Orality and Aurality: Literacy and Liturgy

Leslie Chadd continues his reflections with a meditation on the symbolism of the book

OUR PERSONAL attachment to "private" prayer books and missals or even to a weekly pew sheets has tended to obscure the fact that one book on a lectern is a valuable symbol and way of directing our attention to the importance of the Liturgy of the Word, just as the altar with the chalice and paten does for the Liturgy of the Bread Breaking. Yet all too often it is the altar missal of the altar version of the A.S.B. or Book of Common Prayer which is the most significant book on view, especially if placed on a large missal stand.

That is in itself curious, because if there is a place for a single sheet of paper it is on the altar, unobtrusively flat, for the celebrant alone to use. Everything he needs at the altar, in the way of prayer of consecration as well as propers and communion devotions can be contained, even in good-size print, on two sides of an A4 sheet. It then leaves the altar free and uncluttered by a massive tome of a thousand unused pages to provide a visual focus for the worshippers on what is being done at the altar in their name. Always assuming, of course, that they can be persuaded to lift their eyes from their own books.

Perhaps the authorised use of the revised Lectionary in Advent might be a good opportunity for us all to review and revise the ways in which we proclaim the importance of the Holy Scriptures at the Eucharist.

In passing, it needs to be said that the lectern itself should look significant, and in a proper relationship to the pulpit, if any. Ideally the preaching of the Word and the reading of it should be from the same place, and the readings always from the lectern. It sends out some confusing signals to see the first two readings done from a scrap of paper held by someone standing rather vaguely somewhere in front of the congregation. And if it said that the brass eagle lectern, impressive though it is, is too high for children or shorter adults to read from there are many ways of dealing with this which are better than abandoning the lectern altogether. It is odd that so little attention has been given by church furniture makers to the possibility of adjustable-height lecterns, for sometimes they are clearly too low for a tall reader, who, head bent over the text as though over a bingo card, cannot possibly project his voice to the back row.

And, speaking of technique and technology there is a place for the computer produced leaflet, but, I would suggest, in the field of hymnody and psalms rather than bible readings. Critics of what are loosely and inaccurately condemned as "Happy Clappy" hymns seem to be unaware that "Shine, Jesus, Shine" is not the last word or the best in modern hymn-writing. We are now in a "Post-Kendrick" age, and there are some very good new hymns and songs being produced. Some of them are not published in book form but in sheets with permission, within limits, to copy for parish use.

I wish the hymn book publishers no harm but it is practically very useful to have the words and sometimes even the music of the psalm and the hymns on a single sheet. I know of a few places where it is being done and what a delight it is to be spared the need for juggling skills in the management of more than one hymn book, and it also provides far more scope and resources. Such a Sunday give-away sheet makes far more sense, surely, than one with most of its space filled with the text of the bible readings. As we noticed in the previous article, the readings should surely be done by one person and listened to, attended to, heard by all, not read aloud by one to nobody in particular and read silently by all the rest to themselves.

It is THE BOOK that matters. Not prayer books or hymn books but the book from which the Scripture Lections are read, and there should surely be only one on which to focus our attention, with no encouragement to retreat into the private worlds of private readings. So it should be large enough to be visually impressive, yet able to be carried ceremoniously in procession. It should be obviously visible on the lectern and easy to read from, and to speak, and, in my experience, very little interest in or concern for the need for training at parish level to achieve such quality. It is all rather like building a splendid theatre, modern and "in-the-round", commissioning excellent playwrights and then being content with reluctant or even keen untrained amateur actors.

Perhaps the use of the new Lectionary in Advent might stimulate a renewal of interest in reading the Word of God well, encouraging a really participatory corporate Liturgical Listening, pronouncing the death sentence on the throw-away junk mail leaflet versions of the Sunday Lections, and thereby build up the Body of Christ, the incarnate Word of God.

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

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