Weekend Update (aka Big Rant on the RCL)

Here are two things not to be missed from the weekend…

First is the Lutheran Zephyr’s commentary on two postcards he received from local churches inviting him to Easter services. It seems Jesus is going 0 for 2… I understand not wanting to scare people off, but if we don’t seem to take our faith seriously, why would that inspire someone else to join us?

Second, bls points us to the fresh-out version of the RCL made suitable for your local copy of the BCP. This depresses me…

I’m not a huge fan of the RCL. In fact, I’m of the opinion that all of the “new” lectionaries since Vatican II have missed the mark because they’ve lost sight of—or chosen to ignore—the key issue of function in Mass lectionaries. Yes, it’s good that our congregants are getting more Scriptures on Sunday morning (but huge swaths are still missed—especially the more troubling, complicated, and thought-provoking sections). Yes, it’s good that denominations can share resources across traditions (but we don’t necessarily share theology across denominations and, sad to say, many clergy don’t have a strong enough sense of their own traditions to know when an otherwise good resource contradicts it).

The Mass lectionary is not supposed to be the only place where Christian people encounter Scripture. As I’ve ranted before, the Mass lectionary developed in conversation with the Office lectionary; the Office lectionary worked through the entire Bible every year while the Mass lectionary made selective engagement with the Scriptures to highlight the themes and theologies of the mysteries of redemption embodied in the Temporal cycle. We’ve lost that sense that the Mass lectionary is a pointed return to material that we already know and are re-examining from a different perspective…

The RCL is an attempt to meld the continuous reading strategy of the Office lectionaries with the selected reading strategy of the former Mass lectionaruies. It tries to be too many things and ends up—in my eyes at least—not accomplishing its goals.

One of my biggest frustrations with the scheme Church Publishing has put out is that it keeps both first lesson courses of ordinary time. I think this was a big mistake—they needed to choose one or the other. Either go with the typological set that reinforces the whole point of the Mass lectionary or go with the marginally continuous schema that tries to do what the Office does, but worse. (My prejudice isn’t showing through much, is it?)

27 thoughts on “Weekend Update (aka Big Rant on the RCL)

  1. bls

    Well, until parishes and people start saying the Daily Office – or start reading the Bible on a daily basis according to some other scheme – the point is moot, I’d say.

    Anyway, whom are we to trust to get the “selective engagement” right? The same people who leave out vasts sections of readings as it is?

    I get your point, I guess, but don’t we have to look at the facts on the ground? People in our culture don’t read the Bible any longer, as they used to, and hardly anybody prays the Office, except us weirdos.

  2. Christopher


    In theory, I’ll grant your point. The problem is that the Office long fell into largely monastic use except in cathedrals and big city parishes. Revival of the Office as a part of Vatican II has never really took off.

    So, we have lost the sense of the selected office used by folks to gather the needs of the world in prayer as they get ready for and come back from daily work.

    The Mass therefore carries all of the weight in your average parish. And hence, I think this is why we have the conglomeration in the RCL that you rant about here. It’s clunky. And it does tend to ignore troubling pieces of Scripture I would rather have addressed head on.

    I’m a particularist in recognizing the catholic. I abhor that we seem to want to meld all of our traditions into some mushy whole rather than honor our distinctiveness. We share much, but we are also distinctive. Losing our own lectionary is sad. Can you imagine the Chaldeans or the Copts going along for the sake of ecumenism that often downplays distinctiveness? I think rather not. So, I’m sad. We’re becoming more bland catholico-protestant.

    Also, you’re right to point out that traditions differ theologically, and that resources often have to be adapted. For example, in preparing Triduum, notions of participation in our salvation had to be revisited rather as receiving salvation and its fruits for a Lutheran context. Maybe because I (and you) operate within more than one theological grammar, we recognize these differences?

    We Anglicans were a huge exception in this regard to the Office, and the emphasis is on the “were”.

    I think our troubles, for example, at my own parish to retain a full-time priest present opportunities for placing the Office back in its rightful position. What about that Sunday Morning Prayer with Ante-Communion?

  3. bls

    Personally, I’d prefer a straight-through reading for another reason: I’m tired of attempts at manipulation.

    Just give us the stuff, folks. That’s why I like the RCL, in fact; there’s less chance of blatant manipulation and agenda-driving if we have to read straight through. And why should we have to view things in one way only? Perhaps there are hidden connections that have so far been obscured by the “selective engagement” in the BCP?

