Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Utilitarian Arguments Against Lay Lectors

One of the most notable characteristics of the Novus Ordo Missae is the utilization of members of the congregation in roles that were formerly filled by clerics in Minor Orders. This change was brought about due to a misguided understanding of "active participation", a phrase whose pre-Vatican II definition had meant something more akin to "full engagement of mind and heart" but which in the post-Conciliar regime came to mean "everybody moving around doing stuff." There is an excellent little exegesis on the pedigree of the phrase participatio actuosa in Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright (which I will be reviewing in the near future, Lord willing). For those of you who don't have the book, I recommend this article from Dr. Kwasniewski at New Liturgical Movement.

While there are many examples of congregants being substituted for clerics in the new Mass, here I'd like to focus on the role of the lector in the Novus Ordo, specifically in utilitarian terms. That is, there are many good arguments that it is more uniquely fitting for clergy to lector; here I am going to present an argument for the same based on the fact that congregants are generally bad at doing the readings.

Before we examine this, I want to reference from the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 45, on mistakes made when doing the readings. St. Benedict wrote:

Should anyone make a mistake in a psalm, responsory, refrain or reading, he must make satisfaction there before all. If he does not use this occasion to humble himself, he will be subjected to more severe punishment for failing to correct by humility the wrong committed through negligence. Children, however, are to be whipped for such a fault.

Granted, this passage is not directly applicable. Benedict is referring specifically to monastic life, and the passage refers not to the celebration of the liturgy but to the readings done in the Oratory or during mealtime in the Refectory.  Still, even if the particulars are not directly applicable, it is still relevant on principle―the Sacred Scriptures are the very words of God, the public recitation of which demands skill, attentiveness, and excellence. To treat the public recitation of the Word of God as something common place profoundly devalues the place of the Scriptures in the economy of salvation. We are blameworthy if we do so, and hence the Rule of St. Benedict proscribes a penalty for anyone who errs when readings, whether through neglect or honest accident. The recitation of the Word of God in the liturgy deserves the highest attentiveness and formal excellence on the part of the lector.

Given this basic principle, let us consider how the readings are often done in the Novus Ordo. 

In the first place, it is evident that the lay lectors are often unfamiliar with the specific biblical text they are reading. This is evidenced in the endemic mispronuncation of biblical names. Even relatively simple names like Jezreel or Bartimaeus give many a lector pause. Some names are morphed into others, like when the text says Simeon but the lector lazily says Simon, or Mattathias becomes Matthias. The lector fumbles to say Nebuchadnezzar or Melchizedek. And if a word like Mahershalhashbaz or Zaphnathpaaneah comes up, it's game over. 

The quality of the delivery is often shoddy as well. Pitch is monotone, cadence indiscernible, and punctuation in the text is slurred over because the lector doesn't understand how all the subordinate clauses run together. There's no particular emphasis on any aspect of the text―or conversely, if there is, it is often melodramatic and cringy. In other words, it's exactly what you'd expect when people who are uaccustomed to reading publicly are asked to read publicly. It oftens seems like the first time a lector sees the text he or she is reading is when they step up to the ambo.

Furthermore, it frequently happens that a lector is chosen who honestly does not have sufficient eyesight or audio-verbal coordination to be reading publicly. I am reminded of a Mass I attended where an elderly gentleman lector consistently said "the Godfather" instead of "God the Father." Whether the problem was age, dyselxia, or some other cause, the fact was somewhere in the cognitive process the words were getting jumbled, resulting in calling the First Person of the Trinity "The Godfather", and other similar embarassing errors.  

And all of these problems are compounded when a parish decides to also let children lector, which is unfortunately common.

Finally, we must also note the problem of lay lectors approaching the ambo in clothes that are much too casual for the office they are fulfilling, especially in the case of daily Masses where the lector is likely to be wearing jeans or other street clothes. The solemn proclamation of the Word of God in casual attire creates a cognitive dissonance between what is supposed to be happening and the reality we are seeing. Although to be honest, even if the lector is impeccably dressed, he is still not vested for the specifically liturgical function he or she is ultimately performing, which is a whole other discussion.

