Why do United Methodists use the Revised Common Lectionary?

A lectionary is a listing of readings from the Bible to be used on particular Sundays or days of the Christian Year. The first Methodist churches in the United States were given a lectionary to use by John Wesley, based on the one-year lectionary found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.

We do not know how well early Methodist elders in the US followed the lectionary. We do know that in 1792, the General Conference all but abandoned Wesley’s Sunday Service, including its lectionary. From that time forward the instruction was to read one chapter out of the Old Testament and one out of the New each Sunday, and for the sermon to be based on either or both of those readings. One might say at that point Methodists in the United States shifted from having a lectionary (a specific list of readings) to a rule for scripture reading during public worship. German-speaking Methodists, who were part of what would become The United Brethren and The Evangelical Association, generally followed suit.

Methodists in America would not have another lectionary for every Sunday as part of their hymnal until the 1935/1939 Hymnal of The Methodist Church (and its predecessor bodies) which included a listing of Old Testament readings and a suggested assignment of them to each Sunday of the Christian Year. The 1945 Book of Worship  marked the reintroduction of a full lectionary, with two readings for each Sunday, usually one from the Epistles and a Gospel reading, though occasionally (at most three times per year) a reading from Isaiah or Jeremiah as well. This one-year lectionary followed a pattern like the lectionary originally provided by John Wesley from the Book of Common Prayer, except the 1784 lectionary included no readings from the Old Testament.

The 1965 Book of Worship marked the first introduction of what could be described as a “full lectionary” in the pattern we have it today, with an Old Testament Reading, a Psalm responding to it, a reading from one of the Epistles, and a Gospel reading assigned for each Sunday. If not in content, in the sheer volume of scripture to be read in each service, this Methodist lectionary perhaps best combined the form of the original lectionary and the intent of the 1792 General Conference that substantial readings (a full chapter) from both the Old and the New Testament be part of worship each Sunday.

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The 1965 lectionary, however, was still a one year lectionary, and it was fairly unique to The Methodist Church. That would mean if a congregation were using it, they would hear the same scriptures year after year, and therefore only a very limited set of readings overall. It would also mean that those attending a Methodist congregation may or may not hear the same scriptures as their Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, or Catholic neighbors on a given Sunday.

After the Second Vatican Council proposed a full three-year lectionary with many more readings than before and published it in 1969, Protestant worship officers and leaders in the US and Canada began to discuss how they might use the Catholic three-year lectionary as a basis for an ecumenical three-year lectionary, and created the Consultation on Common Texts as an ecumenical body with Catholic representatives from the US and Canada to take on the challenge. United Methodists were actively involved as members of the Consultation. Together they released a first version of their lectionary, The Common Lectionary, in 1983, with the hope that churches and denominational leaders who would try it over a period of at least two full cycles (6 years) and provide feedback about what worked, what didn’t work, and what would make the lectionary more useful. With six years of feedback in hand and more coming in regularly, the Consultation began work on what would become The Revised Common Lectionary, finalized in 1992.

Because of heavy United Methodist involvement and the growing ecumenical commitments of the denomination, the 1988 General Conference authorized including the Psalter of the Common Lectionary in the current hymnal. And as the lectionary was nearing its completion, the 1992 General Conference approved and recommended the use of a late draft of the Revised Common Lectionary as part of its new (and current) Book of Worship
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.