a gospel; and fourth, the gospel lesson. With four lessons over three years, the goal of greater quantity is easily achieved. The question is about the other two objectives - of providing thematic teaching in the pattern of the Church year, and of continuous reading of entire books of Scripture.
The solution of the OLM and CL is complex. Within each year, about half of the year (Advent to Trinity, with a gap between Epiphany and Lent) is reserved for thematic reading (with lessons that usually differ from year to year); and the rest is reserved for more or less continuous reading - but there are qualifications. The Sundays after Trinity and Epiphany are reserved for more or less continuous reading of epistles and gospels, but the Old Testament readings are chosen on a typological basis to complement the gospel readings. Thus there is no continuous reading of Old Testament books; and because the gospel and epistle readings are chosen for continuous or semi-continuous reading, in principle they have no connection with each other. Moreover, most of the passages which have been read for thematic reasons in Advent-Epiphany, Lent-Trinity, are naturally not repeated when they would appear in the continuous reading of Sundays after Epiphany and Trinity. The result is a disjointed compromise between the two principles, of thematic reading and continuous reading, in which neither principle finds a consistent realization.
Continuous Reading in the Common Lectionary
The limited success of this compromise may be illustrated by the reading the epistle to the Romans, one of the most important books of Scripture and one with a sustained argument that would benefit from continuous reading. In the ACNA version of the Common Lectionary, certain passages are read for thematic reasons at various times of year: for example, 1:1-7 is read on Advent 4 in year A; Romans 4:1-17 is read on Lent 2 in Year A, Romans 1:16-32 is read on Lent 3 in year A, and Romans 6:3-11 is read at the Easter Vigil. But (semi-) continuous reading only begins on the Sunday closest to June 1 in Year A, with Romans 3:21-27. The dislocation of 3:21-27 from 1:16-32 (about thirteen Sundays apart) and the total omission of 1:8-15 and 2:1-3:20 means that there is no possibility of following the line of argument in the first three chapters that leads up to 3:21-27. And although semi-continuous reading then develops on the Sundays of June through September, with Romans 4:13-18 (a larger overlapping passage 4:1-17 is read in Lent 2 Year A) there is no reading of 3:28-31 and 4:19-35. After that there is a much higher degree of continuity in the central chapters 5 through 8 on successive Sundays: 5:1-11; 5;15b-19; 6:1-11; 7:21-8:6; 8:7-17; 8:18-25; 8:26-34; 8:35-39. In addition to these passages, 6:15-23, and 7:12-25 are read at other times of year, for thematic reasons. Omitted altogether are 6:12-14; and 7:1-11.
Continuity then breaks down again with the following chapters. The argument about Israel's place in the divine purpose is represented with fragments: 9:1-15; 11:13-24; 11:25-36; with 10:4-18 read at another time of year, for thematic reasons. Omitted altogether are: 1 9:6-33; 10:1-3, 18-20; 11:1-12. Continuous reading in sequence briefly resumes with 12:1-18; 12:9-21; 14:5-12. In addition, 13:8-14; 15:1-13, and 16:25-27 are read at other times of year, for thematic reasons. Omitted altogether are: 13:1-7; 14:1-4, 13-23; 15:14-33, and 16:1-24.
There is no question that a lot of Romans is read. But on the score of semi-continuous or continuous reading, only chapters 5-8 and 12 are well represented. The dislocations and omissions of Romans 1-4 mean that Paul's argument for justification by faith is represented by dislocated fragments8; and a similar fragmentation affects his line of thought in 9-11, 13-16. One wonders how any doctrinal evangelical could endorse a lectionary with this mutilation of cornerstone doctrine. 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 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 subjectively forge (as many do) some faint line of connection between them all9.
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The treatment of Romans is fairly representative of the treatment of other New Testament books. There is an attempt at continuous reading, which is intermittently successful, because of the passages co-opted for thematic use at other times of year. 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 sequence10. The continuous reading of 1st Corinthians is distributed over all three years, except for passages used elsewhere for thematic reasons. Some passages from Hebrews 2-10 are read in the year B, but the reading of chapters 11-13 follows only in the late summer of Year C. Of Philippians only four passages are read in order from Philippians in the fall of Year A, whereas six other passages are read at other times for thematic reasons. How is it possible on this basis to present any coherent teaching of the book as a whole?11
Most glaring of all is the treatment afforded the Gospel of John, which is denied any continuous reading, except of 6:24-69, 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 (e.g. John 10 and 17), and therefore never read in sequence. Astonishingly, chapters 5, 7, and 8 are omitted altogether, as well as significant passages (which were read in the historic lectionary) like 1:19-28 and 16:1-4 and 16-32. A similar sad fate overtakes the Acts of the Apostles, represented indeed by numerous passages, mostly read in Eastertide or other holy days, but almost none continuously.
