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SSMs and the nature of gifts

20 June 2014

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.

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