The public reading of the Scriptures

“Give attention to the public reading of the Scripture” (1 Tim 4.13), wrote Paul to Timothy, and with good reason. Traditionally this has been the way in which people have learnt about God.

The practice of the public reading of Scripture has its roots in Judaism (see Nehemiah 8.8) and was continued in the synagogue. When Jesus was in the synagogue at Nazareth, he was invited to read the Scriptures and then to comment on them (Luke 4.16). Timothy would have done the same. And so the tradition carried on. In the middle of 2nd century Justin Martyr wrote: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits;  then, when the reader has finished, the president speaks, instructing and exhorting the people to imitate these good things”.

The reading of God’s Word plays a key role in public worship. It is when the Scriptures are read that God speaks to his people. Preaching can never be a substitute for Scripture. Indeed, in my experience God often speaks more powerfully through the reading of his Word rather than through the proclamation of God’s Word. As John Wesley once said, “Although there may be chaff in the pulpit, there is always good grain at the lectern”.

Yet throughout my ministry I have rarely read the Scriptures in public myself. Instead I have encouraged lay people to engage in this key ministry – they too can be God’s mouthpieces. However, to my delight on a couple of recent occasions I have been asked to read the Scriptures in Chelmsford Cathedral, where we now worship. The first time I was invited to take part in the Cathedral’s main Advent service. Then I was asked to read the Old Testament ‘lesson’ in the Cathedral’s live choral evensong broadcast on BBC Radio Three. This produced an amusing response. For the Dean of the Cathedral received the following email:

Sir:-I have been listening today (as is my wont on Wednesday afternoons) to BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong, which you will well know came today from Chelmsford Cathedral. I do not know who read the OT lesson today, but whoever it was did it superbly well.  Please let whoever it was know that his reading was much appreciated as being really gripping (as it should be) and up to the highest standards of the Church of England. Such talent is all too rare nowadays.

 Imagine the listener’s surprise when he heard back from the Dean that the reader had been a Baptist minister! However, there is an underlying serious issue. Not every person asked to read the Scriptures in a service of public worship takes the trouble to ensure they read well. When I was a ‘working’ minister I used to issue the following instructions to prospective readers:

Read the passage carefully several times and let it first speak to you. Look for the feeling of the passage, which words to emphasise and where a pause would help (you may want with a pencil to underline words to emphasise or mark breathing spaces). Check and practice any difficult pronunciations. Ask for help if you need it.

Practise aloud!  The reading should be at a natural pace, alive and clear. Don’t drop consonants at the end of words or let your voice tail off at the end of sentences.

 The text on the page may be black and white, but God voice is not just black and white. We need to ensure that we reflect the ‘colour’ and the ‘tone’ of the passage, without being overly dramatic – it is, for instance not helpful to weep when reading a lament! This means that we need to know and understand what we are reading. In my own case, when called upon to take part in the choral evensong, I prepared myself by reading through the passage with a commentary, and then spent time reflecting on what God was saying to me through the passage. This enabled me later in the service to do justice to the passage.

People who are asked to read the Scriptures in public worship need to be made aware of the privilege and indeed the responsibility that has been given to them. In the words of the GNB translation “time and effort” needs to be given to the public reading of the Scriptures.

One comment

  1. Three thoughts Paul.

    1. I agree that the Scriptures ought to be read well. In my last church we had a team of readers, some of whom were (shall we say?) not quite as good as others. I produced a “guide” similar to yours and gave it to the lady who organised the readers: it was supposed to be helpful but she was incensed at my implicit criticism of the readers and refused pointblank to circulate it!
    2. Some churches like to invite children to read some of the simpler passages. Provided they do it well, and the auditors get over the “Ahhh, aren’t they cute” factor, this can aid their inclusion in worship. But the quality of reading mustn’t suffer.
    3. One debate which is worth having is whether one reads eloquently but dispassionately, trusting in the words themselves to convey the meaning (very much the traditional “English cathedral” style); or whether the reader adds life and drama to what they are reading (especially when the passage is a story). Some, such as my wife, would go for the latter; but others would say that it adds too much of the reader’s personality and understanding of the text and “gets in the way” of hearing what God might be saying. My jury is “out” on this!

    Finally, a story to cap yours. In my last church we held a very traditional Lessons and Carols service before Christmas. As Minister my task was to read John 1:1-18 – the passage which the service booklet for my school’s Carol Services always headed “St. John unfoldeth the mystery of the incarnation”. I like the passage but think it’s quite difficult to read, so I took a lot of trouble over it. I was rewarded after the service by someone saying to me, “I’ve heard that lesson read many times, but tonight was the first time I’ve understood it”.

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