The Bible Marathon begins with volunteers, conscripts and reservists all in place. Who is going to read, and how will they manage? In an ideal church they arrive promptly and read clearly, audibly and intelligibly, suggesting Nehemiah 8.8. And inerrantly – though the occasional blip is more excusable than the chronic mumbler or the seriously unprepared. Each reader follows another with minimal delay; no one giggles or misunderstands.

Additions to the text

Should they announce book titles and chapter numbers? It helped during the Psalms. The churches had different policies, but in both, a prominent card told us where we were. No one said ‘Here beginneth…’, ‘This is the word of the Lord’ or any more pious conclusion. Some clearly believed that it was the Lords word; others seemed doubtful.

The worst additions to the text (apart from ‘Sorry, I’ll start again’ or ‘Can you hear me?’) were the pointless headings which deface some versions. The drama of Esther is pre-empted by the announcement ‘Haman is hanged’; the shock in Luke 10 is nullified by the gratuitous title ‘The Good Samaritan’. I hope that such Epistle-readers as I missed felt no urge to include those most fatuous of by-lines, ‘Further instructions’ or ‘Final greetings’. They break up a solid page of print; but in reading aloud7. Surely not.

It seemed good to enlist bishops, other vicars, mayors, local councillors and MPs, and others accustomed to public speaking, as well as churchwardens and ‘ordinary’ church members. The mayor made a fair job of Genesis 1, but she could hardly compare with the sonorous majesty of the Bishop of London who led the way in the other Marathon. The clergy I heard were adequate; worst, the tub-thumping archdeacon taking the stage for his oratory, using double his allotted time. Those who followed felt obliged to hurry things along.

Our parliamentary representatives proved a varied lot. One

coincidence: in both Marathons, the first mention of Abram fell to an MR And both introduced him as ‘Abraham’ from Genesis 11 onwards, which rather loses the point of the patriarch’s new name in chapter 17. Hadn’t they read it through beforehand? Was it really so hard for others to discover how to pronounce Balaam, Phoenicia or Samaria?

Genealogies and lists present their own dilemmas; one church took them in order while the other reserved them for late-evening enthusiasts. Either way they need good readers, Genesis 5 and 10 being as vital to the story as Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Aren’t they? If not, as with those fiercer Psalms, the question then becomes: who draws the line, and where?

Readers of all ages

Should children be part of the starting line-up? The gains of having the Brownies doing their few verses apiece are obvious. (‘Didn’t they do well?’ – Mum.) But many were too quiet, too fast, or too young. Had we come to hear them perform? Having done their combined 30 minutes, off they trooped to the back for an extended party among the nibbles. One small girl read with precision, clarity and sense; was it all worth it for her sake? I hope it was for all the others, who may remember what they read and why, and grow to understand.

And if I criticize the youngsters, what can we say of the middle-aged chatterers at the back who nearly drowned out the readers? And the older men making the confrontations of kings and prophets sound as if they were bored sick by the whole exercise? Some of the great climactic crises, even Pentecost, were frankly a washout. Even one of the ladies (who generally did rather better) read ‘They worshipped the Lord and served their idols’ as if this was a perfectly normal modus vivendi. Look at that ‘and’ again, sister! But praise be, they all read – the gains surely outweigh the losses. So who gained, and who was listening? \ND\ To be continued…