Most Church of England churches follow the Common Worship Lectionary for their Bible readings on Sundays. And most preachers, it seems, struggle to make sense of it. This is because they are haunted by the Alternative Service Book (ASB), which should have been thoroughly put to death in the year 2000, but which continues to exercise considerable influence.
But help is at hand, in the form of A Companion to Common Worship, Volume 1 (2001), specifically in Carolyn Headley’s chapter on ‘Preaching’. At the time, Carolyn Headley was Tutor in Liturgy and Spirituality at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (she is now a hospital chaplain). The following, from her chapter, has the potential to transform the preaching in many churches:
The CW Lectionary is radically different from that of the ASB (p. 95).
Outside particular seasons of the Church’s year, the readings at any service are chosen to run independently of one another, as part of separate series that run through several weeks, rather than relating to a common theme on one day … . After many years of theme-related readings in the ASB, this is going to confuse preachers who try to guess what theme it is that ties all the readings together (p. 96).
In other words, the key to preaching from the Common Worship Lectionary is this: there is (probably) no theme.
Practically, here are some hints for preachers:
- Don’t try to preach from all of the readings. One is probably enough. It doesn’t have to be the Gospel reading!
- Look at the lectionary for the surrounding weeks, to see which series (plural) are currently in progress.
- Co-ordinate with other preachers to decide which readings to use for the sermons. For example, the lectionary is currently taking us through 1 and 2 Samuel, Ephesians, and John 6, and it makes most sense to pick just one set of readings to use over the summer as the basis for the sermons.
- Co-ordinate with service leaders, musicians, etc, to give some coherence to the service. For example, if the preaching is on the New Testament reading, it makes little sense to have all of the hymns based on the (unrelated) Gospel reading. (Or, worse – as I have experienced – for all of the hymns to be based on the completely unrelated theme of the equivalent Sunday in the ASB, because the hymn book with suggested hymns for each Sunday was published prior to the year 2000!)
A couple of comments to explain a bit more about the Common Worship Lectionary:
- The Psalm is always chosen to be a response to the Old Testament reading.
- For much of the year, there are two alternatives: ‘Continuous’ and ‘Related’. This affects only the Old Testament reading (and its associated Psalm). On the ‘Continuous’ track, the Old Testament reading follows its own series (currently, 1 and 2 Samuel). On the ‘Related’ track, the Old Testament reading is chosen based on the Gospel reading. The latter gives a bit more coherence to the readings, but deprives the congregation of the opportunity to be exposed to the Old Testament in its own right.