There is an unfortunate dearth of guidance available to the lower ranks of clergy in the Orthodox Church — namely, readers and subdeacons. Toward the aim of remedying this problem, we offer here the work of a seminary graduate and ordained reader summarizing the historical basis and canonical responsibilities of the office of Reader. This article first appeared in Russian in Православный Путь for 2005 and was subsequently featured in Orthodox Life Vol. 62.1.
By Reader Vitaly Efimenkov
As a Reader of the Orthodox Church, I have always been interested in how to fulfill my service to the Holy Church better and more correctly. From the moment I was appointed to this degree of the priesthood I have not often found literature dedicated to this aspect of service to the Church. Every time I encountered an article or note about this theme I made a photocopy for myself and kept it. In this way I began to collect a certain amount of information, and the thought was born to write an essay on this theme, which I present here. In this work the following aspects connected with the rank of Reader in the Orthodox Church are presented:
- Emergence and history of development;
- Ecclesiastical canons relating to the responsibilities of Readers;
- Readers in the Russian Church;
- The rite of consecrating Readers;
- The responsibilities of Readers as bearers of the first degree of the priesthood.
I. Emergence and History of the Development of the Institution of Readers
Reading in church has always been an integral part of the divine services of the Church of God. In the Old Testament, Holy Scripture was sometimes read before the sacred ecclesiastical “doors,” standing on an “ambo.” It is known that the high priest Ezra performed reading in the temple; in the second book of Ezra he is directly called a high priest and reader1 The Acts of the Holy Apostles witness to reading in the Jewish synagogues in apostolic times.
In the New Testament the Lord Jesus Christ Himself consecrated reading in the temple when He went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read (Lk. 4:16). In the early centuries of the Christian Church all members of the Church could read in church. Later this service was restricted to those especially adept at reading: namely, consecrated Readers.
According to Roman Catholic and Protestant historians, the rank of Reader is derived from the rank of deacon and arose with the aim of alleviating the great burden of the latter. Orthodox historians and theologians, however (including Professor A. Lebedev), align Readers with ancient charismatic teachers, prophets, and didaskaloi, who still existed in apostolic times.2 Witness to this is the prayer for the appointment of a Reader found in the Apostolic Institutions (IV c.), in which “the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of prophesy”3 is invoked on him, which was done in relation to the New Testament charismatic prophet. In another place of the appointment, where the distribution of the collection among the clergy is discussed, it is said: “if there is a Reader, let him receive one share, in honor of the prophets”. 4
The first written mention of Readers as such is from the middle of the second century. The celebrated Apology of Justin, in describing the Divine Liturgy, proclaims: “when the Reader concludes the reading of the apostolic or prophetic writings, then the president speaks to the assembly”.5 The historical monument of the second century called the Canones ecclesiastici does not number Readers among the ecclesiastical clergy; however, it places them above deacons in importance. According to this document, an anagnostis (Reader) can also read the Gospel in church; moreover, he has the right to interpret it, for which reason he is called an “evangelist,” that is, a preacher. High moral standards are here established for candidates for the office of Reader. Tertullian (II-III c.) also writes of Readers, not counting them among the ecclesiastical clergy. St Cyprian of Carthage (middle III c.) speaks of lectors6 who had the right to read Holy Scripture in ecclesiastical gatherings. Yet, they were not considered clergy, but only close to the clergy. And yet from subsequent letters of St Cyprian it becomes clear that even in his times Readers began to be numbered among the clergy and to command great respect, inasmuch as they occupied an elevated place (the ambo) and “in front of the whole people read the Commandments and Gospel of the Lord.” From the letters of the saint it is clear that he regarded Readers as candidates for the priesthood.
But the words of the fourth-century prayer...clearly testify that the gift of the Holy Spirit was invoked upon Readers and, in particular, the gift of prophesy. This yet again reminds us of how elevated and important the service of Reader was in the early Church.
