How should we pray in public about the election?

Elections pose even more problems than usual for people who prepare and lead prayers in their churches. That is never more true than in situations like the present: divided politics, polarised societies, and partisan journalism. There is a sense that the skeleton that has largely underpinned the body politic is, if not exactly broken, in a state of advanced osteoporosis.

So what should those who lead prayer say, if they are to enable the church as a whole to agree in prayer? The problem is that the phrases that unite are often sufficiently anodyne to disguise a multitude of meanings.

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Genesis: let’s start at the very beginning

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The bible and Maria von Trapp share the same approach to learning: they start at the very beginning. Getting the do-re-mi of the scale right was essential to appreciating the sound of music; understanding the world as God’s good creation is the foundation for hearing the song of the universe.

The pillars of creation – a detail from M16, the Eagle Nebula © NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage
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Before starting at the beginning

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

This blog series now moves on to the longest section, as much intended for repeated reference as reading immediately. Nonetheless, I hope each post will be interesting enough to read in its own right as it is blogged. Since I am going (with one or two extras here and there) to blog my way through the books of the Bible in their canonical order, you might expect that to begin at the beginning would mean starting with Genesis. However, I want to take a couple of steps back, and begin with another word starting with the same three letters: genre.

At this point, though, I need to enter a caveat. I blog these posts on books of the bible not as an expert, but as a fellow reader. I venture to claim a degree of knowledge, and a reasonable depth of study for much of (but not all) the New Testament books. But when it comes to the Old Testament I have no particular expertise. I’m simply another reader sharing something of what I read. My reading always begins by asking what sort of book I’m reading.

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When is a law not a law?

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The first broad genre a Christian reader encounters in a description of the bible’s contents is “law”. Whenever the scriptures are referred to in the pages of the New Testament by genre, it is nearly always “the Law and the Prophets.” (I discussed this language a bit here.) And many people are used to hearing references to the books of Moses, or the law of Moses, in relation to the first five books of the bible.

However, what the reader finds when starting these books is not laws, but stories. It takes 50 chapters of Genesis and 19 more chapters of Exodus before we get to the giving of the law. This alerts us to a certain problem with the language of “law”.

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Traditional AND contemporary

I often hear people make a contrast between styles of worship in church that labels some “traditional” and some “contemporary”. And I – and I guess you too – know what they mean. And it’s certainly true that some forms of worship that pride themselves on being contemporary are determinedly non-traditional.

I have in the past experienced, and heard others share similar experiences, of Sunday church gatherings that not only embrace contemporary musical, dress and other styles, but manage to get through the whole act of worship without a reading from the bible. That’s clearly non-traditional.

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Dramatic readings

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The last (as presently envisaged) post in this section on the practicalities of reading looks at something slightly different. Sometimes you can consider a reading by more than one voice. An obvious example is dramatic reading. This can be overdone, and it’s neither to everyone’s taste, nor for every occasion. But there are times it may enrich the practice of public reading.

The most common use of dramatic reading is the tradition of reading the passion narratives, Matthew, Mark and Luke on the Palm or Passion Sunday1 of their respective years, and John on Good Friday. A number of churches have made wider use of dramatic readings, and particularly on occasions when a wide age range is present. There have even been dramatized Bibles produced filled with as much dramatic reading as possible. As far as I am aware, they are not presently in print.

On the whole, it’s more likely as a reader that you will be asked to participate in a dramatic reading, rather than be in a position to decide to read a passage with others. The key, perhaps, is to remember it’s a dramatized reading, not a play, and you are enabling people to hear the scriptures rather than making entertaining comments on them. You cannot, therefore, take any large liberties with the text. There is a place for including genuine dramatic plays in worship, but those are provided as a supplement for understanding the scriptures, not a means of proclaiming them.

In an ideal world, a dramatic reading, and perhaps especially the reading of the whole Passion, is something that is best rehearsed.2 A rehearsal not only gives people a sense of when they need to come in snappily and responsively, but also helps to work out where people need to stand for good microphone access. If the acoustics of the church, and the limitations of the sound system, means that a dramatic reading of the passion (which is often read with around ten voices) will be barely audible in your building, then it may be better either to limit the parts, or not to do it at all .

There are other possibilities apart from a full dramatic reading. Perhaps a poetic passage may benefit from two voices reading alternate verses. Or when reading a particularly long reading, there may be ways of sharing it between two or three voices that help promote attentive listening. All I want to do here is flag up the possibility that reading does not always have to mean a single voice.

While there is more that could be said about the practice of reading, the greatest aid to reading is understanding, and I am therefore (from the beginning of next week) moving on to the final, and by far the longest, section of this project. In what remains I look not at each lection, or each Sunday’s set of readings, but at each book of the Bible while keeping in mind those parts of it that are used in public worship . I hope that by grasping the overall context, you will be be better placed to locate the passage you are reading in its proper place, and understand more of what it is saying.

In this way, I want the emphasis to be on helping you understand, not simply telling you my interpretation of the reading. As you grow in understanding, so you may find you read differently in succeeding years, and help those who listen to you gain new insights because you have come to the text with your own fresh understanding.


Notes

  1. The contemporary Roman Catholic Church uses the name Passion Sunday for the Sunday that begins Holy Week, on which the Passion is read as a central part of the liturgy. Anglican (and some other) Churches maintain an older tradition also used by Roman Catholics before 1970, of calling the fifth Sunday of Lent Passion Sunday, because that was when readings, thoughts and devotions began to move away from Lenten disciplines, and more towards the Cross and Passion. The Sunday that begins Holy Week is therefore known by the name Palm Sunday, recognising Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which shapes the start of the liturgy.
    Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday is also a day to be careful with the lectionary. Two gospel readings are provided. The Palm Gospel is read as part of the entrance rite, before what is, in many churches, a procession with palm branches and palm crosses. This narrates Jesus coming down the Mount of Olives to the city. Readings from the Old Testament (with psalm) and Epistle come in the usual place, and then, without the usual congregational responses, the Passion Gospel is read, in shorter or longer version. It is this reading that is normally read dramatically, with different readers reading the parts of the different groups and characters.
  2. Versions of the Passion Narratives are available here with additional guidance on using them. I always mark copies up with a highlighter pen for each person participating.

Reading well: five basics

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

In my previous post, I mentioned a list of five key things to watch out for which will help you to read well. Today I want to go through that list in more detail.

Pitch

All of us speak with a varying pitch, and it helps people understand what we say. Normally, for example, we end a question with a rising tone1. As a basic rule, in most contexts for public reading, it is good make sure we do end questions on a rising pitch, and statements on a falling one.

Most of us do better reading in a slightly lower tone than we speak naturally in. It helps our voice carry more clearly. However, I have heard people lower their voices drastically when reading or praying: it is incredibly distracting. Your voice should be as near to your normal one as possible, but slightly lower in its overall pitch. Avoid anything that sounds “put on” or artificial.

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