READER MINISTRY, increasingly one lay ministry among many others now
recognised by national or diocesan accreditation, came under the General Synod'
s spotlight on Wednesday morning.
In 35 years of the General Synod, said Nigel Holmes
(Carlisle), introducing his private member's motion, Readers had hardly ever
been mentioned. Yet there were 10,000 of them, well trained and qualified.
Between 1996 and 2004, the number of Readers in training had fallen by one
third. He believed it was because they were under-used, and because there were
so many other forms of lay ministry, many without anything like the rigorous
training Readers underwent. When the bishops promoted new initiatives in their
dioceses, and new styles of ministry, Readers were almost always ignored.
Virtually every conversation he had had with fellow Readers related to
under-use. Since evening prayer had diminished, he himself had very little
opportunity for leading worship, except with Methodists. "Their 9000 local
preachers lead two-thirds of Methodist services."
The time was right, he said, for a thorough, broadly based study of
voluntary ministry, whether classified as lay or ordained. There had been no
such study since the Tiller report of 1983.
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd Graham Dow, who chairs
the Central Readers' Council, welcomed the motion. When he was ordained in
1967, the ministerial taskforce comprised stipendiary clergy and Readers, and
ministry in parishes was planned around this.
There had been a remarkable flowering of diverse ministries since then; and
Readers were now allowed to take funerals and administer communion by
extension, an option widely taken up in Carlisle diocese. But there had been a
decline in the services of morning and evening prayer, and the preaching
opportunity that went with them.
It was not surprising that many Readers felt marginalised by the growing
army of NSMs and the prevalence of eucharistic services.
But why should they not just be ordained? Were they diaconal? A steady
stream moved on to become deacons and priests, and it was natural to wonder
whether a gifted Reader might be called to ordination. But the Bishop did not
want to clericalise all church services. What message would it give the laity
if public worship was led only by priests and deacons? Readers were "a natural
sign to lay people of what their ministry can be".
The Revd Mary-Lou Toop (Hereford), a diocesan director of
ordinands, and for 11 years an accredited lay worker, said that she regretted
the defensive tone of the background paper, while she acknowledged a loss of
confidence among some Readers. In Hereford, being a Reader had never been used
as a sop for those not recommended for ordination.
Dr Peter Capon (Manchester), speaking to his amendment,
asked for the Archbishops' Council to focus on Readers' ministry and their
deployment. At present, they were deployed in a haphazard way. They were
licensed to a whole diocese, but often used only by their own parish, because
there was no diocesan strategy for their use.
Hilary Sage (Deaf Anglicans Together), a Reader, signed her
speech, which was translated into the spoken word. She agreed with the
Archbishop that Readers were here to serve, and not to be served.
She said there were 30 to 40 deaf Readers throughout the country,
ministering to the deaf Church. They had worked extremely hard for that status,
as access to training was not easy. "Deaf Readers are not valued in their
dioceses, but they are totally valued by the deaf churches, because they know
their own community, language, and culture, and often help chaplains with sign
language, and give much support to new chaplains."
Robin Stevens (Chelmsford) said he was content with his
role as a Reader, and felt well-used. There were five Readers in his parish,
and they all felt fulfilled. Most of them had a ministry outside the church, as
chaplains to hospitals and to the homeless, and as teachers.
He occasionally acted as a diocesan selector of Readers, and he thought one
of the reasons why the numbers had dropped was that selectors were becoming
more discerning. But he thought the situation was right as it was.
The Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd John Hind, said that
a working party of the House of Bishops had already been looking at the various
forms of ministry which "raised serious questions of theology". They were not
doing quite all that Mr Holmes had asked for, but he hoped the Archbishops'
Council would observe the work the Bishops had already done, to avoid
The Revd Elizabeth Dyke (Coventry) said that Readers often
offered a confident, competent, and highly trained, stable ministry. She
herself was involved in Reader training, and knew some were little used in
parishes. Even where incumbents had encouraged and supported their training,
they still did not use them. In some cases, it was because the parish worship
was eucharist-centred. Some parishes had so many Readers that their turns came
round very slowly.
The Synod carried Dr Peter Capon's amendment, which sounded a more welcoming
note to developed patterns of voluntary local ministry, both lay and ordained.
Returning to the main motion, Dana Delap (Durham) described
the role of Reader as "a bit messy", but found great creativity in such a
tension. The way the Church treated volunteers was a problem in itself.
Dudley Coates (Methodist Church) believed that the way
local preachers were regarded might be a helpful comparison. Most local
preachers used as worship leaders and preachers did as much as they were able
and wanted to do. The office was clearly and distinctly a circuit office, which
made it less haphazard. Most Methodist ministers had been local preachers,
which put into the culture "a profound self-understanding".
Canon Philip McDonough (St Albans) gave a robust and
spirited response which the Synod found very entertaining. Readers had been
taken for granted, and had found themselves "at the bottom of the pile" of
mission and ministry in the Church. He urged the Archbishops' Council to take
this seriously, and to think of Readers not as an appendage, but as at the
It was a scandal that Readers had to "stand around and look pretty". He
cited the personal experience of being invited to take a service only because
"the incumbent, the curate, the 85-year-old retired assistant bishop, and even
the organist . . . couldn't be there." He was in the habit of "recommending
taxidermy for some clerics".
The Synod must send a strong, unequivocal message to Archbishops' Council to
clarify its attitude. "God's blue-and-white army are in the tank of the Church
's mission," he declared; they were the C of E's "cordon bleu".
The Revd Dr James Garrard (Blackburn), the director of
Reader training for the diocese, said that Readers and ordinands trained on the
same course, undergirded by rigorous study. But Readers felt squeezed between
two arms of a pincer: one was the great development of eucharistic ministry;
the other was that they would "crumble away" because all that they were trained
to do was being picked up by those not trained for those tasks. Readers had
"tremendously impressive gifts not given to the clergy".
Ian Smith (York) said that in a survey in the Readers'
magazine, he had preached in the largest number of churches, in the most
dioceses, and in the most countries. Nevertheless, the preaching and teaching
ministry of Readers was being "diminished" because "we are seen as half-baked
clergy." They "filled the least popular slots on the preaching rota" and were
seen as a "fag-end ministry".
The motion as amended was carried. It read: "That this Synod, aware that the
work of the ten thousand Readers is crucial to the mission of the Church,
request the Archbishops' Council to consider how this nationally accredited
office should be developed, and Readers more fully and effectively deployed, in
the light of the welcome recent introduction of a great variety of patterns of
voluntary local ministry, both lay and ordained."