Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
prudence will watch over you;
and understanding will guard you.
It will save you from the way of evil,
from those who speak perversely,
who forsake the paths of uprightness
to walk in the ways of darkness,
who rejoice in doing evil
and delight in the perverseness of evil;
those whose paths are crooked,
and who are devious in their ways.
You will be saved from the loose woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words,
who forsakes the partner of her youth
and forgets her sacred covenant;
for her way leads down to death,
and her paths to the shades;
those who go to her never come back,
nor do they regain the paths of life.
Therefore walk in the way of the good,
and keep to the paths of the just.
For the upright will abide in the land,
and the innocent will remain in it;
but the wicked will be cut off from the land,
and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.
Proverbs 8:1–4, 2:2–31
1 O Lord our governor, •
how glorious is your name in all the world!
2 Your majesty above the heavens is praised •
out of the mouths of babes at the breast.
3 You have founded a stronghold against your foes, •
that you might still the enemy and the avenger.
4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, •
the moon and the stars that you have ordained,
5 What is man, that you should be mindful of him; •
the son of man, that you should seek him out?
6 You have made him little lower than the angels •
and crown him with glory and honour.
7 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands •
and put all things under his feet,
8 All sheep and oxen, •
even the wild beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea •
and whatsoever moves in the paths of the sea.
10 O Lord our governor, •
how glorious is your name in all the world!
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Sermon for Trinity
I was asked to speak about Readers today because this year is a significant one in the history of the Church of England. It’s rather a shame, because I am sure everyone would rather consider the notion of the Trinity and the relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
So, in preparation for my assignment, I visited the Central Readers’ Council website and through Google found this definition –
Readers are lay people in the Church of England, from all walks of life, who are called by God, theologically trained and licensed by the Church to preach, teach, lead worship and assist in pastoral, evangelistic and liturgical work.
This is a rather daunting description of the Reader, isn’t it?
All Readers have gone through a training programme in their own diocese after a process of selection similar to that for the priesthood. Readers have a vocation, a calling from God, and their training has equipped them to “preach, teach, lead worship and assist in pastoral, evangelistic and liturgical work”. Readers carry out this work for the church under licence by the bishop and are recognised throughout the country.
Readers have been sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, first in the big cities and now throughout the country for a very long time, in both urban and rural areas. The longer history of the office of Reader has been seen to be in two parts. The first part is ancient history before 1866, where Readers did just that – they read texts to the congregations. It is the second episode which is of prime importance to us today.
In 1866 Bishops and Archbishops met at Lambeth and revitalised the office of Reader.
“The prompt was the inability of the church to cater for the growing population, from 9 million in 1801 to 20 million in 1861, and not just sheer numbers but their concentration increasingly in cities.”
The industrialisation of Britain brought the Anglican Church, let alone the country, to a crisis. The multitudes in the cities and lack of clergy there called for a solution. Pastoral care for the people of God in England came to the fore – the crowded cities needed people to care for them. The cities were dark places of desperation, where people felt abandoned and hopeless. There were not enough clergy to deal with the masses fearfully huddled in those strange urban centres. The distribution of the population had radically changed in this period. Rather than a dispersed population working in the fields all around the country, the people crowded into the cities, where they were disappointed because there was no work for each and every person who ran to places like London, Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield or even Gloucester.
The Bishop of London of 150 years ago said, “Every day convinces me more and more that some organisation [such as the Lay Readers] is necessary to reach the great mass of our people”. This bishop and others were happy to commission men to approach “the great mass of people” – in other words, all those who were displaced through the industrial revolution.
The pastoral work of those first Readers was paramount, for they were not so very different to the people whom they were to serve. These first Readers were acting as a bridge between classes, between that “great mass of people” and the rarified upper classes who had provided virtually all the clergy at the time. The disjunction between the leaders of the church and the people who were the “pew fodder” was palpable.
However, this was the age of the philanthropist as well. The rich and famous as well as the more modest would undertake works to ameliorate the conditions of the world around them. They would distribute alms and create charitable foundations. The church was in the forefront of reform and had to redistribute its own resources. Readers helped in all of this revamping of the church in England.
But there was still that gulf between all those exalted do-gooders and the “great mass of people”. The mass of vicars were in their country parishes, and they were the privileged “upper class”, the younger sons of the rich or titled. The “great mass of people” were the poor of the countryside who had moved into the towns and cities to fulfill their dreams of the good life in the new factories, where the streets out front were paved with gold. The Reader must have formed a bridge between them, since they had been trained and accepted by the elite and at the same time they remained part of the multitudes.
That disjunction between the lay community, that “great mass of people”, and the priest who has the cure of its souls still exists today. The Reader 150 years on restates its “lay” credentials, despite the change of the name some time ago from Lay Reader to Reader. Now it is no longer the effete upper class who has to have a social mediator. Rather it is the sacred functionaries who need to have interpreters in a profane world, a world which is ignorant of the divine in their lives. I would like to say that the Reader performs this function of Revealer, the mediator between these two worlds of the sacred and the profane.
Very often that is the mark of a Reader, that he or she is not ordained and the Reader, most emphatically, is not to be confused with a priest in any way, hence their distinctive blue scarves. On the Readers’ website I read,
The Bishop of Bangor said in 1884 that he wanted, “Christian men who can bridge the gap between the different classes of society” – a go-between the lower classes and the clergyman who was regarded as being high on the social scale. As the Dean of Manchester put it, most Readers were “more in unison with the masses with whom they mixed”.
This bridging function is so very important even today. The Reader is acknowledged as this go-between “in unison” with their peers outside the church and understanding the language of the elite ruling class within the church. This role is so very important in all areas of life. We all need someone to mediate in so many parts of our lives. Don’t we expect someone to be on the help-line who knows exactly what we are talking about? So it is with the church. As the lay people in the choir, we have been seen as the link between the nave and the chancel.
The office of Reader is the only lay ministry in the Church of England which is voluntary, nationally accredited, Episcopally licensed and governed by canon. There are now over 10,000 Readers, with men and women represented almost equally.
In 1921 one Reader wrote, Readers “are waiting to do more, much more if permitted, to help in the greater need of these troubled days.” – These words are we still uttered today by many Readers.
Readers are ordinary people selected and trained to perform certain functions. Readers are not extraordinary, they are quite ordinary in fact. They are merely licenced to do their work of the gospel, whether it is in the sanctuary or outside in the parish alongside everyone in the community. This is not so much different from any christian’s calling, following the one commandment Jesus gave us, that we love one another.
We should all take courage this year, when this lay aspect of the anglican church hierarchy – the Reader – is acknowledged as so very useful in the mission of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Everyone should take courage in order to follow Jesus’ rule for live.
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel speak to what I think the Reader experiences and expresses: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” When Readers preach, we never speak on our own, but we speak the tradition which is behind us because we have gone through that formation. Readers, like all christians, strive to truth, being guided by our training and being open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is our privilege and joy to share that grace received.