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‘Sex is irrelevant to this office’

03 May 2019

Fifty years ago this month, it became possible for women to be Readers. Some describe the journey

Church Times

Rosamund Essex with her son, David, in 1969

Rosamund Essex with her son, David, in 1969

WHEN the first woman was admitted and licensed as a Reader — a lay reader, as the office was then known — in the UK 50 years ago, the story came close to home for the Church Times. She was none other than the paper’s columnist and former editor Rosamund Essex.

She wrote in her autobiography (Woman in a Man’s World, Sheldon Press, 1977): “The highlight of all my work in the Church came in 1969 when quietly, almost unnoticed by the Church at large, a canon law was given royal assent which allowed women to be readers. Few people recognized at once what a revolutionary step this was.”

She went on to describe buying her robes, and being presented with a “good choir-lady’s cassock” by a “staid, suitably serious-faced salesman” to whom she then gave a bit of a lecture on the new canon law. He was “finally persuaded to produce the right kind of cassock”.

A picture of her in these robes, on the eve of her admission, with her son, David — already a Reader — was published in the Church Times (News, 11 July 1969).

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with happiness and astonishment,” she wrote of the event. “Something was happening which, in my wildest dreams as a woman in the Church, I could never have expected. I was now accepted as a part of the ministry, albeit lay, of the Church.”


THE anniversary of the revision of Canon E6 (“Of Readers”), to make it clearly apply to both men and women, falls on 7 May. It came a decade after a motion asking the Convocations to consider such a change was carried in the House of Laity of the Church Assembly (which was the predecessor of the General Synod).

Moving the motion in 1959, Mr C. E. Jones, of Chester, suggested that only in the Church did the “heavy shackles of sex prejudice” hamper women’s advancement in society. “If we are afraid to risk unpopularity, we shall never get anywhere.”

Betty Ridley, also of London, was firmly convinced, the Church Times reported, that “the Church was not only losing the services of those who could serve her well, but was alienating from active service to the Church distinguished women from other spheres of life.”

There was opposition from the start — among lay women as well as men — and fears that this was the “thin edge of the wedge” for women’s ordination. The motion was carried, none the less, by 18 votes.


“THE change in the canon does not in any way introduce a new principle,” the Bishop of Lincoln, Dr Kenneth Riches, reassured the 1963 Convocation of Canterbury. “It is but an extension of the current practice of the Church and in keeping with the present place of women in the whole of society. . .

“There are times within the life of the Church when there has to be a genuine reappraisal of customs and attitudes that have long been taken for granted.”

The Convocation joined that of York in recommending that the canon be revised, but only after an intense debate. The Bishop of Exeter suggested abolishing the order of Readers altogether and admitting its members to the priesthood, while the Archdeacon of Bodmin felt that “most of our young women to-day are much too busy bringing up families and are not so concerned with the equality of the sexes which was current thirty years ago.”

He was not alone in arguing that there was no demand from women to exercise that ministry. Others felt that — given that women lay workers could already say the offices of morning and evening prayer — there was no need for a change.

But a number of priests, and bishops, championed the cause.

“If a woman can become a Minister of the Crown, the Vice-Chancellor of a university, or the Queen of England, why cannot she be a lay reader in the Church?” the Bishop of Southwell, Dr F. R. Barry, asked in the Diocesan News of December 1961. “Is the Church to be the only institution in which sex, qua sex, is regarded as a barrier? It is absurd, and worse than absurd — sub-Christian.”


THE archive of The Reader records that 44 women were licensed as lay readers between October 1969 and December 1970.

In the months that followed, correspondence in the Church Times turned to the correct attire. Dorothy Daldy, licensed in Bath & Wells in December 1969, wrote that she had been “very glad to accept when my vicar invited me to become a reader, as I think that sex is irrelevant to this office: but we were horrified to discover that it was assumed that I should dress myself as a man in surplice and cassock.

“In these garments men look dignified and seemly, but most women do not. I should certainly have looked and felt foolish in them, my sex would have been emphasised, and my right to look seemly and dignified would have been denied me.”

“Do’ee tell the Bishop us don’t want ’ee dressed up mannish,” a churchwarden had told her.

Miss Daldy, a founder of the Ecumenical Teaching Order, was “a formidable preacher”, Pat Elliott, a Reader at St John’s, Milbourne Port, recalls in The Reader.

“Her sermons were theological, and often rather long. This was often an embarrassment to the vicar at the time who would anxiously look at his watch, and try to attract her attention! She was often quite controversial, too, and this, on occasion, did upset some members of the congregation. However, she always made people think!”

Four of the first women Readers told their stories to the summer issue of The Reader. We present abridged extracts below:

Molly Dow, licensed in the diocese of Rochester in 1970, now has PTO in the diocese of Chester

Molly full-face1969: I am married to Graham, a curate at Tonbridge Parish Church, and with one son. Graham has been asked to be a Reader trainer, and he discovers that it will now be possible for women to be Readers. He has seen me in action on a student mission in Glasgow, and thinks I would make a good Reader.

