Saturday, July 30, 2011

Subdeacons and Readers: Lay or Nay?

Vocation is a strange beast. Why? For the simple reasons that first, ALL Christians have a vocation by God, and second, ALL human beings are different. There are, therefore, as many vocations as there are human beings, though of course, not all people respond to that call.

Of course, mention the word "vocation" in Christian circles, and the first thought is the white collar around the neck. It seems that the only people who are perceived to have vocations are Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

It has to be remembered that there were roles for the laity: Porters, Lectors, Exorcists and Acolytes - the so called minor orders. On the cusp, sort of sandwiched between the two groups, is the Subdeacon. The Subdiaconate essentially developed from the role of the Acolyte but because of his important role at Mass, the Subdeacon's orders were more and more regarded and reserved for the ordained ministry.

In the CofE, the last ordination of a subdeacon took place, I believe, in the 1940s. As the Anglican and Roman Catholics have both moved away from the traditional High Mass ritual requiring three sacred ministers, the role of Subdeacon has become redundant. This is certainly a sign of a change in the attitude towards the Mass: it was the duty of the Subdeacon to carry the chalice, assist in the preparation of the Altar and to read the Epistle. The fact that it is apparently no longer necessary for someone to require theological and spiritual training in order to fulfil this role shows how regard for the Mass has changed. As the office of the Subdeacon decreased, so did the office of Reader increased.

Now, this may well be to the good. The Subdeacon does not seem to have anything in the way of Biblical support. Acolytes, Lectors, Porters and Exorcists have the roots of their ministry in the Jewish temple. Our Lord Himself acted as Lector when he read that famous passage "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" from Isiaiah and then scandalised the temple when he then declared that it was He Who fulfilled that scripture. We see St Andrew and St Philip acting as Porters when they opens the door for the Greeks to visit Jesus in St John's Gospel (cap. xii), we also see the disciples as exorcists, driving out demons in the Name of Christ. The Acolytes served in the temple. We have the complicated references in the Pauline Epistles to the ministry of Deacons, Presbyters and Overseers (with some interchangeability between the latter two) which develop in character to the ministry of Deacons, Priests and Bishops. The Subdeacon, however, is nowhere to be found and it may be a mark of the Reformation to excise the Subdiaconate in deference to Holy Scripture.

But then, neither is the Reader a scriptural beast.

By "Reader", I mean the office within the Anglican Church. The first Elizabethan Reader was ordained in 7 January 1559 in Bow Church. The CofE describes Readers as:

lay men and women, from a wide diversity of occupations and backgrounds, who recognize a call to serve God and his world through the Church of England. They work in a variety of roles and situations across the Church, being authorised by the Church of England to preach and teach, to conduct or assist in conducting worship, and to assist in the pastoral, evangelistic and liturgical work of the Church in the parish or area where they are licensed.

As well as their formal roles Readers have many informal ways of
ministering by their presence, witness and listening at their places of work, at home, among the neighbours and in their local communities. They are informed lay people living out their faith in their different walks of life.

Readers may:

  • Preach

  • Lead worship, except those services and parts of services specifically excluded by Canon

  • Read the Old or New Testament readings, Epistle or Gospel at any service

  • Lead intercessions

  • Receive and present the offerings of the people

  • Distribute the consecrated bread and wine to the people

  • Take Communion to the sick and housebound

  • Publish banns of marriage in the absence of a priest

  • Undertake pastoral and educational work

  • Assist any minister as the bishop may direct

With permission from the incumbent of the parish, Readers may:

  • Accept occasional invitations to take part in services in a church of another denomination

With permission from the Bishop, Readers may:

  • Officiate at Communion by Extension services

  • Officiate at Funeral services (with the good will of the persons responsible)

  • Accept regular invitations to take part in services in a church of another denomination, with the approval also of the PCC of the parish where the service is to take place.

Readers may NOT:

  • Officiate at the sacrament of baptism, except in an emergency situation when it is lawful for
    any lay person to baptise

  • Officiate at a marriage service

  • Pronounce the Absolution or give a Blessing but should use an authorised alternative form of
Now, perhaps we begin to see here some confusion of roles. Much of what is written here is applicable for the Deacon. Unlike the Subdeacon, the Deacon has a Role that exists outside the Chancel. Again, that perhaps represents a shift in the way we think about the centrality of the Mass to a community. What I mean is that it is the duty of Bishop, Priest and Deacon to extend what happens in the Chancel beyond that Chancel and to bring into the Chancel the concerns of the world without. It is this ability and duty - indeed, this spirit and character (et cum spiritu tuo) - that separates ordained ministry from lay ministry.

All ordained ministers are reminded before ordination that they are laymen before they are clergymen, that they have a lay ministry - a ministry at the coalface between sacred and secular - before an ordained ministry in presenting the people to God and God to the people.

