People of the Book?: Some Reflections on Reading Scripture Publicly in Worship

Yes, that is a picture of the Pope, but, no, I'm not crossing the Tiber. When I'm sick is the one time I actually miss having a TV, for as I start to recover, but before I'm well enough to concentrate on reading, a bit of mindless TV watching is generally a decent distraction. Nowadays though, without a TV, I have to use iPlayer or some other internet based solution for my mindless viewing. (The problem is, that with such things you actually have to choose what to watch, which isn't quite so mindless, although it often means strange choices which haven't been given  much thought; how do you think I became addicted to the original Danish version of The Killing? Or how did I realise that the American remake wasn't worthy of the name? It's all down to random viewing choices while sick.) Well, this time, my random viewing choice was the Easter Vigil from the St Peter's Basilica (made extra random by the fact that I didn't watch until a few days after Easter). Hence the papal picture.

Now, I assure you, I don't normally watch papal masses (hence the long explanation about random viewing choices in sickness), but I was quite fascinated by the Vatican Easter Vigil. In many ways it was completely different from any service I had ever seen before either in person or on television. How was it different? (Other than simply by being Catholic.)

  1. It was 3 hours long.
  2. There were no hymns or choruses. There was music, but it was liturgical music, and until the Gloria it was all a cappella. (Can you even imagine a 3 hour service without a time of 'praise and worship'?)
  3. The Gospel was chanted (I've only ever seen this once before in a high Anglican church).
  4. There was a lot of symbolism involving candles and incense.
  5. There was a lot of ritual action which took place in silence or while the choir sang.
  6. There were eleven substantial Scripture readings!

Eleven Scripture readings in one service! Half of these were chanted (the Gospel, Responsorial Psalms, and the Song of Moses) and the other half (Old Testament lessons and Epistle) were read in a variety of languages. Leaving aside the matter of language (a vigil in the Vatican has a congregation of pilgrims from all over the world, and a televised one has a global audience, so there's always going to be a language problem), the congregation listened to the very words of God in Scripture read, 11 passages in a row.

Now, among evangelicals, rightly or wrongly, we tend to have the impression that Catholics don't read the Bible all that much for themselves. Yet there in the most important Roman Catholic service of the year, a huge portion of time was given over to listening to the Scriptures (and without any human commentary). Which got me thinking about our evangelical services.
As evangelicals, we like to think of ourselves as people of the Book. The Evangelical faith is a Bible-based faith. Evangelicals read the Bible for themselves and gather together on the Lord's Day to hear it expounded. But in our worship services, how much Scripture do we actually read aloud? Other than at a Carol Service, where we might possibly still hear the traditional nine lessons, when are we willing to give over a substantial chunk of the service to reading and listening to the Word of God itself?

Now, I'm not suggesting at all that we follow the model of the Vatican's Easter Vigil; for, despite the amount of Scripture read, there was much there that was unbiblical (such as the invocation of the saints, silent adoration at the image of the Madonna and Child, the teaching of baptismal regeneration, the replacing of the baptism in the Holy Spirit with Confirmation, the fact that the end of the service booklet reminds those who take part in the service that they are entitled to a Plenary Indulgence, etc.). But the willingness to give over an extended period of time in the service to the reading of Scripture is a good thing. After all, the Apostle Paul did tell Timothy to 'devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture' (1 Tim. 4:13, ESV), and it is the model of the early church, where 'the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits' (Justin Martyr, c. AD 155).

Perhaps one of the reasons we don't place so much emphasis on reading the Scriptures publicly in our evangelical services is because we do place a lot of emphasis on personal Bible reading. Yet, on a visit to another assembly recently I was reminded why this isn't enough. After the service I was speaking to a lady who had lost the ability to read. The only chance she had to receive God's Word was when it was read to her in church. In a society of almost universal literacy, we forget so easily the things that are taken for granted in other parts of the world. When I was in Malawi, when there was someone in the congregation who could read and who finally managed to get hold of a Bible, they would gather the people together during the week simply to read the Scriptures to them, or how else could those without a Bible, and without even the ability to read, come under the power of God's Word. Although we may take owning a Bible and being able to read it for granted in the West, there are still some who cannot read it, and others who won't. And there is still the command of God's Word that His servants should 'devote [themselves] to the public reading of Scripture' (1 Tim. 4:13, ESV), a vital part of the biblical model for the church's worship.