From the Diocese of Portsmouth
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It's an important role in our diocese – and the way we train people for it is about to change. Our diocese has 88 Readers, or licensed lay ministers, as well as 39 others who have permission to officiate. They are not clergy but are licensed by the bishop to lead worship, take funerals, preach and offer pastoral support to worshippers.
They aren’t paid and are often employed in a secular job too. Most of them have had three years of theological training to prepare themselves for this voluntary role. But that training has in recent years been fairly academic, and has sometimes left trainee Readers struggling to juggle their studies with work, church and family commitments.
Our diocesan leadership has recognised those problems and suspects that some candidates may have been put off following God’s call because of the nature of the course. Over the past 10 years, the number of those applying to become Readers in our diocese has declined significantly.
Now a new way of training to become a Reader will be on offer – one that combines academic study with more experiential and practical ways of learning. From September 2012, a new ‘Exploring Christianity’ course will be offered. This two-year course will form the basis of Reader training, followed by a third year of formational training that will include placements and practical teaching about ministry in the Church of England.
One advantage will be that people who simply want to know more about the faith can enrol on ‘Exploring Christianity’. If they feel a call to ministry during the course, they could consider becoming a Reader; if not, they can complete the two year course with no expectation they’ll take it further. Another advantage is that it will bring together training on the mainland and training on the island, as all candidates from our diocese will be trained on the same course, though in separate groups.
The Rev David Lindsay, who co-ordinates Reader training in our diocese, said: “To be honest, I hadn’t had very much to do with Readers until coming to this diocese. But I’m learning fast what a great resource they are, and I’m in no doubt about the huge value and importance of their ministry, without which the Church would be greatly impoverished.”
“Over the past decade, we’ve had two ways of training Readers in this diocese. The Winchester course, which used to offer a degree from the university, was available for mainland candidates, while those on the Isle of Wight followed a separate course alongside trainee Methodist local preachers.
“The Winchester course specified 10 hours a week, plus a weekly tutorial, which is a lot to ask. The demand for reading and writing essays was as heavy as for those being trained for ordination.
"The anecdotal evidence seems to be that people may have been deterred because of the nature of the course. Certainly the numbers coming forward are down. And many of those who are on the course have often found themselves working more than the 10 hours a week specified.
Some people have had to sacrifice time with their families, and this has to be cause for regret.”
“The ‘Exploring Christianity’ course was developed by the Bath and Wells diocese with Trinity College, Bristol. It’s now also being used by Bristol diocese. It’s a stimulating and attractive course, designed for those who are beginning to be theologically literate, but rather less daunting in its time requirement.”
The importance of Readers’ ministry and a forthcoming change in the training regime was signalled by Bishop Christopher when he led this year’s annual Readers’ Conference. It happened on the Isle of Wight at the end of January.
‘Exploring Christianity’ is split into six modules – one for each term of the two years. The first year includes Spirituality and Prayer; then the New Testament; and finally Questions of Faith, which looks at doctrine from the point of view of difficult contemporary issues.
The second year starts with Reshaping the Church, which includes Church history and new models of the Church. Then there is Old Testament theology and finally Challenging Choices, which looks at important ethical issues. Each module is taught by a specialist tutor from a study guide. Students have a choice of three ways of responding to each module –
by an academic, experiential, or reflective assignment, depending on the best way for each student to learn.
“Although it’s usual practice to begin theological study with the Old Testament, there’s a good case for studying it later,” said David. “To look at the Old Testament in the light of what you already know of the New Testament and Christian belief should make for a richer learning experience.
“People who aren’t training to be Readers are also welcome to do just one or two modules in
areas they are most interested in.” The two-year course will run separately on the Isle of Wight, with separate tutors, but the basis of the course will be the same.
The third year will help to prepare students for the practicalities of preaching, taking funerals, learning about listening skills and working in parishes. It takes place on 12 Saturdays during the year, including a couple of residential weekends.
Anyone interested in Reader training, or in enrolling for the course without committing themselves to becoming a Reader, should contact Canon David Isaac, Warden of Readers, on 023-9289
9654 or email@example.com.