The Sunday Lectionary and Ecumenism


The Sunday Lectionary and Ecumenism

Advent 2021 will mark 50 years since our current Sunday Lectionary became mandatory for regular use in the Roman Catholic Church. This auspicious milestone provides an opportune occasion to underscore what has turned out to be one of the most important and far-reaching contributions of the Vatican II liturgical renewal to ecumenism.

Within a decade of the official promulgation by Pope Paul VI on April 3, 1969, of the Ordo Lectionum Missae (OLM; the Lectionary for Mass), a number of Protestant Churches began using the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary at their worship services. This interest spurred a wider effort by a group called the Consultation on Common Texts to design The Common Lectionary, a consensus Lectionary that adopted nearly in its entirety the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary, all the while introducing a number of minor adaptations for their particular worship needs. From the comments and suggestions garnered in subsequent years, the Consultation in 1992 published the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). In 2012, a special 20th anniversary edition appeared which provides, in addition to the lists of biblical passages assigned to the three-year cycle of Sundays, essays tracing the RCL’s history and describing some of its key characteristics.[1]

While of course the OLM is used throughout the Roman Catholic Church, the RCL has become the Lectionary of choice for an impressive roster of Anglican and Protestant Churches, initially in English-speaking countries, but now extending more and more beyond this language sphere.

According to Regina Boisclair, who wrote her PhD dissertation on the Sunday Lectionary and who has recently published a helpful guide to both the OLM and the RCL,[2] the RCL is the official Lectionary of the Episcopal Church in the United States and is often used by American Baptist Churches, the Community of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravian Church in America, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian-Universalist Christian Fellowship. In a footnote, she adds that outside the US it is used by the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, the Mennonite Church of Canada, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Wales, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the United Reformed Church of the United Kingdom, the Philippine Independent Church, the Episcopal Church of the Philippines, the United Methodist Church in the Philippines, the Apostolic Catholic Church, the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the Anglican Church of Australia, and the Uniting Church of Australia. Further to this enumeration, The Reims Statement: Praying with One Voice of August 16, 2001, expands the RCL’s ambit to “churches in Scandinavia, Hispanic speaking areas, Korea, Japan, Netherlands, Venezuela, Polynesia, South Africa (including Afrikaans speaking churches).”

This remarkable adoption (and adaptation) of the OLM means that on any given Sunday Roman Catholic worshipping communities as well as worshipping communities in all the Churches mentioned above most probably hear the same gospel passage proclaimed, and, depending on the choice of the options provided in the RCL, oftentimes the same first and second readings as well. This felicitous ecumenical rapprochement has important theological implications, as I briefly sketched in my 1998 book The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape:[3]

  • A renewed understanding of the balance of Word and Sacrament: If in the past Catholics stressed Sacrament (Eucharist every Sunday) and Reformed Churches emphasized the Word (Sunday Eucharist on a monthly or quarterly rhythm), now Catholics see that the Word provides the “why” of sacramental celebrations and Reformed Churches recognize that the Word must be “enfleshed” in Sacrament. This necessarily leads to a better ecclesiology (the Church is what it says and does), stemming from a renewed appreciation of the centrality of the Mystery of Christ.
  • A renewed appreciation of preaching as a biblically-based liturgical act of proclamation: The Bible is not merely source material to be mined in view of illustrating a preacher’s ideas, but the story of God’s saving actions proclaimed as real and effective today. Use of a Lectionary provides a solid basis for sustained biblical, liturgical preaching.
  • Collaboration among pastors and ministers in preparing homilies and liturgical celebrations: Use of the RCL and the OLM allows pastors from different Churches and communions to prepare celebrations together. The publication of liturgical and preaching aids based on these two Lectionaries further encourages sharing across denominational lines.[4]

It is a truism that historical actions and decisions often have unintended consequences – and that it is the negative ones that draw the most attention. However, in this instance the efforts of the  OLM’s designers, who focused primarily on renewing Roman Catholic use of the Scriptures at Mass, ended up reverberating well beyond the Catholic Church as the development and propagation of the RCL attests. Now Roman Catholics (καθολικός [katholikos] = “universal”) and the many Anglicans and Protestants that use the ecumenical RCL (οἰκουμενικός [oikoumenikos] = “of or pertaining to the whole world”) gather together at the Table of the Word. Thanks be to God.

By Normand Bonneau, OMI

[1] Consultation on Common Texts, The Revised Common Lectionary: 20th Anniversary Annotated Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012).

[2] Regina Boisclair, The Word of the Lord at Mass: Understanding the Lectionary (Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 2015) 60-64.

[3] Normand Bonneau, The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 54-55.

[4] See, for example, the twelve-volume series Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, David L. Barrett and Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008); Gerard S. Sloyan, Preaching from the Lectionary: An Exegetical Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004).