Readers, pastoral guidance and canon law

Under a post entitled Another P.T.O. revoked…, Jeremy Timm, the new National Coordinator at Changing Attitude, announced that his Permission to Officiate (PTO) as a reader in the Howden Team Ministry would be withdrawn “with immediate effect” when in September he and his partner change the status of their relationship from that of civil partnership to marriage. This decision by the Archbishop of York was received with surprise by many since this appears to be the first occasion on which action has been taken against some outside the “three orders of Ministry” outlined in paragraph 27 of the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, (“the Guidance”), published on 14 February 2014. There was an added irony in the news that within the same week, the marriage of a same-sex couple had been blessed in the Dundee Cathedral of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

With regard to the other PTOs and licences that have been revoked or not granted, each has represented a different facet of the Church of England’s relationship with its stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy. As such it is therefore difficult to draw any firm conclusions in some of these “grey areas”, particularly since one of these is subject to judicial proceedings. It is nevertheless possible to outline some of the legislative provisions governing the present considerations; further insights were given in the BBC Sunday programme interviews with Jeremy Timm and with the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, Bishop of Sodor and Man and Chair of the Central Readers’ Council of the Church of England. Bishop Paterson also chaired the group which advised the House of Bishops on the review of its 2005 Pastoral Statement in relation to appointment of clergy in civil partnerships to the episcopate; the HoB issued a statement on 4 January 2013.

House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage

The Guidance was issued in response to the issues raised by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, (“the Act”), and follows on from the statement of the College of Bishops on 27th January, 2014 concerning the issues raised by the Pilling Report. After a consideration of the effect of the Act in its general application to access to the sacraments and pastoral care for people in same sex marriages, [15 to 18], and Acts of worship following civil same sex weddings, [19 to 21], the Guidance addresses clergy and ordinands, [22 to 28]. At paragraph 27 it states:

“[t]he House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry, [i.e. bishops, priests and deacons]. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.”

Section C of the Church’s Canons – Ministers, their ordination, functions and charge, concerns the three orders of ministry in the Pastoral Guidance, whereas Section E – The lay officers of the church, deals with churchwardens and their assistants, lay works, parish clerks and readers. Readers and other lay officers of the church are not addressed in the Pastoral Guidance and are not subject to the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, as amended. [On an historical note, the “lay officers of the church” were not regulated by any of the 1603 Canons, and were only included in the revisions of 1964 and 1969]. Mark Hill’s Ecclesiastical Law suggests,[3.67], that: “[r]eaders fall into a different category from other lay officers, since they are not elected or employed but admitted and licensed by the bishop to perform ministry in the church”. Their ministry role is summarized as:

“Readers are lay people, called by God, trained and licensed by the Church to preach, teach, lead worship and assist in pastoral, evangelistic and liturgical work,”

and, prior to admission as a reader, must make a Declaration of Assent and canonical obedience to the bishop, [Canon E5 §4]. No one admitted to the office of a reader may exercise that office without the permission of the bishop, either through a Licence or Permission to Officiate, [Canon E6 §1]. The revocation of a licence is subject to the procedure in Canon E6 §3, but there is no legal requirement to provide notice to terminate a PTO or an appeal process.

BBC Sunday Programme

The BBC summarized the programme as:

“Jeremy Timm, a Reader in the Church of England, will have his preaching licence revoked by the Archbishop of York after choosing to marry his same-sex partner next month. Kevin Bocquet spoke to him about his decision, and Bishop Robert Paterson, Chair of the Central Readers’ Council, addresses the Church’s management of the issue.

Kevin Bocquet’s interviews probed a number of issues: whether other options were available to the Archbishop in addressing the situation, or whether he was placed in a position where that obliged him to apply the Church’s teaching on the doctrine of marriage; whether other diocese might have (or had indeed) adopted a different approach; and the applicability of the HoB’s 2005 Pastoral Guidance to lay readers as well as ordained clergy. Reference was also made to the House of Bishops’ Statement Issues in Human Sexuality (GS 385, December 1991).

The Bishop of Sodor and Man said that the Church’s management of the issues was underpinned by its doctrine of marriage, which all bishops supported; the role of a reader was as a “proclaimer of the word” and this was therefore a doctrinal matter. When asked whether guidance from House of Bishops was required on the status of readers and their status within Church if they enter same-sex marriage, he replied:

“Yes, most definitely. I have been one of the people that has been campaigning for reader ministry and other forms of lay-accredited public ministry to be sorted out in a whole lot of different directions, not least this issue of discipline in the broadest sense of the term, undoubtedly.”


The non-inclusion of readers in the bishops’ same-sex marriage guidance is a significant lacuna; with “more than 10,000 active readers” within the Church of England, here, there is clearly a need for a clarification of this and other aspects their ministry; however, this may not be straightforward as in his PhD thesis in 2010, Peter Garner noted that “[d]espite this significant numerical place in the ministry of the church, there is a wide variation in the use and distribution of readers across the dioceses of the Church of England”.

Issues in Human Sexuality gave some consideration to imposing requirements of different standards for the clergy and the laity; their grounding in scripture and canon law; the representative and pastoral responsibilities of the clergy; and whether the Church was coherent or consistent in these demands, [[5.11 to 5.24]. Nevertheless, the issue of lay accredited public ministry was not addressed.

However, a clarification of the position of readers, particularly in relation to civil partnerships and same sex marriage, is likely to be complex as it would additionally need to consider the even greyer area of “other forms of lay accredited ministry”.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Readers, pastoral guidance and canon law" in Law & Religion UK, 18 August 2015,

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