Surveying the function of Readers in the early Church, we see that they were allowed to read not only Old Testament and Apostolic books during divine services, but also the Gospel. Here it should also be noted that in the period of early Christianity not many people were literate and able to read; moreover, it was difficult to learn to read Holy Scripture, the manuscripts of which contained no punctuation or spaces between words. Through their ability to read, Readers helped illiterate charismatic teachers and even bishops, some of whom were also illiterate. Moreover, as was noted above, Readers also had the right to interpret Holy Scripture publicly. This came as a result of the fact that there were no more charismatic teachers, but teaching the people remained an inseparable part of ecclesiastical gatherings. In this way the elevation of the Reader to the level of ecclesiastical preacher took place and there came about an epoch which Professor A. Lebedev calls “the golden age in the life of the institution of Readers,” which lasted roughly from the middle of the second century to the middle of the third century. As evidence of the ecclesiastical-homiletic activity of Readers, history offers us a Christian sermon from the beginning of the second century written, in all likelihood – and according to the evidence of the author himself – by a Reader of the early Church. This sermon, long known under the name of the Second Epistle of Pope Clement, is the most ancient recorded Christian sermon. Although it is not possible to say precisely that Readers of all Churches performed such a great ministry, the Canones ecclesiastici specifically require that a Reader “have the ability to instruct.”
Such an elevated status of Readers in the Church did not last long. Toward the middle of the third century, the authority to preach began to transfer from them to bishops and presbyters. From that time, the responsibilities of Readers shifted towards mechanical reading, without entrusting them with any lofty functions (although there is evidence in Epiphanius that in the fourth century Readers were named to the responsibility of secretaries). Gradually Readers were reduced to the lowest order of clergy (and in the Roman Church were numbered in the same group as porters and exorcists) and made subservient to deacons. As a result of this subservience, Readers gradually became ministers of the altar and began in part to fulfill the functions of subdeacons and sacristans: they lit and bore candles, gave priests prosphora and hot water, and kept items belonging to the church in order – and for this reason they later received the name “taper-bearers.” On the other hand, they began to fulfill duties on the kliros (choir), about which St Symeon of Thessaloniki (XIV-XV c.) writes: “Consecrated as a Reader… he leads services and oversees the chanting of divine hymns; that is, he acts as canonarch.” From this came the confluence of Reader with the rank of chanter.
II. Ecclesiastical Canons Relating to the Responsibilities of Readers
In order to study the further development of the responsibilities of Readers in the Orthodox Church, let us turn to the ecclesiastical canons and the decisions of the Councils and Holy Fathers relating to them. The most important of these decisions are placed in chronological order below:
Canones ecclesiastici: “… before the consecration of a Reader, one must carefully learn whether he is a prattler, or a drunkard, or inclined to be facetious, and in general whether he be of good morals” (II c.).
Apostolic Canon 26: “As to bachelors who have entered the clergy, we allow only Readers and chanters to marry, if they wish to do so.”
Apostolic Canon 43: “Let any subdeacon, or Reader, or chanter, who does such things [i.e., who is given to gambling or drunkenness] either desist or be excommunicated.”
But perhaps the first thing that a Reader in the Orthodox Church should remember is his voluntary dedication to the service of God
Apostolic Canon 69: “If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or subdeacon, or Reader, or chanter fails to fast throughout the forty days of Holy Lent, or on Wednesday, or on Friday, let him be deposed from office” (I‑IV c.).
St Basil the Great, Canon 69: “As for a Reader, if he has had anything to do with his betrothed before the wedding, after being suspended from duty for one year he shall be permitted to read, though he shall forfeit his right to be advanced to any higher status; but if he has stolen his wife without first betrothing her, i.e., by marrying her clandestinely, he shall be dismissed from the ecclesiastical service. The same treatment shall be given to any other servant of the Church.”
Canon 16 (20) of Carthage:7 “It has pleased the Council to decree that care should be taken to see that Readers, upon arriving at the age of puberty, either take a wife or choose to vow celibacy and continence.”
Canon 16 (23) of Carthage:8 “It has pleased the Council to decree that Readers must not bow down in adoration or pay obeisance to the people.”
Canon 90 (101) of Carthage:9 “It has pleased the Council to decree that if anyone has acted even once as a Reader in church he shall not be accepted as a candidate for the clergy in any other church” (419).
