The Church of England is commonly taxed with stiffness and inability to adapt
herself to changing circumstances. With regard to her doctrinal position, we
may be content to admit the charge. Christianity is not a progressive science,
but a permanent revelation; the Church is not a discoverer, but the witness
and keeper of a faith once delivered to the saints. Even in matters of ritual
and order, conservatism is to a great extent defensible. An organization which
strikes its roots deep into the history of many centuries, the growth of long
experience and manifold wisdom, may justly claim a consideration denied to the
experiments of the present age.
Such is our answer to those who clamour for violent changes, whether on the
side of Rationalism or of Ritualism. Individual members of the Church, at least,
cannot be justified in introducing novelties, or in cancelling doctrines and
rites distasteful to themselves. Nevertheless, we are far from claiming infallibility
for the Church of England: changes may be effected which will be also improvements,
certain aspects of Catholic doctrine may require more careful definition,
certain parts of the reformed system may need re-adjustment; such alterations,
sanctioned by competent authority, and after due consideration, may be hailed
by the most conservative of churchmen. We welcome every sign of life, every
pulsation of thought and energy, provided only that it beat with the regularity
of health, not with the fitful restlessness of disease.
An important addition to the working power of the Church has lately been proposed,
which seems to satisfy these conditions. We will describe it in the words of
the Bishop of Oxford. Addressing the recent Oxford Diocesan Conference, the
Bishop is reported to have said,
They would be interested in learning that on Holy Thursday, /548/
after prayer and Communion, this subject (of lay agency) had engaged the anxious
attention of a large meeting of the Episcopate, including all the Archbishops
and several of the Colonial Bishops. They had resolved, subject to an inquiry
as to whether one point of their scheme could be carried out consistently with
the Act of Uniformity, that an order of ‘Readers’ should be established
. These Readers were to be publicly appointed with prayer (not imposition
of hands), and were to labour under the parish clergyman, after episcopal examination,
and with episcopal authority, in the out-lying districts, in ministering the
Word, etc. The clergy would visit the stations periodically, and administer
the Communion. Subsequently, in answer to an inquiry, the Bishop
stated that the Readers were not to be addressed as reverend, and
were to wear the surplice in their ministrations.
It would appear that the debated point as to the Act of Uniformity, has been
satisfactorily settled: for, as we write, the intelligence comes to hand, that
the first of the new order of Readers has actually been set apart to his office,
by solemn prayer and the delivery of the New Testament, in the Diocese of Gloucester
We have spoken of this extension of our Church system as a change compatible
with conservative churchmanship. We will now give our reasons.
In the first place, the proposed order has practically and substantially existed
in the Church for some years past. Beside our paid Scripture-readers (a most
valuable class of men, but occupying a distinct sphere from the one allotted
to the Readers now to be appointed), a volunteer army of intelligent educated
laymen has gradually come to the help of the parochial clergy. These gentlemen
have not only relieved the overburdened parish priests of much of their secular
business: they have shared with the clergy such of their spiritual functions
as could legally be delegated to persons not in Holy Orders. Laymen have held
cottage lectures, conducted school-room services, visited the sick, and by a
precedent of long standing, have even read the Holy Scriptures in the Church.
It is not proposed, as far as we can learn, to increase these lay ministrations,
but simply to give to them the sanction of ecclesiastical authority: to organize
and utilize existing materials; and, at the same time, to secure the Church
against the intrusion among these her virtual ministrants /549/ of false or
intemperate teachers. The new order is not a creation, not a tentative measure,
unworthy of the solemn character of a Christian Church; it is but the official
recognition of an agency which has now for some time been tried and found practicable
But further, it may not be generally known on what a firm foundation of precedent,
drawn both from primitive times and from the history of the Reformed Church
of England, the Bishops have taken their stand in this matter. With the true
spirit of English churchmanship, they have sought rather to inspire with new
life an ancient order, rather to reconstruct and adjust the old, than to originate
and invent. We have endeavoured to put together the leading facts of the case,
and will lay them briefly before our readers.
