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On the New Order of Ministrants in the Church of England

The Christian Advocate and Review 67 (1866) 547-555

   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 and Bristol.

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 and beneficial.

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 5>

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 the parish.”
  • “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 ordinary.”

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 out“by 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.