When I was preaching regularly, I stayed in one place. Since my retirement from parish ministry 25 years ago, however, I have travelled around the church, attending services every Sunday of the year in congregations ranging from very small to very large, rural to urban, across the US, Canada, Scotland, and England. Occasionally I have been the preacher, but far more often I have been a worshipper in the pew. That is a lot of Sundays, and quite a few weekdays as well, from evensong in Canterbury Cathedral to Morning Prayer in a tiny chapel in the woods. In all of these thousands of services, I have noticed one thing above all, and that is the quality of the oral reading of Scripture. When the reading is done well, it can be revelatory. When it is done poorly, it is a serious disservice to the people of God. Mostly, I am sorry to say, it is done poorly, sometimes inaudibly, without commitment or understanding.
I believe that this single factor says more about the state of our worship, our faith, and our theological condition than any other—even more than poor preaching and sloppy liturgy. It is not the fault of the readers themselves. It shows a lack of commitment to the Word of God on the part of worship leaders that is hard to understand.
At Grace Church in New York City when I was there from 1981 to 1995, great care was taken in the choosing and training of lay readers. The quality of the readers was high to begin with, because at that time it was a church in renewal, bursting with enthusiastic young people, vital middle-aged people, and deeply committed longtime elders. The clergy were all, in one way or another, deeply biblical in their orientation. The sermons were richly grounded in Scripture. Most important of all, the congregation expected something to happen on Sunday morning (and, for that matter, on Wednesday evening at the 6 PM service). A lackadaisical reading of Scripture would not have been welcome.
I was in charge of the lay readers for a number of years. I entered on this task of choosing and training them with one significant advantage. Thereby hangs a many-times-told tale. I was a student spending a semester at General Theological Seminary in 1974 (because my favorite professors at Union had gone on sabbatical), and I was put into the rota (roster of readers) like all the other students, for the reading of the lesson at the Daily Office. When I stepped up to the lectern for the first time, I was very confident. I knew I was a good reader. I knew how to pronounce all the words and I knew how to inflect a sentence. Great was my mortification when, after the service, one of the professors came up to me and said, bluntly, “We don’t read that way here. Go and get a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and read what he says about reading Scripture in worship.”
Looking back, I realized that that one moment was the most important thing that I learned at General. After he spoke to me, I wasted no time. I went straight to the library and got the book and read Bonhoeffer’s words. It changed me overnight.
Here is what he writes (it’s in chapter 2, “The Day With Others”):
How shall we read the Scriptures?…It will soon become apparent that it is not easy to read the Bible aloud for others. The more artless, the more objective, the more humble one’s attitude toward the material is, the better will the reading accord with the subject.
Often the difference between an experienced Christian and the novice becomes clearly apparent. It may be taken as a rule for the right reading of the Scriptures that the reader should never identify himself with the person who is speaking in the Bible. It is not I that am angered, but God; it is not I giving consolation, but God; it is not I admonishing, but God admonishing in the Scriptures. I shall be able, of course, to express the fact that it is God who is angered, who is consoling and admonishing, not by indifferent monotony, but only with inmost concern and rapport, as one who knows that he himself is being addressed. It will make all the difference between right and wrong reading of the Scriptures if I do not identify myself with God but quite simply serve Him. Otherwise I will become rhetorical, emotional, sentimental or coercive and imperative; that is, I will be directing the listeners’ attention to myself instead of to the Word. But this is to commit the worst of sins in presenting the Scriptures.
If we may illustrate by an example in another sphere, we might say that the situation of the reader of Scripture is probably closest to that in which I read to others a letter from a friend. I would not read the letter as though I had written it myself. The distance between us would be clearly apparent as it was read. And yet I would also be unable to read the letter of my friend to others as if it were of no concern to me. I would read it with personal interest and regard. Proper reading of Scripture is not a technical exercise that can be learned; it is something that grows or diminishes according to one’s own spiritual frame of mind…
There have been a few moments in my life of nearly instantaneous change as a result of advice I’ve received. Being guided to Bonhoeffer’s wisdom was one of those moments.
