Wednesday, July 25, 2012

To be or not to be... a lectionary preacher?

OK, so for a long time I've had beef with the lectionary. I've tried to express this to my friends in the past, and have never got too exercised about it (at least, I don't think I have), but the lectionary over the last couple of weeks has really got my goat.

So this is the problem. Last Sunday (22 July 2012) the lectionary gospel was Mark 6.30-34, 53-56. I have a problem with the lectionary filleting texts at the best of times, but this was a particularly egregious example. Mark 6.30-34 is the introduction to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (note, the miracle itself is rather clumsily excised from the lectionary for the day). After the feeding miracle, Jesus makes his disciples get into the boat so he can pray by himself. The next morning, Jesus walks towards the disciples who are struggling on the lake. Jesus gets into the boat, the storm stops and they pass safely to Ganessaret, which is where we pick up the reading with 6.53-56 with Jesus healing the sick. So to make the reading shorter the lectionary compilers (a) rip out the really interesting stuff (feeding miracle and walking on water) and make it a reading just about Jesus' compassion and healing people. (b) splice two lake journeys into one. Journey one (6.32) leads to the feeding of the five thousand. Journey two (6.45) leads to the walking on the water and only then to the healings at Ganessaret. It might sound like I am being pedantic, but this does real violence to the story! The upshot of all this was that I decided to preach on Ephesians 2 instead.

This week matters are made much, much worse. For those who don't know, this year of the three year lectionary cycle (year B) is 'The Year of Mark'. You would be forgiven for not knowing this because, at every available opportunity the lectionary compilers ditch Mark and go for John. Admittedly John doesn't have a year of his own (which in itself makes the basic premise of the lectionary problematic), but why on earth would the lectionary compilers choose to substitute a Johanine for a Markan text this week? The text from John which they choose is John 6.1-21, which is... the feeding of the five thousand! They pick the account of a miracle which every evangelist, including Mark, records and to add insult to injury, this is part of the material they removed from the previous week's reading from Mark! Come on! Presumably they think John tells it better. I can kind of forgive (though I don't understand or condone) the wholesale abandonment of Mark's gospel over the easter season. But the last couple of weeks take the biscuit. The lectionary really makes a dog's dinner of biblical narrative.

So that is my particular beef with the lectionary at the moment. But there are also more systemic problems:
  • The lectionary is inherently lop-sided. The format prescribes three readings. One from a collection of 39 books, another from a collection of 23 books, and a third from a collection of 4 books. It should be pretty obvious how this is naturally going to lead to a lack of balance. Is it any wonder that there are so many latter day marcionites in the church given that we give 30% of reading time to over 70% (by word count) of the bible? This is particularly glaring when the preacher has got it in their head that one should only really ever preach from the gospel reading (something I hear rather too often). I don't know where this idea came from. I'm pretty sure that it doesn't lead to a happy place.

  • Because the lectionary is lop-sided in the way described above, it has to leave out large swathes of the Old Testament, just take a look at the big master lectionary for the CofE (for this comparison I am referring to the 'Semi-Continuous' track one). Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Joel, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai and Malachi all appear only once each in the three year lectionary cycle. 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Ecclesiasties, Daniel, Obadiah, Nahum and Zechariah don't appear at all. All in all, Isaiah does the best out of all Old Testament writings, making an appearance on 31 Sundays. Genesis is next with 20 appearances, followed by Jeremiah with 14 and Exodus with 13. Every other book appears less than ten times over the three year cycle. I just find this breathtaking. If, as I suspect, large numbers of Christians are only really reading the Bible in the context of the Sunday liturgy, they are getting a tiny fraction of the Old Testament simply because the lectionary arbitrarily allocated 30% of reading time to it. I've heard people extolling the virtues of the lectionary because it takes you through the bible in three years... it doesn't.

  • Yes, there is the gospel related 'track two' as an option for the Old Testament reading for Sundays after Pentecost, but this just plays with a solution to the problem. Of the underrepresented books, in year A, Amos, Zechariah, Jonah, Micah and Zephaniah get a single look in, the bulk of the readings are from Isaiah. In year B, Job appears twice as does Numbers, Joshua gets one reading Daniel gets his only two appearances and Amos is read another couple of times. In year C, Ecclesiastes gets another reading, as do Habakkuk and Malachi, Amos gets another two readings. The bulk of the gospel related Old Testament readings come from already well represented books. Even so, to get through the thematic and semi-continuous tracks turns the three year lectionary into a six year lectionary. The imbalance still remains. 

  • The readings are often completely unrelated. Trying to discern a common theme within the readings for a given Sunday more often than not leads to a major headache. Besides, if you do manage to hold the readings together with chewing gum and rubber bands, don't you kind of end up preaching the thoughts of the lectionary compilers? The response made by some preachers is to not preach on any of the texts, opting to preach on their favourite topic, you know, the one they have preached on a thousand times before. The response which most sane preachers make to this is to just preach one of the texts. The obvious question which this approach poses is, 'why on earth do we have the other two readings!?' If they are in no way related to each other, and consequently in no way related to the theme of the liturgy (and we should all try and discern a theme in good liturgy planning, right?) then why have them? Don't they just clutter the liturgy. Why not just have one?

My fear is that for those whose reading of scripture is almost entirely on a Sunday through the lectionary, the bible becomes at best a collection of wise vignettes, at worst a confusing jumble of incoherent stories. In fact the worst possible result of this fruit salad approach to bible reading is that scripture becomes completely irrelevant both to the liturgy and to the people of God. Don't get me wrong, In principle I love the idea of the whole church, as much as possible, reading the bible together. A common calendar is a great way to achieve this. But, seriously, is this our best attempt? Rant over.


Harry said...

Wow, you know the ins and outs of the lectionary well.

Having grown up in a church tradition that ignores the lectionary and preaches on favourite texts, I really liked the lectionary, forcing you, as it does, to preach on some passages you might not choose.

But now I feel a little like you do.

After August we are moving to two sermon series, one on the Lord's Prayer, the other on the seven deadly sins, which will take us to through Advent.

In our evening service we recently preached on Exodus, which was excellent.

I think the lectionary is a good starting point, but I for one am now more confident about straying from it every now and again as we seek to be a church that nurtures and encourages mature disciples.

Anonymous said...

As you are permitted to use Common Prayer, presumably you are permitted to use the old Lectionary. That was drafted by professionals.
I realise that local management ties you to the new rubbish but that is a local problem.