Is then a Reader merely a Deacon with the sacrament lopped off? If so, then why is a Reader permitted to preach which is a sacramental duty within the Mass of the Catechumens? Why also, in some quarters, are Readers referred to as Lay Readers when the very fact that they are Readers mean that that they are members of the Laity and not ordained? After all, one doesn't refer to Lay Deaconesses or Lay Pastoral Assistants or Lay Organists or Lay Acolytes.

In answer to the question of preaching, we must look at Churchmanship. This exercise of the Reader is largely Evangelical in its origins. In CofE Parishes where the Word supersedes the sacrament and Mattins replaces the Mass, the Reader has a unique character of leadership of its own. For the Catholic Parish where the Mass retains its centrality and importance, the preaching is done by one with the charism of Ordination since the Word is inextricably bound with the Holy Sacrament. In the Catholic Tradition, we are taught truly to eat our Words!

The use of the adjective "Lay" has more of a Catholic nuance to it. In the Catholic tradition, Lay Readers do not preach for the reasons outlined above, though they can read the Epistle. Archbishop Parker's Elizabethan injunction required Readers to declare "I shall not preache or interprete, but only read that which is appointed by public authoritie." This meant the Offices of Mattins and Evensong, though the Catholic Parish would have problems with Evensong owing to the blessing of the incense.

These days, most people can read the Offices themselves and so for public recitation in the absence of an Ordained Minister, the Reader acts as a "first" layman which begs the question why there is intensive theological training for someone to learn to read Offices, especially Offices which are on the decline within the CofE. In the Catholic tradition, Readers work outside the Chancel unless they are operating as acolytes.

So here we are. We have two orders of ministry. The Subdeacon, theologically trained, preparing for ordained ministry whose role only exists within the Chancel, and the Lay Reader, theologically trained, able to preach and teach but not necessarily bound for the Altar and whose ministry exists outside the Chancel. In these days, might there be some rediscovery in the Catholic Parish of a Subdiaconate which has its traditional form within the chancel and as Lay Reader outside? This would also resurrect the office of Deaconess too with regard to Reader Training for women which can then be nuanced to tailor to the unique ministry that the Deaconess offers and which is being lost in a relativistic society.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Comments and corrections are always appreciated.


Anonymous said...

The Traditional Catholic orders and societies, Society of S.Pius X, Society of St Peter, Institute of Christ the King, both those recognised as legal by the Holy See and those who are not, ordain subdeacons, and so as a real order it is accepted by the modern RC Church. There is an interesting post by Fr Anthony Cekada,on, I think Quidlibet, about Ordinations of Subdeacons on Holy Saturday.(sorry I haven't the exact deatils of the post). Alan.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, it is on his other blog Doctrina liturgica

edpacht1 said...

While the American Episcoapl Church made no provision for Subdeacons, Continuing Anglicans have both Subdeacons and lay Readers, in which case the "lay" describes a real distinction between two functions.

A Layreader is authorized, by a license that must be renewed, to read certain services or parts thereof. This is primarily intended for the Daily Office, when a clergyman cannot be obtained, but he may also read the Epistle at Mass, and, under certain circumstances, with permission, the Burial Office. A layreader may act as acolyte, but he does not handle the Sacrmanet. While the Epicopal Church has licensed some layreaders as Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Continuing Anglicans do not do so. As for preaching, a layreader is allowed to read authorized sermons or homlies, but NOT to preach sermons of his own composition, "unless licensed thereto by the bishop." When he has such a license, he is preaching under the direction of a priest (whether present or not) and thus, presumably under that priest's charism. Layreaders do not ordinarily require a large degree of theological training, and are not ordained, but do need to be capable of reading the services properly.

The office of Subdeacon has been fairly recently restored in Continuing Churches. This office does require more theological training, and a form or ordination, and does involve more responsibility. Besides all the responsibilities of a layreader, the subdeacon does assist in distributing the Sacraments, and may, if authorized to do so, also administer the Reserved Sacrament, either in a priestless church or, perhaps to the sick. Many of the preistless congregations in Latin America are under the pastoral care of Subdeacons. Subdeacons are often licensed to preach.

In practice, a subdeacon is, among us,usually preparing for Holy Orders

edpacht1 said...

As for vocation. I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as a vocation to the priesthood. There is a vocation to service, given to some degree to every Christian. It may be coupled with a desire to be a priest. This is, in fact, my own state. The call to a specific office in the Church, however, only becomes a real calling when the Church calls one to that office, be it bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, teacher, or whatever. I'll go so far as to say that anyone who insists that he is called to an office, and is dissatisfied that the Church has not called him, probably should not be placed in that office. A perceived call doesn't confer a right. I was never ordained. That was because the bishop, for whatever reason, did not call me to be so. I accept that and continue to serve as best as I can, for that is what I am called to do.