Praying the Lectionary

Praying the Lectionary: Prayers and Reflections for Every Week's ReadingsPrayers and Reflections for Every Week's Readings

by James Woodward
and Leslie Houlden
SPCK December 2006

Read Reviews | About the Authors

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The readings at the Eucharist go past in a few minutes, one after another, and how many of the hearers can recall much about them by the time the service has ended? It seems a waste, and it feels sometimes that they are just a symbol of our needs and duty to listen to the scriptures. There are ways of improving things. The Sermon that follows them, is, of course, the first weapon - but the Preacher can scarcely focus on all the readings and may have a particular message to give to which a biblical passage is only loosely related. And alas, even the Sermon may not survive long in the memory. What can be done to give the scripture readings a longer life of their hearers and a deeper effect on their minds?

In this book, based on the experience of one Parish, we provide such material for each Sunday and other Holy days in the three-year-cycle. For each reading, we give a brief comment and then bullet-point directing us to prayer. The hope is that their scale and character may be of service to other Parishers that feel in need of such a resource and to individuals for prayer and reflection".

Praying the Lectionary

Read reviews by The Rt Revd Richard Harries,
The Rt Revd Stephen Platten and
Peter Larkin

What can be done to help members of a congregation to remember scripture readings?
How can biblical passages have a deeper effect on hearers’ hearts and minds?

These are questions that James Woodward and Leslie Houlden have sought to address in Praying the Lectionary. The clear, uncluttered pages of this book provide brief commentaries and prayer points to accompany the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days in the three-year Common Worship Lectionary cycle. Designed for both individual and group use at church or at home, the attractively laid out, easily digested material encourages the user to receive and retain prayerfully the meaning of each scripture passage.

‘In the Christian life we all need all the help we can get – especially in reading the Bible. It is particularly crucial that the Sunday Bible readings are illuminated. Praying the Lectionary does this and will be of great value both to individuals and groups. The combination of biblical scholarship and pastoral wisdom offered here by James Woodward and Leslie Houlden makes it a stimulating and practical guide. I commend it most warmly.’

The Rt Revd Richard Harries
Bishop of Oxford


‘The past few decades have given birth to a liturgical revolution. Our heightened awareness of the place of the Eucharist in the Christian life offers us new opportunities to deepen and focus our prayer. Leslie Houlden and James Woodward here offer us a unique and nourishing way into prayer, rooted in the readings set out in the lectionary. As Chairman of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, I applaud this initiative and encourage people to use this excellent new resource.’

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten
Bishop of Wakefield


There are many things distinctive about St Mary’s, not the least being the notes on the day’s readings in the pew-sheets, something to concentrate on before a service begins and to take home and keep in mind during the week. These carefully prepared notes are now happily available to a wider audience, and cover the entire three years of the Common Lectionary.

For each Sunday or Holy Day through the cycle we find handy commentary on the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel passages, together with some bullet-points directing readers along possible lines of prayer that could arise out of the readings. Rather like the “arrows of delight” used in contemplative prayer, these notes can be welcomed as “arrows of reflection and re-focus” and are nothing if not prayerful themselves.

The comments fill in moments of original context or point out a prophetic path, together with occasional wryness at a “fantastic picture” here, a “mysterious figure” there, or a doubt as to why a particular passage is included in the lectionary at all! More often, though, the thrust of a passage comes through with little apology: Jacob is not “nicer” than Esau, he is simply the one chosen (Genesis 21.8-21). “We can think of parallels in many areas”, the authors shrewdly remark. At other times, the notes are more tentative, as when the Miracle at Cana is glossed as “John probably relates this story to say that Jewish faith (water) has now found its rich and abundant fulfilment in Christ (wine)”. It’s good not to be too prescriptive here, given the resonance of the imagery of living water elsewhere in John. And the bullet-point reminds us that we strive to “return to the strong simplicity of true religion, shaming our clever discussion.”

The pattern of a day’s readings is not always straight-forward, and these notes strike a careful balance between recalcitrant passages but without any embarrassment that texts do sometimes bristle at one other. So, for Proper 4 of Year A, we confront an OT reading in which “Israel’s religion appears relentless and unyielding”, but then move to Romans 1.16-17 where the freedom of overflowing grace above merit is paramount, and finally to Matthew 7.21-29, which is shown as redressing the balance in favour of a “moral obedience relentlessly following Jesus…not sidelined by the drama of our response to true faith.” Something to think about here!

The prayer-ideas are gentle and helpful, but do not shy away from awkward questions or a naked prophetic insistence at times. Two themes recur: the need to recognise God always takes the initiative and doesn’t “do business” in ways we expect or predict, together with the urgency of our allowing that to make a really concrete difference in how we live and relate to others.

Above all this is a practical, self-effacing book (in which the authors’ learning surfaces as wisdom and poise but in no other way), and the material is pared to the point of starkness, but full of a rich sense of direction and tenacious reflection. We are lucky to have it, so let’s make sure our copies soon look well-worn.

Peter Larkin


About the Authors

James Woodward is Master of the Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson and Director of the Leveson Centre for the Study of Aging, Spirituality and Social Policy.

Leslie Houlden worked as a curate in Leeds, and was Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, from 1970 to 1977. His last post was Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, before he retired in 1994.