Examples could be multiplied: but on the criterion of (semi-) continuous reading the CL in any version is a lot more "semi" than "continuous". Its sequences of successful continuous or semi-continuous reading only serve to highlight the fragmentations, dislocations, and mutilations that characterize its treatment of the rest of the Scripture. On the measure of continuous or semi-continuous reading of Scripture in the OLM/CL can be assessed, at best, as a very limited success. It is continually undermined by the need to make use of important passages out of sequence for thematic reasons, and by a reluctance to engage with themes that the Roman church found uncongenial in the OLM.
Thematic Reading in the Common
So then, what of the thematic reading of lessons according to the pattern of the Church's year? Precisely because the epistle and gospel lessons for the Sundays after Epiphany and after Trinity (the greater part of the Church year) are chosen according to continuous reading, in principle they cannot provide a coherent unity of passages to be read each Sunday. To their credit, preachers may strive to make connections, but it is often a triumph of ingenuity over texts with minimal connection to each other. But what of the other Sundays, those in Advent, Christmas, Lent to Trinity, where all the lessons are chosen for thematic reasons? Here of course it is harder to discern and assess the choice of lessons, except on a case by case basis. Some find the selection rich and satisfying; but others find the heavy reliance on typology is not always compelling, and the selection of seasonal themes rather trite, especially in comparison to what they replace.
To give one example, the ancient gospel lesson for Advent I, Matthew 21:1-9 (preserved in the Sarum Missal and the Prayer Book12), is excluded in favour of passages about Christ's coming again in judgment (a theme that came to dominate the penitential preaching of the late Middle Ages, but was more moderately represented in the ancient lectionaries). A subtlety has been lost in this change. The late Robert Crouse puts it this way:
From a different theological and liturgical point of view, 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 centre: Behold, your king comes unto you!"14 The claim that the OLM/CL represents authentic ancient catholic reading of Scripture rings hollow.
In the CL there are vestiges, indeed, 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 we have seen) even excluded altogether15. The Sundays before Lent were eliminated in the interests of more Sundays after Epiphany (and more opportunities for continuous reading), and because their rationale was forgotten or incomprehensible to the Roman Catholic liturgical revisers of the 1970's 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:
Since the elimination of these pre-Lenten Sundays, there is no such preparation for Lent. Instead, the season of Epiphany runs smack into Ash Wednesday. In the observance of the last Sunday as a feast of the Transfiguration, there does seem to be some idea of providing a perspective for the observance of the season, but the Transfiguration has significance as an anticipation of his risen glory: "tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead". Perhaps that is why, in the ancient calendar, the Transfiguration was observed on August 6th. By comparison, the lessons for Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Lent, are far more focused on Lent itself. The gospel lesson (Luke 18:31-43) announces Lent as a journey up to Jerusalem, up to the death and resurrection of Christ, which is also an inward journey from spiritual blindness to vision and understanding, and the epistle lesson (1 Cor. 13) develops this theme of spiritual pilgrimage in terms of a growing up in faith, hope, and charity, to spiritual maturity.
Opinions will vary concerning the success of the thematic selection of lessons in the CL. But it is evident that precisely because it attempts to combine continuous reading with thematic reading, it is not able to provide either in a consistent and satisfactory way. Its chief success has been increasing the quantity of scripture that is read, but at what cost? There is neither a continuous reading of the books of Scripture, nor a thematic coherence to the Church year, nor the ancient catholic lectionary of the western Church and historic Anglicanism. The integrity of doctrine, in Scripture and Church tradition all take a back seat to the goal of greater quantity. Is that really an adequate basis for a the Church's principal lectionary?
In a spirit of humility, the church might be well advised to consider a less ambitious enterprise. It would have these three components.
First of all, out of respect for tradition and for the doctrinal coherence of the Church's year, if would retain the ancient two-lesson Eucharistic lectionary in its Sarum Missal/1662 Prayer Book form (perhaps restoring some provisions omitted in the Reformation, such as the whole of John 20:19-31 on Low Sunday.)
