The Lectionary

The Revised Common Lectionaryand the Christian calendar


1      Some users of ROOTS have raised queries about various aspects of The Revised Common Lectionary(RCL) and the calendar that underlies it. This article seeks to answer the basic queries. For more detailed information, readers should consult The Revised Common Lectionary(Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1992).

2      The Revised Common Lectionarywas developed in North America by the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) from a 1983 'Common Lectionary' (CL) which itself leaned heavily on the 1969 Lectionary for Massused by the Roman Catholic Church. Both CL and RCL are used by many Protestant churches, particularly in North America, and RCL has now been adopted by many British churches.

The calendar (the Christian year)

3      The observance of the Christian calendar is an ancient feature of the church's life. It enables us, in an ordered way, to hear the great story of salvation, celebrate God's mighty acts and be led into a deeper knowledge and love of Christ.

4      Most Christian calendars over the centuries have been based around the two key festivals of Christmas and Lent-Easter-Pentecost. The former is fixed to a secular date (25 December) while the latter moves to reflect the lunar cycle that determined the date of the Jewish Passover and hence of the events of Holy Week and Easter.

5      Eastern and Western calendars differ mainly because of the adoption in the West of the Gregorian calendar. Over the centuries there have also been variations in the length of the seasons associated with each main festival. And different Calendars have treated the time between the major festivals differently. The Book of Common Prayer(1549, 1552 and 1662), which influenced most non-Roman Catholic calendars in Britain, had 'Sundays after Epiphany' until Septuagesima (the ninth Sunday before Easter) and 'Sundays after Trinity' (Trinity Sunday being the Sunday after Pentecost) until Advent Sunday (the fourth Sunday before Christmas).

Preparation before Advent prior to the RCL

6      More recently, many British Christians became familiar with nine Sundays of preparation before Christmas as recommended by the Joint Liturgical Group (JLG) in the 1960s and adopted, for example, in the Methodist Service Book(1975) and the Church of England's Alternative Service Book(1980).

Adoption of the RCL

7      Now, however, most British churches have adopted RCL or a variant of it. The Book of Common Orderof the Church of Scotland (St Andrews Press, Edinburgh, 1994) uses RCL. The Church of England published a variant of RCL in The Christian Year: Calendar, Lectionary and Collects(Church House Publishing, 1997) and repeated it in Common Worship. The Methodist Worship Book(Methodist Publishing House, Peterborough, 1999) uses RCL for its Principal Service lectionary.

The seasons in the RCL

8      The RCL Calendar reverts to a more traditional four Sundays of Advent. The Calendar begins with Advent Sunday, initiating a season of penitence and preparation. This leads to Christmas and Epiphany when we celebrate the Incarnation, God's supreme self-revelation. After Christmas, RCL offers a choice between a short season ending with the Epiphany (6 January) and a longer season running to the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. But in either case a period of 'Ordinary' or 'Proper' time[1]follows before the preparatory season of Lent, a period of forty weekdays that reflect the forty days which Jesus spent in the desert. Passiontide begins on the fifth Sunday of Lent and culminates in the commemoration of the crucifixion on Good Friday. The great fifty days of Easter are a celebration of Christ's resurrection. Following the chronology in Acts, the Ascension is celebrated on the fortieth day and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth, the Day of Pentecost. The following Sunday has developed into Trinity Sunday, after which we return to ordinary time until Advent begins again.

Transition between seasons and ordinary time: Transfiguration, Baptism of Christ, Trinity Sunday, Christ the King

9      On the Sunday before Lent, RCL offers the option (adopted by all the non-Roman Catholic traditions in Britain) of celebrating the Transfiguration. Other Sundays also provide a degree of transition between the seasons and ordinary time. Thus the Sunday after the Epiphany celebrates the Baptism of Christ, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday and the Sunday before Advent celebrates Christ the King.

Weekday festivals in the RCL

10    RCL makes provision for a modest selection of weekday festivals. These are Christmas Day, the Holy Name of Jesus (1 January), New Year's Day (1 January), the Epiphany of the Lord, Ash Wednesday, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, the Ascension of the Lord, All Saints Day (1 November) and Thanksgiving Day (which has different dates in Canada and the USA). Except for the last, most of these weekdays have been incorporated in British versions of RCL lectionaries. The Common Worshiplectionary provides for many more weekday events, mostly Saints Days.