Canon 14 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council: “Inasmuch as Readers and chanters in some provinces have been permitted to marry, the holy Council has made it a rule that none of them shall be allowed to take a wife that is of a different faith” (451).
Canon 4 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council: “If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or subdeacon, or Reader, or chanter, or porter, has carnal intercourse with any woman that has been consecrated to God, let him be deposed from office, on the ground that he has contributed to the delinquency of a bride of God” (680 A.D.).
Canon 14 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “It is perfectly plain to everybody that order reigns in the Church, and that it is pleasing to God for the transactions of the priesthood to be maintained with rigorousness. Since, then, we behold some persons receiving the tonsure of the clergy from infancy and without imposition of hands, and reading from the ambo at the synaxis, but doing so in an non-canonical fashion, we forbid the doing of this from now on. The same rule is to be observed also with reference to monks. As for the appointment of a Reader by imposition of hands, each abbot is given permission to do this but only in his own monastery, provided that imposition of hands has been laid upon that very same abbot by a bishop to enable him to have the presidency of an abbot – that is to say, more plainly speaking, if he is a presbyter. Likewise also in accordance with the ancient custom, auxiliary bishops may only with the permission of the bishop appoint Readers (with imposition of hands)” (787 A.D.).
III. Readers in the Russian Church
Concerning Readers in the Russian Church, it is known that from ancient times they were called “d’iaki” (abbreviated as “d’iachok”). These were servants of the Church who fulfilled responsibilities corresponding to those of Greek Readers and chanters. The word “d’iak” derived from the Greek word “diakonos.” This came about from the fact that the diaconal vestment (stikharion) does not differ from the vestments of Readers and chanters. For this reason all three were called “diakami”; incidentally, in order to differentiate these from authentic deacons, the latter were called “urarnyi.”10
In Rus’, d’iaki – who, due to their ecclesiastical duties, were required to be literate – were also required to be parish clerks, which made them important people and, to a certain extent, influential. Later, in the period of Imperial Russia, they, as servants of the Church, enjoyed the rights of honored citizens. For many years d’iaki in Rus’ were not only ecclesiastical clergy but were also in some sense secular clerics, although this was forbidden by ecclesiastical rules.11
The age for consecration as a Reader was assumed to be eighteen, inasmuch as this was decreed by Greek civil law (Justinian, law 123). In actual fact, they were consecrated much earlier – “as soon as they were in a condition to read and chant” (E. Golubinsky). 12
IV. The Rite of Consecrating a Reader
As was indicated above, originally Readers were not ecclesiastical clerics. But already in the middle of the third century St Cyprian of Carthage writes of their reception into the clergy of the Church of Carthage. The rite of consecrating a Reader is already mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions (IV c.). The following is indicated for the bishop:
Ordain a reader by laying thy hands upon him, and pray unto God, and say: “O Eternal God, Who art plenteous in mercy and compassions, Who hast made manifest the constitution of the world by Thy operations therein, and keepest the number of Thine elect, do Thou also now look down upon Thy servant, who is to be entrusted to read Thy Holy Scriptures to Thy people, and give him Thy Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit. Thou Who didst instruct Edras Thy servant to read Thy laws to the people, do Thou now also at our prayers instruct Thy servant, and grant that he may without blame perfect the work committed to him, and thereby be declared worthy of an higher degree, through Christ, with Whom glory and worship be to Thee and the Holy Spirit for ever. Amen”. 13
Above the hierarch is indicated to lay his hand upon the Reader, from which the rite takes its name: heirotesia (cheires – hands, theteo, laying on), that is, the laying on of hands or appointment. Concerning this consecration of Readers it is common to say that it differs from the appointment to higher steps of the hierarchy (heirotonia) in that the former lacks the pronouncement of “mystical words invoking the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Archpriest K. Nikol’sky). And so it is in our times. But the words of the fourth-century prayer cited above clearly testify that the gift of the Holy Spirit was invoked upon Readers and, in particular, the gift of prophesy. This yet again reminds us of how elevated and important the service of Reader was in the early Church.
