The Bishop of Southwark, The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (John 15. 4)
In the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
These are words to hear as you prepare to recommit yourselves to Reader Ministry. Indeed, they are words to live by: to abide in Christ as he abides in us is the highest good of our lives. But the words about fruit are particularly relevant to you now. St John reminds us that we will only bear fruit if we are branches of the true vine.
In other words your ability to serve, to discharge the calling to which you are called as Readers, rests in turn on your ever-strengthening relationship with God in Christ; on your abiding in the vine.
If you want a summary of what this might look like, then I would refer you to another passage which has been important to me in my ministry as your Bishop: St Luke’s wonderful description in Chapter 24 of his Gospel of those two disciples and their encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus. This provides a pattern for all Christian ministry in terms of journey, encounter, discovery and missionary zeal. For me, the testimony of the disciples that their ‘hearts were burning within them’ is the key to who we are called to be in the Diocese of Southwark, ‘Hearts on Fire: Loving God, Walking with Jesus, Led by the Spirit’. Like all called to ministry in the Church of Jesus, we are in the first place Christian disciples, and keeping alive that fire of the Spirit in our hearts will be the foundation of all that we can offer.
Within the whole ministry of the Body of Christ, you are called specifically to the venerable and honourable ministry of being a Reader and as Readers too you can find the pattern of this particular ministry within the Emmaus encounter.
This ministry will be exercised, broadly speaking, in three ways. If I may put it in terms of the Emmaus story, you are called to be Ministers at the Table, Ministers on the Road, and Ministers of the Book and I want to say a little about each in this charge.
First, you are to be Ministers at the Table. You share in the distribution of the Holy Communion. Of course, in most parishes a number of lay people who are not Readers will be authorised to do the same, and that serves as a reminder that the ministry to which you are called is through and through a lay ministry. You are called and commissioned to share God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people not as quasi-clergy, but in the way that all are called, as ordinary baptised Christians – though of course there is nothing ordinary about the amazing grace of our baptism and all that springs from it. As St Paul says, “you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all”: the highest calling to which all are called.
I want you to be clear that this does not mean that you in any sense preside at the Eucharist; nor do I permit you other than in extremis to offer communion by extension in church because there is no priest to preside at a celebration of the Eucharist. That would be to think of Reader Ministry as a kind of substitute for ordained priesthood; but it is not. And more importantly the Eucharist is celebrated corporately by priest and people together – the Church knows herself most fully in this way which equips the whole people of God to go out in joyful and loving service. It is not done for and on behalf of the people. Your calling, as Readers, is to a distinct and distinctive ministry, just as in Ephesians St Paul says that “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers”. A prophet is not a semi-apostle. A pastor is not a partial evangelist. Each is distinct and full of the grace of Christ.
So the Office which you fill as Readers is in its very essence a lay ministry; it is a complement and a partner to clerical ministry, not an imitation or a shadow of clerical ministry; it is a reminder to a Church which can so easily become clericalised that lay men and lay women as well as priests are entrusted with the Bishop’s licence, and as such Readers are to be accorded a parity of ministerial esteem with the clergy. I urge you to rejoice wholeheartedly in the lay character of your ministry which is entrusted to you. Nowhere is this made more clear than in your joining with other authorised lay people to administer the Sacrament.
Second, you are to be Ministers of the Road. Reader Ministry is ministry to those whom you meet and it may mean very different things according to different settings, in urban, suburban or rural parishes, in chaplaincies or fresh expressions, across a team or a deanery. I want to say to you that this is a really important dimension of ministry – and, whatever your particular gifts, interests or contexts, you need to keep alive this sense that you are called to ministry out there, with people you encounter in your everyday lives, ‘seven whole days not one in seven’, so not only with the faithful who gather together on Sunday.
For all of us engaged in the Church’s Ministry, it is all too easy to be churchy, to be so absorbed in the structures and demands of the institutional organisation that we forget that our calling is to serve the world to which that Church is sent. I ask you at all times to love the Church, to honour her teachings, rejoice in her holiness, and share her life; but to do so in ways that keep you always open to all the many unpredictable and wonderful ways in which God encounters us in the lives of individuals and communities who may not be part of the visible church. Like those two disciples who met Jesus in an unrecognised stranger on the road, you will find that this keeps your faith fresh and growing. Do not grow stale.
The Church shares with you the responsibility for you not growing stale. We are a community that refreshes one another and that is one of the many reasons why I am so pleased to commission Nicole today as substantive Warden of Readers. I know that Nicole has already been discharging many functions associated with the office and I believe it is now right that she should be formally recognised, empowered and commissioned. I know that your new Warden will take care that the whole body of Readers in the Diocese is both nurtured, encouraged and challenged to Godly service. By God’s grace may Nicole make it her care to seek opportunities for all Readers to keep your faith fresh and growing. As Ministers of the Road you now have a Warden who will accompany you along the way and keep an eye open for stragglers as you journey together.
Lastly, you are to be Ministers of the Book. You are called to study and interpret the Holy Scriptures, in teaching and in preaching. You need to take seriously the name of the office to which you are going to re-commit yourselves today. Some may take the view that ‘Reader’ is an antiquated or a misleading term, better replaced by ‘Licensed Lay Minister’ or some such. But I want you to think about the resonances and the history of the title ‘Reader’. In the Church of England, the revival of the office under this name goes back to 1866 and referred primarily to a commissioning to ‘read’ the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. As with many features of the Victorian Revival, however, there was a reference back to a much older history, the early Church’s order of Lector, whose particular duty and calling was to read publicly from the Scriptures. So “Reader” says something very special, distinct and significant.
Take seriously this vocation to immerse yourself in the Bible, to spend time reading, re-reading and re-re-reading its texts, to engage with the best of modern scholarship in wrestling with their interpretation, and to bring those texts into the context of people’s contemporary lives in intelligent, lively and resourceful ways. Your calling above all is to inhabit and to promote a culture of biblical literacy in our churches – that is, to give people a love of the Scriptures, a familiarity with inhabiting their landscape, a delight in the way in which can find our stories in their story, a confidence to seek and to find in their written human words the presence of the living divine word, Jesus Christ.
This calling, with its distinctive sacramental, pastoral and above all Biblical elements, is a high calling. I am grateful to you for all that you have given in following it, and for your willingness to re-commit yourselves to it today. My prayer is that as you abide in the True Vine the Spirit will lead you into all truth, and your hearts will be on fire as through you, the Lord opens the Scriptures for his people.