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Offering gifts of service

10 November 2017

How does the Church of England resource and train those in lay ministry? Ted Harrison looks around the dioceses

Lay ministry: 11 new Readers in the diocese of Chester were licensed by Bishop Peter at Chester Cathedral on 21 October, including Andrew Bradley-Gibbons (fifth from right)

Lay ministry: 11 new Readers in the diocese of Chester were licensed by Bishop Peter at Chester Cathedral on 21 October, including Andrew Bradley-Gibb...

“THERE are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord,” St Paul wrote to the early Christians in Corinth. Two thousand years later, the Church reflects the same thinking in the many ways in which Christians might be called and trained to serve.

Ordination to the priesthood is one vocation; but there is also a need for specialist lay positions to be filled, and a range of training programmes are provided by diocesan lay-ministry courses. Often, those destined for lay ministry train in parallel with those who are heading for ordination.

But the content and form of the lay training that is available differ widely from diocese to diocese, as was confirmed by last year’s report from the Church’s Lay Ministries Working Group, Serving Together. “There is a variety of practice and understanding in relation to lay ministry across the dioceses,” it said. “Each diocese does things slightly differently.”

The Church of England as an institution is slow to catch up with changes in church life. As parishes get a diminishing share of an incumbent’s time, increasing numbers of lay people are taking up significant leadership positions in parishes.

“For many diocesan officers with oversight for lay ministry, there has been a growing sense that there is a widening gap between what is happening on the ground in lay ministry and the capacity, capability, and, for some, the will, of the structures of the national institution to reflect on it and provide a sense of direction and coherence,” Serving Together states.

It goes on: “One reality for many dioceses is that there are more lay people stepping into significant lay leadership roles in parishes which have less and less proportionate ‘share’ of an incumbent. These lay people have little or no training, little or no support.”

Many people, particularly those involved in Fresh Expressions, “are well-discipled, but have had no formal training”, Des Scott, the Church Army’s deputy chief executive, who co-chaired the working group, says.

Many lay people find themselves doing church work, perhaps with children or young people, pastoral care, before training becomes available — through the diocese or on appropriate courses elsewhere.


New path: Steve Buxton, a Reader at Christ Church, Roxeth, at his licensing in June

THE most widely recognised form of lay ministry is that of Reader, for which training is generally available before licensing — although the same ministry profile leading worship, preaching, and teaching groups may have a different designation in other dioceses. Licensed Lay Ministers, Local Missional Leaders, Local Ministers, and Reader Evangelists — all these terms are used for roughly equivalent positions.

There are more than 6000 men and women in these positions throughout England. Accredited lay workers may also be known as pioneers, or pastoral workers; and more than 4000 have completed this kind of training.

Jon and Rachel Wooden, husband and wife, have recently completed three years of training for licensed lay ministry, studying every Tuesday evening at St Mellitus College, in London, which provides ministry training for the London and Chelmsford dioceses. They have both been trained as occupational therapists, and, while Mrs Wooden is still practising, Mr Wooden is now church manager at All Souls’, St Margarets-on-Thames, Twickenham.

“We started at 6 p.m.; everyone on the course gathered for a meal and worship before the lectures started,” he says. “It was a bit of a shock getting back into reading and essay-writing again. We all came with our baggage and preconceptions, and were encouraged to look at everything afresh with open eyes. Liberals were encouraged to read books by Evangelicals, and the other way round.”

Candidates training for ordination to the priesthood also study at St Mellitus. “We were very privileged to have had such high-quality teaching from people like Jane and Rowan Williams, and Graham Tomlin,” Mr Wooden says. The couple tended to choose different topics for assignments, and Mrs Wooden found essay-writing easier than her husband.

There were also practical problems to navigate, such as finding regular childcare for their daughters, now 11 and 13. “They were very supportive, but I think they’re glad we’ve got our Tuesday evenings back.” Nevertheless, Mr Wooden says, “In the end, I am glad we studied hand in hand.”

Steve Buxton was licensed in June as a lay minister for Christ Church, Roxeth, on the north-western edge of London, where he has worshipped for 23 years. He, too, studied part-time over three years at St Mellitus. While he loved the theological challenge and “being made to think, . . . it was far too academic,” he says.

