Thursday, July 23, 2009

"From the Rector: New Prayer Book Lectionary"

From Stephen Gerth, Rector of St. Mary the Virgin:
At the 2006 General Convention, the Episcopal Church replaced the Sunday Lectionary that was adopted with the Prayer Book in 1979 with the “Revised Common Lectionary” – the “RCL.” The resolution authorizing this change provided that the 1979 lectionary could be used until Advent 2010. The just concluded 2009 General Convention took no action to alter this change. So, in Advent 2010 we will begin using this new lectionary. The new pew edition Prayer Books for sale in our gift shop already include it.

For us at Saint Mary’s, it will require a great deal of editorial work to get these materials ready in a user-friendly fashion for use at the lectern. So far, Church Publishing has not printed a Book of Gospels for the RCL using the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. (No, we are not going to start using the New Revised Standard Version unless required to do so by the canons of the Church.) No translation or lectionary is perfect. The Bible was not written with what we call a lectionary in mind. Of course, there were a number of technical and editorial problems with the present lectionary. I think it is fair to say that there are even more with the new one.

The push for this new lectionary began with the 1997 General Convention. For better or for worse, the members and leaders of our Church are no longer shaped primarily by ongoing public Prayer Book worship. Very few congregations, parishes or cathedrals, actually have Daily Morning and Evening Prayer or a daily celebration of the Eucharist. In a way that few foresaw, the decline of public worship among us has only accelerated since the adoption of the present book in 1979. This has consequences for the way new decisions are made about the way we will worship in the future.

The RCL was promoted as being “a truly ecumenical lectionary shared by most Protestant denominations and widely used throughout the Anglican Communion” (web page for the “Revised Common Lectionary” on the web site of the Episcopal Church). But what does that mean? I know a fair number of clergy colleagues in other Protestant denominations who would call themselves “lectionary preachers.” For them, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, that means most of the time, as preachers, they would select one or more verses from one of the lessons appointed on a given Sunday and use those verses as a basis for the sermon. This usually partial passage would be read in worship and the rest would not. On more than one occasion I have heard the psalm referred to as “one of the lessons.”

The normative experience of the Bible during worship in these denominations is fundamentally different from our own – or of the other liturgical churches, such as our brothers and sisters who are Lutherans or Roman Catholics. Moreover, if memory serves, our 1979 lectionary is closer to the Roman Church’s present lectionary than the RCL. More people are Roman Catholic than anything else.

Stay with me; there are even more complications. One example is the RCL decision to adopt the Roman Church’s lectionary for January 1. The Roman Church celebrates January 1 as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God – and its first and second readings are chosen for that title. The celebration of Mary on January 1 is an ancient commemoration of Christians in Rome, but in the East and among Anglicans since the Reformation, January 1 has been kept as a commemoration of the circumcision of Christ – and our first and second readings reflect this. Now we have a title and collect for the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ along with lessons for the Roman Church’s celebration of Mary, the Mother of God. We love Our Lady at Saint Mary’s, but I think it’s fair to ask how many of our ecumenical partners in the RCL will be meeting to celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus or Mary, the Mother of God, on New Year’s Day.

Perhaps the greatest single problem with the RCL is the option it gives during the season after Pentecost for a congregation to choose to follow week by week a series of continuous readings from the Old Testament narrative. This is to enable preachers to preach on more of the Old Testament. In fact, this Sunday’s lesson from this series is one of the important lessons in the Old Testament narrative, David’s lust for Bathsheba and his decision to have her husband put in a place during a battle where he would die (2 Samuel 11:1-15). The problem is that we Christians don’t gather in the name of David, but in the name of Jesus Christ. Our focus is on Christ. This Sunday’s gospel is one that will no longer be read in the RCL, namely Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on water, a reading that is paired with 2 Kings 2:1-15, where Elijah is taken up to heaven and the water is parted by Elisha as he takes up Elijah’s mantle. This lesson from 2 Kings will no longer be read unless one chooses the continuous option for Sunday readings in the summer.

Here’s another passage that’s no longer part of the appointed Sunday readings for what will be this year, Sunday, August 9, “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:36-40). This is good news that I would like to hear. I think these words are far more important good news than whatever a preacher might make of the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah. But the RCL is shaped by a Protestant, not a liturgical sensibility.

We take worship and evangelism through worship very seriously at Saint Mary’s. We put an enormous amount of our community’s resources into keeping our church building open and clean. The parish invests in clergy, sisters and staff so that there will be Daily Offices and Daily Masses seven days a week all through the year. More than any other factor, the way in which we worship is shaped by the Prayer Book. We will be loyal to the new edition of the Prayer Book just as we were loyal to the old. I will continue to hope for the widespread return of public worship according to the Prayer Book.

Loyalty to Prayer Book worship was at the heart of the Methodist revival in the eighteenth century – Methodists got their name because they were Anglicans who were “methodical” about the use of the Prayer Book. Prayer Book worship was also at the heart of the High Church tradition before and after the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement. However, we live in the first era of liturgical change since the Reformation when the public Prayer Book worship no longer shapes the common life of our Church. I think we Episcopalians have enormous opportunities to do new and good things, to bring out of our treasure what is old and what is new. Prayer Book worship has a way of calling people back to it. Once its joys and its call get into one’s soul, they don’t let go.

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