Since You Asked... November 2006

October 31, 2006

Q: "We were greeted in our first service this fall with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. How did this come about, and why did our parish change from the beautiful King James version we’re so familiar with?" 

The Rev. Louis Weil of Church Divinity School of the Pacific responds:

A: I need to begin by making a clarification.  The writer has brought together two things that are, in fact, not directly connected.

The King James version of the Bible is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, hallowed by centuries of use both in the Anglican tradition and in other churches as well. The Revised Common Lectionary is not a translation but is a lectionary: that is, a selection of readings from both testaments that have been organized for systematic proclamation when Christians gather for worship.

In other words, RCL does not necessarily presume that any particular translation will be used, and it would be possible theoretically for the appointed selections in RCL to be used in a church in which the King James version continues in use. 

I begin with this important distinction because the questioner clearly has love for the King James version, which has a long history of use in Anglican liturgical worship. 

There have been, however, many different translations of the Holy Scriptures that have been used in Christian worship over the centuries, including quite a number in English. Many people are acquainted with the Revised Standard Version and its recent revision the New Revised Standard Version. 

Among Roman Catholics, the New American Bible and the Jerusalem Bible both have attracted wide use.  A popular version in very simple English is the Good News Bible. My point is that translation has gone on constantly as Christians have tried to engage the Hebrew and Greek originals as faithfully as possible.

Similarly, there has been a long history in the development of lectionaries.  One of the great accomplishments of the liturgical movement of the past century has been, in all of the liturgical churches, to expand the quantity of Scripture that is read in public worship.  It was for that reason that the three-year lectionary was developed in which liturgical readings appointed for corporate worship expose our congregations to a much larger range of Scripture than we knew previously.

Some of our readers may remember that, in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the readings appointed for the Sunday Eucharist included only Epistle and Gospel readings.  The lectionary in the 1979 BCP changed that in two significant ways: by adopting the three-year cycle and by including a reading from the Old Testament for the principal Sunday liturgy. 

The Revised Common Lectionary is the work of the Consultation on Common Texts, which originated in the 1960s as a broadly ecumenical organization representing many Christian traditions. Their goal was to develop a common lectionary that would be used by as many of those traditions as possible so that on Sundays, when Christian gather in their various churches, they would hear the same Scripture readings proclaimed.

The writer who asked the question would probably not have any argument with these developments. What I hear in the question is rather a feeling of loss of the beauty of the King James version that has for so long been the primary language of proclamation in English for persons of Christian faith.

This is a concern which should not be taken lightly, because it is through our liturgical language that we give voice to that faith.  This is a continuing challenge as the church seeks to proclaim the Holy Scriptures in language that can be understood by the people gathered and that expresses as accurately as possible the meaning of the original texts.   Yet our language needs also to convey “the beauty of holiness” that has for centuries been characteristic of Anglican liturgical prayer.

-- The Rev. Louis Weil, James F. Hodges professor of liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., is author of A Theology of Worship from the New Church’s Teaching Series, Cowley Publications, among others.