21 September 2009

Something missing I think

Sunday in her excellent extended homily -- liturgical notes our rector pointed out something that crystallized why I had been noticing a disconnect in the liturgy of late. The lectionary no longer conforms the scriptural readings to the season and Gospel proclamation. (See ** below)

For those of you who don't attend a liturgical church a "lectionary" is a prescribed set of readings for a given service. So for instance in a Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox church the readings one hears are not selected by the celebrant they are the readings the lectionary adopted by the church -- they are required. Because of the Revised Common Lectionary project, one can generally expect to hear the same readings in all of those churches. Of course there are exceptions as sometimes we are celebrating different events.

Gospel readings follow the canonical calendar. So one would expect and find that the Gospel readings in Advent are about the coming birth of the Messiah -- Gabriel's conversations with Mary and Joseph, and the birth of John with Mary's visit to her cousin are typical.

One problem with a lectionary that follows the seasons is that much of the Hebrew Scriptures and much of the apostolic writings (chiefly the epistles) never gets read. That is because they do not fit into the seasons well. Take for instance the story of David's murder of Uriah motivated by lust for his wife. That is simply not a Christmas reading, nor is it an Easter season story. I suppose one might fit it into Lent but you see where I am going here? Much of the Hebrew Scriptures, many Psalms and a good deal of the epistles do not make the cut. Other parts are read and in the case pf psalms re-read.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) has adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL.) The authors of the RCL set out to change the situation. Especially in the long period between Pentecost (50 days after Easter) and All Saints (Nov 1), they elected readings: Hebrew Scripture, Psalms and epistles not aligned with the Gospels but valuable in their own right. They take stories from the Hebrew experience, follow them and present the entire or at least the most significant portions of an epistle reading as a continuing series over several weeks. While the rest of the year is closer to the conformed lectionary, it is still sometimes a bit different.

OK, you may not have known that: I did but I admit to being a liturgy nut. The fact is that the lessons are not to use the term of the art, "conformed" to the Gospel. Now that is OK: the lectionary compilers can do that.

The impact on the liturgy however is significant especially on one particular prayer. The common liturgy of catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches begins with an acclimation, standard prayers and then the 'Collect.' The Collect is a prayer said by a clergy person (usually the celebrant but sometimes a deacon) that is supposed to set the theme for the day -- to cause us to focus on the collected themes found in the readings which follow.

At least in TEC, I do not know how the other communities that follow RCL are dealing with this: the collects are not working. They are not working because they were written to collect the themes of seasonal liturgy that assumed a conformed lectionary. This means as there is a prescribed order, that the Collect now has little or no relation to the next three events, the Hebrew Scripture reading, the psalm chant or reading and the epistle reading. Only five or more minutes and three activities later the Gospel is proclaimed does the prayer fit, if it does.

The solution to this is of course new collects. Vanderbilt University has published a set but they have not been adopted by TEC. I do not know if other sets of collects are being written or not. I do know that General Convention is so busy fighting over sex that this issue was not addressed at the last meeting.

In a sense this is a sort of anti-evangelism problem. The collect cannot do what is intended unless the readings that follow fit. They don't and the prayer sort of floats there. If we are trying to present to the seeker and ourselves an integrated worship experience the prayer wont work. One need not be a liturgical junkie (OK, yes I am) to be confused by the disconnect.

There is no obvious short term solution. General Convention (praise God!) wont meet for about 30 months. We do not change the prayer book lightly and the collects are in it. But, we could probably begin writing a new set now for eventual presentation and perhaps bishops could authorize trying out Vanderbilt's as a starting place.

Perhaps this is something to think about when the current effort of our 3% schismatics becomes overwhelmingly distracting. We say, "lex orendi - lex credendi:" "how we pray is how we believe." Paying attention to how we pray makes sense.


* I suppose I should note that we also cling to the idea that there are 150 Psalms. I think the Orthodox have it right and we should add Psalm 151 into the mix. But then I am a bit of a trouble maker.

** Rev. Terri whose sermon / instructional liturgy I referenced above, notes that, "For other seasons of the year, the traditional readings still hold true. I haven't done a "one on one" comparison myself, but that was the intent of the RCL - to offer in the longer season access to bigger "chunks" of major OT stories - Abraham, David, Wisdom literature and coming up, some of the "lesser" prophets.


Paul said...

In the long green season of the Sundays after Pentecost the collects have never particularly matched the lessons (to my mind). There is reference to the foundation of the apostles on the Sunday closest to the Feast of SS Peter and Paul (though their feast rarely falls on a Sunday), but by and large they are simply good prayers for general edification and training in how to pray. The violet and white seasons are more thematic and those collects do, of course, reflect this.

I much prefer respecting the larger Hebrew canon and reading it with its own context rather than using it as a prop for the Gospel. In fact, when in churches where they don't exercise this option it bugs me (I ignored Jeremiah when preaching yesterday). I am postmodern and I don't want to see prototypes and antitypes everywhere I turn; it seems dishonest to me, a long tradition notwithstanding.

I believe in collecting our thoughts and prayers but am not comfortable with thinking that a collect sets the theme. In fact, I am chary of themes and prefer waiting expectantly to see what the Holy Spirit, the preacher, and the people will make of the proper of the day.

JimB said...

Back when I was learning this stuff (we should remember I was dismissed from postulancy by my parish and rector so I may have missed something) the idea was less that the collect set the theme but that identified the themes that the lectionary was pointed towards. Clearly a preacher should feel free to pick one or more of them and not others.

I think that the really bad sermons I recall were those that tried to cover all of the possibilities. One lands up doing nothing well.

My point is more that the collects should at least nod to the various readings. Especially in the Pentecost season they don't now. I am not suggesting we dump RCL -- I like the attention to the Hebrew Scriptures. I just think the collects could use some work.

Thanks for the note.


Paul said...


I have no problem with re-thinking the collects, though I'd like to keep the ones we have now somehow rather than jettison them (which no one is suggesting, just saying I think they're fine). This could, and probably should, lead to a three-year cycle of collects since trying to point on a given Sunday to themes in all three years' worth of lessons is a bit dicey.

I'm certainly open on the question, though I prefer not to coordinate things too much. I cannot say I recall the collect tying with themes back in the old 1928 one-year cycle outside the violet/green times, with the exception of the last Sundays leading up to Advent when apocalypse looms. But I'm too lazy to go back and read and see.

I preach all over the place. Sometimes all four lessons (incl. the psalm) wind through my sermon, almost always at least two, and I sometimes include citations of or allusions to the collects as well. Since I preach extempore (and am a sacramental ex-Baptist) anything can happen.

JimB said...
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