The Lectionary

Range of readings for each Sunday

11    The RCL lectionary normally provides four passages for any given Sunday or festival. These are an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage (not being from a Gospel) and a Gospel passage. There are, however, exceptions. Some lections (readings) are chosen from the Apocrypha (though in such cases an alternative canonical OT lection is always provided). Old Testament lections give way to lections from the Acts of the Apostles from Easter Day to Pentecost. On certain Sundays in Advent, Old and New Testament canticles are used in place of the Psalm. In a few cases, options are provided on the length of passages.

Thematic and continuous lectionaries

12    A thematic lectionary selects lections according to a theme for any given Sunday or festival. A continuous lectionary selects lections so that lessons follow one another Sunday by Sunday in Bible order. The JLG lectionaries used by many British churches in the final part of the twentieth century[2]were largely thematic. The RCL lectionary is broadly thematic in the seasons (Advent to the end of January and Lent/Easter/Pentecost) and semi-continuous (at least for the epistle and gospel readings) in 'ordinary' time. One consequence is that in ordinary time there is no link between the gospel and the epistle. Nor is there a link with the Old Testament lection unless the 'related' track is followed.

The RCL's three-year cycle

13    RCL operates on a three-year cycle. The first Year A began in 1992, so Year A begins on the First Sunday in Advent in 2004, 2007, 2010 and so on. Most of the Gospel readings in Year A are from Matthew, in Year B from Mark and in Year C from Luke. Readings from John occur in all three years. Much of the lectionary is offered in a semi-continuous form, following a particular book from Sunday to Sunday. Essentially in 'ordinary' time we read more or less continuously those passages from the Gospel for the year that have not been used in seasons. The epistles are also normally read semi-continuously.

Continuous and related tracks in ordinary time

14    During the greater part of ordinary time, RCL offers two sets of readings. In one track, usually described as 'continuous', the Old Testament reading forms part of a semi-continuous series. In the other, described as 'related', the Old Testament reading is linked with the Gospel, either thematically or because the Gospel alludes to or quotes from a particular OT passage. In both tracks the Psalm is chosen to relate to the Old Testament lection.

Second and Third Services

15    RCL provides readings for only one service on any given Sunday (or weekday festival, and for most weekday festivals the lections apply to all three years of the lectionary). The Church of England has developed lectionaries for Second and Third Services, which follow broadly the same principles as RCL but tend to use longer passages and to include a good deal of material omitted from RCL. The Methodist Worship Book (1999) includes the Church of England's Second Service lectionary as well as the Principal Service lectionary. The Church of England has also created a lectionary for weekday festivals (which appears in the main volume of Common Worship) and daily lectionary which was formally authorized by the General Synod on February 2005.

Variants from RCL in Common Worship

16    Some British churches have adopted RCL without amendment. But the Church of England has made a number of changes. In particular, it:

•             creates a Second Sunday before Lent with lections around the theme of 'creation';

•             alters some of the lections in the Sundays after Epiphany (notably in Year B where on 3 Sundays lections from Revelation replace those from 1 Corinthians) and in the last few Sundays before Advent;

•             initially used a calendar rule which meant that when Epiphany fell on a Sunday, the Baptism of Christ was celebrated on Monday 7 January; in those years from the Epiphany until Lent the Church of England used the RCL lections a week earlier than other users of RCL. The General Synod has now amended this rule so as to bring CW users into line with other users of RCL;

•             provides an Old Testament alternative to the readings from the Acts in the Easter Season;adds an option of Bible Sunday in late October (mainly to avoid celebrating Bible Sunday in Advent); and

•             reinstates some optional verses in RCL lections.

Some explanation of the Church of England variants can be found in the commentary by the Liturgical Commission which begins on page 241 of The Christian Year: Calendar, Lectionary and Collects(Church House Publishing, 1997).

The Roman Catholic Church and the RCL

17    The lectionary used by the Roman Catholic Church is frequently close to RCL, but it is distinct and there are a number of differences between it and RCL proper. ROOTS hope to undertake further work to flag up Roman Catholic variations in the magazine and on the website.

Naming of Sundays

18    RCL provides for a number of different ways of naming Sundays and British churches that have adopted RCL have added their own additional variants.  As a result, although different churches usually use the same lections on any given Sunday, they often use different names for those Sundays. Churches are fairly, though not totally, consistent about how they name the Sundays between Advent Sunday and Epiphany and between the Sunday before Lent and Trinity Sunday - those being the periods when the RCL Calendar and Lectionary both follow an ecclesiastical calendar path. But matters are much more complicated in 'ordinary time' when lectionary passages are chosen by reference, not to the ecclesiastical calendar, but according to the secular calendar. Hence passages are set for 'the Sunday between 3 July and 9 July inclusive' rather than for a named Sunday. For this reason outside the seasons the secular date is often used instead of naming a Sunday and most users can ignore the differences in naming conventions. But since some reference books adopt one or other of the various conventions, and for those who wish to know the details, points 13 to 17 below compare the naming conventions used by RCL proper (RCL), the Methodist Worship Book(MWB) and Common Worship(CW). Common Order(CO) follows RCL unless otherwise indicated. Roman Catholics use a version of the Ordinary Time convention but they call them 'Sundays of the Year'.

