On Changing Lectionaries
(By the Revd. Jonathan R. Turtle)
On Sunday, January 31, 2021 the parish that I serve switched lectionaries. Up to that point, like most Anglican parishes in Canada, we followed the Revised Common Lectionary. But beginning with Septuagesima Sunday I made the decision to adopt the traditional Eucharistic lectionary of the Western church as we have received it in the Book of Common Prayer. (We had already been using the Prayer Book lectionary for the Daily Office.)
There are a few reasons why I made this change but I’ll highlight just one for you today. It is the matter of biblical (il)literacy and its theological significance. Recent research by “Forward Movement”, an organisation in the American Episcopal Church, revealed something that many of us know intuitively, namely, that Anglicans in North America have a tenuous relationship with the Bible. For example, of Episcopalians surveyed, just 14% said that they reflect on Scripture daily.
I imagine that the situation in Canada is comparable, though I have not seen similar statistics. It is borne out anecdotally anyway, as the time I attended a workshop for local Anglicans and witnessed someone confidently assert that in order to know God better we should look inward. After all, “the Bible says ‘to thine own self be true’”. To which one feisty octogenarian across the room responded, “That’s Shakespeare!”
Biblical illiteracy is clearly a problem, but what does biblical literacy look like? Perhaps it is a matter of content and can be improved with a greater exposure to the Bible, its stories and its shape. This is part of the motivation that lay behind the publication of a new lectionary by the Roman Catholic Church in 1970 that later went on to become the basis of the Common Lectionary and later still the Revised Common Lectionary. The new lectionary introduced a three-year rather than a one-year cycle and provided an additional reading for celebrations of the Eucharist, usually from the Old Testament. This meant that more of the Bible would be heard in church on Sundays.
However, I have come to believe that the real core of biblical literacy isn’t simply a matter of quantity. To be sure, literacy does include and involve a greater familiarity with the content of the Bible but it is far more than that. Biblical literacy is the fruit not simply of a greater engagement with the Bible but a certain form of engagement. Just because one can read does not mean that one can read the Bible. Likewise, just because one has read the Bible does not mean that one has understood the Bible.
So, we must (re)learn how to read the Bible and to understand its theological significance, what it is and what it does. I believe that the truest way to approach the Bible is to do so as if one were approaching Jesus himself –to come with the conviction that Jesus meets us and speaks to us. Scripture, we might say, is the field in which the treasure of Christ is hidden. We must sell everything, buy the field, and dig! This is, after all, how the crucified and risen Jesus himself taught the disciples to read (Luke 24:27).
OK, back to the Prayer Book lectionary. “But these are written”, says St John, not “so that you may become better acquainted with Ancient Near Eastern history” or “so that you can learn how to be a good person” but “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
I contend that the ancient lectionary of the Western church –dating back one thousand years if not more –better “shows” us Jesus in the Scriptures. To borrow an analogy from Irenaeus, it accomplishes this by arranging the readings in such a way as to display the face of our Lord. Or, to mix my metaphors and borrow from Origen, the key to opening the door to one room of Scripture is hidden in another room of Scripture. As such the traditional Eucharistic lectionary teaches us to read Scripture rightly by doing so in light of Scripture’s true end, an encounter with the risen and living Jesus himself.
I should add, in closing, that the two-point rural parish I serve is not a “Prayer Book parish”. One of the points I serve has used the Book of Alternative Services exclusively since it was first published. The other point was a Prayer Book church up until about 2006 or so when an ambitious Englishman was determined to introduce a more contemporary liturgy. Even so, the Prayer Book survived and is used regularly every other Sunday.
My point is simply that one needn’t be in a “Prayer Book parish” to make the change to the Prayer Book lectionary. Yes, there are a few technical kinks to be worked through but one may, and perhaps should, consider making the switch on the merit of what I’ve outlined above.
We are facing a crisis of biblical literacy even in the church. And yet there remains a deep and growing spiritual hunger among God’s people. A hunger that only an encounter with God’s living Word can satisfy: “for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ” (Articles of Religion, VII).
When we gather on Sundays to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God we ourselves are nourished by his Word. The proclamation of the Scriptures in worship is not simply instructive, historically or morally. It isn’t even chiefly that. Rather it facilitates this encounter with the crucified and risen Lord. He is present with us, opening the Scriptures to us, reading them to us himself, and opening our minds to understand, that we might know and love him. This, I believe, is the foundational conviction upon which the Prayer Book lectionary is built and which invites serious consideration.
(From the PBSC Newsletter, Lent 2021. The Revd. Jonathan R. Turtle is Incumbent of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst in the Diocese of Toronto where he lives, prays, and plays with his wife Christina and their four children.)