Dean Letter: Concerning the Lectionary

Hello St Paul’s,

Have you ever noticed how much Scripture dominates our worship services? To start with, a huge proportion of the Book of Common Prayer is Scriptural, whether in prayers, sentences, canticles, or blessings. All of our rituals are steeped in Scriptural language, and we even have an entire book of the Bible in our prayer book: I don’t know of another liturgical denomination that includes ALL the Psalms in their worship book.

Every Sunday we hear four different chunks of Scripture: a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), a portion of a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles or Revelation, and a selection from one of the Gospels.  It is a rich diet, and we can thank Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the 16th century martyr and architect of the Prayer Book, for placing such an emphasis on the Bible in our daily and weekly worship. In his preface to the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), Cranmer wrote that, “the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.” And he created a calendar or lectionary for the orderly reading of the Bible throughout the year, which, he writes, “is plain and easy to be understood, wherein … the reading of holy Scripture is so set forth, that all things shall be done in order.”

The lectionary has gone through several changes over the centuries. Today we use an ecumenical one called the Revised Common Lectionary, or RCL. It was created by a committee of scholars and is widely used by Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ and others in the US and Canada. It employs a three-year scheme, with each year focusing on a different Synoptic Gospel. Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, and Year C is Luke. We hear from the Gospel of John periodically throughout the three years, typically in Lent and the summer. As many stories are told in more than one Gospel, the idea is to hear all of the main stories from Jesus’ ministry over the course of the three years. You may have noticed that we have been hearing stories from Mark’s Gospel over the last few weeks, going more or less in sequence through the Gospel. That tells you that we are in Year B.

The lectionary is constructed first of all based on the Gospel. Then a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is selected that “speaks” in some way to the Gospel: maybe it echoes the same teaching, or maybe it contrasts with it. Maybe we read the passage the Jesus is quoting in the Gospel. After the Hebrew Scripture, a Psalm is selected that seems like an appropriate response to the Scripture: remember that the Psalms were the hymnal of the ancient Jews, so they provided a human response to God’s word. Finally the Epistle reading is chosen: typically we read through the highlights of one Epistle, or letter, week by week, before moving on to the next one. We recently read almost all of the Letter of James; now we are reading Hebrews.

Of course there are departures and exceptions: we always hear the Passion story in Holy Week; we have the option of switching to the Acts of the Apostles instead of the Hebrew Scriptures in Easter season; we always hear the Christmas birth narrative. And in the second half of the year, after Pentecost in the spring, we have a whole alternative track from the Hebrew Scriptures, that provides a semi-continuous narrative: this year we heard the whole saga of Saul, David, and Solomon.

The lectionary year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas; this year it falls on November 28, Thanksgiving weekend. You might notice that the emphasis will switch from Mark to Luke, and we can look forward to the marvelous unique parables provided by Luke alone, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

I’ll leave the daily office lectionary for another day: that has a whole different, two-year cycle. You can experience it for yourself if you join us for Morning or Evening Prayer online, six days a week; so that, in Thomas Cranmer’s words, “by daily hearing of holy Scripture (read in the Church) you shall continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”

See you on Sunday!

Your sister in Christ,


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1 thought on “Dean Letter: Concerning the Lectionary”

  1. Thank you Dean Penny!

    Very interesting, esential and useful for our eclesiological identity, and for our liturgy.
    In addition, is also is one of the subjects I am studying now in my theological studies of the Anglican seminary where I am attending my online classes in Guadalajara, Mexico.

    Have a great weekend, and see you on Sunday.


    A disciple.


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