Readers Still Ascending

The Archbishop of York and readers of his archdiocese

By John Martin

On Ascension Day 1866, bishops of the Church in England and Wales reached an agreement with the Convocation of Canterbury that laymen (and at that stage only laymen) could lead prayers and preach in the absence of clergy. It brought to fruition a long campaign for lay participation in the Victorian church.

Today there are more than 6,500 readers in the Church of England, a number close to matching the 7,600 or so full-time paid clergy. With traditional full-time clergy now the exception rather than the rule, readers (and 14,000 non-stipendiary clergy) play a substantial part in the church’s preaching and teaching ministry.

The title reader is traceable to medieval times, when lector denoted one of the minor orders through which a postulant would progress. Lay readers and cantors had a continuing part in the Orthodox Churches of the East, but lay participation diminished in the West, only to re-emerge after the English Reformation.

It was more by expediency than design. The trigger was the Protestant Settlement under Queen Elizabeth I, which led to a massive exit of Catholic-minded English clergy. To fill this yawning gap, Archbishop Matthew Parker and his episcopal colleagues began to recruit laymen to lead services.

Readers were allowed to read the services of the 1559 Prayer Book, but for many years the role did not include preaching. While clergy needed to know Latin in order to qualify for ordination, these laymen were only expected to be literate in English.

For many years readers were no more than a temporary measure, but the role never died out in the 17th and 18th centuries because there were always shortages of fully trained clergy, not least in poorer and more remote dioceses.

Things began to change thanks to Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), the famous head of Rugby School. He preached a sermon at Rugby parish church calling for a distinctive diaconate and an order of “lay subdeacons.” Arnold’s concern was the need for better ministry to ordinary people. The clergy of his day were mostly educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and were unable to connect with middle- and working-class people. He wanted to see men in “lower orders” who could communicate with the working classes in familiar idioms.

In 1844 a “lay address” was submitted to the Archbishop of Canterbury calling for the authorization of lay readers. One of the established church’s anxieties was the way the Methodist movement had made headway through its system of lay preachers. A sluggish Church of England was slow to carve out new parishes, particularly in fast-growing industrial areas of the cities.

It was not until 1862 that discussion of lay readers gained serious traction. One of the key players was the Church of England Men’s Society, which issued a plea to the archbishop for a strategy to reach “the mechanic classes.” The strongest opposition came from high churchmen who preferred ordination of deacons, which they held was more in accord with Catholic tradition.

In 1866 the bishops accepted the work of readers. Now they were recognized in their own right, not merely as a stopgap measure when clergy numbers were low. Another significant difference in this new epoch: readers were permitted to preach as well as read services.

Today most readers are licensed to a parish, but some are chaplains in prisons, hospitals, hospices, or schools. A few are in charge of parishes. They undergo a three-year course of training. Women readers emerged during World War I, and the numbers of men and women readers are now about equal.

For a full account of the emergence of readers see Francis Young, A History of Deacons in the Church of England (James Clarke & Co., 2015).

John Martin has been a reader since 2005 and is licensed to the parish of St. Barnabas Ealing. He preaches about once a month.

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