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Lay ministry at the crossroads

16 September 2016

Nigel Holmes reviews essays on the office and work of a Reader


Instruments of Christ’s Love: The ministry of Readers
Sally Buck, Graham Dodds, and Phillip Tovey
SCM Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £12



ONCE upon a time, life was simpler. Full-time paid ministry was exercised by clergymen, part-time unpaid by Readers both men and women. Over the past generation, there has been a proliferation of categories of ministry which even the initiated find hard to grasp. With the Central Readers’ Council now under threat, will nationally accredited lay ministry survive?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the revival of Reader ministry in England. It reached its numerical peak at 10,000 around the Millennium. Instruments of Christ’s Love: The ministry of Readers is timely both in relation to this significant anniversary and the likely implications of Renewal and Reform in devising fresh forms of ministry. The authors say that Reader (or licensed lay) ministry “is often under-resourced, under-appreciated and yet absolutely necessary” in a Church in which paid clergy numbers are tumbling.

One of the authors, Sally Buck, is a Reader and Warden of Readers in Lincoln diocese. She regards ministry as a craft, the wordsmith being at the heart of her definition of a Reader — “the desire to use words to bring people closer to God”.

This book, like its recent predecessors, struggles to find anything that is distinctive to Reader ministry alone. It rejects the concept of “bridge” between Church and world, once valid, but now shared by NSM, SSM, and OLM. There is a nudge towards lay presidency, thereby, perhaps, seeing ministry more as personal progression, less as in fixed categories.

Like a previous book about Readers, Reader Ministry Explored (SPCK, 2009), this comes to life when featuring personal stories. One chapter is devoted to practical pioneering possibilities. In another, a scientist, Chris Knight, highlights apologetics, so important to the Church of today. He was inspired by Blaise Pascal’s claim that people “despise religion. . . The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good [people] wish it were true and then show that it is.”

Self-giving and Christian love shine from the pages featuring Ross Martin and Lisa Davies. Martin is chaplain to a secure mental-health hospital in Oxford diocese, and Davies is managing chaplain in HM Prison Styal, a women’s prison in Liverpool diocese. As Davies says, Jesus’s command “wasn’t to go to all the white middle-class people who happen to live in suburbia”.

Yet, in a sense, Karin Silk does just that, fostering faith among fellow gardeners on her allotment. Her produce supplies the church café — an echo of Luke 10.2, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest field.”

And that is precisely what the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel did. Well before the English Church revived the ancient office of Reader, that title was used overseas for those who led, preached, and taught. In up-state New York in 1704, Colonel Heathcote gave orders that his militia should appoint a Reader “in every town in order that services might be held”.

A generation later, in North Carolina, three Readers are mentioned who were later ordained, two of whom became bishops. It was common then for Readers to baptise; one alone is said to have christened 10,000. That seems singularly appropriate for the state that is today home to the Billy Graham organisation.

This wide-ranging book makes many valid points, one of which is the lack of distinctiveness in Readers’ dress outside the liturgical context. Matching the Reader scarf, could one answer be a strip of blue plastic, which would invest “blue-collar worker” with a whole new range of meaning?


Nigel Holmes is a Reader in Carlisle diocese and a former chairman of the editorial committee of the Central Readers’ Council which runs the magazine The Reader.

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