I took a little persuading, but eventually agreed. I was exempted from most of the essays (no Reader exams then), because I already had a Dip.Th. from Oxford.

It was agreed that I would be admitted and licensed, along with a woman from another part of the diocese, on 20 June 1970. By this time, I was three months pregnant with our second child. The Bishop, David Say, said that I was the only pregnant Reader that he had ever licensed! How long that continued to be the case I do not know. Nor do I know what was the spiritual effect on that child — now 48 — who preaches and leads worship in his church now. No harm was done, it would seem.

A few people in the congregations were doubtful at first about a woman Reader. My own reservation beforehand had been about preaching, but that seemed to go well. When we left, some said I had changed their minds about women Readers. (In a positive direction, I hope.)

In 1981, we moved to Coventry, where Graham became Vicar of Holy Trinity. He had made it clear to the four churchwardens that having him as their Vicar meant having me as a Reader. Despite one or two reservations, they agreed. Early on, there were a few people who would not receive the chalice from me, but that changed over time.

I felt then, and still feel, that having gifts for “up-front ministry’’ does not necessarily constitute a call to ordination. It seems right that lay people are seen to be able to do that kind of thing: that they, too, have theological and leadership gifts for the church.

Having the Bishop’s licence has seemed important to me: first, because it shows publicly that I am answerable not only to God, but also to the Church. Second, because it meant that, especially when we moved, which we did quite a lot, I didn’t have to justify myself in being “up at the front”: my Readership gave me some recognition in my own right, it was not “because I was the vicar’s/bishop’s wife”.

Would I do it all again? Yes. It has been a privilege and a joy in many ways over the past half-century (nearly), and seems to have been well received. I trust that there has been some spiritual fruit from it.

Jean Mayland, the first woman to be licensed in the diocese of Sheffield, in 1974

I became a Reader almost by chance. One Sunday afternoon, my husband, the Revd Ralph Mayland, slipped a disc and became bed-bound. The parish Reader was willing to conduct evening prayer, but not to preach; so I went over to church and gave the address.

The Warden of Readers called to ask me whether I could consider becoming a Reader, and I agreed. So I not only trained for this ministry, I encouraged two other people in the parish to do the same. Ecclesfield parish had a daughter church at Bradfield, and I used to drive there to conduct morning prayer. The parish communion took over from morning prayer, and I began to assist there, too — distributing communion.

This experience led me to seek ordination as a non-stipendiary deacon, and then, eventually, as a priest.


Jean’s daughter, Sarah Jones

My mother was, indeed, a pioneer. A very intelligent lady, she was not allowed to study theology at Oxford University as her first degree, because she was a woman. She instead read history, and then followed this up with a Diploma in Theology.

Her lay ministry did lead to her becoming ordained after the vote was cast to allow women to become priests. Mum was a member of MOW and WATCH, and campaigned tirelessly for the ability for women to be ordained. Had she been younger, I do believe she would have ended up a bishop — and a very good one.


Ann Leigh, a Reader in Exeter diocese

Ann LeighThe Measure to admit women as Readers had been passed in 1969, and I immediately made enquiries, but it was a long, difficult struggle. I needed, first, the support of my parish priest. The churchwardens also were unhappy about a woman playing a leading part in services, even during our different vacancies.

I had been preaching regularly in local Nonconformist churches since 1968, however, and, by 1971, I was taking services most weeks in Baptist, Methodist, and URC churches all over the town, often twice on a Sunday — sometimes even three times. Yet I couldn’t serve in my own church. My diocesan bishop knew the situation and was very encouraging.

In April 1973, he wrote to suggest I make a final appeal to the Vicar, and, if he was still unsympathetic, move to another parish in the town where I would be welcome. In fact, further conversations with my vicar led to a change of heart, and, a few weeks later, the PCC agreed to support my application.

Reader training in the early 1970s was very different from today. I had one-to-one tuition from my Rural Dean, although his main task was to guide my reading, and we rarely met face to face. I had no contact with other Readers in training, although I was always invited to the Methodist local preachers’ meetings, and appreciated the learning and fellowship I shared with them. As far as I remember, no one ever came specifically to hear me preach, or to assess a service I was taking, but, as I was always in Nonconformist churches, perhaps that wasn’t surprising. Assessment was based entirely on four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

I am very proud indeed of the blue scarf I received in 1975.


Kay Morison is a Licensed Lay Minister with PTO in the diocese of Salisbury

Kay Morison recentI had been “Mrs” for more than a dozen years, with a husband and two lively children, when I was presented by Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley with my Certificate of Admission to the Office of a Reader. . . I was apparently “Mr” Kathleen Morison. Clearly, Coventry diocese had bulk-bought the admission form, never imagining that women could ever become Readers; so “Mr” was the only title printed on that form. I received my very elegant, embossed certificate in June 1974.

