Among the many issues facing the Christian churches today is the matter of competing lectionaries for Sunday reading. Timothy Leitzke offers his assessment of their relationship to their “mother,” the ecumenical Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).
Where the RCL sought ecumenical unity, these next-generation proposals seek a lectionary for specific faith communities. . . reacting to the RCL yet using all or part of the RCL's methodology.
It may be tempting to think that the RCL, in trying to accommodate everyone, has instead accommodated no one. I do not think this is the case. Rather I think that lectionaries reflect the “little narratives” that legitimate the churches that use them. [Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Masumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 60.]
The RCL attempts to balance what Fritz West calls the “canonical” and “calendrical” narratives of scripture. For West, “scripture” has to do with how texts are used. In the canonical narrative, the shape of the Bible dictates scripture. The book is ordered to present eschatology, portray history, and prophesy Christ in what Northrop Frye calls “the great code,” a U-shaped divine comedy that starts well, ends well, and in between narrates fall and redemption.
In contrast, the calendrical narrative is organized around events in the life of Christ and the church and depends on the church's communal memory of Christ and his work in and relationship to the church. Scripture thus construed is an epic tale in which Christ is the hero. The RCL tries to balance these two narratives. [See Fritz West, Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997), 5, 30–35.]
Thus the RCL was envisioned as the all-inclusive narrative of the church catholic. Since 1992, however, she has borne children who do not see things this way.
What strikes me when reading the rationales for the RCL's children is that they are so often that which lay behind the RCL! The RCL strives to offer as much of the Bible as practicable within a contained cycle while striking a balance between . . . allowing texts to speak on their own terms, and . . . letting them speak in concert with each other and the church's theology, all the while without perpetuating stereotypes or failing to lift up women as leaders in the church.
Leitzke contends that the alternative lectionaries aim to achieve what is already endemic to the RCL. Believing their commitments to be superior to the RCL, they bypass the vital complexity of the RCL’s ecumenical breadth. Focused on their own faith communities, the vision that “all may be one” is rendered moot and the alternative lectionaries acquire a much narrower purview.
The Greenwood Lectionary assumes the RCL cannot work in a Seventh-day Adventist context. The Narrative Lectionary pushes for biblical literacy in the ELCA. The African American Lectionary assumes the RCL is hierarchically tainted and thus inappropriate for African American churches. Henderson [“Re-Visioning… for Advent”] argues that the RCL does not do enough for women or Jewish-Christian relations.
Each proposal is meant to function better within a specific little narrative than the RCL with its all-inclusive narrative would. Both mother and children consider each other inherently fallacious. In other words, the children of the RCL are not speaking to their mother or their siblings.
––Timothy Andrew Letizke
Timothy Andrew Leitzke, “Lectionaries and Little Narratives: Children of the Revised Common Lectionary,” Liturgy 29, no. 4 (10 July 2014): 27-32.
The Rev. Timothy Andrew Leitzke, PhD, serves as pastor of Tree of Life Lutheran Church, Odessa, Delaware. His graduate work was in homiletics.