2000 Years of Service
2000 YEARS OF SERVICE
Nigel HolmesA short History of Reader Ministry. From the Apostolic Church, through revivals in 1561, and 1866 to today.
It was claimed by Canon King, who for many years ran the central Readers’ organisation within the Church of England, that Readers of the Christian Church developed as lay ministers from the readers of the Jewish synagogues within New Testament times. The earliest detailed description of Christian service, outside the Bible, is given in The Apology of Justin Martyr (c100-165), written in Rome about 155. It makes reference to the Reader as distinct from the President and the deacons.
In The Apostolic Church Order published before 200, Readers are placed after bishops and presbyters but before deacons. “For Reader one should be appointed after he has been carefully proved; no babbler, nor drunkard, nor jester; of good morals, submissive, of benevolent intentions, first in the assembly at the meetings on the Lord’s Day, of a plain utterance, and capable of clearly expounding, mindful that he assumes the position of an Evangelist; for whoever fills the ear of the ignorant will be accounted as having his name written with God.” Between 200 and 500 this form of lay ministry seems gradually to have declined so that by the end of the fifth century Readers were of little importance. No longer is the Reader an expounder of the Word of God, no longer an Evangelist, no longer must he be an educated and able man. Canon King reckoned that there was real hostility to the very name of Reader, for he said there was a ‘sustained attack’ but quite why was never recorded.
In this country the office of Reader was first revived in 1561 by Archbishop Parker. According to Reader-Preacher by G. Lawton, Readers in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I ministered in poorer parishes ‘destitute of incumbents’. They were allowed to read the appointed service ‘playnlie, distinctlie, and audiblie’ but not to preach or interpret. They were permitted to bury the dead and purify women after childbirth but not to administer the sacraments or ‘other public rites of the Church’. In their personal lives they were to be sober in apparel, especially in church, to read a chapter of the Old and New Testaments daily and to ‘move men to quiet and concord, and not give them cause for offence’. Readers were never very numerous but there is evidence that the Office persisted much longer in the North of England.
Because of the inadequacy of stipends and the large size of some parishes, many of which included chapelries in addition to the parish church, in Cumberland and Westmorland they ‘were long and regularly served by men called Readers’. However, in the reign of King George II, the Bishops of Carlisle and Chester resolved that no one should officiate who was not in deacon’s orders. The existing Readers – one of whom was described as a clogger, tailor and butter-print maker – were ordained without examination. (Diocesan History – Carlisle by Richard Ferguson, 1889)
The office of Reader was revived a second time in the following century at a meeting of Archbishops and Bishops at Lambeth Palace on Ascension Day, 1866. Thirteen years earlier an archdeacon had seen the scope for greater service from the laity and that even in the sanctuary. The prompt was the inability of the church to cater for the growing population, from 9 million in 1801 to 20 million in 1861, and not just sheer numbers but their concentration increasingly in cities. The greatest shortage of clergy was in the industrialized North. The debate centred not on the need for men but on their role. Titles bandied about included lay agents, sub-deacons, lay deacons, lay teachers or Readers. As the Bishop of London put it, “Every day convinces me more and more that some such organisation is necessary to reach the great mass of our people”.
These early Readers were teachers and catechists working in Sunday Schools and organising activities for young people. They also lectured to adults and ran Bible classes and would appear as leaders of worship in mission halls or in the open air. The Bishop of Bangor said in 1884 that he wanted, “Christian men who can bridge the gap between the different classes of society” – a go-between the lower classes and the clergyman who was regarded as being high on the social scale. As the Dean of Manchester put it, most Readers were “more in unison with the masses with whom they mixed”. Although the Diocesan Readers came from the professions, the Parochial Readers were described as ‘the better educated from among the uneducated’ ! It has to be said that the Bishops were nervous of the success of the non-conformists, which of course employed lay local preachers. As Wesley had put it a century earlier, “Use talent and you have talent”.
The Readers were both talented and committed. A Northamptonshire man living two miles from the nearest church converted a room above his stables as a chapel from which to proclaim the Word to his neighbours. A Lincoln Reader took the afternoon train. From the station he was ferried across the river to take the evening service. As there was no late train he stayed overnight and on Monday morning returned to the city by carrier’s cart.
The better educated Diocesan Readers were gradually permitted to preach in the church building itself. At first the service was technically concluded, with a pause, before the sermon. The First World War proved to be an agent of change in this as in so many other ways. The Bishop of Manchester encouraged Readers to preach within evening services and so a precedent was established for the post-war ways. Amazingly though, Readers were expected to preach from the lectern and were not formally permitted to enter the pulpit until the Second World War was underway. To help and guide, The Reader printed sermon notes based on the lectionary and one bishop suggested that a Reader might make a good sermon once a month and preach it in several places on the grounds that George Whitfield had considered that he was never able to preach a sermon satisfactorily until he had preached it five times.
The 1920s saw the first national organization, the Central Readers’ Board, which encouraged each diocese to establish its own committee. Training began to be emphasised and standards were raised. Readers were increasingly numerous but not universally appreciated. In January 1921 a Southwell Reader wrote to the magazine : “Lay Readers in theory are a necessity, in practice they are not wanted by Bishop, clergy or congregation…In most parishes the wealthy layman has priority over any licensed Reader…..Lay Readers have done the greatest service during war difficulties…they are waiting to do more, much more if permitted, to help in the greater need of these troubled days.” The second letter, from a vicar in Leicester came in the June issue. He had been ill for six months. “From the congregation I have heard nothing but praise, and their appreciation of the excellent and practical sermons has been very great and real.” He continued, “Many priests in the Diocese owe much to the unselfish and most efficient work of this body of Lay Readers”.
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