The for and against of the lectionary format

I was brought up in the Church of England, in a church that was quite liturgical and always stuck to the lectionary themes and readings. The lectionary as it was then, then was more restricted and I remember groaning at the cheesy themes that appeared in the weekly bulletin, year after year. As young believers who wanted to grow as disciples, we found the limited scope of Scripture disappointing, and even if the preacher did base his sermon on the readings (which didn’t always happen) it would usually only be a look at one of the three or four readings.

When my call as a preacher came, it was to a different tradition where Bible teaching was expected, and people in the congregation brought Bibles and took notes and discussed the message in home groups later. The choice of passage would be a series of some kind, either working consecutively through a book of the Bible, or using linked passages on a theme or topic. The other alternative was a more overtly prophetic word – “The Lord put this on my heart for today”. This was good, we were getting fed and built up and there was a sense of immediacy and encounter; the institutional cycle we had left had felt like doing what the book said to do, rather than what the Lord was saying.

After some decades, I had an opportunity to revisit liturgy and lectionary, working with a group of churches of diverse traditions, whose more active members liked to share Bible studies and other activities together. The common factor was the Revised Common Lectionary (introduced in 1994) that shaped Sunday worship for all of them. This gave me the opportunity to see the lectionary format in a new way, as a vehicle for unity and mission, especially if we were all hearing God in a common message.

The lectionary can be “the brand you trust”, especially if it’s what people are used to.

There is another hidden advantage. For the preacher or the person leading a Bible study, it removes the sense of the bringer’s agenda. There are times in church life, times of tension or distress, or ‘in between’ times, where the balance between Old Testament, Wisdom, Gospel and Epistle readings, free of any human agenda, can be just what is needed for people to hear God together.

It could, of course, also be an excuse for not taking a retreat and really discerning the word or teaching for the season; or the retreat might bring one back to what God is saying through a very ordinary set of readings on which His anointing rests at that moment.

My recent discovery is that lectionary readings can be more spiritual than I used to think as a young Christian, years ago.