The Anglican Patrimony and Reading Scripture in Liturgy

Thoughts After Reading About Olivia de Havilland as a Lector at Paris’s Episcopal Cathedral

[The image is of Jean Béraud’s 1890 painting, “Après l’Office à l’Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Noël 1890” (“After the Service at Holy Trinity Church, Christmas 1890”).  Consecration of Paris’s Episcopal cathedral in its current form took place 25 November 1886, which was Thanksgiving Day and also coincided with the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York.]

[Since I (Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.) have heard theologians and liturgiologists make the same observation, I know I am not the only one who has observed that, generally speaking, Anglicans are better at reading Scripture in liturgy than are Catholics.  At least, this was the case several decades ago, when I was received into full communion in the Catholic Church.  Theologically, I have never had cause to question or regret becoming Catholic.  But liturgically, it was clear from the beginning that I would have to roll with the punches, which has included being subjected to cringe-worthy readers.

Yes, I am making sweeping generalizations.  I have heard poor readings from Anglican/Episcopalian lecterns and good readings from Catholic ambos.  Also, if I am not being too optimistic, perhaps I have noticed that liturgical-reading standards in the Catholic Church in the U.S. are slowly but surely improving.  (During my years as a post-graduate student in the U.K. a few years ago, I perceived a higher liturgical-reading standard among Catholics in Britain than has tended to be my experience among our American co-religionists.  And no, it was not simply because of “the accent.”  But a few of the expressions of concern I have heard about the unfavorable comparison between Catholic liturgical readers when compared with their Anglican brothers and sisters were from British liturgiologists about the situation in the U.K.)

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that these generalized and subjective perceptions are at all accurate, what might account for the differences?

Part of the answer, I suspect, is that the Book of Common Prayer was written during an era when the English people were in love with their language and when they gave us brilliant poets, including one of the world’s greatest playwrights in human history.  Renaissance Italy excelled in the visual arts, Renaissance France in philosophical literature.  Franco-Flemish composers, a number of whom had transplanted to Italy, had already given us important developments in polyphony (upon which the non-Franco-Flemish Palestrinas, Monteverdis, and Byrds were able to carry things even further).  But language, whether read silently or declaimed, was part and parcel of English identity.  And this was an age when, as T. S. Eliot has observed, there was no dissociation of sensibilities.  It would therefore be impossible to separate English artistic and cultural identity from English spirituality.  How else, then, could English spirituality express itself at this time in history than by privileging language, including the way Holy Writ was read in worship?

I suppose that if Cranmer had not been the excellent wordsmith he was, he would nonetheless have been compelled by cultural/religious expectations to have found a gifted writer to draft the BCP.  A similar expectation had to be part of carrying out the project of the Authorized Translation (the King James Bible).

Because of this importance of the English language in English spirituality, it is worth sharing the following article by the bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.  His cathedral is the Episcopalian/Anglican Cathédrale de la Sainte Trinité in Paris, which is where Olivia de Havilland, who died yesterday, 25 July 2020, was a parishioner.  Few though de Havilland’s comments are, it is clear that she regarded the beauty of language, the genius of Shakespeare, and the beauty of holiness to be, all of them, interrelated. 

Not having heard de Havilland read liturgically, I do not know if I might have found her reading style a bit mannered, as acting from her era often seems to us now.  But my guess is that since faith and prayer were part of every step of preparing and reading the texts, her listeners knew they were listening to a fellow parishioner more than to an actress from Hollywood’s yesteryear.

Indeed, I suspect listeners at the cathedral in Paris would have been conscious that they were listening to Olivia de Havilland rather than, say, Melanie Wilkes, because, though neither Whalon nor de Havilland seem to be aware of it, they are both describing the basics of monastic/patristic lectio divina.  I.e., Olivia de Havilland approached these scriptural texts with an attitude of prayer and with a listening heart.  (N.B. “heart” in pre-modern texts and especially in Biblical texts conveys the sense of both thought and feelings, both affect and intellect.)  So, if de Havilland was being true to her cultural awareness, her readings were not 1930s-Hollywood gushiness.  Though de Havilland’s declamation of these texts would have removed some of the long moments of reflection and some of the very personal meditations that occurred as she prepared the texts, her readings were undoubtedly an echo or a reflection of that deep, interior listening to Holy Writ. 

Because of England’s monastic roots, this approach to Scripture and its place in liturgy is even deeper and earlier in English spirituality than Cranmer, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical Poets, and so on fully appreciated.  The same goes for Whalon and de Havilland.  Neither had to be explicitly aware of lectio divina to refer to its importance in liturgy.

One slight quibble I have about Bishop Whalon’s comments is that they could be interpreted as calling for liturgical readers to somehow interpret readings as reflections of the individual’s own state of belief and practice.  To a degree, this is true.  There is no place in lectio divina for dissembling or hiding.  One’s struggles and doubts should be part of lectio divina.  But when one takes on any liturgical role, one takes on yet another one of Christianity’s both/and paradoxes.  One is both an individual and one is a member of the entire body of Christ.  The events and feelings of the individual and of the moment are present.  But they are constantly being formed and transformed by the deeper beliefs, thoughts, and feelings of the entire Church.  Part of the art of liturgical reading, then, involves finding a balance between the individual’s “not-yet” of becoming as fully conformed to Christ as possible and the reader’s “already” of being one with the communion of saints even now.]

Reading the Bible as a statement of faith
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Ten years ago, on Christmas Eve 2001, I heard for the first time Olivia de Havilland read the Scriptures in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Paris. When I had first learned that Miss de Havilland read several times a year, I had wondered whether it might be some way of gaining notoriety for the church. I was struck by her resonant alto voice and meticulous preparation, which clearly communicated not only the words but also something of the Word. It was immediately clear that this woman is a model for lectors — what we used to call lay readers — everywhere.

One Easter Vigil, at the end of the service, I thanked her for her reading of the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. “You may have retired from the cinema,” I said, “but not from your art.” She gave me a shrewd look and said, “If you pitched it right, you could have people rolling in the aisles, you know.” It was then that I determined to ask Miss de Havilland for an interview, in order to write this very article.

Incidentally, I find it impossible to call her “Olivia” though most parishioners do with her encouragement. It has to do in part with the way I was brought up: she is after all a distinguished artist with a great portfolio of theatre and cinema awards. It was her unwillingness to allow the studio system of virtual indentured servitude to rule her that led to the emancipation of actors, directors, screenwriters, and musicians in a precedent-setting lawsuit against Warner Brothers — “the de Havilland precedent,” which is still invoked regularly. She was then able to do the kind of work she wanted to do.  Three Academy nominations soon followed for To Each His OwnThe Snake Pit, and The Heiress.  Both To Each His Own and The Heiress won her an Oscar. In retirement, she lives in Paris.

Beyond these well-known facts, Miss de Havilland is a woman of genuine faith, which she brings to bear on her lay reading so as to make each lesson a personal statement. Her paternal grandfather, Charles de Havilland, was an Anglican priest whose last cure was on the isle of Guernsey, where the “de H’s” (as she calls them) have lived for a millennium at least. Her British mother raised her as an Episcopalian, though she did have a stint as a girl in a Roman Catholic convent school, which gave her a lasting admiration for women religious.

She eventually gave me an interview. Over tea in her home, we discussed in detail how she came to read the Scriptures in church. . . .

It is obvious that 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. . . .

Miss de Havilland 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 so as to 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.’”


The Rt. Revd. Pierre W. Whalon is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at  (Reprints of Whalon’s article are allowed with authorship attributed to Bishop Pierre Whalon and © 2012 Anglicans Online)

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