In Canon 8 of the Council of Carthage14 we read: “Before the consecration of a Reader, the bishop must make known to the people concerning his behavior, capabilities, and fidelity. Thereafter the bishop, in front of the people, gives the candidate the sacred book to read, pronouncing: ‘Take it, having the calling to read the word of God, knowing that for the fulfillment of thy responsibility with zeal and profit thou wilt have a portion with those who proclaim the Word of God” (c. 398).
In our time, according to a rite of long standing, the heirotesia of a Reader takes place outside the altar, in the middle of the church, and not necessarily during the Divine Liturgy; St Symeon of Thessaloniki (XIV-XV c.) testifies to this. In the Hierarchal Service Book (Chinovnik) of the Russian Church, the heirotesia is called “The Rite for Appointing a Reader or Chanter.” This is how it proceeds:
1. “He that is to be made a taper-bearer” is led by two subdeacons to the hierarch in the middle of the church. He makes three prostrations to the Lord God and then three prostrations to the hierarch, after which the latter makes the Sign of the Cross three times over the candidate’s head.
2. Laying his hand on the head of the candidate for Reader, the hierarch pronounces the first prayer, in which he asks of the Lord: “… Do Thou Thyself adorn with Thy spotless and undefiled robes Thy servant, N., who desires to become a taper-bearer before Thy Holy Mysteries, that, being enlightened and meeting Thee in the age to come, he may obtain an incorruptible crown of life, rejoicing with Thine elect in everlasting blessedness.”
3. Next the troparia to the apostles, then to the holy hierarch who compiled the Liturgy, and then to the Theotokos are read.
4. Then the hierarch tonsures the head of the candidate in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, placing the short phelonion on him – the symbol of the beginning of the priesthood – and again making the Sign of the Cross three times on his head.
5. Then he again places his hand on him, pronouncing the second prayer: “O Lord God Almighty, elect this Thy servant, and sanctify him; and grant unto him, with all wisdom and understanding, to practice the study and reading of Thy divine words, preserving him in a blameless course of life.”
6. After this prayer, the bishop opens the Book of Epistles over the head of the Reader and gives it to him to read, facing the east (as a sign that the primary calling of the one being tonsured is precisely reading Holy Scripture). Having read a portion of the Book of Epistles, he turns and bows three times to the hierarch, and the subdeacons remove the phelonion from him.
7. Blessing the candidate three times, the hierarch blesses a stikharion; the former, having made the Sign of the Cross, kisses the cross on the stikharion and the hand of the bishop.
8. Having been vested in the stikharion, the Reader listens to the following instruction from the hierarch: “Child, the first degree of the priesthood is that of Reader. Therefore it is fitting for you to read every day the Divine Scriptures, that they that hear, beholding you, may receive edification, and that you, in no way putting to shame your election, may prepare yourself for a higher degree. For by living your life temperately, in holiness and uprightness, you shall gain the mercy of God, the Lover of Mankind, and be counted worthy of a higher ministry: in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
9. At the conclusion the hierarch pronounces: “Blessed be the Lord. Behold, the servant of God becomes a Reader of the most-holy church of (N.): In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
As Archpriest K. Nikol’sky writes, “on the day of the consecration of a Reader in the stikharion, the Reader normally receives Communion”.15 He also cites the words of G. Rozanov that the Reader on this day receives Communion in the altar near the Holy Table on the left side – but labels this a local custom without solid foundation. Such a custom could have come to us from the ancient Church, where Readers might have had the right to receive Communion at the Holy Table, inasmuch as they were highly placed clerics and obvious candidates for the priesthood.
V. Responsibilities of Readers as Bearers of the First Degree of the Priesthood
The first degree of the priesthood, upon which the Reader is placed, requires from him the fulfillment of specific responsibilities. These responsibilities are already indicated in the rite of heirotesia itself. The first of these is reading at divine services, which is closely related to reading in church (which is why heriotesia is called “the rite of consecrating a Reader and chanter”). In many Byzantine churches chanters were tonsured as Readers and chanted wearing the stikharion. The second responsibility is bearing candles, inasmuch as those tonsured also become “taper-bearers.” In general, the Reader is a servant of the altar and consequently fulfills the role not only of taper-bearing, but of other responsibilities of the sacristan (as was indicated above, in the testimony of St Symeon of Thessaloniki): giving the priest the prosphora and hot water, preserving the altar items in cleanliness, etc.