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, I’d prefer the Mass selections that we used for centuries… The Sunday readings for the main seasons remained essentially the same from the 8th century Comes of Murbach until Vatican II. There was an agenda–and it was Christ…

    If you want a real straight-through read without any manipulation, go with Cranmer’s original plan for the Daily Office. It’s long–basically a Bible chapter per reading–but it gets through the bulk of the Bible in a year.

    On one hand we do have to deal with the situation as it is. On the other hand, we need to remember the original logics from which our liturgies flow. Do we really need to abandon the idea that Christians might read the Bible outside of Sunday morning?? I’d suggest that some of the low-church denominations fdo a *much* better job at lay Bible-reading than we do. It’s not that it can’t be done…

  5. bls

    So we’re to believe that mass readings from the 8th Century are equivalent to Christ?

    I don’t really think so….

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Equivalent? No. But twelve centuries of millions of the faithful have been satisfied that they *show* us Christ.

    But again, these are meant to be a supplement for people actually reading their Bibles and not a replacement for it. Fundamentally, if you are straight-jacketed because the lectionary doesn’t give you everything you need it’s your own fault for not picking up your Bible more…

  7. Jon

    So, Christopher, is the Mass able to bear all the weight, or is it like a bridge that’s under to much pressure?


  8. John-Julian, OJN

    You know, when I look back over the last 25+ years and ask (again) if I had any selfish self-interest in founding the Order of Julian of Norwich, I realize that I was so very tired of the mediocrity of the theology, scripture, and liturgy done “at parish level”, and I just thirsted for “more”.

    And I am so grateful now to be reading (or chanting) scripture and preaching sermons/homilies to a community that – compared to a parish – KNOWS theology and scripture — a community that is immersed in it!

    And I wonder, was there ever a time in the Church’s life when this could be said of an ordinary parochial congregation? I can’t think of one…..

    At the monastery, we are switching to RCL out of ecclesial obedience (and we’re switching from REB to NRSV under abbatial obedience – but that’s another – uh – subject!) And given the wide exposure of our folk to scripture, I don’t have any gripes with RCL, but I really can’t picture how one comes to that point in a parish.

    And my bet is that RCL is not going to make much difference one way or the other to the ordinary pew-sitter (except that they may hear a few more of the “stories”).

  9. Fr Chris

    I have to say I agree with you, Derek. I think the old lectionary could have used some tweaking, nearly all of it in by *adding* things. Add some Hebrew Bible readings — that gets you greater access to that tradition in the Mass and lets you get at the powerful stories of women in the OT. (One of the aims of the RCL is to better highlight the stories of women in Scripture, which is a noble and necessary goal.)

    For the rest, just lengthen some of the existing Epistle and Gospel selections. For instance, in the traditional lectionary, the reading for Easter cuts off after John and Peter see the empty tomb. In the RCL, it continues to include Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus. That’s a sensible move.

    I’ve just finished reading Robert Taft’s history of the Office, and while I disagree with him on some key stuff, I’m starting to come around to his suggestion that daily Mass, which is the practice far more in the West than in the East, unbalances the liturgy. Scaling that back to Sundays and high feasts would likely provide more room for a revival of the Office, but it strikes me as a pretty difficult endeavor, and would have to start with Roman Catholicism to get any traction, I bet.

  10. bls

    I would make a bet that the ordinary pew-sitter in most times and in most places knew more Scripture than everybody on this thread put together.

  11. Christopher


    I don’t think we need to abandon lay Bible reading outside the Mass, but lay Bible study is not quite the same thing as hearing the word proclaimed in the context of the Office where all of the prayers, hymns, canticles, etc. work with the texts in interpretation, etc.

    The public nature of the Office has been reduced in this century in TEC and largely has become the work of households and monasteries, not parishes, which cuts against Cranmer’s public intent.

    That leaves the reality of this sort of liturgical interpretation only in the Mass. I understand the shoulds, but this is what we have. The question I would ask you then is given we have moved to RCL, how would you go about adapting this resource as best as possible to the sort of use you would prefer us to have?

    I would note that though the West has shared a lectionary, it isn’t the only lectionary in existence, nor the only catholic one. That is why I think we should have stuck with our own, as a reminder that our own understanding of catholicity not in uniformity across the whole world, but in allowing for localized differences as part of a rich and sometimes disagreeing whole.


