AN “EXCITING” future was predicted for Readers — who were not “priests lite”, but specialists in “God-talk” — on the 150th anniversary of the revival of the office.
”More than ever today, the Church needs people who can take what’s going on in the world and reflect on it with a theological perspective,” the chairman of the Central Readers’ Council, the Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, told a congregation at All Souls’, Langham Place. “And the world needs people who can put into words what they know of God and his love, and reflect on it in secular life, outside the boundaries of church. Readers are ideally placed to meet this need.”
More than 600 lay ministers were joined by the patron of the council, the Duke of Edinburgh, for the service, on Ascension Day. Recalling the institution of their order, in 1866, at Lambeth Palace, Bishop Paterson described how Readers “worked on the boundaries between Church and world”. He then recounted how they had “drifted, willingly for the most part, into the multiple roles of general ecclesiastical factotum, eucharistic minister, often churchwarden, priest’s assistant, omnipresent helper. . . That can’t be right.”
Readers had a “distinct ministry”, he said. “You are trained in theology; God-talk is your specialism, which is why the training is tough and demanding.” He welcomed proposals to dissolve the Council and enable its replacement to fund regional lay ministry projects. “The future is exciting for this movement,” he concluded. “Confidence is returning.”
Today, there are more than 9000 active readers in England and Wales. Fiona Schneider, a Reader in the diocese of Leeds, who has served in Bradford and Uganda, said: “I love to encourage Christians in their faith journey”; the challenge was balancing ministry with full-time paid employment. She also feared that not all clergy understood the “rigorous four-year training” undertaken by Readers. “God has equipped people through the generous training, and the talent and resources must be embodied and celebrated in the life of the Church.”
The celebrations continued this week. A festival was held on Monday at De Montfort Hall, Leicestershire, and a service was held at Sheffield Cathedral on Saturday. Imogen Clout, who serves as the diocese’s Warden of Readers, said that she had been drawn to the ministry “because of the preaching: the gift of exploring and expounding scripture and making it come alive. This is a source of joy, and also a considerable responsibility. Readers do not have power, but they do have considerable influence.”
Although she had been valued in her ministry, she knew that others were “used as drudges; some are very controlled and curtailed by their incumbents.
“The Anglican Church is trying to get its thinking about lay ministry sorted out, but isn’t very consistent about any of it. The tendency, I think, is to use lay ministers as gap-fillers for places where the clergy aren’t, instead of thinking of ministry as a whole. The real changes will come if the Church de-clericalises to a significant extent, and sees ministry as everyone’s business.”