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Olivia de Havilland

proclaiming the scriptures and faith

Olivia de HavillandThere is an interview of Olivia de Havilland by Bishop Pierre Whalon (Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe) on Anglicans Online about proclaiming the scriptures. It is a good launch-pad for some reflections for those who proclaim the scriptures. The article is copyright and quotes are placed here with permission. The whole article may be read at Anglicans Online:

the reading of the Scriptures is essential to our worship, not just to receive a kind of “holy information” but as meat and drink for our life of faith. Therefore, the readings should be an authentic expression of the reader’s own faith — complete with struggles and doubts as well as hope.

Olivia de Havilland was one of the first women lectors at the Cathedral in Paris. In the 1970s, the then-Dean, the Very Rev. Robert G. Oliver, determined to introduce women as lectors. It was a daring innovation for the time in that congregation. According to Miss de Havilland, he began by asking a conservative wife of a corporate executive. She was followed by another impeccably dressed lady of similar standing. Finally he ended with “the movie actress.” By then people had grown accustomed to women readers, even liking the contrast with masculine voices. Until fairly recently, Miss de Havilland was on the regular rota for reading.

Today she still reads for major feasts and special occasions, such as a memorial service for another previous Dean, Sturgis Riddle. She kindly shared with me her method of preparation, which is a model for every lector to consider, and not just among Episcopalians.

First of all, Miss de Havilland brings to bear what she herself learned as a fledgling actress under Max Reinhardt, the great theatrical and movie director of the 1930s. She describes what happened: “Just after graduating from high school, I played Puck in an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the California village of Saratoga where I was brought up. Having won a full scholarship to Mills College [in Oakland, California] where, upon enrolling in late September, I planned to major in Drama and Speech Arts, I wanted to watch the great Max Reinhardt’s rehearsals of his Hollywood Bowl production of the same play. After auditioning for Max Reinhardt’s assistant director, to my surprise and great good fortune, I was appointed second understudy to the role of Hermia and finally inherited the part! My engagement in the Hollywood Bowl production prevented me from enrolling at Mills – which I never attended.”

Then Reinhardt asked her to take the part of Hermia in his touring company, and eventually, the film version of the play. “He was the type of director who showed you what he wanted by acting the role himself,” Miss de Havilland said. “I made notes of everything he wanted, devising a sort of hieroglyphics for myself in the script. That way, I could reproduce his inflections on the words to his satisfaction.”

She showed me the texts she had read last Christmas Eve. Each was printed out in large type, and festooned with underlines, semi-colons, and other diacritical marks. “I think I prepare in a way the Church would not approve — I add punctuations.” I replied that the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible had virtually no punctuation at all. “The punctuation marks help me to get the right inflections.”

And how can she tell what to choose? “I start on the preceding Monday by reading the texts I am assigned. The next day I re-read them, and I think the night’s sleep often helps me see things I hadn’t noticed at first.” Then Miss de Havilland wrestles with the text, to find its underlying “architecture.” “You have to convey the deep meaning, you see, and it has to start with your own faith.” During the days that follow, she tries to figure out what the text means to her, and then how best to get it across.

Blessed with a resonant alto voice as well as her training, she reads with a natural authority. “But first I always pray. I pray before I start to prepare, as well. In fact, I would always say a prayer before shooting a scene, so this is not so different, in a way.”

She likes the New Revised Standard Version, though she often prefers to use the Revised English Bible, the heir of the New English Bible, for its poetic style. (In fact, I prefer it as well in many instances.) But Miss de Havilland finds some texts very difficult to read in this authentically personal way that she has developed: “That Yahweh can be so awful sometimes!” she pointed out.