    I think it’s a bridge under too much pressure, but we have to deal with what is and what is is the Mass bears all the weight in your average parish, and whether we like it or not most parishioners are not going to be reading the Bible on their own (preferrably in the context of the Office).

    Now, if we could get some teaching about the Office in your average parish to revivify the public nature of that reading, I’d be very happy. It seems to me, remembering Cranmer’s intent of regular public Office in all parishes and finding ways to put this in place is a partial solution.

  12. Christopher

    Fr. Chris,

    I’m sorry but we’re not Roman Catholics, and I don’t think we need to allow the dictates of that community determine our practice. That means that our own tradition of regular parish Office and Sunday Mass is where we should look irrespective of what Rome is doing.

  13. bls

    Here’s an example of what I meant above, from an old George Will column:

    In 1940 a British officer on Dunkirk beach sent London a three-word message: “But if not.” It was instantly recognized as from the Book of Daniel. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are commanded to worship a golden image or perish, they defiantly reply: “Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods. …”

    Britain then still had the cohesion of a common culture of shared reading.

    That’s the kind of Biblical literacy that once existed – and it existed because the Bible was the common cultural literature – likely for many people the only cultural literature.

    Which is why I suggest that ordinary people in other times and places knew the Bible far, far better than most of us do or in all likelihood ever will.

  14. Fr Chris

    Christopher —

    I’m not taking TEC to be the only frame involved in this conversation — I’m talking about the whole Western Church. I agree that TEC parishes should mine their own traditions and practice exactly what you’re talking about — which is also the practice of the friendly TEC parish down the road from me where I go for Evening Prayer and often Sunday Eucharist.

    But the Western Church as a whole seems to have two major orientations — the one where Sunday morning is the only time for liturgy, and the one that sees daily Mass as the only daily form of liturgy. Moving the whole Western Church toward a revival of the Office strikes me as unlikely if the Romans are not on board — however healthy it may be for all of our non-Roman communities to try to model this way of doing Church without having them on board.

  15. Derek the Ænglican

    Christopher–Of course I’d prefer that people get their Bible through the Office. But there’s nothing wrong with picking it up and reading it either as I’m sure you’d agree.

    One of the reasons that I love the Episcopal Church is because its liturgical intent as described in Cranmer’s preface to the 1549 book was to restore the balance of Mass and Office for the average Christian. That’s where we came from and that’s what our prayer book contains even if that noble goal wasn’t always met and if we’re in a period of amnesia now.

    Yes, there are worse things than the RCL. I can live with it. As Fr. John-Julian notes, we are under obedience in this respect (though we can still grumble… :-D). As far as I can see the place to go from here is just what Christopher suggests—help get out information about the Daily Offices in our local parishes.

  16. Fr Chris

    Derek —

    Very true. Sadly, the Romans seem hell-bent on ignoring the Office in their own communion. :-(

    There are some signs of hope, though, I suppose. There was recently a thread about the Office on NLM (where in the comments Anglican Evensong was preferred over Solemn Vespers at the Brompton Oratory :-) and I have seen a little more interesting in the traditional Breviary showing up in “reform of the reform” circles. It is very small indeed compared to Anglican interest in the Office, though. :-(

  17. Jon

    Christopher, if it is reasonably clear that the Mass is like a bridge under to much pressure and that the daily Offices (or teaching about them) could be a great help to the situation, it seems that the only question remaining is how we can most effectively promote the Offices in our particular situations.

    Derek, yeah, the chance to grumble is one of the benefits of not being under monastic obedience … probably.


  18. Christopher

    Fr. Chris,

    What I’m trying to say is that the Roman Church is not reflective of the whole of Western Christian tradition, indeed, Cranmer’s rebalance, as Derek notes, reflects an older strata, and simply because the Romans are not on board doesn’t mean we have to follow them. Our ecumenical assumptions of late have tended toward uniformity and the bigger guy getting on board, and it shouldn’t. What I’m saying is that we need to stop pretending that Western Christianity ever was a simple whole; complexity and variance of practice has existed among us as well, and not just since the Reformation.

  19. Fr Chris

    Christopher —

    Again, I’m not at all saying that Anglicans should follow Romans. I’m pleased every time I see a TEC parish offering the Daily Office and would never want to see them stop that practice until Rome comes around. I love being able to point to such parishes to prove that it can and does work — and in fact works rather better than many other models.

