Angela Tilby: We must hear the Word first

30 November 2018

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ON THE Monday before Advent Sunday last year, I was in Norwich Cathedral for choral evensong. The chancel was dark with glowing candles as a lay canon stepped up to read the Old Testament lesson, the beginning of Isaiah 40: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says the Lord.”

For the first time after many months of listening to Bible readings in church, I felt that I was listening to scripture: that is, to the Word of God proclaimed to God’s people. And it was proclaimed. By which I do not mean that it was shouted, or over-insistent: it was simply spoken as if it came from somewhere else — not from the reader, not even from the page of the chancel Bible, but as a message of infinite significance to persons, from an infinitely significant personal God. It was spine-tingling.

It made me wonder what is going on when scripture is read in church. So often, it is read badly. Part of the problem is technical. Reading in church requires a degree of competence and understanding: most people benefit from a rehearsal, checking pronunciations where necessary, practising the pace, and knowing how to work with the sound system.

Even more important than learning to read well in a public space, however, is developing a sense of expectation. This means reading scripture as a communication from beyond ourselves, and having a sense that something happens when scripture is read. Thomas Cranmer believed that the systematic public reading of scripture was an end in itself — more significant than any preaching, which, even at best, could only ever be human commentary. The true drama was in the Word proclaimed and listened to. We are to “hear . . . read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the scriptures. Hearing comes first.

It is not only the well-educated and mature who can read scripture well enough to arrest the listener. I was at a Mothering Sunday service a few years ago, when I heard the lectionary passage from Colossians 3 brilliantly proclaimed by a girl aged no more than 13.

It was not a particularly easy passage, but she had become familiar with it, and she took it slowly, filled the space, and let her voice ring out. Again, she seemed to recognise that she was a vehicle for a voice not her own. Yet she herself was transformed in the reading of scripture: she became a “prophet”, one who speaks for God.

More than 100 years ago, a schoolgirl remembered her headmistress, Dorothea Beale, reading the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. She wrote: “I shall never forget the impression I received. It was quite electric; one felt that this woman was reading the thing she considered the greatest in the world.”

Scripture will be heard when we take the trouble to listen, and it will change us.

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