To read and to listen

One of the fruits of the liturgical movement was the introduction of lay readers into the Sunday Mass. Like many such fruits in the Catholic world, there is not an exact correlation for Anglicans, since a role was retained in the Church of England that was somewhat analogous to the minor orders in the pre-conciliar Catholic Church. A lay reader was trained and licensed, not simply to read lessons, but to assist in public worship in a formal way. Stuart Clem explains the current reality of lay readers in the Church of England back in 2016 over the Anglican blog Covenant in an excellent post about lectors in church:

Nowadays, however, lay reader is virtually obsolete in the Episcopal Church. Even the ministry of reader in today’s Church of England has no analogue in its American sister church. English lay readers, designated by their blue tippets, have wide responsibilities and typically must undertake some level of formal theological education. Where lay reader is still used colloquially in Episcopal churches, it usually refers to a layperson who volunteers to read one of the Scripture lessons during the Holy Eucharist. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) still uses the term in a few places, and it directs that laypeople should read the lessons preceding the gospel (p. 322).

In the Episcopal Church, at least (in which I serve as a priest and seminar professor), lay readers often are simply lay people who proclaim the lessons before the Gospel at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist and who received no more than a bit of training in how to walk to the lectern and a few tips on how to read. But being a lector does not make one authorized to assist at the administration of Communion or deliver the Sacrament to those who are not able to be present at the Sunday liturgy (though these practices and policies vary by diocese).

I say all this by way of introduction, since a large number of PrayTell’s readers are Catholic.

My purpose is to raise to small items related to the proclamation of the Scriptures in the Sundays Mass.

First, publicly reading a text well is very difficult. My experiences of lay readers (I don’t use the term technically here) in Catholic churches has been rather good (limited as it’s been). I’m often surprised with how articulately they are read: not in a monotone, not too fast, and not overly dramatic. I have a lot more experience in Episcopal parishes and I have found it all over the map. I’m often surprised at how much coaching my seminarians need in reading, not only the lessons but also liturgical texts as we get into liturgical training. The issues vary: a sort of affected cadence that comes off as an American attempting 1/3 of an Oxbridge voice that always sounds terribly pretentious; some who have a learning disability that makes reading passages somewhat stilted and halting; some who have not honed the skills to be able to read ahead enough to know which words syntactically deserve the accent in the sentence, thus leaving the listener slightly confused as to what is actually happening; the reader who leaves no pause before declaring, “The Word of the Lord,” such as that it takes the listener a few seconds to realize that those words were not in the reading, and that this reading is now over!

One of my favorite mispronunciations was when the first part of Acts 14 was being read (probably Easter VI in Year C) where Paul heals a man crippled from birth.

And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycao′nian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes (Acts 14:11-12).

The reader was a very wealthy woman who was probably wearing some real precious gems and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag. Typically, the Greek messenger of the god is pronounced such that it rhythms with “burpees,” the exercise motion the causes great pain to many who gather daily in the temple physical fashion. The name of the French designer, however, is pronounced following the French pronunciation, where the “h” is silent and “er” is pronounced like “air” (e.g. air-mess). You know where this is going. She pronounced the name of the Greek messenger as if it was the name of the French designer, Hermès. I think only by boss and I noticed it, but I can assure you that I didn’t hear the rest of the lesson that day!

Second, reading the text of the lesson as the reader proclaims it aurally is a very different experience of the text that simply to hear it aurally. This is not straightforward, of course. There are good reasons to have the lessons printed and available, not only for those who hearing difficulties but also for the people who have auditory processing difficulties. But, now that I don’t have weekly Sunday duties and sit in the congregation some, I watch people with their heads down reading the lesson along with the lector. I’m interested first why almost everyone does not, when the majority of people do not have any difficulty in hearing the lector’s voice. It could be because lector kills are varied and people love the Bible so much that they want to be sure and not miss a word. But my instinct is that this is more about many people having lost the skill and ability to listen only with their ears. It is a strange thing to stand and publicly read an ancient text aloud to a group of modern people.

