by John Nichiporuk
The Orthodox divine service is performed by the priest and deacon in the altar, as well as singers and readers in the choir. Arguably we hear the voices of the readers most frequently in the church. They are assigned the important role of reading aloud the Paremias and the Epistle, the Psalms, the Prokeimenon and other parts of the service. Sometimes even attendance may depend on the clarity and quality of reading. Who are the readers and what role did the church community assign them in ancient times?
The Origin of the Rank
The Reader (Greek: αναγνώστης, Latin lector) is one of the oldest church officials who performs one of the most important functions during the divine service, namely the proclamation of God’s Word at the Liturgy. This rank did not come into being immediately, because in Apostolic times any Christian who was literate (many people, including slaves, could read and write in antiquity) could read sacred texts during a divine service.
Also in pre-Christian times, any adult man could read the Torah, books of the Prophets, and other Holy Scriptures. One of the first mentions of readers who read the holy books during the divine service of the Day of the Lord is in the Apology of Justin Martyr (†165 AD) but it remains unclear from the context of the Apology whether they were specially dedicated readers or ordinary believers performing this ministry. Tertullian also mentions the service of the readers briefly (De praescrip. 41).
However, we find the first clear evidence of a special ecclesiastical rank in the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (†235 AD), which states that
“the reader is commissioned when a bishop hands him a book, but he does not lay his hand on him” (Apostolic Tradition, 11).
Here, for the first time, a distinction is made between the consecration to the higher, sacred ranks, which is called ordination proper, and the consecration to certain ranks of church servants, which was given the name of chirotesy (χειρο-θεσία – “the hand”, from Ancient Greek χείρ – “hand” + Ancient Greek. τίθημι – “put, place, lay”).
However, many ancient church writers did not make a distinction between ordination and chirotesy, applying the latter word to the ordination of bishops as well.
Starting the Career
It took a while for the reader’s ministry to develop into a separate ecclesiastical rank. In certain Christian communities, they might not have been part of the clergy at all, as some of the Holy Fathers clearly write, listing the ranks of clerics. Thus, almost all early Fathers list readers among the members of the clergy, but some lists do not include them. Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea brought to our attention the famous letter of the Holy Pope Cornelius (†253 AD) to Bishop Fabian of Antioch, in which the Bishop of Rome lists all the clerics of the Church of Rome, and readers among them (Eusebius, Church History I.6.43). In a letter to Bishop Himerius (†399 AD), the Holy Pope Siricius describes the typical beginning of the career of a Roman clergyman: a young boy who assisted in worship, let alone sang in the papal choir, was elevated to the rank of reader (Siricius, Papa. Epistola I Ad Himerium Episcopum. 11).
When he reached adolescence, if he stayed in the choir, he was promoted to the rank of senior singer (paraphonistae) and then elevated to the rank of a subdeacon. Over time, the rank of reader acquires a very high and important status in the Church, both in the East and the West.
The High Rank of an Anagnost
The fact that the rank of reader was perceived in the Church as a very high and honorary is evidenced by the words of a Christian poet Commodian from Gaza (early 3rd century), “You are the flowers of the people, you are the lamps of Christ. Remember your dignity and do not forget about your power.” Hieromartyr Cyprian of Carthage (†258 AD) conferred the title of readers upon the confessors of Christ Aurelius and Celerinus as a reward for their steadfastness in faith during the persecution. Many great Fathers of the Church, such as St. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and others began their service in the Church as readers. The high status of readers in the Ancient Church is confirmed by the fact that since they were entrusted with reading the Holy Scriptures and other divine services, they were the keepers of the Holy Scripture copies and liturgical books.
Therefore, during Diocletian’s cruel persecution at the beginning of the 4th century, the pagan authorities specifically targeted readers as custodians of the main doctrinal books of the Christians. Facts such as the participation of some readers (although this was not a common practice) in Church councils have been preserved, as exemplified by the 314 Council of Arles, the acts of which were signed by two readers in addition to the bishops. All this shows that anagnosts (readers) still maintained a high status in some Churches at the beginning of the 4th century.
One might ask: why were readers, who were just lower clerics and not members of the sacred hierarchy which starts with the deacon, so highly respected in the early period of Christianity? The truth is that in the early period of church history, readers were entrusted with the task of not only reading passages from the Old Testament, Psalms, Epistles, hymns and other chants, but even reading the Gospel. In so doing, the reader was not only entrusted with merely reading the passages, but also with interpreting what he had read, giving sermons and speaking publicly. This practice is recorded in Rule 8 of the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua (5th century), which states that the bishop must inform the flock about the behavior, abilities, and right faith of the appointee. While handing over the sacred book to the initiate, the bishop pronounced,
“Take it, carry out the privilege of reading the Word of God, and be assured that in fulfilling your office with dedication and goodwill you will join the messengers of the Word of God.”
