Origins of Reader Ministry in the Church of England

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My article ‘1866 And All That: the origins of Reader ministry in the Church of England’ has just been published in a special edition of The Reader, the magazine of Church of England Readers, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Office of Reader by the Convocation of Canterbury on Ascension Day 1866. I am intrigued by ‘paraclerical’ ministries like that of Reader, and my book Inferior Office? A History of Deacons in the Church of England (2015), although primarily focussed on distinctive deacons, contained a great deal about Readers because between 1839 and 1866 the debate inside and outside Convocation about part-time deacons ran alongside the debate about ‘lay Scripture Readers’, ‘Subdeacons’ or simply ‘the third agency’ in the church. Today Readers (or Licensed Lay Ministers, as they are known in some dioceses) are a well-established feature of the Church of England and are licensed in a semi-liturgical rite to a specific diocese; however, Reader ministry is recognised across all dioceses, meaning that episcopal permission (rather than a formal re-licensing) is required for a Reader to serve in a different diocese. However, as I show in my article, Reader ministry was not invented in 1866 and goes back ultimately to the Order of Lector in the early Church.

In the Orthodox Church lay lectors or cantors remain a significant feature of parish life, and have the crucial role of singing the parts of the service that are assigned to the congregation (who do not actually participate as they do not know the tones). However, the Order of Lector fell into abeyance in the West except as one of the minor orders through which aspirants to the priesthood passed. However, Readers re-emerged in the Church of England after the Elizabethan Settlement in order to make up for a chronic shortfall in clergy, caused by the ejection of clergy who refused to renounce their allegiance to the Pope. In a sign of Elizabeth’s personal liturgical conservatism, in 1565 a royal ordinance required a Gospeller and Epistler to assist the priest in the celebration of divine service in the cathedral and collegiate churches; whilst the Gospeller needed to be himself a priest or a deacon, the Epistler could, in theory, be a layman (although in practice it was usually another priest). Readers licensed by individual bishops according to need lingered in some remote corners of northern dioceses, such as Chester and Carlisle, as late as the second half of the eighteenth century. When the ministry returned, it was not so much because Readers were needed to make up for a shortfall of priests but because priests were perceived as an excessively elite group who had no chance of appealing to the lower middle and working classes, who were therefore in danger of falling away from the established church and joining the dissenters, who permitted lay preaching. Readers after 1866 were more than just men who read the service and the lessons, therefore, but men licensed to preach with the authority of the bishop.

The position of Readers in the Church of England makes for an interesting comparison with the case of the Catholic Church, where the ministry of reader (or lector) also exists, but in a rather different form. Canon 1035 requires anyone being admitted to the diaconate to have first received the ministry of lector, a requirement which derives from the Motu Propriu of Paul VI Ministeria Quaedam (15 August 1972), which abolished the minor orders to which seminarians had previously been admitted and replaced them with two ministries to which seminarians were ‘instituted’ by a liturgical rite, rather than ordained: acolyte and lector (which between them ‘include the functions of the subdiaconate’). Of course, by the time of Ministeria Quaedam there were already men being admitted to the diaconate who were not seminarians in the traditional sense, since in 1967 Paul VI had opened the diaconate to married men in Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem. Therefore, by default, Ministeria Quaedam created ‘instituted lectors’ in parish ministry, who were men training for the permanent diaconate.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003) provides (at GIRM 101) that in the absence of an instituted lector, lay people may be ‘commissioned’ as readers to proclaim the readings from Scripture. A commissioned lector is clearly not the same as an instituted one, and apart from men training for the permanent diaconate or visiting seminarians, it is unlikely that an instituted lector would be present at mass. This raises the question of why the Church does not institute as lectors in a liturgical rite those who do not intend to go on to ordination as deacons; if the proclamation of the Word of God has the value attributed to it by the Second Vatican Council, formal institution and training of lectors who are not in training for ordination is surely desirable. This would then open up the possibility of instituted lectors (who could be men or women) taking on a greater role in parishes than simply reading the Scriptures – they could begin to lead non-Eucharistic services such as Vespers, for instance. It is odd that the ministry of lay Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, who are commissioned in place of instituted acolytes, should have expanded so much in the Catholic Church when the ministry of lector has been somewhat neglected. I should very much like to see the Catholic Church in England and Wales expand the ministry of lector, and the development of Reader ministry in the Church of England provides a very different but nevertheless helpful model.

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