I grant that these objections are anecdotal. One's experience with a lector is going to vary depending on the particular lector. And some Novus Ordo parishes do a good job vetting their lectors, and these lectors are attentive to reviewing and meditating on the text prior to taking the ambo. So this is not meant to disparage those of you who may be serving as lay lectors and putting a lot of attentiveness and work into the reading. Nevertheless, anecdotes are anecdotes for a reason, and the fact that some lectors do a good job in the Novus Ordo is no argument against the ubiquity of the problems I have described above.

One reason for the subpar lectoring in the Novus Ordo is that, once you admit the principle that the readings should be done by a layperson, you must now find a constant supply of laypeople to do this for every set of readings: day after day, week after week, year after year. Even assuming one lector is going to read multiple times during a month, this is still a tall order. To keep the assembly line of lay lectors flowing uninterrupted, a pastor cannot afford to be choosy with whom he admits to the ambo. Even though canonically the pastor has total discretion over who can fulfill this function, in practice any warm body who wants to lector is going to be permitted.

The problems I enunciated above are all non-issues in the Traditional Latin Mass. Granted, it is still possible that a cleric may stumble over a word like Merodachbaladan or Tigleth-pileser. But really, who is less likely to mispronounce Bible names: a cleric who studied the Scriptures for years prior to ordination, preaches on them daily, and meditates on them privately multiple times of day in the Office...or a lay person whose only interaction with the Bible may be on Sunday? Obviously a cleric is much less likely fumble just based on his training and manner of life. Even someone in Minor Orders is going to be far better equipped to deal with a reading than a lay person. Yes, lay people can study Scriptures and be very biblically literate, but like everything else in the Novus Ordo, this is entirely dependent upon the particular lector. Should the quality of our readings be held hostage to the skill of a particular individual every week?

Furthermore, a priest or deacon who preaches regularly, essentially speaking in public for a living, is going to have a better quality of delivery. Pitch, cadence, emphasis, timbre, and all of it is going to be superior to your average lay lector who probably never has to read publicly. A priest who encounters the Scriptures on a daily basis in public liturgy and private study is also a lot less likely to juxtapose phrases or commit an error like "The Godfather" example mentioned above. Someone who has studied the Scriptures for years is going to be intimately familiar with the texts in a way that gives them a certain comfort or naturalness about reading them aloud. 

And obviously a cleric is going to be properly vested for the office he is performing, which eliminates the cognitive dissonance I mentioned above when a layperson saunters up in their street clothes to proclaim the divine revelation of the Word of God. Furthermore, reserving the readings to the few clergy associated with a parish solves the problem of needing to find an unending supply of laypersons to lector.

In critique all this, I can anticipate the rebuttal that God does not care about our education level, or how eloquently we speak, or whether we stumble over a word. God only cares about the heart! After all, "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the word of God in eloquence or human wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1), and "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). To insist on some kind of external, formal excellence in how one reads is Pharisaical. Didn't Jesus come for the poor and uneducated? 

In the first place, the verses above do not pertain to the liturgy specifically. In liturgical worship, externals do matter very much given that it is the public worship of the Church. General Christian precepts about personal prayer often do not apply to the liturgy, which has its own standards. For example, Jesus clearly says "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Matt. 6:6). Yet, clearly this does not apply to the liturgy, which by definition is public worship. If we applied Jesus' dictum to pray in secret to our liturgy, we wouldn't even be able to have a Mass. It is sloppy, lazy scholarship to take biblical passages that were never meant to apply to the liturgy and derive liturgical norms from them. That's how you end up with people going barefoot at Mass because God once told Moses to take his shoes off, or parishioners dancing in the sanctuary because David danced before the ark

And even though many of us might struggle to pronounce Mahershalalhashbaz or Chushanrishathaim when we come across them in our private reading, our private reading is not the public proclamation of the Word of God in the liturgy. I might also read the Bible privately while sitting comfortably in my pajamas but it would be absurd to say that the same standard applies to the liturgy. The excessive focus on "Aw, but his heart is in the right place" and "C'mon, she's doing her best" reveals the degree to which the Novus Ordo approach to liturgy is so anthropocentric it cannot even fathom the idea of the Mass being God-directed.

