Lectionaries, III: Ecumenical

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In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church issued its Ovdo lectionum Missae (see lectionaries, ii: contemporary). This lectionary provided a three-year cycle of Scripture readings for use during liturgical worship on the Sundays of the Catholic liturgical year, a two-year cycle of readings for the weekdays, readings for the Proper and Common of saints, and a selection of readings for ritual and votive Masses and Masses for various occasions. This system of readings was prepared in order to fulfill a mandate of the Second Vatican Council, which called for the provision of a richer share of God's word through the use of a more representative portion of Scripture during worship than had previously been the case. The effect of the Sunday lectionary in particular is that in the course of three years Catholics experience virtually the entire New Testament and a substantial selection of the Old Testament in their weekly worship.

Ecumenical Adoption. In the years immediately following the appearance of the Roman Lectionary, a number of churches in the United States and Canada adopted and adapted the Sunday portion of this lectionary to their particular denominational needs. Before the end of the 1970s the three-year lectionary (as it came to be called) existed in several major denominational forms in addition to the Roman Catholic: Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist. Each of these was constructed essentially upon the principles of selection and arrangement of the 1969 Roman Catholic system of readings. Differences, where they existed, were for the most part the result of calendar questions or editorial matters, for example, the question of where to begin and end specific readings.

In the decade that followed, North American Christians benefitted from an ecumenical development that has perhaps been insufficiently recognized. On a given Sunday and in different denominational assemblies largely similar and frequently identical passages of the Bible were proclaimed and preached.

Interest in ecumenical lectionaries went beyond North America. The Joint Liturgical Group (JLG), an ecumenical association of eight churches in Great Britain, developed a lectionary that uses a two-year cycle of readings and that divides the Sundays of the year into a threefold thematic scheme.

Common Lectionary. Building upon this development, the consultation on common texts (CCT) sponsored a conference on the lectionary in 1978 to determine whether it would be possible to seek greater consensus in the matter of the lectionary. The conference delegates voted unanimously in favor of seeking as much consensus as possible with the three-year lectionary. At the request of the conference participants, the CCT established a project committee of biblical and liturgical experts to carry out several specific recommendations of the conference: to produce a common calendar for the Christian year that would include common terminology for the days of the year; to produce a consensus table of readings and psalms for the Sundays of the three-year lectionary and for a few special days or feasts; and to include in this table a more representative selection of readings from the Old Testament in order to balance the nearly exclusive use of prophetic and narrowly typological passages in the Roman Lectionary.

In 1983 the CCT released the fruits of this labor under the title Common Lectionary: The Lectionary Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts. This proposal was recommended to the churches and interested individuals for a period of trial use and study. On the basis of recommendations received, the CCT was to revise its proposed system of readings and calendar and then make it available in a final version for the churches. The U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to participate in the trial use of the Common Lectionary in selected parishes, but this action did not receive the necessary Vatican approval.

The Common Lectionary was an order of readings, not a printed lectionary, for use on Sundays and a few special days of the Christian liturgical year. The following were its major principles: (1) It incorporated the basic calendar and structure of three readings and psalm in the Roman lectionary; (2) the Gospel pericopes were maintained as given in the existing versions of the three-year lectionary (this was the area of least divergence between denominational systems of readings); (3) the New Testament pericopes of the existing three-year lectionaries were largely accepted, with some lengthening and minor textual arrangement; (4) the principle of semi-continuous reading, already present in the second readings and Gospel readings on the Sundays following Pentecost, was extended to the Old Testament reading on a number of the Sundays following Pentecost. This made possible the reading of major narratives from the Old Testament; (5) more selections from the minor prophets and from Wisdom literature were included.

The Common Lectionary was for the most part a careful harmonization of the slight variations in readings that existed in the major versions of the three-year lectionary. The semi-continuous reading of the Old Testament readings on some of the Sundays following Pentecost was the only real innovation in this lectionary proposal. Its extension to the first reading in this part of the lectionary has not meant, however, the abandonment of the typological relationship between the first reading and the Gospel, a major premise of the three-year lectionary on Sundays. A broad harmony between the two has been maintained and thus the topological principle retained, though not on a Sunday-by-Sunday basis. The narrative material that this arrangement made possible included, for Year A, 20 Sundays of selections from the Pentateuch (beginning with Abraham's call and concluding with Moses' death); for Year B, 14 Sundays of the Davidic narrative (from David's anointing to his death); for Year C, 10 Sundays of the Elijah-Elisha narrative (beginning with Solomon's dedication of the Temple and concluding with Elisha's death).

Revised Common Lectionary. In 1983 the CCT, JLG, and other ecumenical liturgical associations joined with the international commission on english in the liturgy (ICEL) to form the english language liturgical consultation (ELLC). From its inception, the ELLC played an active role in fostering the development of an international ecumenical lectionary based on feedback received from the use of the Common Lectionary. The fruit of its endeavors was a revised edition published under the title Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which incorporated much of the feedback and suggestions received from the trial use of the Common Lectionary.

The RCL retained the foundational three-year cycle of the Roman Lectionary, with a virtually identical liturgical calendar. The NT epistle and gospel readings are almost always the same. There are two major differences between the RCL and the Roman Lectionary. First, in the OT readings in ordinary time, the RCL abandons the Roman typological model in favor of a broader system which links the Patriarchal and Mosaic narratives (i.e., from Genesis to Judges) for Year A (Matthew), the Davidic and Wisdom narratives for Year B (Mark), and a broad selection of Major and Minor Prophets (Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel and Habbakuk) for Year C (Luke). Second, an attempt was made in the RCL to include women and their role in salvation history by providing texts about women never heard on Sunday before. In the Roman Lectionary these readings are found in the two-year weekday lectionary cycle, and not in the three-year Sunday cycle.

The RCL was widely adopted by major Protestant churches worldwide, making it a truly ecumenical lectionary. Some of the churches that officially adopted the RCL include the American Baptist Churches in the United States of America, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Church of England, the Anglican Church in South Africa, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

Bibliography: The Revised Common Lectionary (Nashville, Tenn. 1992). c. j. schlueter, "The Gender Balance of Texts from the Gospels: The Revised Common Lectionary and the Lutheran Book of Worship," Currents in Theology and Mission 20 (June 1993) 177186. p. c. bower, Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville, Ky. 1996). j. c. rochelle, "Notes on the Revised Common Lectionary," Currents in Theology and Mission 23 (Feb. 1996) 2937.

[j. m. schellman/eds.]