“It’s nice to have a qualification at the end, but being licensed was my goal.” He suggests a more hands-on, practical course of training for people such as him.

Mr Buxton used to be in the army, and is now an IT manager. His wife, Jane, and family were very supportive, he says. “If I had an essay to get written over the weekend, she’d let me work away at the computer.”


CHESTER diocese’s Foundations for Ministry course is designed for church members who have completed an initial course, such as Emmaus or Alpha. Its emphasis is on applying the Bible and Christian thinking to ministry. The course is seen as the required first step for those going on to Reader and pastoral-worker training, and possibly to ordination.

Andrew Bradley-Gibbons, who is 35, and worships at St Mary’s, Eastham, has recently been licensed as a Reader in the diocese. He trained as a nurse, and is now a regional manager for a health-care company. He and his wife, Sue, are also experienced foster parents. His preparation for Reader ministry was spread over three years of part-time study, beginning with the one-year foundation course.

The training was “very time-consuming”, he says, and involved assignments and attending full-day courses and retreats. “It made me think more deeply and question my own assumptions. My experience is High Church, but I came to understand other traditions.” He also revised some of his opinions: “I used to wonder why people who had no faith background would come to church to have a child baptised. I now see how a christening might be God’s way of reaching out to them.”

Trained together: Jon and Rachel Wooden

Mr Bradley-Gibbons hopes to develop new ways of exercising the Reader ministry. He is already using Facebook to devise a ministry through social media, and one family, he says, with whom he has been in regular contact, are now thinking of baptism.

In Guildford diocese, training to be Licensed Lay Ministers (Readers) involves evening meetings once a week, two residential weekends per year, and three Saturday study days. Students who complete the three-year course gain a Diploma of Higher Education in Theology, Ministry and Mission, accredited by the University of Durham.

First-year modules include an Introduction to the Bible, Foundations for Ministry and Mission in Context, Worship and Spirituality, and Christian Discipleship. The second- and third-year modules include in-depth Old and New Testament Studies, Mission and Evangelism, Christian Doctrine and History, and Pastoral Care.

In Peterborough diocese, the title of Reader continues alongside other forms of lay ministry — such as lay pastoral ministry — for those, to quote the diocesan brief, with “a heart for people” who can play a leading part in co-ordinating pastoral care at parish level.

The diocese also trains licensed evangelists. “Do you long for others to encounter God through a mission-shaped church?” potential candidates are asked. “Could you be the grit in the oyster to challenge others to capture this vision?” Training for this ministry takes two years, and involves weekly evening sessions in term time, three Saturday study days, and a residential weekend. Some of the training is alongside those training as lay pastoral ministers and Readers. Some is specific to this ministry. Training is also available for lay worship leaders, and children and youth workers.

In Worcester diocese, a one-year course for training for authorised lay ministry is offered. It is described as a short but focused course to equip individuals for specific positions in their parishes.

York diocese has two main strands of lay ministry: the title Reader is still retained for those whose focus is preaching and teaching, and the term “recognised parish assistant” (RPA) is used for those involved in other aspects of church work. The Reader training leads towards a diploma, which may, after licensing, be extended by continuing study to degree level.

Those studying to be an RPA attend eight evening, or weekend, sessions, by way of a general introduction, and then eight more specific sessions, the diocesan Director of Training for Missional Ministry, the Revd Dr Gavin Wakefield, says. This training is delivered at deanery level.


ACROSS the Church of England, almost every evening of the week, groups of dedicated lay people are meeting to study. They spend many additional hours on their own reading, and on working on essays and assignments. Most are focused on training for a specific parish ministry: either lay or, eventually, ordained.

But others, financing their own theological training through theological institutions, are studying for the sake of learning, to broaden their appreciation and understanding of the Christian faith.

Theology can be challenging. Discovering for the first time how the biblical canon came to be determined, or how there are different and often contentious ways of interpreting scripture, can come as a shock to those with an unquestioning faith. Dr Wakefield probably speaks for all involved in training when he says, reassuringly: “We are not there to rock faith, but deepen it.”

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