A few Sundays ago, I was in the vesting room when one of our lay readers approached the rector with a question. He wanted to know if he could read the Old Testament lesson from the King James Version of the Bible. He felt that the Jacobean language of the Authorized Version was especially fitting for this particular passage of Scripture, in which God asks Job, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). I was struck not only by his unusual request, but by the fact that this faithful lay reader had actually taken the time to look over the passage well in advance, reflected on it, and had even brought his own printed-out text to church. When he announced the lesson during the liturgy, he mentioned that he would be reading from the King James Version (so as not to confuse anyone who might be trying to follow along with the text in the bulletin), and there was an awkward chuckle throughout the congregation. Was he being serious? Once he began to read, it became clear that, yes, he was quite serious. I’m also certain that most of us listened to the words of this reading more attentively than we had listened to any Old Testament reading in the last several months.
One of the many merits of Anglican liturgy is the vast amount of Scripture it incorporates. On any given Sunday morning, one is likely to encounter a reading from the Old Testament, a passage from the Psalms, a portion of one of the New Testament epistles, and a reading from one of the Gospels — not to mention the scriptural references and allusions that are woven through the liturgy itself. In the olden days of the Episcopal Church, the reading of Scripture during the service of Holy Communion was performed exclusively by ordained ministers. For several decades now, it has become the norm for Scripture readings (with the exception of the Gospel) to be read by laypersons.
Nowadays, however, the term “lay reader” is virtually obsolete in the Episcopal Church. Granted, there may be good reasons for this, if for nothing else than to avoid confusing it with the antiquated order of “reader” or “lector” (one of the minor orders in the pre-conciliar Latin Church). Even the ministry of Reader in the present-day Church of England has no analogue in its American sister church. English lay Readers, designated by their blue tippets, have wide responsibilities and typically must undertake some amount of formal theological education. Where the term “lay reader” is still used colloquially in Episcopal churches, it usually refers to a layperson who simply volunteers to read one of the Scripture lessons during the service of the Holy Eucharist. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) still uses the term in a few places, and it directs that the Lessons preceding the Gospel should be read by laypersons (p. 322).
So what happened to our licensed lay readers? This used to be a designated office — one that required an actual license from the Bishop. It involved much more than reading the lessons, however. Lay readers were authorized to officiate, in the absence of a priest, at services of Morning and Evening Prayer as well as the ante-communion portion of the Eucharist. In some circumstances, they were authorized to preach and exercise other pastoral duties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ministry was at first restricted to candidates for Holy Orders. And the corresponding penalties were grave: any nonconformity with the canonical guidelines for lay readers was “deemed in all cases a disqualification for Holy Orders.” Eventually, the office was opened to all laypersons, readers were allowed to assist alongside ordained ministers (i.e. not only in their absence), and the list of responsibilities was expanded to include administration of the chalice.
The current canons in the Episcopal Church include no mention of the office of lay reader. Most of the responsibilities exercised by lay readers are now covered under a new set of licensed lay ministries, such as “Eucharistic Minister,” “Preacher,” and “Worship Leader” (Canon III.4). But there’s one item that got left in the dust: reading the Bible in church. The current prayer book simply states that the lessons are to be read at a certain point in the liturgy of Holy Eucharist (by an unspecified “reader”), and there are no canonical guidelines regarding who is to perform this function. This is a shame, because it implicitly suggests that the role of the lector is merely an afterthought. But reading the Bible is serious business.
In many churches, the readings are performed by a well-meaning group of volunteers who receive little guidance. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right? But, as experience has unfortunately shown, poor reading can easily turn what should be a moment of meditation into a tedious test of endurance. You know what I mean if you’ve ever sat through a reading of the Old Testament in which the lector was blindsided with a smattering of obscure names or references to Ancient Near East geography. Even the most literate person may stumble through one of St. Paul’s epistles if he or she hasn’t looked over the passage in advance. Regardless of the specific content, reading in a public setting is not as simple a task as one might expect.
But this is all the more reason to reevaluate the way we read the Bible in church. Of course any of us is welcome to read the Bible at leisure in our own home or virtually anywhere we might find ourselves. The Bible is the best-selling book in the world, and there is no shortage of websites and smartphone apps that put the Scriptures at our fingertips. Unlike many other periods in the Church’s history, availability is not the problem. But the Church has always privileged the public reading of Scripture as an act of worship. When we hear the Bible being read on a Sunday morning (or at any of the other offices), this is what the Spirit is saying to the Church right now. We should listen. Given the nature of public worship, our ability to listen in this context is contingent upon the reader’s performance.
This is also why lay readers should consider their responsibility for what it is: a ministry. And like all ministries, serving as a reader involves more than simply showing up. Good reading enables the congregation to hear God’s Word with clarity and reverence — perhaps even in a new light. It should also be seen as an opportunity for evangelism. There is always a chance that, for the unchurched sitting in our pews, it is the only time they will encounter this particular portion of God’s Word. The bottom line is that the way we read the Bible in Church is a reflection of how seriously we take the Bible in the life of the Church.
