Choosing the readings

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Roman Catholic parishes are fully bound to the lectionary. In most English Protestant churches it is generally optional whether to follow it. These alternatives create a push and pull that affects Anglicans, depending on how strong the evangelical or catholic influence is in any particular parish. This post, unusually for this series, therefore primarily relates to the peculiar situation of Anglicans, though I hope it might still be of interest to other readers.

We have already seen that there is a choice in the underlying Revised Common Lectionary between a semi-continuous and a related Old Testament reading. This choice is not yours as an individual reader of Scripture, but rather one where the church corporately decides on its pattern for worship. Common Worship provides several clear pieces of guidance on these choices, as well as permitting an alternative in Ordinary Time which fits the practice of some churches.

In fact, the first piece of guidance is a firm rule: when only two readings are read at a celebration of Holy Communion, the second reading is always the Gospel. (There is much wider scope when the lectionary is adapted for services other than the Eucharist.) The guidance relates to choosing the first reading.

I’ve already noted above my own preference for using all three readings. But where a church does only have one reading before the Gospel, then I strongly believe there should be a balanced pattern over time. That might mean, for example, reading all New Testament readings one year, and Old Testament the next. Another example might be one year reading New Testament in seasonal time, and Old Testament in ordinary time, and then switching the following year. Over a six year cycle that would mean every reading had been used at least once.

(For me it is essential that contemporary Christians hear and are nourished by the Old Testament. It enriches our sense of who God is, allows us to read the New Testament with greater understanding, and keeps us tethered to the common roots we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters.)

The official coaching hints also provide some firm guidance relating to switching between the continuous and related tracks of Old Testament readings. “It is unhelpful to move from week to week from one [pattern] to another. One [pattern] should be followed for the whole sequence of Sundays after Trinity.” 

There is an additional complication, arising out of the practice of some churches. In the words of the already quoted guidance, rule 7 says:

During Ordinary Time (i.e. between the Presentation and Ash Wednesday and between Trinity Sunday and Advent Sunday), authorized lectionary provision remains the norm but, after due consultation with the Parochial Church Council, the minister may, from time to time, depart from the lectionary provision for pastoral reasons or preaching or teaching purposes.

This is not intended as permission for clergy or other preachers to choose their favourite passages to preach from, but rather to permit a planned approach to teaching where the church’s (usually evangelical) tradition values, or obvious pastoral or mission-oriented need requires, a particular sequence of teaching. This might be topical, or a fully continuous reading of an entire biblical book.

The idea of reading and preaching through a biblical book in series has an ancient pedigree, going back to the early church, and remains valued in traditional evangelical circles today. While it might, in the light of the last millennium, seem like an innovation, it is more a refurbishment of an older practice.

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