Module 09: The Position of the Reader in Later Church History

  • Lea Wu 

The Position of the Reader (Lector)

The earliest reference to the reader appears in 2 Clement from the late-first or early-to-mid-second century where the position is explicitly mentioned:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, following the God of truth I am reading you an exhortation to pay attention to what is written, in order that you may save both yourselves and your reader.1
The Shepherd of Hermas also seemed to allude to an early church reader when the elderly woman identified as the church read publicly to Hermas.2 By the time of the apostolic fathers, the position of the reader becomes more evident in their writings. With Paul’s command to publicly read the Scriptures, the position of the reader explicitly identified in 2 Clement proves an evolution of the reader from apostolic times. The reader of the Scriptures during the time of the apostles, though not precisely identified, became a fixed position later on as a liturgical practice.
Tertullian criticized the heretics for how they operated in trying to live as the true church. One of their practices was the flexibility among the clergy to come and go in whatever position they chose. The heretics had a revolving-door policy so that they had a different bishop each day, and the deacons would exchange their position with the reader.3 In the church, however, the reader was of the minor order4 of clergy and was open to advancement within the clergy5 as long as they remained unmarried.6 One might describe the reader as an entry-level position in the clergy.
Teaching coincided with the reading of the Scriptures in the early church, and sometimes one person would do both while at other times the reader and teacher were separate functions.7 Readers were to be capable of speaking clearly as well, if they also taught, as clearly interpreting Scripture.8 The separation from reader to the teacher was one step of advancement toward the ministry of the local church. Readers were referred to as “the trumpet of the heralds” 9 which also indicated their more common distinction from instructors.
In church hierarchy, they were identified with Levites as an equivalent, but subservient to, deacons.10 What is likely is that the readers were younger in age due to the strength of their eyesight in contrast to their elderly counterparts whose eyesight had deteriorated. Since there were no glasses to aid the older clergy’s reading, younger readers were likely to have been more prominent than older readers.
Commodianus seemed to hint at their age not only by his exhortation to readers but also by his reference to their being “little ones.”

I warn certain readers only to consider, and to give material to others by an example of life, to avoid strife, and to shun so many quarrels; to repress terror, and never to be proud; moreover, denounce the righteous obedience of wicked men. Make yourselves like toChrist your Master, O little ones. Be among the lilies of the field by your benefits; ye have become blessed when ye bear the edicts; ye are flowers in the congregation; ye areChrist’s lanterns. Keep what ye are, and ye shall be able to tell it.11

Readers were appointed after a bishop examined them to be Orthodox, blameless, and zealous.The bishop would then place a Bible in their hands and say, “Take this, and be a Reader of God’s Word. If thou fillest the office faithfully and usefully, thou shalt take part with those who have ministered the Word of God.”12 The position and function of the early reading in the life of the church proves that, by virtue of the position itself, hearing was preferred to silent reading; though not to the exclusion of silent reading.
A portion of the reading was likely always the Old Testament as indicated by Justin Martyr earlier. The Old Testament continued to be read in worship as is also witnessed in Origen’s writings13 as well as the Apostolic Constitutions.14 Whereas Cyprian noted that readers were trumpeted to the heralds, Origen described the voice of the reader not as a trumpet, but as the voice of Christ:
Therefore, Jesus reads the law to us when he reveals the secret things of the law. For we who are of the catholic church do not reject the law of Moses, but we accept it if Jesus reads it to us. For thus we shall be able to understand the law correctly, if Jesus reads it to us, so that when he reads we may grasp his mind and understanding. 15
By the fourth century, however, the reader was capable of reading everything from the Bible except the Gospels. Reading the Gospels became the duty of the deacons or presbyters.16 Over time, the deacon would absorb the responsibility of the reader, but their position within the life of the church speaks to the place of the scriptures within the church as publicly heard more so than privately read.
Also during this time, Augustine recorded an unusual practice when he observed his mentor, Ambrose.
Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when he came to his room for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence for who would dare interrupt one so intent? we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. Moreover, even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his movie was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.17
Augustine gave several probable reasons for Ambrose’s silent reading. He could investigate a greater quantity of material without interruption had he read aloud in the presence of visitors, he preserved his voice, and he could give greater concentration to what he read. What may have been noteworthy of Ambrose reading silently was that he did this habitually 18 because Augustine also is recorded as having read silently.19
Whenever the duty(ies) of the reader were absorbed by the deacons, and the threefold order of bishop, presbyter, and deacon became the preference in church polity, there was not a silence of the public reading of scripture. However, the one position that resurfaced in the Reformation was the lector. This was due to the scarcity of the clergy in the Church of England during the Reformation because of rivaling doctrines being preached. At various times and in different parishes, the lector was the only cleric occupying and serving in the parishes because they were desolate of priests. Their duties during those times were reading and conducting services, burying the dead, and keeping registers. They were, however, forbidden to preach and minister the sacraments.20
PROMPT chose one of the names or writings mentioned in this module and write a 500word research essay about it.

1 2 Clement 19.1; cf. Ignatius Philippians 15.

2 Herm. 3.3, 4; cf. 24.6.
3 Praescr. 41.
4 Cf. Cyprian Epistles 23; Apostolic Constitutions 2.4.25; 3.1.11.
5 Cyprian Epistles 32.2.
6 Apostolic Constitutions 6.3.17.

7 Cyprian, Ibid., 23.

8 Apostolic Church Order 19.
9 Cyprian, Ibid., 76.
10 Apostolic Constitutions 2.4.25.
11 Commodianus On Christian Discipline 67, in The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (E-sword version).

12 Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs, Lay Work and the Office of Reader (London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1904),24. Cf. Apostolic Constitutions 3.1.11

13 Homilies on Joshua 9.8.
14 2.7.57.
15 Ibid.
16 Apostolic Constitutions 2.7.57; Jerome Epistles 147.6; cf. Confessions 8.12.29.

17 Confessions 6.3.3.

18 Gillard, 694.
19 Confessions 8.12.29.
20 Yeatman-Biggs, 2427.

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