When it comes to preaching, is it sermons from The Lectionary or discreet Themes that get your vote?
For many years a typical Sunday at church for me would involve listening to someone preach through either a theme or else a large chunk of a whole book of the bible. In the kinds of churches I attended, you'd be likely to receive a list of themes in advance, in the form of an attractive coloured leaflet, so keen people (yes, I confess I was one) could look up the preacher's theme that week. When it came to whole books (six week on Ephesians - hooray!) I don't know how the vicar decided which to choose, but, being a gently charismatic sort of Christian, I simply assumed they listened to the Holy Spirit on that one. Such innocent days...
Knowing in advance what was being covered gave you a sense of something systematic and was very stimulating. Need five weeks on being a Christian at work? No problem. Not read Habakkuk for while? Never fear, the preacher had it covered. Exodus would take longer, granted, but you get my drift.
I thought this was what happened in all churches till I started going to village church. At village church, I experienced a sense of fogginess and losing the thread, as week by week it wasn't immediately obvious why we were having, say, something from Matthew one month followed by something from somewhere else the next, with no discernible pattern. I was no doubt unobservant, unlucky or just very dense, but it didn't occur to me till I was training for going into the church myself, that there was a thing called a Lectionary and people simply followed the set reading each week and after three years, they would theoretically have heard the preacher steam through the whole bible. What a great plan!
And there was more. I remember the first time someone turned to me in the theological college chapel to ask, nonchalantly, 'Which year are we on?' I looked completely baffled, thinking what planet is she on, clearly we're still in 2007. She eventually explained that the Lectionary readings rotate every three years: Years A, B and C. I was grateful for the enlightenment. There was clearly more to the C of E than first met the eye.
For the record, I will also always be extremely grateful to the person who patiently explained to me what a Canticle was for, and why it was that in The Daily Office, different bits of the bible were called, confusingly, different names, viz. Psalms, Readings, Canticles and The Gospel, though to me, they were all just 'a bible reading'.
The first time I had to prepare worship for other ordinands, just following the Lectionary, and not around a theme, I confess I was completely at sea. It seemed so prosaic, so unimaginative, so non-creative.
I got used to it.
So is it Themes or the Lectionary? Which is best? There's a possible tension between different churchmanship here. Are you more evangelical (themes) than Anglican (set readings)? Or are you the other way round? Honestly, I cannot rightly say any more.
Since I've now preached twice through the entirety of Years A, B and C, I'm quite at ease with the Lectionary. In fact I have umpteen sets of sermons filed on my laptop under A, B and C. And they can even, in some circumstances (say it in hushed tones) be re-used. The Lectionary also has the wonderful advantage of relieving the pressure to invent the wheel every Sunday, which thinking up themes threatens. Even the most creative amongst us get tired. And preaching from set readings is a good discipline.
Another upside of the 'Common Lectionary' is the sense of solidarity with other preachers all over the country, even world, being formed around the same reading week by week, especially if you're in the Early Morning Sermon Club on Twitter, which is an attractive, yet for me, very scary prospect. Not being a morning person, this isn't really an option, but I like the idea of those clerics that are on Twitter at 6.30am on a Sunday, hurriedly writing their last minute sermons 'together'. It must be nice and communal.
I suppose the downside of the Lectionary is that unless your parishioners go out and buy one themselves, or go online and work it out, people may well be sitting there on a Sunday morning quite oblivious to where we're at each week, preaching-wise. And as a feature of multi-parish rural ministry is multiple services in different buildings, your continuity can get upset anyway, which makes remembering where we are in the preaching pattern tricky. In point of fact, sometimes we can't even remember which building we're in, let alone which book of the bible we're in.
Tension between the Lectionary and discreet themes was highlighted in this week's Church Times column. The writer complained about the profusion of themed Sundays the church seems to be bombarded with - Sea Sunday, Education Sunday, Racial Justice Sunday, Homeless Sunday - to name a few. Glossy leaflets come through clerics' doors, or we get emails urging us to engage with whatever Sunday is coming up, and I have some sympathy with her frustration, up to a point.
She lamented the 'agendas of a themed Sunday': 'they are a chance to put ourselves on the side of the nice and the good, to think well of ourselves by what has become known as virtue signalling'. A bit harsh? For although it might take more effort to depart from your usual reading, what themed Sundays say to me is, the Church has something to say on important topics that people on the fringe of the church also value. Themes like race, education and homelessness are bridges across which the less churched and the unchurched might walk. In all the writer's critique, there was no mention of the missiological possibilities of a themed Sunday. Instead the implication was that they were gimmicks.
Mothering Sunday and Remembrance are themed Sundays and, though amongst the hardest in the Church Year to pull off well, are often those which are the most 'permeable', attendance-wise. You can invite someone to Mothering Sunday and it might just connect with them. You see people at Remembrance who might not otherwise come, because it's a theme we all understand. So from the point of view of mission, aren't themes advantageous?
The writer reserved special ire for 'new seasons'. Apparently there's such a thing as Creation Season now, something to do with the present Pope. Seeing as the threat of ecological armageddon is real these days, it would seem a good idea...
But there was a small concession in the aforementioned 'liturgical rant' (her words): Kingdom Season was at least welcomed as an 'opportunity to wear the under-used red vestments'.
I admit, I felt mildly depressed. I had to ask myself, generally speaking, is my priestly heart beating that little bit faster at the thought of connecting, through a shared theme, with people outside the church?
I had to ask myself, generally speaking, is my heart beating that little bit faster at the thought of wearing liturgical red?
It's probably just me, but that's the truth. Maybe I'm not so Anglican after all...