Proclaiming the Word – in many ways!

I have the privilege of starting most days during the academic term praying morning prayer with the school community. Our morning prayer is not particularly early, but it often feels a bit sleepy, and the two scripture readings can slide by unnoticed, especially in the overly long lectio continuo readings of the Anglican breviary. But not on the mornings that John is on the rota to read – on those days I lean in because I know I will hear and see the reading. John is from Nigeria, and his reading – not in any forced or attention-seeking way – is full of inflections and nuances revealed in his voice and in his gestures. In his ministry, the Word comes alive in a particularly graced and embodied way.

In a similar way, arguing that students for whom English is a second or third language should be allowed to proclaim the word in their first language (with some languages requiring an English language handout), has resulted in an amazing transformation in how the Word is proclaimed.

Freed from the difficulty of reading in public in someone else’s language, the Word of the Lord is immediate and spirited. We often see a different person emerging, confident and full of the Spirit.
I remember being trained as a reader (or lector) several times in different communities or for different liturgies (and here I am not distinguishing between lay readers and minor orders, simply referencing different liturgical terms). The training was often centred on diction and timing, or on phrasing this way or that way so that the meaning of the text could be communicated to a gathered community who were listening rather than reading. But I also remember both receiving instruction and giving instruction about staying out of the way of the word proclaimed. No “stained glass” voice, no hysterics or mimicking of different voices, no ‘fake accents’, no hand gestures – let the Word speak for itself. Yet even in older GIRM instructions, there is recognition of both the importance of the biblical readings and the need to be clear in different settings and cultures.

“In the readings, the table of God’s Word is spread before the faithful, and the treasures of the Bible are opened to them.” (2011 GIRM, 57) AND, “in texts that are to be pronounced in a loud and clear voice…the voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer [or other]…it should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the characteristics of different languages and of the culture of different peoples.” (2011 GIRM, 38)

Aside from the proclamation of readings in the language of the gathered community, it took a little longer for various Anglican voices to put instruction together on the importance of the proclaimed word and the tools to do so.

“The reader’s ministry is an unusual one, for it is both to speak the written words with clarity, and to be used to deliver what is potentially a life-changing communication from God through his Holy Spirit…Equally important is the need for the passage to be read with understanding, appropriate inflection and expression, and a balance between lively reading and serious delivery of God’s Word.” (2001, Anne Dawtry & Carolyn Headley, A Companion to Common Worship, 65)
But many of the Anglican instructions in English-speaking churches are focused on licensing lay readers, their attire, where they are seated, appropriate preparations, and, as is also found in Lutheran instructions (ELW), an overarching attention to the lectionary and its nuances.

This limited sampling of instructions still leaves us wrestling with the realities of different cultural assumptions on how scripture should be proclaimed, particularly in multicultural communities. Is there ‘a’ right way? I would have to say ‘no’; it depends on the circumstances, the degree of solemnity, the acoustics, the language, the culture(s). How do we learn to not only make room for these different approaches, but hear in fresh ways how God speaks to us today?

I suspect the best way is to have a diverse community, and a group of lectors who represent that diversity. For those communities not yet that fortunate, and even for those of us who have a diversity of cultures and languages in our assembly, I would argue that we need to continue to explore how the spoken word – the heard word – is received as both corporate and individual. Most ecclesial communities have left behind the extremely unhelpful “introduction” to the readings, where the lector told us what the Holy Spirit would have us hear at any given liturgy.

But how do we balance the interpretation of the reading according to the lector with what God is speaking to the community in this time and place? And how is the balance different in different cultures? Dawtry and Headley again: “in a liturgical context the reading of Scripture is a corporate activity, as the faith community listens to and engages with its story and rehearses the dealings of God with his people. It is also individual, as God’s Holy Spirit ministers through the Word to each soul who is open to God’s activity.” (2001, 65) “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” (Hebrews 1:1-2a) Now we speak that word in many and various languages and settings – rejoice that the same Word is spoken in so many different ways!

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6 comments

  1. Thank you for this reflection.

    I have noted that for some of our best readers, English is not their first language. They seem to take a particular care with the proclamation (in English), and seem to savor the meaning of each word, in a way that other readers don’t. And their accents lend a certain “music” or lilt to the proclamation that I don’t hear in the voices of those of us who are ‘blessed’ with the flat, upper-Midwest American accent.

    1. Quite true, Jim. One of the best readers at the cathedral where I also serve as a reader was a young woman from Nigeria, a graduate student at the local university. Sadly, she returned home several months ago after completing her Ph.D. We all miss her.

    2. thank you for the image of music added to the proclamation – that is indeed part of what I find so helpful in the ability of a number of lectors to truly communicate the word on multiple levels!

  2. This was a very insightful article to read. Just to add one thought on training readers, it is very useful to remind them that they should ‘imagine themselves’ as being on the radio (where they are the ‘voice of God’ for this proclamation) and not on television. The emphasis should be the ‘reading to be listened to’, and not to call attention to the ‘one reading’.

    1. One of my fellow readers is a radio news reporter. My friends and I sometimes tease him by saying, ‘This just in from Jerusalem. Film at eleven.’

  3. If we really believe in the real presence throughout our common prayer, then the way we readers present the scriptures might align more readily with the mysteries we celebrate. My own experience with readers whose English is their second language does not reveal any greater insight into how they are to exercise their ministry among the assembly. They are aware of “diction and timing,” as the author says about conventional lector training, but our ministry goes beyond public speaking. I would bet that John is just as sensitive about these matters when he reads in his mother tongue, so that he can apply his “sacred awareness” to other languages. I can affirm that the commitment I already made while reading in English led me to understand how I had to read a passage in Spanish when I was called on to do that (fluency assumed, of course).

    As for “staying out of the way,” perhaps no piece of advice has rendered a greater disservice to the process of lector preparation. For me the Word is not those printed words on the page, but their coming to life in my voice for the benefit of all of us who listen and take them in.

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