With all this in mind, I’ve put together a few suggestions — or, rather, exhortations — for those who find themselves in the position of lay reader in their local parish.
- Approach the opportunity as an act of devotion. Look over the text prior to Sunday morning. Take the time not only to read the passage but also to meditate on it. Say a prayer before reading, and ask the Holy Spirit for illumination. If you have time, read a little bit of the text before and after the assigned passage in order to get a better sense of the context. Once you have a better sense of the text’s meaning, you’ll be better equipped to convey that meaning through your reading. An additional benefit to this kind of preparation is that it will enhance your ability to worship throughout the liturgy. You may be surprised to find connections in the hymns or in the sermon that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
- Practice. This is less about your mindset than it is about the nuts and bolts of public reading. It helps to read the passage out loud when you practice. When we read silently, it always “sounds” good because our minds make subtle corrections as our eyes skim the text. Read aloud, noting your speed, tone, and enunciation. It’s almost always better to err on the side of reading too slowly rather than too quickly. Be sure to pause at appropriate points, and enunciate your words more deliberately than you would in everyday conversation. Biblical texts are not scripts for dramatic performances, but the authors (and translators) have put a great deal of thought into the word choices and sentence structures they contain, and the various genres within the Bible each have their own cadence. A careful reader will be sensitive to these details.
- Ask for help. The Bible has a lot of strange names and places. I’m an ordained minister with seminary training, and I still encounter biblical words that I have no idea how to pronounce. You’re not alone. There are Bible pronunciation guides in book form, but nowadays it will be more convenient for most readers to utilize one the many online resources for pronunciation. Also, most Bible websites (like Bible Gateway) have an audio option for most translations, so you can simply listen to the passage being read by someone else. In a pinch, you can always ask a priest on the morning of the service (just keep in mind that he or she may not know, either!). If you and your peers are clueless, or if for whatever reason you find yourself standing at a lectern staring at a bunch of unfamiliar words, then consult number 4…
- Read with confidence. Confidence that results from preparation is the ideal, but in the event that you haven’t prepared, fake it. Yes, I mean it. Fake it for all it’s worth. Don’t know how to pronounce Ehud or Maher-shalal-hashbaz? Say it as if you do, even if it’s nowhere close to the correct pronunciation. Why? Because most people won’t even notice. It’s far better to pronounce incorrectly with confidence than to pause awkwardly, contort your face into a confused expression, and then mumble through some incoherent syllables as if you’ve just received local anesthesia in your mouth. At the conclusion of the reading, insert a brief pause before confidently saying “the Word of the Lord” (or “here endeth the Lesson,” etc.). Remember, it’s not your own authority that you’re invoking, so there is no need to feel awkward or sheepish about making such an authoritative declaration.
(For churches, I commend the following. Obviously, the practicality of these suggestions will depend somewhat on an individual church’s resources — not only financial, but the availability of staff and volunteers.)
- Use a lectern Bible. I’ve been to plenty of churches where a majestic, leather bound pulpit Bible sits collecting dust while the lector stands elsewhere and reads from a service leaflet. Some people are afraid to approach a pulpit Bible empty handed. They worry that they won’t remember which verses to read or that the Bible won’t be marked at the correct passage. This is simply remedied, however. Lectors can always jot down the reference on a sheet of paper or have a printout just in case. But the point is that churches should have a pulpit Bible (if they can afford it) or at least a lectern-sized book of lectionary readings, and they should ask their lectors to use it. It’s the same principle behind having a designated Gospel Book: the material arrangement and liturgical movement around our Sacred Scriptures should reflect the dignity of the words contained therein.
- Provide training. This doesn’t need to be extensive. In smaller parishes, it could simply be a matter of the rector taking a few minutes with a new volunteer to provide some direction. In larger parishes, it would be a good idea to offer something more formal — perhaps an annual “orientation” for lay readers. If lay readers also officiate at Morning or Evening Prayer, then this is all the more important. For any parish, offering a set of printed guidelines to every lay reader is an easy way to answer questions that they might not know (or might be afraid) to ask. It also serves as a reminder that reading is an integral component of our worship and should be given as much care as any other aspect of the liturgy.
- Express gratitude. On more than one occasion my own comprehension of the biblical text has been enhanced thanks to a careful and reverent lay reader. Reading in church shouldn’t be a performance, but there is such a thing as reading well. It’s important to thank our lay readers when they’ve enabled the congregation to hear God’s Word rightly. It’s not inappropriate for the preacher to express gratitude during the sermon for a thoughtful reading, especially if that reading brought out a particular aspect of the passage with clarity and grace. No matter how it’s done, thanking our lay readers is both a polite gesture and a reminder that it’s a job to be taken seriously.
I hope that these reflections and suggestions will help to reinvigorate the humble task of lay reading, that we might better “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture in our churches.
 Edwin A. White and Jackson A. Dykman, eds., Annotated Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church (2 Vols.), 1981 Edition (New York: Church Publishing, 1997), III.26 (p. 930).