Leslie Chadd encourages Christians, like Prospero, to bury their books

ORALITY AND LITERACY” is the title of a book by Walter J Ong, S.J., published in 1982 by Methuen (reprinted by Routledge). Although the author is a Jesuit the book is not about Worship, but is the sort of book that might be required reading for someone studying for a degree in English. Walter Ong was Professor of Humanities in Psychiatry at Saint Louis University, Missouri, and his book explored some of the profound changes in our though processes, personality and social structures which are the result of our progressive ability, first to think and speak, and, much later, to read and write.

His word has important implication, not only for bible students but also for those who are responsible for the Church’s Liturgy. In human history speaking and listening precedes reading. The human race has been on earth for perhaps 50,000 years and the first real writing is no older than a tenth of that.

For ninety per cent of its time then, we can imagine tribes and communities of human beings talking and listening. Ong’s point is that communities are formed and strengthened by this, by sitting round the evening fire listening to the elders telling the familiar stories of the tribe’s ancestry. In much the same way do we gather on Easter Eve round the new fire and listen to the tales of the wonderful works of God, and, rightly used, the community of the Church is built up by it. Parents know the force of it too, in the bed-time story to be told, read, and listened to, longer after the child could read it for himself. The ritual of reading and listening strengthens the family bond and provides a sense of security against the fears of the night.

But the development of reading and writing threatened this, for reading is a private, interior, activity, not a communal one. Ong makes the point that a good teacher talking to and with a class of children has developed a community, but if she then says “now open your books and read Chapter three silently” the community breaks up into a number of individuals each engaged in a private, interior activity even if they are all reading the same thing.

I have been made very much aware of this since I retired from parish life. I now spend my Sundays in different churches presiding at the Parish Eucharist and from the president’s chair I can notice this principle at work in the reading of the Sunday lections. In some churches there is an obvious attentiveness to what the reader is saying. In others, and, in my experience, far too many, there is none. Ninety per cent of the congregation will not be looking at, attending to, listening to the reader at all, or not very obviously. Their eyes are glued to the page of the Alternative Service Book found in the pew, or to the sheet of paper with the printed readings given to them at the door. And I am conscious of the effect of this upon the corporateness, the community of the congregation. It is like being in a theatre for a performance of a Shakespeare play with all the audience reading the words from a copy of the play they have brought with them. I sometimes feel that I might as well announce “Now we are going to read the lections for today and there will be ten minutes silence while we all read them to ourselves.”

In defence of the pew-sheet habit it is sometimes urged that it helps the congregation to hear what is being read, but this is a chicken-and-egg situation. If the reader cannot be heard he is not reading well, and needs to be taught how to do it better. But there is no encouragement for him to bother with this if he knows that the “listeners” – if they can be called that – have the text in front of them anyway.

There is much more that could be said on this subject and it would take a book to explore it properly. How much training in reading is given in our churches? Should people be reading at all without some basic training in techniques? Is a sound reinforcement system a help or a hindrance? The microphone which can turn bad diction into good has not yet been invented! Does it not reduce the Holy Scriptures to the level of junk-mail to have it on throw-away leaflet? And especially when, horror of horrors, the readers actually take their scrap of paper to the lectern to read from. Is there perhaps a case to be made for publishing only NEXT SUNDAY’S readings in the weekly news-sheet, so that people can prepare for the Eucharist by reading the lessons at home, but leaving them there so that they can really listen, with alertness and attention?

“The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church” we are often told, but this is in danger of becoming a mere platitude unless we give some thought to the mechanics of it, for it does not happen automatically. We older priests can recall ways of celebrating the Eucharist which did little to build up any sense of corporateness, however much they may have encouraged private devotion. We used, in those days, to talk of “hearing Mass” until this was thought to be too non-participatory, too passive a description, so then we urged the faithful to “pray the Mass”. But it was too easily assumed that following the words in prayer book or missal was a better way, a more “concentrated” way of praying, than just listening attentively. And why should it be? Since the prayer being offered is the Church’s prayer anyway, not only does it not depend upon the concentration of the individuals present, but such “book-dominated” concentration actively operates against the idea of the church and its corporateness. Small wonder that some people, devoted though they were to the Prayer Book or the Missal, were markedly less enthusiastic about the Kiss of Peace.

Despite all the reforms of modern liturgy we still seem to be more devoted to the printed page that to the Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity, who is in our midst. Our Holy-Book culture seems to make us less aware of one another, less discerning of the Body of Christ rather than more. It is not at all uncommon to see members of a congregation following in their books the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, not, presumably because they do not know them but because they believe they are not praying properly, not “concentrating” unless they are following the words with the eye of literacy. Again one only has to ask what such an activity would do for a live performance of a play to see that the corporate attentiveness, active and attentive listening, contributes to the action of the drama, of which the audience is a necessary part.

There is such a thing of Liturgical Listening, Liturgical Attentiveness, and in Anglican worship at least it does need to be actively encouraged. Throwing away our books, learning to be no longer dependent on them, attending to the Word rather than to words, may well be the best way of building up the Body of Christ.

Leslie Chadd is a retired priest member of Forward in Faith.