Raymond Wheeler looks back on 35 years as a Licensed Reader and writes about his time as he says farewell and retires as Southwark Diocesan Warden of Readers.

I can hardly believe that this October I will have been licensed as a Reader for 35 years! On looking back I wonder where those years have gone. I was originally licensed to St Stephen’s, Norbury and Thornton Heath. I came to my present church, St George’s Church in Shirley, in 2004. For a few years I was Registrar of Readers appointed by Bishop Tom Butler. In early 2019 I was appointed by Bishop Christopher to the role of Warden of Readers. Having completed four and half years as Warden it is time for me to stand down. As I look back over my years as a Reader and as Warden much has changed.

One of my favourite Psalms is Psalm 96 with its first line “O sing unto the Lord a new song”. I have a recording of this Psalm set to the chant by Charles Stanford. Words and music coalesce together in Stanford’s rendering of the Psalm. As I retire as Warden what will my new song be? Well, more time with the family and my own church (we are in a vacancy now) will have me back free from Diocesan commitments!  Having said that I will still be teaching on the Bishop’s Certificate in Discipleship course and still representing my Deanery on Diocesan Synod for a short while at least!

On looking back over my time as Warden I can see it was a time of transition. The Lay Leadership and Lay Ministry Advisory Group set up by the Diocese in response to General Synod’s report ‘Setting God’s People Free’ made many recommendations. As a consequence, the Southwark Diocesan Association of Readers was wound up at the end of 2019 and Reader Ministry incorporated into new structures as the Diocese began to place greater emphasis on Lay Ministry, bringing in diverse forms of Lay Ministry and setting up the Lay Council.

Then a few months later in 2020, the country plunged into lockdown due to the COVID pandemic.  Owing to the consequent issues surrounding the closure of places of worship we discovered the wonderful software called Zoom on which we came to rely. Many Readers took up the challenge of bringing worship online through daily or weekly blogs or recording sermons. My thanks to the Readers in Southwark as they re-imagined their ministry in so many different ways.

Vocations to Reader Ministry continue to thrive. Training takes place through St Augustine’s College which is situated in West Malling in Kent although most classes take place at Trinity House. In 2020 nine Readers were licensed and in 2022 a further ten Readers were also licensed. The licensing service at Southwark Cathedral in 2022 was the first joint licensing and commissioning with both Readers and SPAs. This was an occasion of great rejoicing with our lay minsters coming together for the first time. The Licensing and Commissioning Service at Southwark Cathedral on 8 October this year will include Readers, and SPAs and also Lay Pioneers, a Children and Young Peoples’ Minister and Church Army Ministers. It will be a real celebration of Lay Ministry within our Diocese.

I will be saying my farewell at the Service so I hope many of you will be able to come along.

It has been a privilege to serve the Diocese as Warden, a role I have enjoyed immensely. It has been a real joy to visit Readers in their places of ministry or meeting them at our annual Area gatherings and being there to support their pastoral needs. It’s always a joy to be invited to preach at churches where they are celebrating the faithful ministry of a Reader who is now retiring. In addition, I have met so many people involved in the Diocesan structures. I’ve also had the chance to join in with national Reader gatherings. Last year, 2022, Diocesan Wardens were invited to Bishopthorpe by the Archbishop of York, the Rt Revd Dr Stephen Cottrell, for afternoon tea and a tour of his home.

I offer my thanks to God for the last few years as I continue to “sing unto the Lord” wherever the “new song” will be.

I know you will support my successor, Clare Dowding. Clare is a Reader at Blackheath, All Saints. Please pray for her as she prepares to take up her new role in November. I haven’t asked Clare what her favourite Psalm is, but I know Clare will be able to “Sing unto the Lord a new song” as she takes up the mantle of Warden of Readers.