A Misunderstood Ministry
I received my licence to be a Reader on the 2nd December 1979 after a three year course of study of the Bible and in church history, doctrine and liturgiology. I would like to share with you my thoughts about being a Reader within the Church of England and the way ahead. I stress these are my thoughts and may not necessarily be held in common in the Church of England at large or be popular with my fellow Readers.
In the first and second centuries, the Church had not yet created a professional priesthood and instead relied on lay ministry through the office of Reader, or to use its ancient title ‘Lector’ or ‘Anagnostes’. Canon T.G. King argues that Jesus himself provided this style of ministry. At the same time however, the concept of the ‘threefold ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon’ (as ordained orders or ‘Clerks in Holy Orders’) was just beginning to emerge. This developed into a professional ordained priest-dominated Church which, unfortunately encouraged an 'us and them' relationship, stifling lay ministry save for the offices of church warden, servers and sides persons. A small ‘lay ministry’ revival during the Reformation in the reign of Elizabeth I was short lived, and it was not until 1866 that a real revival of the office of Reader occurred in England. Even then it was perceived as a ‘stop-gap’ solution to the shortage of priests, an attitude which persists to this day in some quarters of the Church of England.
In the late early 1960s the Eucharist became the central plank of the Anglican Church in England and many Readers found they were ‘superfluous to need’ since only an ordained priest could preside. Instead, Readers functioned at Morning Prayer or Evensong in places where there was no priest available. However more recently Readers have been encouraged to think of their ministry in a wider sense, and I think this is an opportunity for the Church itself to bring the role of Reader into the central part of its ministry.
My licence, given under the seal of the Archbishop of Canterbury and later York, authorises me not only to read, preach and participate in ‘such services approved and allowed by Canon Law’ but also to lead bible groups, teach holy scripture, share in pastoral ministry, to visit and pray with the sick and to bury the dead. It is the pastoral serving aspect of ministry that I have found most rewarding in my thirty years of ministry, particularly because I have been able to draw on my experience in the workplace to help me.
Yet even given this wider pastoral remit, the function of Reader is still misunderstood by some ordained and lay members of the Church alike. What lay people still seem to want in times of spiritual distress is a ‘dog collar’. If I were paid every time I had to explain to the spiritually needy what my role is in the Church I would be quite rich. The real problem is that time spent in explanation to achieve acceptance detracts from the real pastoral problems at hand and sometimes I would be told, “You’ll do”. Readers are often seen as ‘make do’ ministers at times when ordained clergy are in short supply. I hasten to add Readers are purely volunteers and receive no pay or fees other than travel expenses should they wish to claim them.
However in the spirit of ‘new expression’ and with the shortage of ordained clergy, the Church needs to increase its public profile not only in ‘churchy’ places but in the market place. It seems to me that the office of Reader needs to be brought wholly within the threefold ministry of the Church to facilitate this aspiration. One such answer to both the shortage of clergy and public perceptions is currently the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM). People called to this ministry begin as deacons but the expectation of the Church is for them to become priest after one year as deacon. There is no inclination within our Church to a permanent deaconate which might well be preferred by people wishing only to serve in the ‘servant’ role. The qualifications and the requirements to become a Reader are very similar to that of deacon and therefore it would take little effort to convert the readership into a permanent deaconate, thus bringing them into the threefold ministry.
So one should ask, might not the Church have the insights of our forefathers and re-establish the permanent non-paid deaconate? By doing so it would increase its public profile in the market place, re-establish a valued servant role within the Church readily recognisable as such, whilst at the same time overcoming the ‘difficulties’ surrounding the function and acceptance of reader ministry in the Church of England? Of course some current readers may not wish to become Non-Stipendiary deacons (NSDs) and transition provisions must be made for them. However by re-introducing the permanent deaconate one might then consider permitting the celebration of the Eucharist by a ‘Clerk in Holy Orders’, deacon or priest, which would ensure that the Eucharist is celebrated in many more churches than current shortages of priests allows.
Your comments are most welcome.
Reader, Churches of St Thomas, Osbaldwick and St James, Murton.