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The new normal

08 July 2016

The Church has fewer stipendiary priests than ever, and they are getting older. Canon Alison Adams tells Simon Jones of unfolding possibilities for her as an SSM

One of a few: Canon Alison Adams, an SSM and Sub-Dean of Leicester Cathedral, became the cathedral’s Canon Pastor in February

One of a few: Canon Alison Adams, an SSM and Sub-Dean of Leicester Cathedral, became the cathedral’s Canon Pastor in February

IN A survey in four English dioceses last year, almost half of the self-supporting ministers (SSMs, or non-stipendiary minis­ters) said that they felt that they were seen as “second-class” by their sti­pend­iary colleagues.

Sixty-nine per cent of respond­ents believed that SSMs should be considered for senior posts such as suffragan bishop, arch­deacon, or cathedral canon.

Differences in attitude to this pattern of ministry pose several prob­­­lems for a Church that sup­ports declining numbers of priests finan­cially. SSMs inevitably gain a higher profile as the stipendiary min­ister becomes less of the norm, but if their place in the Church is not viewed as commanding respect, their en­­thusiasm and talent could be wasted.

”I’ve never been paid by the Church of England,” the Sub-Dean of Leicester Cathedral, Canon Alison Adams, says. She became Canon Pastor in February, one of very few SSMs to be appointed to such a position. “I was delighted, because it’s always been a worry,” she says, of the possibility that being unpaid could hinder her ministry. “I wouldn’t say it’s a vindication, but I’m very pleased at the recognition. I want to help others also be recog­nised for their professionalism.”

It is an appointment that was unimaginable for her in her younger days. “I was a teenager in the ’60s, and the idea of working for the Church was ridiculous, really. The country was going places in terms of equality: it never occurred to me that being a woman was a problem; but the Church was a different matter altogether.”


SHE trained as a teacher, and became a deputy head in an inner-city comprehensive. It wasn’t until after the General Synod voted in 1992 to allow women priests that she had what she calls a “light-bulb” moment about ministry.

“It had just never occurred to me before that. I’d never had any role-models. But something just went off in my head, someone saying that’s where I should be.

”I remember locking myself in a church and praying it through, try­ing to get it sorted in my mind. I didn’t know then whether the call to ordination was to a job or a role, but, as I went through the process, it became clear that parish ministry wasn’t for me.” She was ordained deacon in 1997, and priest the following year.

”My ministry has mostly hap­pened outside the citadel of the Church,” she says. She worked in chaplaincy in schools and prisons, and she has a passion for social engagement. “At Leicester, our catch­phrase is ‘Shaped by God’, which I interpret as taking a posi­tion of love towards the outside world. I’m not willing to separate mission from social action.

”Working in a prison, outside what the Church usually does, was very formational for me. I felt called to people who wouldn’t go to church. But I think that being outside parish ministry has a ‘hidden’ character, in Church terms. And I am convinced that we are still not exploring how SSMs can fit into the church hierarchy. We’re still categorising people according to whether they’re on a payroll or not. We still lack awareness.

”Lots of us will have come across the phrase ‘only an NSM’, which is a term I don’t like anyway. The N is a negative. A ‘not’. It’s pejorative, whereas SSM is neutral. When I was first ordained, I remember news­letters that went to ‘clergy and NSMs’. Are we not clergy? We have to be careful that unpaid clergy are put in the right box.”


RECOGNITION isn’t the only ob­­stacle, she says. The Church isn’t so good at mentoring or developing people outside stipendiary parish ministry. “You have to work at your own self-understanding. The less obvious your role, the less guidance there is. Right now, I feel like the right-shaped peg in the right-shaped hole, at the right time. But it took a lot of work on my own to get there. And why shouldn’t there be more people like me?”

Last year’s SSM survey carried a briefing note by the researchers critical of the lack of SSMs in senior posts, describing it as “wrong and unfair. While canon law currently prevents SSMs from be­­coming bishops (and why couldn’t this be changed?), there is nothing to stop self-supporting min­­isters from being made arch­deacons.”

A recurrent theme across the responses was the belief that SSMs’ experience from outside the Church is not harnessed by dioceses.


BUT others have noted the com­plicated circumstances that sur­round an SSM’s post.

Canon Angela Tilby has written (Comment, 20 June 2014) that “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.”

In fact, in ministry terms, there can be significant benefits for the Church, Canon Adams says. “There might even be an advantage in being an SSM. There’s always an advant­age to the Church if it has people who come from different back­grounds, at different times in their lives. People who are part of the way through their working lives are part of our rich tapestry. We need that tapestry in our future.

”For me, having stood alongside other volunteers is an advantage. I know the argument goes that if a role were really valued it would be a paid one. But, often, churches need to start somewhere. If I went under a bus tomorrow, my role would become a paid one.”

She urges churches to begin by looking at what the local needs are rather than worry first about how many people are paid. “They should start by considering what roles are important, strategically. Some of those would be naturally self-supporting.”

As for other SSMs, she suggests, individuals work out their own pas­sions. “There are an awful lot of labels around — your churchman­ship or whatever. If you’re not careful, you can end up pigeon-holed pretty quickly. Realise that you’ve been called, explore it, and don’t worry about ignoring well-trodden paths. Be prepared to dia­logue about your own trajectory. Challenge things both ways.”


LEICESTER CATHEDRAL has faced challenges in her time there, and opportunities, too, she says.

“When it became clear that Richard [III] was going to be in­­terred here, we had to have a real think about what and who we were as a cathedral. How comfortable were we with becoming a major tourist attraction, and did we want to be more than that? I was quite deeply involved in the Richard project — a legacy project, really. It was fun, I mean, it was hard work but it helped us as a cathedral to figure out what the new normal was.

”And my position here as an SSM is the new normal. Through that project, we were all hands to the plough. We had to re-jig our roles, and have become an entirely differ­ent beast post Richard. That’s good for us, because it means that we’re not on auto-pilot any more. That’s what SSMs can often help with, I think: an injection of something from outside.”

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