19    The calendar begins with the First Sunday of Advent and continues to the Fourth Sunday of Advent. British users of RCL have followed the RCL convention for the names of the Sundays in Advent. RCL uses the titles First (and Second, where there is a Second Sunday before 6 January) Sunday after Christmas. MWB and CW call them the First and Second Sundays of Christmas

20    RCL calls the five Sundays after 6 January the First to Fifth Sundays after the Epiphany but allows them also to be called the First to Fifth Sundays in Ordinary Time (the first being the Sunday between 7 and 13 January). CW calls them Sundays of Epiphany while MWB gives priority to the secular date but also uses the Ordinary Time convention. RCL continues with Sundays after the Epiphany until the Sunday before Lent (called the Last Sunday after the Epiphany) but also allows both the Ordinary Time convention and an alternative Proper Time convention (Proper 1 in RCL being the Sunday between 11 and 17 February and equivalent to the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time). MWB continues with Ordinary Time Sundays until the Sunday before Lent (so called). CW uses both 'Nth Sunday before Lent' and a (confusing) variant of the Proper naming convention but alters the dates in RCL[3] and provides for a 'Second Sunday before Lent' as well as for the 'Sunday next before Lent' (see paragraph 16 above).

21    RCL calls the Sundays in Lent 'First, etc. Sunday inLent' and MWB follows RCL.  CW calls them Sundays ofLent. The Fifth Sunday of Lent is so called in RCL, CW and MWB. CW adds that Passiontide begins on that day and MWB offers 'First Sunday of the Passion' as an alternative title. RCL calls the following Sunday the 'Sixth Sunday in Lent' but offers as alternative titles 'Passion Sunday' or 'Palm Sunday'. MWB calls it 'Sixth Sunday in Lent (Second Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday) whilst CW opts for 'Palm Sunday'.

22    Easter Day is universally given that title. The following Sundays are equally universally the Sundays of Easter (the Sunday following Easter Day being the Second Sunday of Easter (since Easter Day itself is clearly the first Sunday of the Easter Season). RCL calls the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost 'Seventh Sunday of Easter'. MWB adds that it is the 'Sunday in Ascensiontide' while CW adds that it is the 'Sunday after Ascension Day'.

23    RCL and CW call the next Sunday the 'Day of Pentecost' (CW adding as a second title 'Whit Sunday'). MWB calls it 'Pentecost'. The next Sunday is universally 'Trinity Sunday' (though RCL adds as a second title 'First Sunday after Pentecost'). From Trinity Sunday to Advent Sunday, lections follow calendar dates and CO uses only those calendar dates without giving these Sundays any names. MWB uses the Ordinary Time convention (the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time being the Sunday between 29 May and 4 June, if it falls after Trinity Sunday and equivalent to Proper 4). From this point on CW diverges considerably because the primary title for the following Sundays is 'Nth Sunday after Trinity' (and the CW collects are attached to Sundays after Trinity rather than to the lectionary Sunday). RCL uses the titles 'Sundays after Pentecost' for the Second Sunday after Pentecost until Advent begins. CW uniquely begins a new naming convention with the Fourth Sunday before Advent (between 30 October and 5 November, but only used if All Saints Day is celebrated on 1 November) and then counts down to Advent Sunday.


24    From the beginning it was agreed that Roots, as an ecumenical resource, should follow the agreed ecumenical version of RCL. Church of England variants to the Gospel reading are covered on the Rootsweb site where possible. The range of variation in the naming of Sundays means that we cannot accede to requests from some readers for the Sunday names to be given in Roots!

Dudley Coates


This resource is taken from and is copyright © Dudley Coates 2003/2005.

[1]  An explanation of the difference between the 'ordinary' and 'proper' systems of counting is set out later in this article in the section Naming of Sundays.  For convenience, I use 'ordinary' alone in the remainder of this article.

[2]  The Methodist Service Book (1975) and the Church of England's Alternative Service Book (1980) both used the original two-year JLG lectionary while both the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church commended the revised four-year JLG lectionary in the 1990s.

[3]  CW's Proper 1, for example, falls between 3 and 9 February, a full eight days earlier than RCL's Proper 1.

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