Whatever Happened to Kingdomtide?
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Chances are if you are in the US, were born after 1960, and are not a United Methodist you may never have run across this designation.
In fact, chances are if you are a United Methodist who has heard of Kingdomtide and may still occasionally see the designation in United Methodist program calendars and some other resources, you may not really know what it is— or, rather, was-- even if you are one of our ordained clergy!
Kingdomtide was created in the late 1930s by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, predecessor of the National Council of Churches. It was one of a number of efforts sponsored by the Federal Council intended to foster greater unity among Protestant Christian denominations in the US. World Communion Sunday is another example.
At that point in history, most US Protestant denominations were generating their own lectionaries, each a sort of combination of historical lectionaries from their own traditions and denomination-specific programmatic days. These lectionaries were of course in agreement about dates like Easter, Christmas, and the beginning of Advent, but the readings and themes for the Sundays were literally all over the map. This was especially the case for the Sundays between Trinity (if they even celebrated Trinity) and the First Sunday of Advent.
So the Council’s thinking behind creating and promoting Kingdomtide was to establish a common topic, if not actually a common lectionary, for at least some of the Sundays after Pentecost by encouraging all Protestant Churches in the US to focus their denominational lectionaries and worship and preaching resources on the common theme of the Kingdom of God.
The initial proposal came from the Presbyterians. It was approved by the Council and published in the Council’s book on the church year released in 1937. That proposal designated all Sundays between Trinity and Advent 1 as Kingdomtide. The 1940 edition reflected a revision of the proposal in light of the practice of the newly created Methodist Church (1939). Now Kingdomtide would be promoted only from the first Sunday in September through the end of the liturgical year. (This was before Protestants adopted Christ the King as the last Sunday of the year).
Kingdomtide did generate significant attention and resourcing during its first two decades, though it did not catch on evenly everywhere. Methodists and Presbyterians continued to be the primary promoters into the 1960s through their own denominational lectionaries and programming.
With Vatican II and the strength it infused into Protestant ecumenical efforts, US Protestants began abandoning exclusive denominational lectionaries and calendars and seeking to develop a common lectionary and a common Christian calendar all could use and recognize. The Consultation on Common Texts (CCT), beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, became the primary channel for this work. Gathering scholars and worship officers from many Protestant and Catholic denominations in the US and Canada, CCT developed and released the Common Lectionary in 1983 for trial use and feedback. Based on two full cycles of use and ongoing feedback through the third cycle, CCT released the Revised Common Lectionary and a common Christian calendar in 1992. As of now, 22 years after its release, most major mainline Protestant denominations in the US and Canada, and a constantly increasing number worldwide, either endorse, require, or officially commend (as does The UMC) the Revised Common Lectionary and its calendar for use by their churches.
The creation of Kingdomtide thus turned out to be a small but important way station on the road by which US Protestants moved from denominationally distinct lectionaries and calendars to a common lectionary and calendar. It answered a valuable purpose in trying to coordinate worship emphases across denominations for several decades. That purpose has now been far more fully realized through the RCL and its calendar. The initial need for Kingdomtide no longer exists.
United Methodists are the only Christian denomination in the US to have retained Kingdomtide in any form after the release of the Common and Revised Common Lectionaries and their calendars. And we have retained it in title only, no longer providing any sort of denominational resourcing to underwrite its use, as, in fact, none is any longer needed. The RCL gospel readings include the significant portions of the teaching of Jesus on the nature and work of the Kingdom of God both during the Season after Pentecost and throughout the year. The raw material for a focus on the Kingdom of God is thus already present, already widely used by Christians across North America and worldwide, and no longer limited to one season of the year.
Whatever happened to Kingdomtide? Its initial purposes have been accomplished in ways its creators could not have envisioned, and we are all the richer for it. Insisting on continuing to keep in now may be a bit akin to insisting we use the King James Bible in worship. Like the King James Bible, Kingdomtide played a valuable purpose in creating a powerful common focus among Christians of many Protestant traditions in the US and even worldwide for a time through US global outreach. We can be grateful for that. But also like the KJV, we can recognize that further developments mean we no longer have a particular need to designate these Sundays after Pentecost as Kingdomtide.
Kingdomtide’s time is fulfilled. A common lectionary and a globally shared common calendar have been in hand for several decades now. Let us rejoice in this good news, content to say thanks for what and where Kingdomtide has brought us—and move on!