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The Origin and Purpose of the Revised Common Lectionary

Mon, Jan 18, 2016

The Revised Common Lectionary1 was published by the Consultation on Common Texts2 in 1992 after six years of testing and feedback from their original lectionary introduced in 1983. The purpose of the RCL was to revive a pattern for eschatological reflection in the church by focusing Christians each Sunday on where they exist in time, what has come before, and what will come at the end. By leading Christians through Christ’s “birth, baptism, ministry, death, and resurrection,”3 the RCL ultimately sought “to lead God’s people to a deeper knowledge of Christ and faith in him.”4

Christians had been devising systemic tables of weekly scripture study since the early years of the church; however, the RCL most directly traces its origins to the Roman Catholic Church’s lectionary of 1969. In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church produced a new lectionary in response to the 1963 call from Vatican II to increase the love and use of scripture in worship and preaching. Within a decade many American Protestant churches had adopted their own version of the Roman lectionary, making slight modifications where it was seen necessary for their tradition. The was an encouraging sign of ecumenism among the Christians in North America, but also caused some issues. As the various lectionary versions used by the many denominations all slightly differed, it made cooperation between church bodies difficult.

It was quickly apparent that there was a need and strong desire for the standardization of Sunday lectionary readings in the North America. In 1978 the CCT setup a working group to devise a shared lectionary for North American Christians. Representatives from the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant mainline worked together to review and revise the 1969 Roman lectionary for broader use. The initial product of this work was released in 1983 as the Common Lectionary.

From its release, the Common Lectionary was known to be a temporary solution. The workgroup established by the CCT requested that churches use the new lectionary for a time and provide critical feedback from their experience. After two three-year cycles all the feedback given about the Common Lectionary was compiled and the committee went to work on reviewing and integrating testers responses and proposals. In 1992 the committee’s work was released as the Revised Common Lectionary.

The influence of the Roman Catholic Lectionary of 1969 is seen very clearly in the RCL. From the beginning the lectionary committee of the CCT knew they wanted to fully integrate the Roman lectionary’s pattern of a three-year cycle focusing on one synoptic gospel each year. The committee removed many thematic festivals from the calendar so that a more continuous flow of readings throughout the year would be given. Old Testament readings in the RCL were devised to compliment the gospel reading of the day and to facilitate a continuous thematic message between the scripture readings for traditions where that was important. In the RCL focus was given to weekly Psalms in the hope that it would lead to the recovery of sung psalmody in Sunday worship.

The RCL was designed to be used in liturgical worship services of word and sacrament, but also in more homiletical uses for traditions that only have a Sunday service of word. From its origins in a Roman revival of Bible use in worship to its ecumenical modifications and practical revisions after years of use, the RCL represents a remarkable example of Christ’s church working as one body to lead his flock to deeper reflection in his ancient and ongoing narrative.


Update, 2017-04-25 Since I wrote this essay, I have developed my own online tool, LectServe, for referencing the RCL & the Anglican derivative. Check it out at LectServe.com and/or read about how I created it on my blog.


  1. Hereafter RCL [return]
  2. Hereafter CCT [return]
  3. “The Revised Common Lectionary: Consultation on Common Texts.” Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary. 1992. Accessed January 18, 2016. http://www.commontexts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RCL_Introduction_Web.pdf, 7. [return]
  4. Ibid., 4. [return]