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Self-supporting (non-stipendiary) ministry: clarifying the nature of the ‘gift’

27 June 2014


From the Revd Carol Wardman
Sir, - The idea that no gift is freely given, with no element of transaction whatsoever, certainly offers an interesting and controversial - if slightly depressing - spin on voluntary giving of any kind, from birthday presents to volunteering. But to link this notion to the suggestion that self-supporting ministers must be in it for the status, or the right to excercise power, is borderline outrageous (Canon Angela Tilby, Comment, 20 June).

SSMs, like any other volunteers you care to think of - befrienders of the elderly, Girl Guide leaders, Samaritans, Special Constables, lifeboat crew, even churchwardens - undoubtedly gain skills, experience, friendship, and enjoyment in return for the donation of their time and talents. But surely the prime motivation must be a sense of vocation and service - or else why would anyone bother to expend the effort?

Where does the idea come from that giving up one's spare time voluntarily is somehow less committed than being "materially dependent on the institution"? Does this imply that taking on an unpaid ministry that demands a rigorous selection process, a substantial period of training, and then working for nothing, is less serious, virtuous, or sacrificial than opting for a paid appointment in the same field?

SSMs who remain in secular work give up evenings, weekends, and annual leave (on top of the day-job) to accommodate the demands of ministry. In this demandingly mobile age, giving up several years to ministerial training can preclude relocating in search of promotion, or prevent higher levels of training in the secular career; so the sacrifice isn't just about the obvious. (I know paid clergy sacrifice things, too; the point is, we shouldn't make comparisons.)

Some SSMs even feel called to create links between ordained ministry and an equally strong calling to their secular work. It is frustrating when valuable expertise from the day-job is disregarded in the church context; and it is simply wasteful when, in the tricky business of working out how to appeal to busy people trying to live out their faith amid the stresses and ambiguities of commuting, paying the mortgage, facing redundancy, and dealing with - or being - the boss, the daily lived experience of SSMs is rarely called upon.

But to suggest that if SSMs want to do more than fill in on Sundays they are motivated by a desire for "the power of patronage" and "a sense of entitlement" is as insulting and absurd as saying that paid clergy are only in it for the money.

After being an SSM for some 17 years, I admit that I am now in a paid, though non-parish, job with the church - which I couldn't do without my secular and NSM experience. I don't think I am the first to remark that we all have gifts and callings for the building up of the Church and the Kingdom of God. Let's not throw anyone's gifts back in his or her face.

Bishops' Adviser for Church and
Society, Church in Wales
39 Cathedral Road
Cardiff CF11 7EX

From the Revd Dr Teresa Morgan
Sir, - In her recent article on SSMs, Canon Angela Tilby cites an essay by Professor John Milbank, which, on closer inspection, in itself admirably answers her concerns.

Professor Milbank's argument is that a gift is not a gift until it is received and responded to. Whether human or divine - and his ultimate example is the incarnation - a gift "requires" (as he powerfully expresses it) a response. "This is the one given condition of the gift," he concludes, "that we love because God first loved us" (Modern Theology 11.1 (1995)).

I have met and corresponded with many SSMs who passionately wished that their gift of ministry could be used more fully by the Church. None of them, in Canon Tilby's phrase, was trying to "buy favours". Rather, they were expressing the profound truth, both anthropological and theological, that their gift could not truly become a gift until it had been accepted and responded to for what it was.

The appeal by SSMs that the Church should make better use of the gifts that, as charismata from God, they seek to give back to God is nothing to do with promotion, power, patronage, or any of the other things that worry Canon Tilby. It expresses the longing to respond to God's gift to the world by giving oneself, and, by having that gift accepted, to enable others, including the Church, to give in turn.

Oriel College
Oxford OX1 4EW

From the Revd Hugh Lee
Sir, - In her column on SSMs, Canon Angela Tilby says that "nobody has addressed the meaning of the gift that SSMs are offering to the Church." This question has been extensively explored in numerous articles, books, and CHRISM conferences ever since the first SSMs were ordained from the Southwark Ordination Course more than 50 years ago, and even before that, when some of the clergy left stipendiary ministry to become worker-priests.

Former Moderator of CHRISM;
Assistant Bishop's Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry with special responsibility for MSEs
64 Observatory Street
Oxford OX2 6EP

From Canon John Edwards
Sir, - The nub of the argument of Canon Angela Tilby's column about SSMs seems to be that, because they offer their ministry to the Church without financial recompense, "they have a sense of entitlement . . . so they are kept in their place, and they know it."

I have been lucky enough to represent SSMs in part of the diocese of Oxford for many years. I recognise some of the tension Canon Tilby describes between SSMs and stipendiaries, but only for a minority. In this diocese, where SSMs account for a substantial proportion of all ordained ministers, most SSMs are highly regarded by the stipendiary colleagues with whom they work, and vice versa. By and large, these SSMs have rewarding ministries and feel privileged to exercise their vocation within the Church.

In my view, such issues as there are about SSMs relate much more to the Church as an organisation than to local working arrangements. The position was recently described perceptively by a senior bishop as "institutional blindness". The effect of this blindness is manifold - from statements that even now see stipendiary ministry as normative, to new training requirements for curates introduced without regard for the disproportionate practical impact on SSMs; and from inflexibility over licensing arrangements for ministers in secular employment, to lacklustre central support, encouragement, and promotion of self-supporting ministry.

Against this background, the high-powered civil servant of Canon Tilby's column seems to me to be displaying not a sense of entitlement in search of a reward, but simply frustration that the Church finds it so hard satisfactorily to channel all the gifts that she brings with her to ordained ministry. She is not alone in that. My hope is for a Church imaginative enough to overcome its inertia and backward-looking prejudices about SSMs, and to recognise the full potential of the capabilities available from them.

SSM Officer for Berkshire archdeaconry, diocese of Oxford
Green Hedges, 25 St John's Street
Crowthorne, Berkshire RG45 7NJ

From the Revd Dr Margaret Wilkinson
Sir, - Canon Angela Tilby is correct in saying that SSMs would benefit from understanding the gift relationship better, but that is so for every member of the clergy and the laity alike. This better understanding would not of itself clear up the confusion that so often occurs about self-supporting ministry.

For that to happen, there needs to be a recognition that the call is to the priesthood first. Questions about whether the call is to stipendiary or self-supporting ministry are secondary, and may change in either direction as an individual's ministry develops.

For me, the call has always been to a self-supporting ministry, but I have many friends and colleagues who have moved from self-supporting to stipendiary and vice versa.

27 River Grove Park
Beckenham, Kent BR3 1HX

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