We start with the declaration which heads the Preface to our present Ordinal. It is evident unto all men diligently reading the Holy Scriptures
and ancient authors, that from the Apostles, time there have been three orders
of ministers in Christ's Church, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. The Church of Rome, it is well known, reckons seven distinctly clerical orders: i.e., five beside the Diaconate and Priesthood, in which last she comprehends
the Episcopate; and the five inferior orders, according to the council
of Trent, date from the very beginning of the Church. <note
1> But even learned Romanists have confessed that no order below the
Diaconate rests upon Apostolic authority. The inferior orders are not named
by the earliest writers, who distinctly mention a threefold ministry; and when
they first emerge, it is not in the light of a Catholic institution, but rather
as an expedient adopted by some of the greater Churches to supply the wants
of their several communities. Moreover, the number and titles of these lower
offices vary in the earliest records: the Apostolic Constitutions
mention four classes, the Canons only three, while one of the Epistles ascribed
to S. Ignatius <note 2> counts up six, two of which
are unknown to the present Church of Rome. Such variations are sufficient to
show that these inferior orders possessed no universal or permanent authority:
founded by particular Churches, they may be retained, dismissed, or modified
by particular Churches, as the case may require. Nevertheless, there belongs
to them a certain venerableness, /550/ the sanction of antiquity and of long
duration in the Church, which gives them an advantage over any office that could
be newly devised.
Of these six Church offices (we prefer the word to orders), one
bore the name which is now claimed by the Church of England for her lay-ministrants.
The Readers of the Early Church (ἀναγνῶσται, lectores) are first
distinctly referred to by Tertullian. Justin Martyr, indeed, describes the solemn
reading of the Holy Scriptures in the Church, but not in such terms as to necessitate
the belief that in his time this reading formed the duty of a separate functionary.
But Tertullian's language is unmistakable: he is reprobating heretical orders,
on the ground of the hastiness with which they were accepted and conferred.
They have one Bishop, he says, to-day, and another to-morrow; the
deacon of to-day will be a Lector to-morrow; the priest of to-day will
to-morrow turn layman. <note 3> It is clear
that at this early date Readers held a definite status in the Church
after the deacons, and that even heretical bodies recognized and sought to retain
the office. A letter of Cornelios, Bishop of Rome, preserved in Eusebius (H.E.
vi. 43), describes the clergy of the Roman See as consisting of forty-six
presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, forty-two acolytes, and a body
of fifty-two exorcists, readers, and ostiarii. Elsewhere Eusebius
speaks of the prisons as filled in time of persecution with bishops priests
and deacons, readers and exorcists, in such numbers as to have no room
for the real criminals. <note 4> There can
be no doubt, therefore, that the Order of Readers was firmly established
and largely represented in the Church before the end of the third century.
The early Readers, as their name denotes, were ordained for the purpose of
assisting the deacons in the public reading of the Holy Scriptures. It appears
that they executed their office upon the desk or pulpit which stood in the body
of the ancient church, and not, like the clergy, at the holy table. Chysostom
incidentally describes their manner of officiating: The deacon
stands up and says with a loud voice, ‘Let us attend;’ this he repeats
several times. After which the reader begins the prophecy of Isaiah. <note
The first representatives of this ministry appear to have been /551/ chosen
from the ranks of the laity, and not from any lower clerical order. The office
was regarded as an honourable distinction. Julian, in his younger days, had
not disdained to serve the Church of Nicomedia in this capacity; and we find
Cyprian rewarding a confessor with admission to a readership, because
nothing doth better befit the voice that by a glorious public testimony bath
confessed the Lord, than to give a sound in the Church in reading the Divine
Scriptures of the Lord. <note 6> Subsequently,
however, the office became a mere stepping-stone to the priesthood: children
were set apart to it at a tender age. Justinian found it needful to correct
the abuses of this system by forbidding the ordination of any Reader before
his eighteenth year.
At the ordination of Readers the early Roman Church appears to have used simply
a form of prayer and the delivery of the Book of the Gospels: to which ceremony
the Greeks are said to have added the imposition of hands. <note
7> This difference still distinguishes the Greek and Latin ordinals.
In the modern Greek Church, the Bishop lays his hand on the person to be admitted
Reader, offering the following prayer: Lord God Almighty, elect
this Thy servant, and sanctify him: and grant him with all wisdom and understanding
to study and to read Thy sacred oracles. After which the Book is delivered. <note 8> In the Roman Pontificale there is
no imposition of hands; the Bishop merely giving the Book to each candidate,
with the words, Take this Book, and be ye Readers of the Word of
God: and know that, if ye fulfil your office faithfully and profitably, ye shall
have part with those who from the beginning have rightly ministered the Word
of God. <note 9> It will be perceived that
our Bishops have wisely determined to follow the Western ritual, reserving the
laying on of hands for the three sacred orders of the ministry. With regard
to the minor question of costume, they have with equal wisdom decided that the
Readers of the English Church shall wear the surplice without the stole, the
former being the official dress of all persons engaged in our liturgical services;
the latter, the distinctive badge of the clergy, and on that account forbidden
to Readers by the decree of an earl council. <note 10>
We now pass to another page in the history of Readers, /552/ which
occurs in close connection with the early struggles of our own Reformed Church.
