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June 02, 20183348Views

Save the Lectionary, Save the World

Andrew Sabisky argues for the restoration of the one-year lectionary throughout Western Christianity, and explores the educational psychology behind its spiritual impact

In the wake of the self-destruction of the Western churches following the Second Vatican Council, the traditionalist faithful across various denominations – largely but not exclusively Roman Catholic – have fought back with the battle cry 'save the liturgy, save the world'. By this slogan, they protested various abuses: the loss of sacred language (Latin for the Catholics, Cranmer’s hieratic dialect for the Anglicans), the removal of traditional religious art and music and the theological shift from liturgies of penitence and sacrifice to services of community gathering and nourishing.

Curiously, however, the traditionalist counter-revolution has spent very little time protesting one of the most consequential changes of the 1970s: the change to the lectionary. This, I believe, was one of the most important and most spiritually corrosive outcomes of Vatican II, not least because, as a careful ecumenical endeavour, it affected virtually all the major Western denominations.

Prior to Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church and its Reformed offspring had, by and large, adhered to the same one-year cycle of readings for the Divine Office and the Mass. There was, admittedly, some variation. The Church of England inherited from the old Sarum Rite a somewhat different Mass lectionary to that of Rome, and Archbishop Cranmer created a whole new Office lectionary for his services of Morning and Evening Prayer, so that whereas previously almost the entire Bible had been read in a year between Mass and Office, now in the Book of Common Prayer system almost the entire Bible was read in a year in the Office alone!

But by and large, the yearly round of Sunday Epistles, Gospels and Collects remained more or less the same, regardless of whether one was Roman Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran. St Augustine and Luther wrote sermons on the same texts for the same Sunday, a marvellous sign of the invisible continuity of the Church over time and space, despite the cruelties of schisms. A Bach cantata, though composed for the Lutheran context, can usually be more or less directly transplanted to the Roman or Anglican context, and it still fits perfectly. Moreover, all retained the tradition that the Epistle, Gospel and Collect for Sunday were repeated for all non-festal days throughout the following week, though overcrowded sanctoral calendars could and did limit the opportunities for such repetition.

All this lasted until Vatican II when, following the lead of the Roman Catholic Church, the major Western denominations all shifted over the course of the 1970s to the modern three-year lectionary. The idea was to expose the average Christian to a greater quantity of Scripture, on the somewhat childish logic that more is better. The old 'Mass of the Catechumens', consisting of Epistle, Gospel and various prayers, was everywhere expanded into a rather protean 'Liturgy of the Word', consisting of Old Testament lesson, psalm, New Testament Lesson, and Gospel reading.

As any child gorging himself on ice cream will soon realise, however, you really can have too much of a good thing. The average Mass-goer is in no position to digest three largely unconnected texts, plus a psalm, all in the course of 20 minutes. I would confidently wager that polling would reveal that most Sunday church-goers of today could not recall even the most basic facts about the Gospel text a mere hour after leaving church. In the old one-year system, however, the inattentive churchgoer would only have to wait a year before hearing the same text again. Now he must wait three. Consequently, despite his exposure to a greater quantity of Scripture, he actually learns far less of it, and consequently is a spiritually impoverished creature.

But as much as the three-year lectionary presents a problem for the congregation, it presents an even greater problem for the poor preacher, who is now faced with the near impossible task of trying to tie together in his sermon three often unrelated texts1. He is not aided in this effort by the fact that the Collect of the day no longer collects together the theme of the Epistle and Gospel – indeed it cannot, since the theme of any given Sunday changes every year. Happy the preacher working with the one-year lectionary, who not only has far more cohesive material to craft his sermons around, but also has the opportunity to preach on the same texts year on year, in ever greater breadth and depth.

To those modern Western Christians who have never experienced the rhythm of a one-year lectionary, the shift to it can be a revelation. Ordinary Sundays, through sheer force of textual repetition, suddenly acquire a majesty and dignity all of their own. Just as our Eastern Orthodox brethren, who of course themselves use a one-year lectionary, have Sundays with titles such as 'Sunday of the Blind Man' or 'Sunday of the Paralytic' (named after miracles recounted in the Gospel of that day), so too over the years do we begin to anticipate the Gospel of the day, a part of its message already imprinted on our hearts by the unconscious learning of repeated years gone by. And if, by chance, we were distracted on Sunday, we can attend a weekday Mass and hear the same Epistle and Gospel text repeated again, sinking ever deeper and deeper into our souls.

Educational psychology is rarely mentioned in discussions of liturgy, perhaps for good reason. Yet the three-year lectionary and the modern form of the Mass contravenes some basic principles of the discipline. Cognitive load theory argues, on the basis of the empirically well-founded theory of working memory, that since we cannot simultaneously hold more than ten chunks of information in mind at once, teachers need to focus on direct instruction, repetition, and the committing of information to long-term memory, from whence it can be more easily recalled and manipulated. The modern Mass, with its proliferation of readings, stretches the cognitive capabilities even of the most intelligent congregation members beyond what they can bear.

In similar fashion, educational psychology also teaches us that repetition is essential for learning and, in particular, that spaced repetition is especially vital. We do not learn best from sudden bursts of cramming, but from encountering the material again and again, stretched out over weeks and months. The one-year lectionary evidently obeys this principle far more faithfully than the three-year lectionary, a true example of ancient wisdom according well, as is so often the case, with the findings of modern science.

The three-year lectionary was an unhappy and inorganic development in the history of the Western church. The misguided impulse to make the Sunday Mass the primary place of Christian instruction, when that noble work is better left to the Divine Office and, of course, individual and group study of the Bible and the Fathers, has proved catastrophic. Like other grotesque products of the 1970s, such as polyester chasubles and wooden chalices, it is best left in the landfill dump of history. Those priests who wish to deepen the faith of their congregations should, when possible, return to the one-year lectionary, or campaign for its restoration if they cannot.

More is not always better. The faithful will flourish from a deep engagement with the Scriptures, not endless shallow browsing, never pausing over one Scriptural passage before the grossly engorged lectionary whisks us off to the next. True learning, true fidelity to the Sacred Tradition and to Christ Himself, requires care and attention. It requires Scripture written into our hearts by frequent repetition. It demands the ancient, holy and venerable one-year lectionary.


1The three-year 'Revised Common Lectionary' comes in two flavours, Track One and Track Two. In the latter, at least an attempt has been made to ensure that the Old Testament lesson is in some way typologically related to the Gospel, though this has often been done rather badly. In the former, however, the Old Testament lessons for Trinitytide proceed on a scriptio continua principle and are often entirely unrelated to the Gospel. Track Two is that used by the Roman Catholic Church, but Track One seems quite popular in many Reformed denominations.

Andrew Sabisky

Writer on education, politics and defence

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