Dramatic readings

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

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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Reading well: listen to yourself

When I first started reading in public, I wore glasses all the time (I now tend to wear contacts most of the time) and I don’t have a very pronounced bridge on my nose. This meant my glasses regularly tended to slide down my nose, and I had unconsciously developed the habit of pushing them back up my nose at regular intervals, even if they had barely slipped at all. For some people, this was a distracting form of punctuating the reading, and I needed a kind critical friend to tell me I was doing it. I found a way of adjusting them once in a pause before I began reading, and then making sure I didn’t do it again.

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You say Evilmerodach and I say pardon.

If the previous post looked mainly at grasping the overall meaning of a reading, today’s looks at the question of detail. It is not just the devil who is in the details. Paying attention to details helps meaning and truth emerge. Exploring the details can help the reading be heard as the word of the Lord. Perhaps the most obvious of those details is the pronunciation of names, people and places.

The first, and most important piece of advice to remember, is that when it comes to the really difficult names, no-one else is likely to know exactly how they are pronounced either.

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Understanding what you read to others

It’s time to move on from looking at how the readings are fitted to the year, to some practicalities about how we approach the task of reading them aloud.

There’s a lot I can’t tell you about how to read in your church. I don’t know you or your context, whether you worship in a large or a small building, whether you have a sound system or a loop, which translation of the Scriptures your church normally uses, how many people you read to, and many other such things. The hints and tips in this section of the blog series are therefore necessarily going to be limited, but I hope they will be of some use, helping you become a more understanding and understandable reader.

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Who reads in your church?

As a priest who regularly provides cover in a range of churches round our diocese, I often find myself asking people: “How do you do it here?” The almost inevitable answer is a variation on “Just the normal way.” The problem is there are almost as many normal ways as there are churches. One of those points where there is considerable variation is the question of who reads which reading.

As always, perceptive humour from the excellent Dave Walker at CartoonChurch. The image is © Dave Walker and Cartoon Church and is used by kind permission of the artist.
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Patterns of reading

Throughout this series, I am working on the assumption that the vast majority of occasions when people are reading in public worship, it is the principal service on a Sunday. This is the set of readings provided for mass in the Roman Catholic Church, and for the principal gathering for worship (whether eucharistic or not) of the day in other denominations. In most Anglican parish churches, the same set of readings tends to be used for any eucharist celebrated on that day (as in the Roman Catholic Church). There is a separate set of readings for morning and evening prayer (matins and evensong), whose selection is less clearly organised. However, in this series, I am only going to focus on the three-year lectionary which provides the most frequently used readings.

There are three readings provided for each Sunday of the year. In addition, there is a text from the psalms which offers words of response to the first reading. That means that when there are alternative first readings, there are also alternative psalms, since the psalm has been chosen to correspond to the particular reading.

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