At Grace Church in New York City, we had a number of actors (mostly stage, not film) in our congregation. Not all of them were good readers of Scripture at first. They were used to a more theatrical way of declaiming a text. But they surely knew how to take direction. I gave them the Bonhoeffer passage and they immediately understood.
The reading of the Bible—the story of God’s salvation of the world, first through his election of the Jews and climactically through his Son Jesus—is as solemn and privileged a ministry as that of preaching. It is in itself a form of preaching when done with the sort of rapport that Bonhoeffer describes. And yet it is a humble task, because the reader wants to disappear as the significance of the reading appears. When Scripture is read with the kind of understanding and commitment that Bonhoeffer is describing, it can become an Event of the Word of God, like a sermon. The text is a living thing in the possession of the Holy Spirit. It does not belong to the reader or to the congregation, but is an active agent creating hearers and doers. The reader is only a vessel, a messenger. Humility is therefore the right approach to reading.
Here, then, are some guidelines:
I have been writing this piece in my head for years. I have been increasingly concerned that the reading of Scripture in worship as a central responsibility of the Church is slipping away. I have often had the impression that congregations were listening to readings by people who had been assigned the passage casually, offhandedly, as if by default. Only a small percentage of the readers I’ve heard in all these decades have given the impression that they had really committed themselves to this divine service. When such a reader comes to the lectern and begins, you can tell right away if he or she has a vocation of Scripture reading. The very posture and demeanor of the reader communicates at the outset the importance of the reading and the hearing, and when it is finished, it can be a genuine event of the Word of God. That is the foundation for the establishment and building of the body of Christ. That is the context and meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In this way, the church is renewed week by week by the living Word of God that brought creation into being, redeems it from the ill effects of the Fall, and sustains it through suffering and death into the Age to Come.
Pentecost 15, 2021
PS. To my amazement and amusement, as I was working on this blog post, a splendid short piece by Wesley Hill came into my view. Here it is:
Professor Hill wants his students to bring actual printed Bibles to class. To this end he quotes something I wrote on this very subject a few years ago. I don’t remember having ever done that, so I apologize for the repetition. However, the message—whether “delightfully pugnacious” (Wes’ description) or not so delightful, the message remains. At the age of almost-84, I have ceased to try to pull my punches!
Reading the Resurrection chapter
I wrote this for Easter Day in 1986. It is an excellent companion to what I have written above.
When my beloved father died two weeks ago, we asked that the major portion of St. Paul’s Resurrection chapter (I Corinthians 15) be read at the funeral. The layman who was assigned to read the lesson did a superb job; in fact, I have never heard this difficult text better delivered. I asked him about it afterward. He said that although he had heard parts of it before, he had never read all of it, and so he had spent quite a bit of time studying it the previous evening. “I wanted to know what St. Paul meant,” he said.
I wanted to know what St. Paul meant! How could there be a simpler, clearer, more penetrating intention for Bible study? If all students of the Bible set about the task this way, we would have hermeneutical heaven.
This man’s reading of the text was a model for Scripture reading in church—measured, thoughtful, strong. He followed, whether he knew it or not, the recommendations of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
It may be taken as a rule for the right reading of the Scriptures that the reader should never identify himself with the person who is speaking in the Bible…. [the meaning will be conveyed] not by indifferent monotony, but only with inmost concern and rapport, as one who knows that he himself is being addressed. It will make all the difference between right and wrong reading of the Scriptures if I do not identify myself with God but quite simply serve Him.
(from Life Together. Emphasis added.)
As is fitting in reading from the Bible, my father’s friend kept his eyes on the text, “as one who knows that he himself is being addressed.”
Only once did he look up, and it was an unforgettable moment. When he came to the verse, The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be… he stopped, looked up, and with an expression of wonderment, and in a tone filled with awe, he read the single word,..changed.
Paul surely meant that word, changed, to strike us with amazement. The Resurrection of the dead means a transformation hitherto unthinkable. In order to understand the fullest meaning of this change, we may turn to another great Pauline text, Philippians 3:20-21:
But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.
We can do no better, this Easter Day, than to draw these thoughts to a close as St. Paul did: Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:58)