Second, for the sake of greater exposure to scripture, it would provide more than one series of additional lessons and psalms before the epistle and gospel. These could be drawn either from the Old Testament, or from the other books of the New Testament besides the gospels, and they could be chosen with a view to complementing the epistle and gospel, or to providing a genuinely continuous reading of books of Scripture. There is no reason for there to be three cycles - there could be two, or four, or five, whatever best serves the aim of increasing exposure to Scripture. Moreover, a parish could choose to read every year the series which complements the ancient selection of epistle and gospel17, or it could read the in successive year any number of cycles providing for more continuous reading (and if there were more than one of those, it would make sense for those to be read in a regular and common system of rotation). The chief difficulty here would be providing larger readings of the gospels, as there is little sense in having two gospel lessons, and serious loss in tampering with the ancient gospel lessons in an arbitrary fashion. It is here that the Sunday Office, as a "second service", provides opportunities to read from the whole of Scripture in ways that complement and do not abolish the ancient lectionary of the principal service. Yet - to repeat - quantity cannot be the controlling criterion for the church's lectionary.
Third, for those undertaking the task of expository preaching through an entire book, or a large portion of it, the ACNA could give permission under certain parameters (such as consultation with the bishop) to read through a chosen book of the Bible, either in place of one of the lessons (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, Gospel) or simply as an additional lesson immediately before the sermon. No "lectionary" as such need be provided - the preacher will advance through the book at his own pace of exposition. One key parameter would be the observance of at least some key days in the Church's year - at least Advent 1, Christmas, Epiphany, Septuagesima, Lent 1, Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, the Sunday after Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity - so that the overall structure of the Church's year is still discernible, and the principal moments of the gospel are indeed corporately celebrated and proclaimed.
This perhaps does not look as tidy as a version of the CL. But as we have seen, the tidiness of the CL is really not much more than a Bible buffet. And this alternative proposal puts doctrinal integrity first (either in the form of the ancient eucharistic lectionary of the Church year, or in the expository preaching of entire books of the Bible, but not a mishmash of both) and it provides for a greater quantity of Scripture to be read (but without prejudice to doctrinal integrity). And though parishes would have differing practices reflecting a variance in priorities (the church year, the quantity of Scripture, or expository preaching), yet substantial overlap would prevail, enough to make for a genuinely shared reading of Scripture.
A Final Word
It was its bold and sacrificial commitment to the doctrinal integrity of Scripture and the historic Faith that drove the Anglican Church in North America to separate itself institutionally from the Episcopal Church. That boldness and clarity is needed now, in the decisions it is making about the lectionary. It is not enough to perpetuate, let alone warm over, the Episcopal Church's three-year four-lesson Bible Buffet. Now is the time for a critical re-examination of the principles at stake in the corporate reading of Scripture in the Anglican tradition, one which is attentive to the unique strengths of the Anglican tradition and the legacy of the historic Prayer Books. Respect for the doctrinal integrity of Scripture, and, under Scripture, of the historic faith and worship of the Church, must come first18.
1 http://anglicanchurch.net/?/main/texts_for_common_prayer. This lectionary, designed for use at the Eucharist or other principal service on Sundays and holy days, is to be distinguished from the daily office lectionary, which this essay does not discuss.
2 The texts are prefaced by this note, entitled "Reception Process":
With the exception of The Ordinal, which has been authorized and adopted, and is The Ordinal of the Province, the other materials offered in Texts for Common Prayer are “working texts” approved for use by the College of Bishops. These working texts are not yet finalized, awaiting response from the experience of their wide use in the Church. With that in mind, these rites are commended as appropriate forms for worship in the present season. The Archbishop’s instruction to the Liturgy and Common Worship Task Force was the production of rites that were “so faithful and attractive that the Church would want to use them.” The hope in making Texts for Common Prayer available now is to give evidence that the assignment is well underway, and to invite the whole Body of Christ into the process of receiving and perfecting. Responses can be sent via email to: email@example.com
3 Keep in mind there are 1189 chapters in the Old and New Testaments and 168 more in the Apocrypha. This can be read, more or less, over the course of a year, at four chapters a day. But even with about 25 holy days in addition to Sundays, it would require almost 18 (sometimes lengthy) chapters to cover the whole of Scripture in a year - a super-sized Easter vigil at least once a week!