Concerning the outward appearance of the Reader, it is essential to respect that which Canon 27 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council proclaims: “Let no one on the clerical list don inappropriate clothing, either when living in the city or when walking the road; but, on the contrary, let him wear costumes that have already been assigned to the use of those who are enrolled in the clergy.” Another canon (Canon 14 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council), which concerns the placement of Readers, is interpreted as follows by Balsamon: “One who dons black clothes with the intention of entering the clergy cannot take off this clothing, for he has expressed the intention of consecrating himself to God.” In the Russian Orthodox Church this black clothing for the Reader is the cassock that, ideally, should be worn “without ceasing.” The spiritual significance of this ceaseless wearing of the cassock is that one who has become a Reader is such not only in church, but outside it as well. As the initial degree of the priesthood, the position of Reader is not a profession that, when needed, can be given up so that one can go into retirement. This is a service to God that man comes to voluntarily, but which he cannot leave, serving responsibly until the end of his days.
Excessively flamboyant attire is also forbidden by the canons. Canon 16 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council says that “every luxury and adornment of the body is alien to the sacerdotal order,” both for bishops and clergy. It likewise assigns a penance to those who use perfumes.
Besides the fulfillment of practical requirements at divine services, the Reader is required to have an “immaculate living place,” lead a “chaste, holy, and righteous” life, study the Holy Scriptures daily and, in general, keep himself in moral purity (as the above-cited prayers at the rite of the consecration of a Reader and chanter indicate), for he is dedicated to God, receiving the first-fruits of the priesthood and gaining access to the altar which, since Old Testament times, does not allow entry of anything defiled. The stikharion itself, given to the Reader at the time of his consecration and worn by him during reading and chanting in church, is a symbol of his purity of soul.
A Reader, like all Orthodox Christians, is not allowed to break the fasts (Apostolic Canon 69), to indulge in “gambling and drunkenness” (Apostolic Canon 43), to attend spectacles (Canon 24 of Trullo), to participate in festivals with pagan rites and in masquerades (Canon 62 of Trullo), to arrange banquets (Canon 55 of Laodicea), or to wash in baths with women (Canon 77 of Trullo).
As an ecclesiastical clergyman, a Reader is not allowed to raise his hand against anyone (Apostolic Canon 27), to visit taverns (Canon 24 of Trullo), to “take a wife that is of different faith” (Canon 14 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council), to hold civil, governmental, or military responsibilities (Apostolic Canon 6, 8; Canon 11 of the First-and-Second Council), to engage in usury (Canon 4 of Laodicea) and trade (Canon 8 of Carthage), to engage in the shedding of blood, even of animal blood (for example, to engage in medicinal practices, surgery, or hunting animals). Readers who commit immorality or practice infidelity, just as those who marry a second time, are deprived of their rank, although not deprived of Communion (Canon 3 of Trullo; Canon 69 of St Basil the Great). If the wife of a clergyman is unfaithful, then he must either divorce her or cease serving (Canon 8 of Neocaesarea).
Such, in short, are the requirements befitting the first degree of the priesthood, the degree of Readers. But perhaps the first thing that a Reader in the Orthodox Church should remember is his voluntary dedication to the service of God (which is expressed in the bowing of the head before the hierarch for the tonsure of hair; one is not again tonsured in such a way in the elevation to higher degrees of the priesthood), which requires from him not a mechanical fulfillment of service and not simply an impeccable life, but appeals to his conscience and moves him to fulfill his high calling with all reverence and fear of God and, most importantly, with love for the Lord.
May the All-Merciful God strengthen in this podvig all who bear the rank of Reader in the Orthodox Church!
Reader Vitaly Efimenkov, a graduate of Holy Trinity Seminary, is the Slavonic Language Choir Director at the Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral in Los Angeles, CA.
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