150 years of Reader Ministry

(Extracts from Nigel Holmes – Reader Magazine)

In this country, the office of Reader was first revived in 1560 under Archbishop Parker, who said that ‘a deacon or else some sober, honest and grave layman who as lector or Reader shall ... read the order of service appointed. Bishop Meyrick of Bangor is recorded as having ‘ordained’ five Readers in Bow Church, London, that January.

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 audible’ 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’. This was at a time when many of those ordained were far from remarkable for their godliness or devotion.

When livings were held in plurality, tasks, such as burial, could be delegated to Readers. They were paid and could minister throughout the diocese.

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. 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 nine million in 1801 and 20 million in 1861, and not just sheer numbers but their concentration increasingly in cities.

The greatest shortage of clergy was in the industrialised 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 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. As the Bishop of Bangor said in 1864, he wanted ‘Christian men who can bridge the gap between the different classes of society’.