4 The historic rubric requires a sermon to be preached at the Lord's Supper, not at other services. Word and Sacrament are held in close conjunction.
5 The 1872 amendment to the Act of Uniformity known as the Shortened Services Act marked the point where Anglicans started looking at their watches. Until then, as in some parts of the Christian world still, Sunday service could be a leisurely and extended gathering of the community for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. In Anglican churches, ordinary Sunday service consisted in Morning Prayer, Litany, Ante-Communion and a lengthy sermon without interval - about two hours at least, and more if there were Communion. Many returned mid-afternoon for Evening Prayer, which might include a half an hour of public Catechizing. Nor was this peculiar to Anglicans. In the early 1700s, a Lutheran Sunday morning service would include a liturgy not unlike that of the Prayer Book with a lengthy sermon and a full-length cantata (which if you were lucky, was by J. S. Bach). Before the French revolution, sung Mattins and Vespers in addition to Mass were a normal component of Roman Catholic Sunday, and lengthy sermons were expected. Eastern Orthodoxy had a similar pattern. The expectation of getting it all done in one hour on Sunday morning is one of the most debilitating and historically eccentric aspects of late modern Christianity.
6 In the missal used in the church of Rome, subsequently adopted by the Tridentine missal, the epistles and gospels in the Sundays after Trinity were dislocated around the 10th century - a disruption which did not affect the missals of Northern European uses like Sarum.
7 It is typically Roman that this modern construction is often presented as if it were a recovery of ancient tradition. And entirely too typical of Anglicans that this is believed! And so we abandon the actual ancient tradition for a modern fabrication, criticized by none other than Klaus Gamber - one of the few modern Roman liturgists endorsed by Joseph Ratzinger - as a break with ancient tradition.
8 It is not insignificant that in its reading of Galatians, the CL omits 3:1-22 and 4:8-31 - which were read in part in the ancient lectionary, but which have an obvious relevance to the teaching of justification by faith. It is not difficult to surmise why there were omitted from the OLM. "The scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe" (3:22). "Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all" (4:26).
9 It is to the credit of preachers that they try to do so: their instinctive sense of the coherence of the Sunday liturgy is more authentic than that of the lectionary they have to work with.
10 Sequential reading of the Old Testament is one of the features of the Revised Common Lectionary, with the result that for half of the year none of the lessons have in principle any connection with each other.
11 To its credit the ACNA version of CL includes passages omitted for obvious reasons in other versions of the CL - such as those from Romans1 and Ephesians 5.
12 In the later Middle Ages there were significant dislocations and changes to the ancient lectionary in the liturgy of the city of Rome, and these are perpetuated in the Tridentine Missal. Like other northern missals, the lectionary of the Sarum Missal, upon which the Prayer Book is based, is much closer to the ancient prototypes.
13 Sermon, published in the Anglican Free Press, Advent 1997.
14 The Word in Small Boats, pp 93, 94.
15 Even a brief survey brings up numerous lessons prized by the ancient/BCP lectionary but omitted in the CL; Matthew 8:1-13; 8:23-34; 9:1-8; 9:18-26; Mark 8:1-9; Luke 11:14-28; 14:1-11 (though 1, 7-11 are read); 18:31-43; 19:41-47; John 4:46-54; 8:46-59; 16:16-22; 16:23-33; Gal. 3:16-22; 4:21-5:1a, 2 Corinthians 11:19-31; Philippians 1:1-6; 1 Thess. 4:1-8; 1 Peter 3:8-15; 4:7-11 (though vv.7-8 are read). There may well be more. How is it that a three-year lectionary honoring Catholic tradition cannot find a place for passages that the ancient Catholic church thought worthy of reading on a much more selective basis?
16 Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, p. 17.
17 the ancient pattern of Scripture lessons in the western church's daily office, which can be reconstructed from traces in the later medieval breviary, provides an excellent starting point for the choice of such lessons.
18 It is a measure of the catholic commitment of the ACNA that it has committed itself to a process of very broad-based reception of its liturgical formularies, one that is open to participation by "the whole body of Christ". The author, currently president of the Prayer Book Society of the USA, a voluntary association of classical Anglicans without denominational ties, and with members inside and outside the ACNA, has offered this critique on behalf of the Society, in the hopes that the Society may contribute constructively to the ACNA's own dialogue about liturgy and worship.