It was the reader who was assigned the role of the evangelist and preacher in the Church conscience.
The ministry of the readers as messengers of the Word in the early Church was so great that the Church decided to develop a special liturgical rite, through which the grace of the Holy Spirit would be bestowed upon those who were entrusted with that ministry. The ancient principle Lex orandi est lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of faith) suggests that the content of our faith is revealed through the way we pray and the sacred actions we perform. This article will talk about the rite of appointment of the reader, which best reveals the content of this ministry.
The oldest reference to the appointment of a reader as a special act of a bishop is noted in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, which stresses that the appointment of a reader is significantly different from the ordination of the higher clergy, because the reader is elevated to his rank not through the laying on of hands, but through the handing down of the Bible. This ancient rite of giving a minister a liturgical object that is directly related to his church ministry was widely developed in church practice in both the East and West. Thus, the four ranks of church ministers that existed in the West as early as the first millennium, namely ostiarius (Lat. ostium – door), reader (lector), exorcist and acolyte, were elevated to their ranks by the bishop’s blessing, by prayer and by the conferment of objects relevant to their ministry. An ostiarius (in the East they were called porters) received the keys to the church, a reader got the Lectionary, an exorcist (in the East the baptismal exorcism was performed by priests) was handed a book with spells, and an acolyte received liturgical vessels and a special bag for carrying the consecrated Gifts.
Over time, a special template of this ritual began to take shape. It was already present in the Apostolic Constitutions. That book contains the bishop’s prayer during the consecration,
“O eternal God, who is rich in mercy and bounty, who made the creation of the world clear through Thy works, and who keeps the circle of Thy chosen ones: Look at Thy servant now, for he is entrusted to read Thy holy writings to the people, and give him the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of prophecy. You made Ezra, Thy servant, wise enough to read Thy laws to Thy people, and now, as we call upon Thee, make Thy servant wise, and grant him that he may be worthy of receiving a higher rank for the work he is entrusted with.”
Apparently, back then the bishop asked God for the gift of the Spirit of prophecy to the reader, which indicates the charismatic nature of the reader’s ministry. The end of prayer implies the spiritual growth of the appointee and the dedication of all his life to God, as well as his possible future elevation to higher ecclesiastical ranks, which is why there was a special litany for the appointee, so that he could carry out his obedience properly.
The Rite of Chirotesy
The modern rank of chirotesy consists of two parts, the first of which was previously part of the initiation rank of the candlestick bearers and that of the special position under the Patriarch (depote), abolished in the 15th century. The depotes cleared the way for the Patriarch during the religious processions, and like candlestick bearers they also carried the lamps before the Gospel and the Gifts. It is customary to perform the consecration either before the Liturgy after the vesting of the bishop, or after a service. The appointee bows towards the altar, and then is led to the bishop and bows to him, and the latter blesses him with a sign of the cross three times, laying his hand on the head of the candidate. Then comes the first prayer “Thou who hast enlightened the whole creature with light”, which makes the layman a candlestick bearer. After the prayer, they read troparia to the saints who composed the Liturgy, and then the bishop cuts his hair crosswise and calls upon the Name of the Most Holy Trinity. Rule 33 of the Quinisext Council (691 AD) prohibits the performance of this rite if there has not been a cutting of hair as a symbol of full commitment to the service of the Church. Prior to the 17th century, after the cutting of hair, senior clerics cut off a tonsure, that is, a visible mark of belonging to the clergy.
After that, the candidate is dressed in a short (or small) phelonion (“the first sacred vestment of a clergyman” according to St. Symeon of Thessalonica), the bishop again blesses the candlestick bearer and reads the main prayer of appointment of a reader Lord God Almighty in which he asks God for sanctification and wisdom in reading and teaching of Holy Scripture. Then, following an ancient tradition, the reader receives the Epistle and he must read a short passage, that is, he must immediately begin to perform his duties. After taking off the small phelonion, the reader is given a sticharion, which is the first sacred garment of a clergyman. After a short instruction from the bishop, the appointee is proclaimed the reader of the church.
It used to be the duty of the reader to read not only the Epistle, the Paremias and other divine service texts, but even the Gospel, but over time the latter became deacons’ responsibility. Readers must come to the church earlier than anyone else (as stipulated by the Rules of the Holy Apostles), be able to read the holy texts loudly and clearly so that everyone can hear and understand them, and be able to draft the service. Readers can serve in the sanctuary, sing in the choir, and do catechism.
Historically, readers used to translate Scripture into local languages and were scribes for their bishops. They were entrusted with keeping the sacred books, so they also managed church archives. Bearing all this in mind, a reader should be respectful of his ministry and honor it very highly, and improve his knowledge of the Scriptures, because according to the early church writer Ambrosiaster,
“readers can be considered shepherds because they feed the people who listen to them.”
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