The office appears to have been the only one of the inferior orders
which the English Reformers attempted to utilize. The attempt failed, and its
failure throws important light on questions connected with the contemplated
revival of this ministry.
One of the gravest difficulties which beset the Church of England upon the
accession of Queen Elizabeth, was the deficiency of candidates for the priesthood.
Many benefices lay vacant: some priests going away and departing from
their livings, and others non-resident; and many livings of so mean income that
none would take them up. <note 11> The tithes
of these small or impropriated benefices had been formerly subsidized by religious
offerings, and these being now abolished, the incumbents could not live upon
their cures. The perplexity was increased by the state of the Universities,
both of which were at this time, as it seems, opposed or indifferent to the
cause of the Reformation. Jewel writes to Peter Martyr in 1559, that Oxford
and Cambridge, especially the former seat of learning, lay at this time
in miserable plight: destitute of piety and religion, without teachers or hope
of any revival of letters. <note 12>
In this crisis, the Bishops at first adopted the expedient of ordaining godly
mechanics and artizans to the priesthood. But in this way an illiterate clergy
soon began to fill the churches, and the Reformers speedily became aware of
their mistake. Within a year after his consecration we find Archbishop Parker
compelled to forbid the ordination of any more illiterates. Another plan
was then adopted. Arrangements were made for temporally uniting as many as ten
of the smaller cures under one minister. For the service of each of the churches
which were not actually supplied by the incumbent, it was ordered that he should
depute one able minister, within orders of deacon, if it may be, or
else some honest, sober, and grave layman, who as a lector or reader shall give
his attendance to read the order of service appointed. <note
13> The Archbishop proceeds to direct that the Reader, should not
intermeddle with christening, marrying, or ministering the Holy Communion, or
with any voluntary preaching or prophesying. It was further provided that
cures so filled should be visited in circuit by the parish priests, for the
purpose of ministering the Word and Sacraments, and also to know how /553/
the youth do profit in the catechism taught them by the Lector. The Lectors
were to be appointed under the letters of the Bishop of the Diocese, and subject
to his dismissal in case of proved irregularities. In 1561, injunctions
were issued to be subscribed by them that shall be admitted Readers. <note 14> We quote some of these, in order to show
the limits assigned to their office.
- Imprimis, I shall not preach or interpret, but only read that which
is appointed by public authority.
- I shall not minister the sacraments or other public rites of the Church,
but bury the dead and purify women after childbirth.
- I shall give place upon convenient warning, so thought by the ordinary,
if any learned minister shall be placed there at the suit of the patrons of
- I shall not read, but in poorer parishes destitute of incumbent, except
in times of sickness, or for other good considerations, to be allowed by the
We have not been able to discover what form was used at the ordination of these
Readers. They did not receive the imposition of hands, <note
15> and appear in some cases to have retained their worldly callings;
at least no promise was exacted of them, as of deacons, to abandon artificers'
occupations. They were mostly illiterate men, but not exclusively so,
nor did they always stop short of the regular ministry. Some of them were persons
who had learnt Latin in their youth, and were designed for the Universities,
had not the discouragement of the times interposed. Strype mentions the
case of a Reader in London, who was afterwards ordained Priest, and became Rector
of a city church. But the illiterate condition of the greater number, and the
purely mechanical nature of their functions brought them into contempt with
the people: a great many quarrelled with them, as no ministers, because
they could not preach; and extraordinarily displeased they were with the Bishops
for ordaining such. The Romanists made a handle of their incompetency.
Moreover concerning some of these tolerated Readers
for their untoward
way of reading, and the scandalous behaviour of some of them, there was much
complaint <note 16> The Universities began
at the same time to recover from their temporary depression, and the supply
of regular clergy no doubt increased accordingly. All these causes /554/ co-operated
to discourage the appointment of lay Readers, and the practice appears to have
been finally stamped outby the canons of 1571; one of which forbade
the Bishop to suffer any person calling himself by the idle name of Reader,
and not having received the imposition of hands, to take part in the ministry
of the Church. It is true that these canons never received the Royal assent,
but there can be no doubt that they regulated the practice at least of the Bishops
who enacted them. We may therefore date from 1571 the extinction of Readers
as ecclesiastical officers in the English Church.
