Discipling children: a problem with the three-year lectionary

There are certain people I meet who make me wish the Vulcan Mind Meld was possible. Brains of such magnitude and experience that it would be wonderful to download all the wisdom without the fuss of conversation.

I felt a bit like that today meeting Leslie J. Francis (many thanks to our Cathedral Dean for the introduction). We had a fascinating conversation about spiritual development of children, work with families and pupil voice in Church Schools. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on James Fowler‘s theory of faith development (based on Piaget’s work on learning/child development). I have come a long way from Piaget and his pedagogical theories. So I was interested to hear about Leslie’s research work on children’s spirituality in church schools in Wales and in his study of the work of John Fisher on ‘spiritual well-being’ a better phrase, for many reasons, than ‘spiritual development’. Almost as an aside, but equally interesting to me, was Leslie’s work on clergy stress and well-being, something of significant concern to me and not discussed publicly nearly enough.

The meat of our conversation was on preparing and providing material for families to use to disciple children. It is clear that families have the key role in bringing children to adult discipleship. The Church of England’s national Education Office has recently initiated discussion on this and in Liverpool Diocese we are working on establishing new worshipping congregations in schools for families.

As a diocese we are working on our Rule of Life (Pray-Read-Learn-Tell-Serve-Give) and thinking about how to enable this to be effective for children. Technology must be the way to deliver this. We are working on an app for adults and just beginning to think about an app for children and young people.

As Leslie and I talked the conversation moved to what the content of an app for children and families might be. The Understanding Christianity material is really excellent and the pitch is appropriately high. It is important that any material reflects that. The family is really part of a triad of family-church-school. The question is how to link these three? The obvious way of doing so is the liturgical year and the church’s lectionary. Leslie had very good material that he had worked on for the Gospels in the three year Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Almost without thinking I said that the fundamental problem is the three year cycle.

Since leaving Piaget and his educational methods behind I, like many involved in education, have abandoned ideas that novelty, change, breadth are what children need for the realisation that repetition, memorisation, re-visiting learning and depth are what enables children to learn and make progress.

Children might be expected to begin to take in the Scriptures on Sunday from five years old, in the following six years of Primary education they will only hear the same readings twice – with a three year gap – assuming they attend church every Sunday (a very large assumption). Miss a Sunday and they might have to wait six years.

Thinking back on my own life, at 53 I have about 48 years worth of the three year lectionary, I have prayed, heard and reflected on – not to mention being preached at about – the three year cycle 16 times. Yet I am amazed at how little the cycle has fixed itself in my head. What’s the gospel for the 14th Sunday in Year B? I have not the faintest idea.

It is interesting that the three year cycle was developed just at the time when educationalists were most taken in by ideas of novelty and change and had virtually abandoned the significance of memory, which is actually the fundamental building block of learning.

What is the solution?

1) Develop a new one year cycle of Scripture?

2) Adopt a one year cycle picking from the three-year the best passages?

3) Use Scripture series outside of seasons?

4) Have a pedagogical cycle separate to the liturgical cycle?

5) Use the one year cycle that Christians used for centuries and is found in the Book of Common Prayer for the Principal service with the Old Testament readings added in as Series 1 (see the link below)?

I am not really daring to propose anything here. When I was a school chaplain for the first time, almost 20 years ago, I celebrated Mass each lunchtime. We used the Sunday Gospel reading repeated each weekday, after 5 days pupils were really engaging with it. Repetition not novelty creates engagement.

I am not in any way a Prayer Book restorationist. We need to do a new thing. We don’t need readings in the Authorised Version (as much as I love it). But we do have a one year cycle of readings all ready that is authorised for use in our church. I love the three year lectionary with its synoptic structure. But does it work? Should we begin to take note in church of what we are discovering in schools?

In schools we are discovering that we have built ourselves a pedagogical cul-de-sac and we are having to re-discover memorisation, repetition and depth. Perhaps we need to do the same with our liturgy?


UPDATE 4/1/19

Thank you to Fr Philip Murray for this link to a a Liturgical Commission document of 2001 providing for places where the BCP Eucharistic lectionary is used at the Principal Service.




  1. Thanks for the link to Leslie J Francis.

    With regards to making the link between school-church-family, have you seen this work well in a secondary boys school?

    I’ve found your blog from David Thorpe’s retweets – I lead the RS department at St. Margaret’s South Liverpool and am interested in developing (inline with SIAMS) spirituality within my setting.

    Best wishes


  2. I’m afraid to say this but I really think you’re on to something with the memorization and repetition thing you have been pushing and therefore, it seems to me, that the one year lectionary is the most logical goal and result. The old Roman Missal (before Vatican 2) and the Book of Common Prayer had it right.


  3. F. Richard, many years ago my dissertation was entitled
    “Does RE for children have to contain a donkey?”
    Unfortunately for many teachers, it did then and today there are still done with this same sentimentality!
    Yet I have been blessed to have met children who have at a very young age sat me down and explained with more maturity than many adults, the Christian hope of the Resurrection.


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