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Hallo again to all.

Some time several decades ago*, while on a business trip to France, we attended a worship service at the American Cathedral in Paris. The sermon was not memorable, but the building is nice, and the reading of scripture was spectacular. We walked back to our hotel that day thinking that was the best job of reading scripture in church that we'd ever heard. Not until many years later, when Bishop in Charge Pierre Whalon wrote this essay, did we realize that the person we'd heard reading so well was Olivia de Havilland, star of 60 motion pictures and winner of 2 Academy Awards. It was obvious that she understood better than anyone we'd ever seen how to read scripture in church. It was less obvious that she was a superstar actress.

Much more recently, we were attending church in the USA, and had quite the opposite experience. The second reading was arguably the worst reading of scripture in church that we'd ever encountered. The lector spent more time talking about ('setting the context') the passage than actually reading it, and styled the reading so as to focus on the reader and not the words. There was a strong sense of 'Look at me! This scripture reading was brought to you by me me me.' At the end of a great reading, the identity of the lector fades away in the listener's mind; at the end of a look-at-me reading, the words just read fade away, leaving only the grinning lector, now blessedly silent.†

This recent grim experience with a reading recalled for us that long-ago good experience with a reading, and we got to thinking about the role of reading in an Anglican worship service. There is so much of it. Not just scripture, but collects, prayers, baptism texts, creeds, pastoral services, Eucharistic prayers, confessions, declarations of forgiveness. Nearly the entire service is written down and read or sung by someone. Or by everyone together. We are, after all, People of the Book. We once overheard a conversation between a priest and a member of his congregation. The parishioner had asked the priest if he could perhaps bless the church's vegetable garden. The priest replied that he would if he could find the appropriate blessing in the prayer book. The idea of ad-libbing was so foreign to him that he didn't even consider it.

Since reading in church is such an important part of the worship service, we should want to do it well. But what does that mean? What constitutes good reading? What characteristics did Ms de Havilland's reading have that made it good, and what characteristics did the me-me-me lector's reading have that made it bad? It's hard to specify exactly. Maybe this is what dialogue or drama coaches do in the business of acting and moviemaking. There must be some similarity between good acting and good reading in church.

For us, a reading in church needs to leave us with the sense that the reader was merely a conveyance for the words. During and after a good reading, the 'persona' that the listener experiences must be from the words of the reading, and not from the ego of the reader. When we attend a play in a theatre, we take it for granted that the words being spoken by an actor or actress are those of the playwright and not the performer. A good performer can 'become' the character being played. When a reader in church is reading the words of Joseph, it isn't realistic to expect that the reader 'become' Joseph. A church reader has therefore a narrower charter. He or she cannot be Joseph, but also cannot be themselves. The reader must be a faithful steward of the words and the ideas behind them, delivering them without seeming to take credit for them.

So reading in church is hard. Are there training programs for it? Does your church or diocese have 'how to be a reader' training? Do clergy receive 'how to do a good job of reading aloud' training?

Let us know what you think, or what you do. Or if you don't mind bad reading.

See you again next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

6 August 2017

*We don't remember quite when this was, but François Mitterrand was president then.
†The singing of the Great Thanksgiving was spellbinding, and sermon was wonderful. These more than made up for the painful scripture reading.

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