Book Review: Paul Turner’s Biography of the Eucharistic Lectionaries

In 1969 the Roman Catholic church approved the Sunday and weekday Mass lectionaries that were the result of experimentation that had begun in the 1950s. They were the fruit of the Second Vatican Council and the Consilium that worked from 1964 – 1969 on the lectionaries. In 1979 The Church of England authorised the weekday Mass lectionary which then appeared in the Alternative Service Book of 1980. Later the three year Sunday cycle in the form of the Revised Common Lectionary was adopted as the Sunday Lectionary for Anglicans in England and at different times in much of the world.

Paul Turner has done a great service in producing this aptly named ‘biography’ of these lectionaries by examining the work of Study Group 11, the sub group of the Consilium entrusted with the work of liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council.

There had been, in fact, only a single sentence in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) mandating reform of the lectionaries for Mass:

“In liturgical celebrations, a more ample, more varied, and more suitable selection of readings from sacred Scripture should be restored.” (35)

Turner has examined the official record of the work of Sub Group 11 and created a history of their work; it is in that sense that it is a biography. This is not a commentary on the readings and it does not provide devotional material on them.

Several things stand out for me from Turner’s work:

Sub Group 11 was deeply ecumenical in its regard to the lectionaries of other churches; they were very aware of liturgical history and developments in the reformed and Anglican churches.

I am constantly surprised to be reminded of the deeply experimental work that was the fruit of the liturgical movement in the 1950’s. Sub Group 11 was not starting from scratch.

There was a deep regard to work with and from Tradition in the work of the members of the sub-group. The final section of Turner’s book is a Dossier documenting the work that the members of the sub group had published on liturgical lectionaries before being invited to join and form the group.

The emphasis of Vatican 2 to make the liturgy a participation in the paschal mystery is the fundamental drive of those compiling the lectionaries.

A real pastoral concern for what is suitable for parishes comes through at very turn.

Much thought was given to ways in which the lectionary of the previous Missal (largely the same as that used by Anglicans in the Book of Common Prayer) could be preserved in the new lectionary. There was for a time the idea that the older lectionary be one year of a three or four year cycle. In the end although many pericopes were preserved on their original days – notably in Lent – in general the new lectionaries were just new.

To give you a sample of the style of Turner’s work and the content it holds here is a random section from page 256 dealing with the use of the Gospel of Matthew on the weekdays of Ordinary Time (here in the 20th week):

The gospel for Monday of the twentieth week (19:16-22) appeared in none of the drafts. Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s (19: 23-30 and 20: 1-16) were in all but the first, which moved several verses (19:27-29) to the eschatalogical weeks. Thursday’s (22:1-14) was in the last two drafts. The first draft assigned some verses 22:2-3,8-14) to an eschatalogical week, but the second and third drafts puts them in semi-continuous order. The first draft called for similar verses in the last of its escahatological weeks (22:1-10). This passage skips several that the drafts proposed (21:28-31 and 21:33-43 in the first; and 20: 17-19; 20:29-34; 21:18-22; and 21:28-32 in the others).

This is only part of a single paragraph. It is, as you can see, detailed stuff.

At first I had thought that I would only recommend this book to liturgical geeks. But I think it has a wider value than that. The introductory section on the Conception of the new lectionaries and the Concluding Observations provide profound insight on the use of Scripture in liturgy. But more than that this detailed analysis of why passages of Scripture ended up being used on certain days provides new insights into the texts themselves and how they are being read christologically, as our participation in the paschal mystery, and ecclesiologically, as our sharing in the life of the church.

I have written before on lectionaries.There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect lectionary. I particularly like the two year cycle of readings for the Office of Readings which I think ideally needs to be used alongside the lectionary at Mass to provide longer passages, and in particular material from the histoical books of the Old Testament which are largely omitted from the Mass lectionaries.

Here, at Llandaff Cathedral, we have recently started using the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary at both Morning Prayer (which is combined with the Eucharist) and Evensong. So those of us who attend both hear the same readings twice. I find it really helpful to have this element of repetition which is an important pedagogical principle. The readings are of a digestible length both for the children in our choir and for those of us who gather in the mornings for whom I hope that the liturgy can be contained to thirty minutes. We also try and preach briefly on the Scripture readings. Because the gospel readings are in a one year cycle and for the seasons of the year outside of Ordinary Time so are the first readings, the principle of repetition is largely met. It also ensures that those who attend only Evensong (choristers, choir parents, clerks, many visitors) hear a portion of the gospel every day. For the clergy I would recommend using the two year cycle of the Office of Readings at a Daytime Office or an Office of Readings before Morning Prayer, more about lectionaries can be found on my blog here. I remain concerned about the three year cycle of the Sunday Mass lectionary and would consider moving to the traditional one year cycle with Old Testament readings (see the 1984 Book of Common Prayer of the Church in Wales, which Bangor Cathedral have already returned to).

I firmly recommend Turner’s book to everyone interested in lectionaries and to those fascinated by the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century. It needs to be read in conjunction with Annibale Bugnini’s The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, which is essential reading.

I also recommend Turner’s work to those of us who simply use this lectionary. I will be keeping it in my stall and reading the section on the relevant weeks of the church’s year. Understanding why and how choices were made is deeply informative and enriching of our understanding of the liturgy and its effect on us as participants in the life of the church .

A further review of this book may be found on the Pray Tell Blog here.


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