The new lectionary: For whose needs?

Thomas O’Loughlin asks whether a single translation of the lectionary can answer our liturgical needs, or do we need different translations for the actual occasions in which it will be heard?

The decision of the English and Scottish bishops to opt for the ‘English Standard Version’ for a new printing of the lectionary brought many questions about the liturgy into the limelight. The two most prominent have been about the process – or lack thereof – of consultation in this matter and the fact that the new lectionary uses gendered language.

However, this debate – for all its validity – does not see that the bishops may have made an even greater blunder in not recognising the real problems that reading the Scriptures in a lectionary poses. With all the focus on ‘which translation’, are we missing the bigger question – do we need more than one translation?

Picking a version
First, the very idea that it is a matter of ‘deciding on a version’ is itself a decision that is not intrinsically either liturgical or biblical: it is simply a reflex from the world of printing during the Renaissance when both Catholics and Protestants printed out lections in full. The essence of a lectionary is not a large book of snippets, but a list of biblical texts arranged according to a plan. Bible translations can come and go, but a lectionary can be used with any of them. The lectionary is both the list and its rationale; it is only by derivation a book of printed readings. This might seem obvious, but it is noticeable in debates about picking translations that many who have strong feelings about versions have little appreciation of the lectionary’s architecture.

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