What is the background of the Revised Common Lectionary? Who put it together and with whose authority?
This lectionary system is the work of two ecumenical bodies who simply provide resources for the churches that send representatives to them, namely, the North American Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) and, later, the International English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC). The first of these groups goes back to the mid-60’s and was formed by Catholic and Protestant liturgical scholars in response to the reforms in the liturgy mandated by the Second Vatican Council, especially in the area of English texts for the liturgy and then in the dissemination of the 1969 Roman Lectionary (Ordo Leclionum Missae). Responding to widespread interest in this Roman model, many North American churches undertook adaptations and revisions of it for their own use during the ‘70s. CCT produced a harmonization and reworking of these in 1983 on a trial basis and then revised that for publication in 1992 as Revised Common Lectionary. CCT now includes representative of more than twenty-five Protestant Churches in North America as well as the Roman Catholic International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The international body - ELLC , represents similar groupings in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada, as well as ICEL.
How similar is the ecumenical system to the original Roman scheme?
The three-year, three-reading plan is exactly the same. The calendar is virtually the same. The Gospel readings are almost always the same, as are the second-lesson selections, drawn from the Epistles and (after Easter) the books of Acts and Revelation. The only serious divergence is at the point of the Hebrew Bible lessons after Pentecost, where we laid aside the Roman "typological" choices in favor of a broader kind of linkage that uses the Patriarchal/Mosaic narrative for Year A (Matthew), The Davidic narrative for Year B (Mark), and the Elijah/Elisha/Minor Prophets series for Year C (Luke).
What is the rationale for that?
In our initial survey of Protestant use of the denominational variants of the Roman table, we discovered that there was unhappiness at the absence of the Old Testament’s narrative and historical literature, as well as a deficiency of Wisdom texts. So we have tried to remedy that with our more expansive kind of linkage, but for the purposes of ecumenical acceptability we continue to publish an alternative Old Testament set that is closer to the Roman, Episcopal and Lutheran tables in this regard for the Sundays after Pentecost.
How widely is the Revised Common Lectionary now being used (assuming, of course, that the Catholic Church continues to use its own lectionary?).
The information (which we gathered in Ireland in 1995) is compelling. Throughout the English-speaking world, most churches that have anything like a tradition of lectionary use (and some only very recently under the impact of the Revised Common Lectionary) are recommending our work. That includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, South Africa, Great Britain (including both the "established" churches of England and Scotland) and now the Presbyterian churches in Korea (though not exactly English-speaking except in missionary origins). At our Ireland meeting we also heard from Catholic representatives of the German- and French-speaking regions of their interest in this ecumenical development. Protestant bodies in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia are studying our system too.
What is the ecumenical significance of this development?
In the first place, it is a totally unexpected development in that after all these centuries since the 16th-century reformation, many of the churches that divided at that time are now committed to reading the scriptures together Sunday by Sunday. This is a kind of ecumenism nobody anticipated, least of all the Roman See. And it makes possible wonderful weekly clergy gatherings all over the world for the purpose of mutual work on sermons and homilies.
The question keeps recurring from just such groups as to why on so many Sundays there seems to be no clear theological or thematic relationship among the readings. Can you explain this?
The thematic situation is different depending on whether you are in the core liturgical seasons of Advent through to Lent and Lent through to the Day . of Pentecost, or in that long stretch of Sundays between Pentecost and Advent, known in Roman terminology as "Ordinary Time." In the festival liturgical seasons there always will be an obvious (we hope) unity that is governed by the Gospel lesson for the day. In post-Pentecost Ordinary Time, however, the situation is quite different, and not even the most sophisticated guides to lectionary preaching seem always to be aware of this. On those Sundays, we "cut loose" the Old Testament reading from the Gospel on a Sunday-by-Sunday basis, even though we chose those readings from First Testament books that the Gospel author (of- the year) seems most interested in - i.e., Matthew/Patriarchs and Moses, Mark/David, and Luke/Prophets.
In that same time, preacher should notice that the second (New Testament) reading proceeds from week to week on a continuous chapter-by-chapter course, and so there will be no obvious correlation between that lesson and the Gospel or the Old Testament. So on those Sundays the three readings, which have deliberately no thematic interrelationship, are all proceeding on a continuous or semi-continuous track.. If this were thought curious or troublesome, it should be remembered that such an "in course" sequence of reading is borrowed directly from the synagogue’s use of the Torah and the subsequent practice of the churches of the first several centuries. That is to say, the public reading of the scriptures was never originally conceived simply as source texts for preaching, but rather as the only possible way to acquaint the congregation with as much of the scriptures as possible. And that of course is the expressed intention of the Vatican Council’s desired revision of the Roman lectionary, and therefore of all systems derived from it.
What does that mean for the preacher’s sermon preparation, particularly in those Ordinary Time Sundays after Pentecost?
That question regularly comes to mind when someone says that they use the lectionary "sometimes", meaning that they avoid it in Ordinary Time. It misses the point of the continuous principle altogether. That is to say, during that time the preacher who is serious about the lectionary must decide which "track" (Gospel, New Testament or Old Testament) to use Sunday by Sunday. Certainly there should be no attempt to force a thematic unity on all three readings where none in fact exists. Much less should the preacher "hop, skip and jump" around among three sets of readings that are organized on a week-to-week basis. The radical shift that this system requires is for the preacher to think about weekly preaching as sequential rather than thematic. An excellent analysis of the issue is found in a book by Fritz West, entitled Scripture and Memory, and published in the USA by the Liturgical Press.
This introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary was adapted from an interview given by Dr. Horace T. Allen Jr., Co-Chair of the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC), and was prepared for the August 1997 meeting of Societas Liturgica in held in Turku, Finland.