The office dropped first into contempt then into disuse; and it may be argued
from these premises that a like fate awaits the recent attempt to revive it.
We venture to think not, and will state our reasons for dissenting. There were
symptoms of decay inherent in the very constitution of the Elizabethan office,
which are altogether absent from the present scheme. The Readers of the Reformation
era were confessedly the weak and incompetent substitutes of a beneficed clergy.
They held positions previously filled by a regular ministry, and which, in the
course of time, would certainly be filled by regular ministers again. They were
moreover in effect priests of the lowest of the people, and such
a priesthood can never hold its ground as the established ministry of a civilized
country. The highest may minister successfully to the lowest; the reverse of
this order cannot hold true for any length of years. Nor was such a state of
things contemplated by our Reformers: the mechanics and artizans whom they ordained
to Readerships were laid under a pledge to give way to an educated ministry,
as soon as it presented itself. The office was evidently a make-shift, and no
more, even in the eyes of its founders.
We have said that these elements of disintegration are wanting in the reconstructed
Order. The spheres to be filled by the new Readers have never been filled by
a regular Clergy. They will occupy new ground. They will be the pioneers and
not the substitutes of the priest and the deacon. And so long as England retains
her manufacturing industry, and her national eminence, there is no fear lest
the materials of their labour should be exhausted. Our large cities, our rising
towns, our sea-ports, even our semi-rural populations, will supply ample room
for as many such assistants of the Clergy as the zeal and energy of the times
may produce. Moreover there is every reason to hope that these assistants will
be drawn in the great majority of cases from the /555/ middle and upper classes
of society. There is a growing disposition amongst educated men to take part
in the great work of the Church, and to give of their time and talents, as well
as of their wealth, to the service of God. The unpaid and voluntary character
of these agents will be an additional protection against the admission of persons
who, however well meaning, might give offence to a cultivated audience by their
provincial accent or bad grammar. Besides it is assumed that, the Readers
will rarely be called to minister in congregations where a single critic can
be found. Their ministry will lie among the poor and the hardworking. Their
place will be not in the desk or pulpit of the parish church, but in the school-chapel,
and by the bedside of the dying artizan.
It appears to us that singular wisdom has been shown in pressing into the reconstructed
office the best points of the primitive and reformed systems, whilst the faults
or abuses of each are avoided. We retain the primitive name and garb and mode
of ordination. We reject the clerical Character of the office and its position
as a necessary step to the higher ministries of the Church. We retain the extended
duties of the office as restored at the Elizabethan era, adding such other functions
as the temper of the age seems to require. But taught by the failure of Archbishop
Parker's scheme, we provide against the introduction of Readers into parish
churches. We guard against their once being construed into a substitute for
a regular Clergy. Much, no doubt, of the usefulness and practicability of the
new scheme will depend upon the working out of its minor details, upon
the handling which the order receives from the Bishops and parochial Clergy.
It is enough for the present to feel that the principle is good; that the leading
outlines of the organization are consistent with the mind of the Church, and
correspond with the wants and circumstances of the times. We may augur from
such a movement the best results; a deepening sympathy between the clergy and
laity of the national Church; the adhesion of many godly and zealous men who
have hitherto sought employment in nonconformist or eccentric, spheres; and
best of all the extension of the Gospel in the outlying hamlets and overgrown
towns of England, and the salvation of souls for whom Christ died.
Note 1: Conc. Trident. Sess. xxiii. c. 2.
Note 2: Pseudo-lgnat. ad Antiochen 12.
Note 3: Tert. De praescript. Adv. haeret. c.41
Note 4: H. E. viii. 6.
Note 5: (Hom. in Act. Apost.)
Note 6: S. Cypr. Epp. ii. 5 ; quoted in Field, On the
Church, v. 25.
Note 7: Bingham: Antiq. i.
Note 8: Codex liturg. ed. Daniel 1853.
Note 9: Pontif. Rom. de ordin. lectorum.
Note 10: See Suicer's Thesaurus, in loc.
Note 11: Strype, Annals, c. 14
Note 12: Burnet, H.R. iii. 58.
Note 13: Strype c.14.
Note 14: Cardwell, Annal. i. 268.
Note 15: See Canons of 1571 (quoted below.)
Note 16: Strype Ann. c. 13.