To sum up, reading the Scriptures in church has to be an authentic proclamation of the reader’s faith. Preparation is essential — there are far too many last-minute readings in our churches. In order to get across the words so that they become for the listener the Word, not only must the reader be trained in the rhetoric of reading aloud but must also be willing to risk wrestling with God over the meaning. Not all biblical texts are comforting, as Miss de Havilland pointed out. People of faith always have doubts — only those who have no faith have no doubts. It is when we have well prepared the text, rehearsed the inflections to give various key words to as bring forth the meaning, and prayed for the Spirit’s help, that we can be authentic proclaimers of the Good News that lies in the Word written.

Not everyone will have the talent and experience of an Olivia de Havilland. That is not the point. When the worship comes from the heart, including the readings, and the whole liturgy is done with loving care, visitors “will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is truly among you!’” (I Cor. 14: 25)

And let her have the last word. “I once asked Jimmy Cagney, ‘just what is acting?’ He said at first, ‘I dunno…’ But then he said, ‘All I know is that you have to mean what you say.’”

How do you respond to these ideas? What advice do you have for those who proclaim the scriptures?

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16 thoughts on “proclaiming the scriptures and faith”

  1. When I was formerly a member of the Episcopal Church, on occasion, I performed the functions of a lector. I had never considered it before, until a gentleman whom heard me read had suggested I consider it. In the time since, I have converted and become Catholic. In the city where I formerly resided, I participated in the orientation class for such responsibility, but moved shortly thereafter, and so never had an opportunity to read. On numerous occasions, people from all walks of life have complimented me on my voice, whether reading scientific & medical research, or something entirely different. Genuinely, I did nothing to obtain the nature, character & tenor of my voice – the true definition of a gift. I would that again I could read. Why? It is the telling of a story, full of emotion. It is emotive. To read with emotion makes things come alive. And the Scripture is alive.

  2. I prepare too, underlining sometimes and looking for where there are pauses, where the emphasis is. I try to read into the microphone so all will hear. I try to speak to the back pew but I try to move my eyes throughout the church to try to reach the congregation as I am reading. I want them to hear the beauty of the words, to feel the love of God who inspired or imparted these words to the author to share with all of us. I read the rest of the scripture and bulletin to see how it all fits together. I have the added benefit in preparation because I am on the Worship Committee. We have covered the themes, the altar displays, the hymns, etc. That reinforces what it meant to be conveyed for the whole service. I think of reading the scriptures as if it is a mini sermon itself. I want it to reach each person, whether they are reading along on the screen or reading their pew bible. Sometimes I say, “listen to these words of comfort”, of hope, etc. if it is appropriate. It is a joy to share the Word of God and that should be evident from how we read or speak, with power as Peter displayed in Acts 3, filled with Holy Spirit.

    1. Thanks, Raymond, for your very helpful points. I especially resonate with the idea that this, in your words, is like a sermon. The words of the sermon may not be inspired, may not even be inspiring. But we are assured that the readings we have listened to are. Easter season blessings.

  3. start basic, type it: practice it; read as if to a friend in the back pew:slowly,as if you really want the words to be fresh.
    The key is to read it through several times, so the words are familiar, and sound as if you know what It means. Exaggeration is avoided, but inflection is vital.
    The other good point about typing the passage out is (a) you become familiar with it, letter by letter; and (b) with only a piece of paper to hold, you will look up not be bent over the Bible, and so, be more audible.
    The essential is to convince every reader to Read it through at least once *the day before* it is then in their mind, and will be clearer than if they pick up the Bible and stumble over unfamiliar words. perhaps the big question is ..convincing ALL readers to come and practice together in church, so you can encourage louder, clearer, less hurried readings. They will surprise themselves, the second time through, how much better it does sound!
    We also have a great thing: as many people as possible sign up to read iN rotation during a week, the entire Bible. (you sign up for the days/times you can do: and read where the last person left off.. So it is the reverse of the preparation Olivia de Haviland speaks of) It is very moving and full of surprises, and apart from discovering all the bits they’d never previously read, people have a chance to read in public, a chance to experience the flow and vigour of the Bible narratives. Several non-church people sign up, and say how much they have enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks, L Buckland, for these important ideas. I especially think that your point that we understand what we are reading is significant. I have heard people read and it has been clear that they have had no idea what the point of what they are reading was. So how could the congregation even begin to untangle the ideas? Blessings.

