So, why readings?

A liturgical thought for Unitarian Universalists and, by extension, not a small number of Christians.

Why do we have long readings — often two, sometimes three — in our services?

  • Almost everone in worship is literate; that is, worshippers can read long passages for themselves.
  • These books are in print, Bibles or otherwise. The Mary Jones days are behind us.
  • Too often, they have no other purpose than to source a sermon. Why not embed the important parts — that will like be repeated anyway — in the sermon?
  • A long reading, not to mention plural readings, are hard to remember and are rarely a delight, even when declamed well, which is rare. And in many Unitarian Universalist congregations they function as a spoken anthem, or a pre-sermon.

Perhaps that’s a side effect — both on the Unitarian and Universalist side — of publishing sermons and commending them to be read in mission churches where a preacher could not go, or go regularly. (Unitarians tended towards pamphlets; Universalists, in newspapers.) On the other hand, Protestant responses to the Liturgical Movement — to which Unitarian Universalists are not immune; stoles, anyone? — have tended towards longer and more readings, a tendency I think of as the cod liver oil approach.  (Get as much down their throats as they can bear.)

So it may shock some of you — I use the Revised Common Lectionary for preaching texts after all — but I’m about ready to suggest we dispense with the reading of the lessons, unless some reason can be found to maintain them where they are.

Categorized as Bible, Worship

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I take it you are nearing your limit with the readings sans lectionary because there is in most cases no compelling reason to begin with the reading as it is in no way authoritative nor do we even imagine that the selected reading is some common source of guidance over which many in the congregation have reflected and pondered as they seek to better plumb the depths of the passage rather the reading is selected like an appetizer or side dish – chosen for how nicely in compliments the main dish of the sermon either reinforcing the point a preacher wishes to expound on or occasionally to round out the empty spots it would have been nice for the sermon to have addressed but since it didn’t “Bam!” reading. Of course all this would be overlooking the meaningful treatment of a slurry of haphazardly assembled civic observances of individual worth in many cases but ordered together over a year they produce no greater unified narrative nor approximation of a robust treatment of the range of existential encounters that pepper our lives they are just there where they landed in an effort to fill in some moments of unified reverence and fun in our nations humorless calendar so bereft of festival and celebration for the first half of our existence.

  2. I treat the RCL as a matter of discipline, so not to get into a small “greatest hits” rotation. I did this in the pastorate, but it may be more important now that I preach only very occasionally.

    And I don’t recall where I heard this, but I take it to heart: don’t preach on national holidays. There are other places in the service to commemorate them, if need be.

  3. I think the short answer is that because spoken language is different than written language. Hearing someone read something is different than reading it to yourself silently. That said, I think we are in agreement as to length.

  4. My caveats are a bit of a cheat, I’ll confess. Depending on the liturgical style, they also appear as opening words, antiphons, morped into a responsive reading and the like, not to mention choral works, and that’s appropriate.

    It’s the long sermon texts that give me heartburn. And I think they’re longer than a century ago (so I won’t truck “our reduced attention span” arguments.)

  5. I believe readings serve other not so obvious functions. At my current church, the body at large, from children to elders, read from the lectern. The medium is the message.

  6. Richard: best reason so far.

    There are other key liturgical elements, centering on praise, that fill the role of building the body, developing leaders, distributing authority. Responsive readings, and were practiced, leading litanies.

  7. This post is a bit remote from the experience of more inclusive UUs, for whom the presentation of well-chosen material from others is sometimes the secret jewel of the service. How many times I’ve been grateful to have a poet or writer — even another minister — brought to life through a well-crafted selection.

    As to not bothering to read aloud from the RCL, well, you might be getting tired of it (I did, switched to some Jewish lectionaries for awhile), but a whole lot of other folks have never heard them treated well, especially not as inclusive passages.

    As to the national holidays, again, same thing. For those who live in a polarized blue-red environment, a thoughtful swatch of purple will benefit everyone.

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