I had just completed a mature student degree in religious studies from Warwick University. I was teaching in a comprehensive school, and my first Rector was happy for me to preach. He had two rural churches. So there was very little time for him to rush from one church to the other. He was prone to process up the aisle at the start of the service, whisper in my ear the text for the Bible passage, and ask me to read it. . . Not well prepared!

He would also often appear at our door late on Saturday night, with the lesson book camouflaged under his leathers, to ask me to teach Sunday school the next morning. Even less preparation! I know that he found it hard to have a woman in the sanctuary as a chalice assistant. I was grateful, however, that he swallowed his personal theological convictions and allowed me to do this.

A couple of years after my admission ceremony, my ordained husband was invited to be the first director of mission and education in the new diocese of Port Elizabeth, in South Africa. I was licensed by the Bishop as a “Lay Minister”: the term used in the Province of Southern Africa.

Kay Morison then

In Port Elizabeth, I continued to teach part-time, and had the huge privilege (as an Anglican) of teaching biblical studies to matriculation level in the Roman Catholic convent there. When I joined the staff, the school was for white pupils only, but, in time, the nuns bravely opened their doors to children of all races. In consequence, the outer walls were sprayed regularly in red paint with the symbol of a hammer and sickle. In those days, to treat all people as “equal” was equivalent to being a Communist. The walls of our Bishop’s house were similarly daubed.

Returning to the UK meant new challenges. In the parish in which I now serve, there were two ladies who, when I came, did not approve of women either as Readers or as eucharistic assistants. So they would not receive communion if I were on chalice duty. That was quite painful: seeing all the seat shuffling, just to avoid me at the communion rail. A good few years into my ministry here (right into this century), suddenly, one Sunday, there they were at the communion rail, now willing to receive the chalice from a woman. It was very special occasion, noticed and commented on by many members of the congregation.


Ruth Haldane is Reader Training Project Manager at the Central Readers’ Council

Fifty years of women as Readers is definitely something to celebrate. The first female Readers were the pioneers: the ones who made a way in 1969 for others to follow, the ones who were so convinced of their calling to this ministry that they were willing to go forward, undaunted by any prejudice or obstacles in their way, and fulfil their godly calling.

Before this, women had been trained for parish visiting, teaching, and leading informal worship. Any “address” had to be given from the chancel steps, not the pulpit. Since 1935, there had been a campaign for women to be allowed to be licensed as Readers, and this had gone on for a generation until 1969, when it became legal to license women as Readers in the Church of England.

Personally, I have always felt called to teach and preach, and had done so for many years in Nonconformist churches. My husband, Graham, and I moved to Clitheroe in 2012, and became part of St James’s. I still felt the strong call to teach and preach, and, after training as a Reader, I was licensed in 2015. I am now deputy Warden of Readers for Blackburn diocese, and work for the Central Readers’ Council as Reader Training Project Manager, on a three-year project to enable the renewal of Reader Ministry, focusing on the three strands of reader ministry: Teachers of the Faith; Enablers of Mission; and Leaders in Church and Society. It’s exciting, 50 years on from the important step of women being licensed as Readers, to be part of another important step in renewing Reader/lay ministry for the 21st century.

All of us — men and women — have a calling to follow and fulfil as disciples of Christ; for some of us, this is through Reader ministry. From 1969-70, when 44 women were licensed as Readers, it has taken many years for the majority of churches to support women in this ministry. Fifty years on, most women who feel called to licensed lay ministry are able to follow their calling — whether it is for teaching, preaching, funerals, fresh expressions of church, missional communities, and many other jobs. But, even today, some women Readers feel that they are not fully empowered or permitted to fulfil the full extent of their calling.

Over the years, women Readers have been used in churches as preachers, teachers, in pastoral work, baptismal preparation, funeral ministry, Lent courses, Alpha courses, catechesis, and much more. More recently, some female Readers have become focal ministers in multi-church benefices, and involved in initiatives such as Messy Church and older people’s groups. The ministry of licensed lay ministers, women and men, adds significantly to the rich mix of lay ministries rising up in the Church of today.

Women as Readers have unique and significant contributions to make to the life of the Church. We need to be thankful to those women who campaigned, broke the mould, and stood firm in their calling to become licensed lay ministers in 1969.


WOMEN and men are represented “almost equally” in the number of Readers with permission to officiate, or in training, in the Church of England, according to the Central Readers’ Council. In its present form, the ministry dates back to 1866.

Readers exercise what is sometimes called “a teaching and preaching ministry within a pastoral context”. They are authorised by the Church of England to preach and teach; to conduct, or assist in conducting worship; and to assist in the pastoral, evangelistic, and liturgical work of the Church in the parish or area where they are licensed.

A current aim of the council is to recruit a younger and more diverse body of Readers, with plans for more flexible, lifelong training (News, 4 May 2018).

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