Because Catholics don’t tend to have bulletins like Anglicans (that is, with much of the liturgy printed), Catholic printing houses have not yet discovered all the money that can be made in creating bulletin inserts with all the lessons printed on them, and the various Missalettes in pews are not very user-friendly, my sense is that this is less of an issue in Catholic parishes (though I would be very interested in hear what people who actually know something think about this!).

My instinct is that one can receive the Scriptures in a unique way when it is only aural. I think a big part of this is because you cannot skip ahead and see what comes next if you are only listening. Listening also requires a particular sort of attention, a heightened concentration. The surprise is taken away and our brains easily skim ahead and read to the end; and then we instinctively reach for our phones and wonder when the reader will get on with it and finish already. To listen without the visual prompt allows the faithful to hear the Word of God anew, to hear it again as if for the first time. My sense is that this also creates a unique space where we can hear God anew, that the Scripture can speak to us as if for the first time, to speak into our hearts in way that we’ve never heard it. Let us listen to what the Lord God is saying.







6 responses to “To read and to listen”

  1. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    Unfortunately many Catholic churches in the UK do use bulletins with the readings printed, ours does. It was a joy yesterday when the readings chosen were not the option in the bulletin, to see heads up and people actually listening.

  2. Paul R. Schwankl Avatar
    Paul R. Schwankl

    “My instinct is that one can receive the Scriptures in a unique way when it is only aural.”
    Matthew, this is not just your instinct. It’s a divinely revealed truth. : )
    You may be aware that there was a brawl on this point in Pray Tell not long ago. (Pray Tell’s brawls are usually pretty darned polite.) My input was addressed to people who resist putting the printed text aside because they say they’re visual learners etc.; I pleaded with them to just give the aural experience a try. Thank you for giving a much fuller and more eloquent defense of the shut-the-book position than I did then.
    I don’t think I would gloss “to hear the Word of God anew” as “to hear it again as if for the first time”; we can hear it ENTIRELY new only once. But we can hear SOMETHING new in it just about every time. Scriptural sentences have resonances with other scriptural sentences–and with our experiences–that just don’t come through as forcefully through the printed page, I find.

  3. Paul Schlachter Avatar

    I agree fully with your first statement, and it could apply to the other council provisions that opened many liturgical functions to laypeople not so empowered at the time. Documents of the early church (such as Cyprian’s letters) do indicate that those designated as lectors might also carry out other ministries.
    Yes, it is difficult to read well in liturgy. We know, like the Apostle, that we have received a faith that we are called upon to hand on to others. And we do it with our gifts of communication, walking the tightrope as you say but encouraged by our listeners’ readiness to hear, aural to aural. The fact that it succeeds so often, in your experience, indicates that many laypersons are aware of this and have worked it out for the churches where they read.

  4. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    My late advisor, an Anglican priest, noted once to me that one of her first tasks after ordination was interviewing candidates for the role of lector. Her task was directly sanctioned by her bishop. Not all who interviewed were permitted to lector in their parishes. I did not find this practice to be discriminatory or even cruel, since the proclamation of the Word must be understood both alone and in context. Matthew S. C. Oliver reminds us this again and again.

    I wish a similar vetting, undertaken on the episcopal level, were practiced in Catholicism. “that’s not fair!” What is fairer: a congregation which is best immersed in its liturgical year, or those who lector from vanity? Indeed, there are those who lector out of devotion or a desire to “do things” for the parish. Auditions would be quite emotionally crushing for them. Yet, every day we are crushed and ground by our inadequacies. These daily disappointments hone our desire to excel. No excellence exists without disappointment. The fruits of reader audition are more insightful liturgy.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur


      Welcome back! I’ve missed your voice here.

    2. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      I commented at our parish pre-Holy Week planning meeting last year that the musicians, servers, ministers, cleaners, clergy, flower arrangers etc all prepare thoroughly for Holy Week and aim for the heavens, but that the readers are often less effective in their preparation (shall we say.)
      It went down like a lead balloon, though we were at least spared the previous year’s experience when the narrator of the John Passion read with all the intelligence and expression of someone perusing a shopping list!
      Reading seems to be a ministry where it is enough to step up to the mark.

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