    My point is just that we must be realistic. And realistically, many *do* look to Rome. (Including the Episcopal Church — the whole mainline wasted no time in adopting a three-year lectionary when Rome did.) So a real revival of the Office across the whole of the Western Church will have to involve Rome. My point is that I’m not optimistic about the prospects of any such revival that doesn’t include Rome — only because Rome is so influential, not because I believe they should be the norm.

  20. bls

    Fr. Chris is right; “liturgical reform” is as hot in TEC as it was 20 years ago in the RCC – after all, the Romans were first with Clown Masses in the 1970s – and, ironically, TEC is now absurdly trying to fix “problems” that never existed in Anglicanism.

    Such as the “problem” of the alleged “too-high regard” in which the laypeople supposedly hold clergy; the “problem” of getting laypeople “more involved in the liturgy,” when we already were involved in many different ways; the “problem” of liturgical obscurantism, when the Prayer Book and all the services are in English, and when there aren’t and never have been any “secret prayers,” etc.

    It’s bizarre, in fact, and I bet goes back to Derek’s notion that “many clergy don’t have a strong enough sense of their own traditions to know” what’s an issue and what’s not.

  21. David Cobb

    I am not ready to give up on the daily office– or something like it– being used by at least a significant portion of committed parishioners. We have daily office here- with only a few present, but more people actually read it privately, aware that its being said publicly in the church; The booklet “forward day by day: gets pretty wide use in a lot of places. The addition of the OT is a good thing in the Sunday Liturgy—but to make it and the Epistle in course- is asking much of most congregations. And its worth noting that while many people do not follow any sort of daily office discipline, there are vast numbers whose Sunday participation is erratic enough that the “in course“ Sunday lections are not, in reality, in course, but rather random. Read the Old Testament lessons in course through July and August—and the only ones who’ll hear it story complete are likely to be following the daily office anyway. If this new scheme works, it will work for the people the current – or even the traditional – served well in the first place.

  22. Fr Chris

    One thing that has worked really, really well locally is bringing other aspects of the Church’s life in contact with evening prayer:

    * This Lent, we’ve done Stations of the Cross at the end of EP every Friday. I was only able to make it for one Friday, but there were a number of folks who do not come daily but who came for Stations.

    * We have a 7pm Bible study on Tuesday nights, and now and again we’ve had a meal of some kind tying EP (ending around 5:50) to that. On the Tuesday night before Ash Wednesday, we did a pancake supper in that slot and had Compline *after* the Bible study.

    * There’s a healing Eucharist once a month, and that is scheduled for just after EP.

    I know a number of folks who are occasionally pray-ers on these EP-plus nights now pray the Office at home. I dunno how many were doing that before, but there are quite a few. (For many, driving to the parish every evening is harder than walking a couple blocks, which is all I have to do.)

    It makes me happy to see — and it’s almost entirely lay-run, too.

  23. J-Tron

    I know I’m coming late to this conversation, but I just had to say… Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for questioning the wisdom of the RCL! I have been steadily questioning the wisdom of it for the last few years. And my chief objections aren’t the ones that you voice here (although I do agree with your point). But I’m just so happy that there’s someone out there–anyone–who doesn’t just gush over how wonderful the RCL is. Whenever I criticize it, especially among clergy, I’m given these looks like I’m some kind of horrible person who wants to return us to the stone ages of pre-ecumenical Christianity. I don’t know if that’s been your experience as well, but I’ve definitely felt like a leper from time to time!

  24. Michelle

    I think our clergy will be relieved when we switch to it in a couple years. We share our campus with a Lutheran parish (and have for 25 years – longest relationship of its kind in the country) and have joint services about 5-6 times a year. Usually services like Good Friday. Anyway, the first joint service our new interim rector did we used the Luthern litergy and lectionary (we switch off every other time) and it was the Episcopal priests turn to do the sermon. So he prepared a sermon for the wrong gospel lesson. That really did explain the growing look of horror on his face as they did the readings. Chuckle… I don’t remember if we got the sermon he wrote for another lesson or if he did it off the cuff or a little of both.

  25. mynsterpreost (=David Rowett)

    RCL is at least exposing folk to a semi-continuous reading of Scripture. C of E folk may remember the abominable ‘themed’ lectionary of the 1980 book (am I the only one to deplore section headings in Bibles btw?). But as a stand-alone it is rather flawed.

    As for the NRSV… I try and maintain my 30 year old Koiné by following the epistle most Sundays… and I wince.

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