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Readers feel neglected and ill-used

02 November 2006

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 duplication.

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 centre.

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."

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