    2. Amen on the typing it out idea. And us large font. I know I usually use 14 or 16 font. I don’t try to read it from a bible. And make sure the version you are reading is the one on the screen, if you have an A/V person. If you’re the pastor, make sure the liturgist and the A/V person have the same text. Very confusing/discordant for the liturgist to have KJV and the screen to have The Message or Common English bible…

      1. Thanks for these points, Raymond. I think there are some ideas here that are worth exploring further. Certainly, I think it’s important that the preacher is aware and agrees with the translation being used. What do people think of the idea of the reading being up on a screen as well? This is not dissimilar to having the reading in a pew Bible or pew sheet. I’m also interested in your use of the word “liturgist” – here you seem to use it for the person reading a reading? For me “liturgist” means an expert in liturgy. Blessings.

  4. In our church, there is a rotating list of those who assist in the services. That is what I mean by the liturgist. I was the one last week. They participate by leading the Call to Worship, the Unison Prayer, and two scripture readings.

    Our pastor has begun using the pew bible more regularly, so that the translation is the same as that which they can get, which is the NRSV. She generally does not have the scripture for the sermon on the screen but reads it as part of the sermon itself.

    1. Thanks, Raymond. The word “liturgist” is used in NZ also in some places for someone providing lay leadership in a service. I am not sure that it is a helpful term to use for such a role. Thanks for your other information also. Blessings.

  5. I think this whole subject is hugely important! How many times we have each had to sit through a reading where the person stumbles over the small print in their own small Bible, apparently never having set eyes on the text before.
    Suggest anything via the churchwarden, and be told that ‘we are so lucky they are willing to read’ hmmm.
    That is the big stumbling block, and I’d be interested to hear how you get round that one?
    There is an admirable desire to involve people who might not otherwise come to Church but who will come if they are sideman [and therefore are also reading]
    But, there is no encouragement to read better, and no ‘handling notes’ given to people. And probably for some people it is genuinely difficult to do more than read rather as they might to their nearest neighbour.
    NB in small rural churches, where the congregation might be around 15 people, involving the infrequent church-goers as readers feels important.
    This raised a further *key* question: which is more important: to start someone on reading the Bible [whether in church or to themselves ‘how did that bit of the story continue’] or to minister in clarity to the whole congregation?

  6. What an inspiring testimony on reading from the scriptures from Ms de Havilland! A great starter for reflection and possible aspiration for all who “step up” for this role.
    When reading is well done -proclamation- it’s surely an insult to have the text on a screen and shouldn’t people get their eyes out of their bibles and just listen.
    I’m a grumpy Luddite when it comes to A/V in church!

    1. I tend to approach this similarly to you, Joan. In fact, believe it or not, I’m working on a post I’ve already titled Luddite Liturgy which I’ll put up during the next week or so 🙂 Blessings.

  7. All,

    I suspect each person has their own style for preparing a reading – but it is good to share them – and the common theme is involving God in it :0)

    I know in my case it is obvious when I have prepared and when I haven’t. As I sometimes get volunteered to read at the last minute I’ve taken to reading through the readings the day before anyway and let God do the rest :0)

    I have seen people who read well change the way other people read and pray in church (in one case even the priest changed!). I enjoy readings which are read clearly and with expression and meaning to make it come alive (and I don’t mind if the reader places different emphasis than I would – they are reading from where they are on their journey).

    Over time people have taught me to read slowly, clearly and to put meaning into the readings – most by example.

    Readings in the weekly pewsheet can be taken home and re-read. I will ignore readings on a screen – I’d rather close my eyes listen to the reader’s take on the reading.

    Have a good day :0)


    1. Thanks, Dave. Very helpful. I’m not sure about the readings in the pewsheet – do you mean the full text, or the the reference? If the former, do people not have access to a Bible at home? Blessings.

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