Scripture Readings in Church

Introducing the new Lectionary

The Church of England is in the process of planning new service books to replace the ASB in the year 2001. As a first stage in this process a new Lectionary has already been published and authorised for use. (A ‘Lectionary’ is the system of Bible readings appointed to be read at services on each Sunday and Feast Day of the year.) At St.Peter’s the PCC has agreed that we should begin to use the new readings on the First Sunday of Advent, 30th November. From that day the readings in the ASB will not apply; the relevant readings, in full, will be supplied on the service sheet. (There will be no change to readings at the 8 am Sunday Communion or the 11.00 am Communion on Thursdays.)

Why the change? We have only been using the ASB since 1980. What’s wrong with it after such a short time? Well, this isn’t the place to discuss possible changes in the liturgy, there will be opportunities for that in the coming months/years. But there are very good reasons for changing the Lectionary and this is what I want to explain now.

The two main reasons for the change are:

  • to ensure that the Church of England is in step with other Christians.
  • to increase the range of Bible readings which we hear in church.

When the ASB Lectionary was drawn up twenty years ago, it was in line with most of the non-Roman churches in Britain and with much of the Anglican Communion. It seemed, at that stage, to make ecumenical sense. However since then, almost all of these other churches have abandoned this particular format and opted for the Roman Catholic Common Lectionary, in use since 1969. Quite simply, a mistake of judgement was made. The Church of England is now out on a limb; everyone else is united each Sunday in hearing the same words of scripture, we are different.

So that’s one reason for the change; to be at one with our partner churches. The more fundamental reason is to enable us to hear a much broader range of scripture readings. The ASB Lectionary covers 2 years, Years 1 & 2. In theory different readings are set for the morning and the evening; in practice the readings for the evening in one year are frequently the same as the morning readings for the alternate year. This means a very restricted set of texts are used. Lots of the most well known Old Testament stories are never heard. Snippets of Epistles and Gospels are pulled out of context and we never hear the whole. The readings are chosen to fit a ‘theme’ for the week, which in some ways is helpful, but again has narrowed the choice of readings - and there must be more to say about the vast array of Holy Scripture than can be encapsulated in 52 themes! With the ASB Lectionary we just do not hear sufficient scripture.

The NEW Lectionary (the Revised Common Lectionary is its official title) redresses most of these problems. It covers 3 years, Years A,B, & C. Different readings are provided for up to 3 services a day. This in itself widens the scope enormously. But there is a different approach entirely as to how these readings are chosen. Themes are ‘out’. Continuous readings are ‘in’.

In each of the 3 years a different Gospel is read continuously, Sunday to Sunday; Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, Luke in Year C. This gives us the chance to hear the whole story, to get inside the mind of that particular Gospel writer. St John’s Gospel is used at particular important seasons of the year, so each year we receive some of the riches of his writing, scattered in among the others.

In some seasons of the year the Old and New Testament readings are related to the Gospel. At other times these too, are read continuously, so that for instance, we might spend a few weeks reading through the Letter to the Philippians, or a few months reading through the Letter to the Romans or the Book of Jeremiah or Exodus. Think of all those times when you’ve heard a passage from the Old Testament and thought ‘what was all that about?’ or ‘well, what happened next?’. Continuous readings should help us to make more sense of scripture.

At first you will not notice a great change. During the Advent and Christmas seasons the readings may be subtly different, but traditional themes obviously will be the same. It is when we come to the ‘ordinary’ time of year - the long ‘green’ season - that the changes will be most noticeable. Incidentally, many will be delighted to find that that long season, is reverting back to Sundays after ‘Trinity’, rather than Sundays after ‘Pentecost’. And other attempts are being made to align the new Lectionary with the Book of Common Prayer. New weekly Post-Communion Prayer and Collects are being provided, and these collects will draw heavily on the BCP Collects, for many a much-loved part of the Anglican spiritual tradition.

I can’t say strongly enough that this is not just change for change’s sake. The new lectionary will enable us to encounter the scriptures in helpful and transforming ways. More articles will appear as the year goes on to assist in understanding. Keep reading!

Eileen McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 28th November 1997