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The Diocese of Ely, like all the dioceses of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, is this year celebrating 150 years since the first licensing of lay Readers in their modern form. However, the first lay Reader in the Diocese of Ely, William Lakers of Little Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire, was in fact appointed over 450 years ago.
In 1559 Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for less than a year and the Church of England was facing a ministry crisis. The Act of Uniformity, which imposed the English prayer book on all churches, came into force on 24 June (the Feast of St John the Baptist), but many parish priests refused to accept it, and either resigned, were deprived of their livings, or went into exile. The result was that Elizabeth’s new Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, was faced with a huge shortfall in clergy numbers. On 8 January 1560 he delegated Roland Meyrick, Bishop of Bangor, to ‘ordain’ (there was then no distinction made between ordination and licensing) five laymen as ‘lectors’ in the Church of St Mary-le-Bow in London.
The office of lector was an ancient one in the Church, long pre-dating the Reformation, and it was one of the ‘minor orders’ abolished in the new English Ordinal of 1550. However, the realities of ministry in the Elizabethan Church forced Parker to revive lectors in order to do what their title implied: they were to read those services in the prayer book, such as the ante-communion, morning and evening prayer, the churching of women and the burial of the dead, that did not require the sacramental functions of a deacon or priest. Lectors were not allowed to baptise, marry or celebrate the Holy Communion. It is likely that the five men ‘ordained’ lectors at St Mary-le-Bow were not ordained deacons or priests because they were illiterate in Latin, which was then (and until the mid-twentieth century) considered an essential prerequisite for ordination; furthermore, ordination to the diaconate or priesthood required a ‘title’ – that is, a candidate for ordination had to have a nominated parish in which he would exercise this ministry. This was not required for lectors, who were simply assigned to a diocese.
These early lectors/readers differed significantly from the Readers licensed since 1866, however, since they were never permitted to preach; indeed, only a small and select group of the clergy was then licensed to preach at all. Furthermore, readers were considered an unfortunate expedient, in the absence of qualified candidates for ordination, rather than an integral part of the church’s ministry as they are in the Anglican tradition today. In 1866, by contrast, many saw the licensing of Readers as crucial to giving the laity a more active role in the church, at a time when people with a preaching gift might have been tempted to desert the Church of England for nonconformist denominations that permitted lay preaching.
We know little about William Lakers before his ‘ordination’ at Bow Church in January 1560, except that he was churchwarden of Little Wilbraham in 1554. On 4 August in that year, in his capacity as churchwarden, he was the recipient of a ‘Vestem[en]t of dunne sattyn w[i]th the surplesse, Alt[ar]clothes & Towells’ previously confiscated from the Church of St John the Evangelist, Little Wilbraham by the commissioners sent round in 1552 to strip parish churches of their ornaments, vestments and furnishings. This was during the reign of Edward VI, whose government forced through a thoroughgoing Protestant Reformation. By 1554, however, Edward’s Catholic sister Mary was on the throne and Henry Goderick, Richard Wilks and Thomas Rudston were commissioned to restore at least some of these confiscated furnishings to the churches. The vestments ‘delyu[er]ed to Wyll[ia]m Laker, Churchwarden there’ were ‘for thonlye maynten[a]nce of dyuyne s[er]uyce in the saide p[ar]oche churche’ – in other words, they were items necessary for the celebration of mass according to the Roman rite.
The curate of Little Wilbraham at the time was John Gyldart; the rector, Robert Budde, was an absentee. Gyldart would have been paid a small stipend to perform the rector’s duties. However, since we hear no more of Gyldart after the accession of Elizabeth, he may have been one of those clergy who were not prepared to accept the new Protestant settlement. By this time John Bykerdyke was rector, and likewise an absentee; and it was probably the lack of a curate that led to the ‘ordination’ of William Lakers, the churchwarden, as a lector in January 1560; it may well be that Lakers had already stepped into the breach and was reading the service – a situation not unfamiliar from interregnums in Anglican parish churches today. However, the new Elizabethan bishops were keen to ensure that the laity did not take matters into their own hands without proper authorisation – the church of Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant church, but one which relied on the authority of bishops, and the suggestion that Lakers be suitably authorised may have come from Bykerdyke or from the newly consecrated Bishop of Ely, Richard Cox.
On 25 April 1560 William Lakers compounded for first-fruits, meaning that he paid a lump sum in order to avoid regular payment of an ecclesiastical tax, and on 7 July he was ordained deacon. This allowed him to succeed John Gyldart as curate of Little Wilbraham, and the ordination of a reader as a deacon is not particularly surprising. As a matter of policy, Archbishop Parker wanted to make sure that anyone entrusted with the cure of souls was in holy orders, and the requirements of ordination to the diaconate were less demanding than those for receiving priest’s orders. Rather more surprising is that Lakers was then ordained priest on 24 November 1560; unless he had been studying very hard between January and November, it seems unlikely that Lakers would have gone from a churchwarden illiterate in Latin to someone eligible for priest’s orders in such a short time. The ordination of William Lakers to the priesthood suggests that Bishop Richard Cox may have been rather desperate for clergy, and realised there was no-one else who could celebrate the Holy Communion. Certainly, if Lakers had met the usual criteria to be ordained deacon and priest he would never have been made a reader, since Parker never intended that candidates for ordination had to pass through the ministry of lector first (indeed, this was contrary to the Ordinal of 1550 that abolished the minor orders).
The case of William Lakers shows that the earliest readers were an expedient contemplated by bishops only in urgent pastoral situations, although Lakers was not to be the last in the diocese. In 1614, in the reign of James I, we hear of a reader in the parish of Oakington named Thomas Gibbon. However, it is unsurprising that lay readers soon died out in the Diocese of Ely in the seventeenth century, where there was a ready supply of graduates and fellows of Cambridge University eagerly competing for livings and curacies. However, the Bow Church ‘ordinations’ nevertheless established the precedent of lay ministry in the Church of England that made it possible for the bishops to reach their historic decision to license Readers in 1866.