Paul Griffin looks back at his forty-five years as a Reader and explains why the role is more important now than ever
Since 1961 I have been the chap in a blue scarf taking occasional Matins or Evensong when you had really rather hoped to see the Vicar. The introduction of Readers was meant to relieve pressure on ordained clergy, and offer more services. A one-time luxury is now a necessity.
It was a civilized business then. You read for three months, sat four papers, and were off. Being in a full-time job, you were not expected to oblige more than once or twice a month.
Now you train for three years and are placed under an incumbent before you are released on the laity. As I hang up my scarf and scapular and look back over forty-five years of immense change in the Church, the situation seems markedly different.
Variation in duties
It is such an immense variety to which the Church is now committed. No longer is every parish in theory an AB one or most services BCP. Readers were always encouraged to undertake pastoral work, but now the need for pastoral work is greater, as are the duties permitted, with or without special permission from the Bishop. The new permutations in congregations, as between AB[C] and non-AB[C] parishes and priests, the proportion of unhappy people, the sad but inevitable remoteness of many incumbents, the new services and the reduction of the non-liturgical element, have combined to complicate what Readers are needed for.
All may now administer the chalice and take funerals; some are permitted to offer extended Communion, of whom some have to seek special permission and some do not. Some preach at the Eucharist, and read the Gospel, but some incumbents do not permit this. I have attended Eucharists where a Reader has done everything except absolve, consecrate, and bless, and others where he or she is there to do nothing but serve and administer, and possibly read and intercede.
In an already varied situation, it would be good if every diocese worked to the same regulations. Perhaps the Bishops could find time to agree on them, and ask their priests to conform. Inconsistency, while church-wide, may particularly affect our Forward in Faith parishes, often Anglo-Catholic and where lay participation in church life is still subject to ‘Father knows best’.
Much of my thought arises from talking to fellow-members of the College of Readers, an association for those of our way of thinking. It was formed seven years ago, and has a quarterly magazine, Blue Scarf, often containing more sense than the national church periodicals, present company excepted. Some of us meet annually at Walsingham for joint worship and discussion. It has brought home to me the increase in those Readers who because of being retired or in a part-time job can offer much more help in parishes than once envisaged. Some are working almost as hard as their incumbents, and I believe the Church will have to consider whether the title and terms of Reader are suitable to people who so closely approach Deacons or NSMs.
It may also need to recognize the ability of a Reader to help in an interregnum. Legally, a parish is then run by an alliance of Rural Dean and churchwardens, supervised by the Archdeacon. This was fair when each parish had a priest, but the problems to a Rural Dean of arranging services for, say, five parishes in a benefice surely suggests the need for supernatural powers not normally available even to Rural Deans. Here a Reader can offer invaluable co-ordination. Our retiring age seems to be standardized at 70. After that, diocesan practices vary slightly, but generally speaking our licence is renewed for ever shorter periods. Everybody is younger older these days, and many more people continue after 70.
Now, after forty-five years I want only to express thanks to all who have made this work possible, and to give the address of the Registrar of the College of Readers. It is Mrs Mary Snape, 1 Soames Crescent, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent ST3 5UE (Tel: 01782-332606). f