Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Lay Readers?

Or, for that matter, why not? In some minds, it’s a real question that deserves to be debated.

For many of us, however, having lay people leave their pews in the congregation to stand at the lectern and read the Scripture lessons for the day is an experience so common as to be unquestioned. The practice became immensely popular in many Protestant churches, across denominational and theological lines, during the period of liturgical renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.

One interpretation that prevailed at the time was that having lay readers reflected the historical rise of the Scriptures from the community of God’s people, from the community of Christ’s followers. Therefore, it was right and true that lay people should be the ones to present the Word in Scripture to the community gathered at worship.

This approach is perhaps a bit of a stretch. To claim validity for lay readers on the basis of the historical development of Scriptures, true as it may be, is more than is needed. The Protestant Reformation claimed for every person the right and responsibility to read and understand Scripture, so for any one of them to stand up and read the Bible to the assembly is a logically and theologically sound act of worship.

Lay readers coming forward take on symbolic meaning, and, therefore, carry theological freight. The action suggests that ordinary people have an important role in the church’s worship, namely, presenting the biblical texts for the day.

Now there are others who don’t see it this way. Their argument is that the Scriptures come to the community, not from it—and should then be read to the people, not by one of the regular people. The Bible is God’s Word and should be spoken only by those properly called by God to do so. After all, the lay reader is not trained for such—much as preaching requires special training, so does picking up the Bible on Sunday morning to read out loud.

Of course, this position slips easily into clericalism of the first order: only clergy are capable of reading the printed Word in public worship. That is patently silly, since you and I have heard more than one ordained clergyperson incompetent to read a text with sense and understanding. Ordination, unfortunately, guarantees nothing in that regard.

On the other hand, I’d have to confess that I’ve heard plenty of lay people not able to read aloud and communicate meaning. So, while the premise of reserving Scripture reading in public to the clergy is wrong as it can be, it makes a point: anyone who reads Scripture aloud needs training and practice.

If we are going to ask members of our churches to stand up in front of their peers and read, for everyone’s sake we need to give them help and equipment to do so.

Some ministers recruit men and women, old and young, to provide a core of readers, and then spend time with them periodically. The crew is gathered to read through the lectionary texts for the forthcoming weeks. Difficult passages are flagged and rehearsed.

It also helps to have the lay readers study the texts they are reading. The pastor/preacher can provide helpful insights and commentary that will enhance the reader’s understanding of the text.

A well prepared lay reader can be an inspiration to the rest of the congregation. Such a person encourages Scripture reading by everyone outside the Sunday service.

There are some clergy, myself included, who like to hear the Scripture read by someone else before preaching. Passages I’ve read again and again in preparation of the sermon sound different to my ears when I am listening rather than speaking. On more than one occasion, the Spirit has prompted a fresh insight for me by the voice of a lay reader—and a last-minute improvement of the sermon.

Do you have lay readers in your church? Do they read all the texts on a Sunday? Who reads the Gospel lesson? Do your lay readers have special training?

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