The Reader, the magazine for Readers in the Church of England, has just published my article ‘Readers in Ecumenical Perspective’, in which I compare and contrast the state of lay ministry in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Lay ministry has grown in importance and prominence in both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church owing to a shortage of clergy, but the two churches have dealt with this need in rather different ways. Whereas Readers (sometimes known as Licensed Lay Ministers) in the Church of England have taken on an increasingly ‘paraclerical’ role (preaching, leading non-eucharistic services, running parishes, conducting funerals and in some dioceses even baptising), the Roman Catholic Church has so far refrained from instituting lay ministers outside of the specific context of training for the priesthood or permanent diaconate. Since 1972 bishops have been able to institute lectors and acolytes, but apart from men training for the permanent diaconate (who remain based in their parishes during training) instituted lectors and acolytes will be found only in seminaries. In the parish, priests may ‘commission’ people to the role of lector under the authority of the bishop, which essentially means that laypeople are permitted to read lessons from the Old Testament and the Epistles of the New Testament (but not the Gospel). Laypeople are also commissioned as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, whose task is to assist the clergy in distributing Communion but entails no other liturgical role.
The Roman Catholic Church makes no provision for laypeople to lead any kind of service (even a non-eucharistic one). Lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church thus remains undeveloped, but I suggest in the article that Roman Catholic bishops might explore the possibility of formally instituting as lectors and acolytes (and therefore, by implication, as subdeacons) trusted individuals in parishes who are not necessarily on the path to ordination; this would then regularise the position of individuals fulfilling the roles of lector and eucharistic minister without formal institution and give a more coherent identity to lay ministers, perhaps including specific training pathways. Otherwise, the danger to the Roman Catholic Church is that, in the absence of a properly instituted pattern of lay ministry, clergy and laity at parish level will continue to improvise in ways that may produce unwanted local variation and departures from canon.