One of my earliest memories of church was that reassuring rumble of a whole group of people reading or praying in unison. There was such a sense of safety in it, even before I could possibly understand the meaning. Later, as I learned to read, I had a chance to join in comfortable in the knowledge that if we came to a word I wasn’t sure about, no one would notice and I would be able to get it the next time.
I got thinking about this at church a couple of weeks ago as we were reading the prayer of confession together in church. It is almost like magic really. You have a whole room full of people all facing in the same direction (no visual cues) and reading out loud from a bulletin. There is no director, no one beating time, and yet the reading will proceed in almost perfect unison, include appropriate inflection, and sound at once like each person’s voice and one voice! How does that work? Even better is when we repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed which can be done by many of us without having to consult the paper at all.
Before I started writing this I looked up choral reading on the internet., Almost all the entries I found were in reference to teaching children to read, especially those with learning difficulties, or helping people with speech problems. I remember watching a Danny DeVitto film called The Renaissance Man in which Danny ends up teaching “basic comprehension” to a group of people about to flunk out of military basic training. He ended up teaching Hamlet and one of the pivotal moments was when they were trying to help one of the guys to read, “and this above all, to thine own self be true.” which was one of the lines for his character. He just couldn’t get the rhythm of it, until they all began to repeat it as a chant. He doesn’t get it right away but as they continue he repeat it with them. No longer on the spot, he gets it! What a great moment!
One of the great things about reformed worship is the fact that the people in the pews have an active role to play. They may be repeating call and response calls to worship, unison prayers of confession, responsive Psalms, actively engaging the word themselves along with the rest of their church family. There are many responses shared by most of the Christian communities. Try standing in a room full of Christians and getting their attention…now try saying, “The Lord be with you!” I’ll bet you have their attention now as many will have automatically responded, “and also with you!”
I think the church is one of the few places in which choral reading has a real-world application. Sure, we repeat the Brownie promise together, those in USA recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, but to actually take a text you may never have seen and read it aloud with no rehearsal, this is different. Some people criticize the church liturgies, saying that people just repeat things without any thought and this may be true to some extent, but I applaud the church for the use of unison reading and hope that it never changes that comforting rumble I know so well!