Francis Gardom on a useful Saturday’s work

In my role as a ‘spare-wheel’ – standing-in for clergy either during an inter-regnum, or to enable the parish priest to go away on holiday – I experience many different styles and degrees of competence in the reading of lessons during the liturgy.

Much of the reading which I hear is highly commendable. Readings have evidently been carefully prepared, they are audibly and intelligently delivered, and the rare exceptions to this rule are often the result of the scheduled reader being indisposed at the last minute, or forgetting to let anyone know that they will be elsewhere that Sunday.

It has gradually been dawning on me, however, that our standard of reading might be improved yet further by engaging the services of a professional actor to give us the benefit of his, or her, experience.

The chance to try this out came the other Saturday.

I first of all ‘tested the water’ by inviting people to sign-up to a Readers’ Training Day. To my surprise and delight, over two dozen people did so, including most of those who regularly read already, and others who’ve never done so before. Those who came included all ages, races and backgrounds. We made it absolutely clear in the advance publicity that signing-up and coming along in no way committed anyone to reading either regularly or occasionally thereafter should they prefer not to do so.

Christopher Knott, a professional actor friend of mine, agreed enthusiastically to be our tutor for the day (both Anne and I counted ourselves as pupils). From Moment One I sensed that we were on to a winner in Christopher, and that the day was going to be a runaway success.

We had previously circulated those coming with a printout of the First and Second Lectionary readings which they had heard during the previous six weeks – the First Readings on one side of the paper, the Second on the back. We invited everyone coming to choose one reading from each side and be prepared to read one or both of them.

I introduced the event by stressing that the Ministry of the Word has always been an integral part of the Liturgy, and (at least for some churchgoers) is their one and only regular contact with the words of Scripture. However much we plug the importance of Bible-reading, the fact is that a significant minority of regular churchgoers do not include Bible-reading in their daily discipline. This is not helped by the difficulty some people have in hearing or understanding what is being read in church, which only serves to convince them, mistakenly, that ‘it’s all beyond them anyway’.

We drew lots for the order in which we should read, and Christopher gave us a short talk – about ten minutes – pointing up some very general tips about reading successfully in public.

Then we listened to the readers in four batches of six. After each batch Christopher gave us his comments, picking out what was most praiseworthy about each reader’s performance. After every two batches we had a short interval to enable people to raise any matter with Christopher or each other.

When everyone had had their first turn of reading, there was enough time for us to go through the list again, with people reading their second choice.

It was quite extraordinary how quickly and easily subsequent readers picked up the points he was making and applied them to their own reading. As a result our standard of reading improved significantly and progressively throughout the morning.

In our church we use a microphone to amplify the reader’s words. During the second batch of readers Christopher suggested switching it off. Surprisingly, people’s audibility and quality of reading improved immediately. Thereafter we turned the microphone on again, but invited people, if they so wished, to stand aside from it so that, whilst it continued to amplify their voices, they weren’t having to speak directly into it and could therefore the more easily establish eye-contact with their hearers – about whose importance Christopher was emphatic. Again to my surprise, most of the readers thenceforward opted for this, and the improvement in reading was significant.

This Reader’s Training Day, which concluded with lunch generously provided by the parish priest, lasted a little less than four hours. The lunch turned out to be an important feature of it, giving the readers the opportunity to talk to Christopher individually, and there was barely a minute during lunchtime when someone or other was not asking for his advice and comments.

Judging by the enthusiasm it generated, this event will bear repeating in a few months’ time. It was helpfully pointed out that the readings in the Holy Saturday Liturgy, some of which are quite lengthy, would benefit from having their respective readers doing a dry-run some time beforehand. Meanwhile, we shall have had time to discover how much, and in what respects, the readings at Sunday Mass improve, and where the scope for further improvement still lies.

Doing a quick costing, we reckoned that we could repeat this four-hour session elsewhere for about £100 plus travelling expenses. The obvious day to do it is a Saturday, though a Sunday after a 10 o’clock Mass would be quite possible. The timetable could be tailored either to having the event end with lunch (as we did) or with two sessions one on either side.

The cost would include the necessary readings printed out to give people a reasonable range of choice, and would take account both of the Lectionary and the translation which is habitually in use at a particular church. Yes, we’d be just as glad to use the Authorised Version as Good News for Modern Man!

Reader’s Day was serendipital, too. Amongst the best readers, we discovered a 12-year-old who had a natural aptitude for reading aloud, and another lady who had never read aloud in church before because she had been too afraid to do so. Her reading also turned out to be outstandingly good. In the reader-friendly context of this Readers’ Training Day she overcame her natural diffidence, thanks to the expertise of Christopher who really knew what he was talking about.

If we seriously want to transform our churches into Centres of Excellence, as Bishop JR insisted, then a Training on the Read is a small but significant step in the right direction.

Francis Gardom is Hon Secretary of Cost of Conscience