THE theologian John Milbank once wrote a fascinating article
with the title: "Can a gift be given?" The implication was that,
strictly, no gift is free. There is always an element of
investment, a bid for relationship, or an exchange expected or
assumed. A gift, in other words, buys something.
Even God's gift of himself in Christ is not free: it is
redemptive - literally intended to "buy" us back. (A God who simply
gave himself away without hope of response would be suicidal.)
This observation has something to say to the confusion that
sometimes arises over the ministry of ordained self-supporting, or
non-stipendiary, ministers (SSMs). There is no doubt that are areas
of the country where SSMs keep the Church going. There are already
many self-supporting rural deans, and there are calls for
self-supporting archdeacons and bishops.
While, however, SSMs might reasonably assume that they are equal
to those with stipends, they do not always feel equal. The rudest
priest I ever met was a woman SSM who attacked me as a theological
educator for not driving into the heads of ordinands that SSMs were
a force to be reckoned with. She wasa high-powered civil servant,
and could not understand why she was not accorded the authority in
the Church which she had at work.
The problem is that nobody has addressed the meaning of the gift
that SSMs are offering to the Church. If Professor Milbank is
right, no gift is truly given: there is always a bid for
relationship. SSMs do not always realise that their freedom to
offer themselves "for free" can cause unspoken resentment. A priest
with a stipend depends on the Church for his or her living, but an
SSM has no such dependency.
The horrible suspicion, which can never quite be addressed, is
that, having acquired a ministry without sharing the material
dependency of other priests, SSMs now seek to exercise the power of
patronage. So, when SSMs get touchy about how much they are allowed
to do, or what the prospects might be for a more senior
appointment, they may unknowingly suggest to others that they have
a sense of entitlement; that they think that the gift should buy
favours. So they are kept in their place, and they know it.
On the other hand, it becomes easy for stipendiary priests to
see themselves as the professionals, and SSMs as mere amateurs.
This problem may not be insoluble, but the meaning of the gift is
something that needs to be addressed on both sides.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church,
Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the
diocese of Oxford.