A major feature of any liturgy is reading. Appointed readers read Scripture lessons, a Deacon (or Priest) reads a Gospel lesson at the Communion service, everyone reads prayers and Creeds together. Sometimes it’s like a dialogue, going back and forth between the minister and the people; sometimes it’s a block reading, like everyone reading a Confession together. One of the issues that can crop up is the pacing of these readings.
On his or her own, sometimes a reader gets nervous. This is perfectly understandable, and experience and practice works wonders here. But it must be cautioned that a nervous or inexperienced reader can rush through the words, tripping over or slurring them together. Or sometimes the opposite – the gravity of reading the Word of God overwhelms them such that they end up reading it very slowly. Public readings ought to be read at a natural pace, such that the commas, semicolons, and periods are all clear and distinct. We want the reading to have some dramatic weight, but we don’t want to overdo it, William Shatner style:
The same applies to congregation readings. Be it a Psalm, a Collect, Creed, or other prayer or reading, the people need to go at a natural pace.
If we read too fast together, the issues are many:
- people could run out of breath
- there’s no time to think about or process what you’re actually saying
- it communicates a lack of care, value, or import to the words
- visitors unfamiliar with the liturgy will feel swamped and overwhelmed
Similarly, reading too slowly can mask the overall coherence of the reading or prayer.
If your congregation has a pacing problem, it’s really upon the leaders to fix it. The clergy or other ministers who lead the various services need to set the pace, even instruct the congregation to speed up or slow down. Reading and praying together is a spiritual exercise requiring practice and intentionality. Western culture sometimes makes this difficult for us – we don’t want to end up like the Borg from Star Trek, we don’t want to lose our individuality, we easily mistrust corporate liturgical action and prefer “personal” and “relational” things. So for many people these acts of common prayer and common reading is a lost art that has to be re-learned. Let’s not beat people over the head with this, but we do need to be aware that actual training, practice, and learning is involved!