But more to the point: granted that by every objectively measurable criterion a cleric is better suited to do the readings than a layperson, what counter-argument is there for preferring lay lectors despite all the defects we mentioned? What principle is weighty enough to override the avalanche of problems that come with lay lectoring? What can be so important that we accept the standard of mediocrity? The only plausible answer is that it is all worth it in order to include laypeople in the liturgy. And thus we see that, again, the true North Star of the Novus Ordo is the flawed principle of active participation. It's a kind of liturgical affirmative action: a cleric can objectively "do the job" better, but a less qualified person is chosen, not based on their ability, but solely on their identity. The fittingness of the liturgical celebration comes second; attending to lay "representation" in the ritual is first. It is a perfect example of the schizophrenia of the Novus Ordo mentality―to prefer a watered-down, banal experience that is objectively slipshod and detrimental to faith so long as people can feel like they are "doing something."

In conclusion, it seems evident that the public worship of the Church demands the highest level of excellence possible for the proclamation of the Word of God. The reliance on lay lectors in the Novus Ordo completly subverts this standard by prioritizing the physical involvement of laypersons―regardless of their capabilities―over the objective quality of the liturgy. It is the total inversion of the principle we saw enunciated in the Rule of St. Benedict and which has always been at the heart of the Church's public worship.

For another take on this same problem please see "How Typical Lector Praxis Transmits a Protestant and Pelagian Message" from New Liturgical Movement (Jan. 2018)


Murray said...

Prior to the COVID restrictions, I was a lay lector in our Anglican Ordinariate parish. Our parish has only ever used male lectors, and we had a practice where the First Lesson was read from a stand at the front of the nave, the Second Lesson was chanted by one of our Instituted Acolytes from a secondary ambo in the sanctuary, and the Gospel was of course chanted by the priest, either at the main ambo or in procession. I was happy enough with this arrangement, since it kept me out of the sanctuary.

Since COVID, all non-Gospel readings have been performed by servers and acolytes in the sanctuary. I am even happier with this arrangement, since I have never been all that comfortable with the role, as your article describes.

Before we joined the Ordinariate, I was a lector in our former Novus Ordo Cathedral parish, and that was exactly as shambolic as you present it. Lectors in tennis shoes or sports jerseys, lectors who couldn't pronounce Biblical names or places, lectors who read in a hesitant fashion with no sense of the meaning of the passage, female lectors who were generally of low quality, the lot.

I have been gifted with a deep, resonant voice, and I'm told I was quite good, but I'm convinced that it's simply too sacred a role to be performed by laypeople.

C said...

You all right, bro? Lately you've been returning to the basics of novus bashing. It's true, but I've seen the same pattern of simple frustration with nany a men going down a spiral of... misery. God is king.

Boniface said...


Don't know what you mean...this blog was founded way back in 2007 as an exercise in Novus Ordo bashing. I don't feel even close to despairing though, thanks be to God

Noucvnt said...

"liturgical affirmative action" defines a lot of the novus ordo. great term.

the restoration of the minor orders, and traditional liturgy in general, would deal with this problem.

C said...


Good, good. We all need to repeat the basics now and again.

Ibelin said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the lay involvement in mass is the contraception to vocations.

Also seeing women walk up to the altar to read and they don't even genuflect but rather stick their ass out as their "bow" makes my blood boil

Anonymous said...

It is not just biblical words that get messed up.

today's first reading (12/6/2020) we heard that Jerusalem's guilt was "expIted." And in the second reading, we heard that all should come to "repe-tance."

And, of course, even the known names get butchered. A couple Easters ago the high priest's name became Kay-I-fus.

The folks do not even read the passage before stepping up to the ambo.

Sometimes I just want to start booing loudly and rudely...sigh.

Anonymous said...

Rule of St. Benedict Ch 47:
no one shall presume to sing or read unless he can fulfil that office in such a way as to edify the hearers.