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‘We’re more than just ecclesiastical Polyfilla’

20 October 2017

Hattie Williams hears a debate about the importance of SSMs


SELF-SUPPORTING ministry can be the future of the Church of England in modern society — but only if the Church changes its hierarchical attitude, and allows self-supporting ministers (SSMs) to flourish, a diocesan conference has heard.

SSM representatives from 12 of the 42 dioceses gathered at Shallowford House Christian Centre in Staffordshire on Thursday of last week, to discuss, defend, and promote the place of self-supporting ministry in the Church.

In the latest ministry statistics, published last month, the Ministry Division recorded 3230 self-supporting parochial clerics serving in the C of E in 2016, 185 of whom were newly ordained (News, 29 September). These are non-stipendiary, or unpaid, posts. This was compared with 7790 stipendiary clerics, and 6560 clerics with permission to officiate (mostly retired clergy).

In the keynote address, a former Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, who wrote No Faith In Religion, said that the time had come for SSMs to return to the fore, and for both the Church and SSMs to proclaim that they are the “real thing”, and not a “halfway house” or “Cinderella” compared with other ministries, lay or ordained.

“I am not under-estimating the task,” he said. “Of everything coming out of the C of E this year, I do not detect any sense of SSM being the future, or of offering an opportunity to exercise ministry that relates as closely to the 21st-century culture in which we are set, in order to advance mission.”

Having given a potted overview of SSMs in the history of Christianity, Dr Saxbee suggested that cultural developments during the past century had challenged the dominating model of a “managerially minded, politically established, hierarchically ordered, and dogmatically defined” Church. These changes allowed self-supporting ministry to thrive again.

Church TimesProclaiming self-supporting ministry: left to right; the Revd Dr Nick Fisher, SSM officer for the diocese of Gloucester and Rector of Sherborne, Windrush, the Barringtons and Aldsworth; the Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee; and the Revd Dr Charles Sutton, SSM adviser for the diocese of Bristol“Self-supporting ministry can become the future. It is a ministry with a characteristic of its own: it is that distinctiveness that has not been celebrated or affirmed, even by those who practise it.”

In the group sessions afterwards, concerns were raised about the practicality of this approach. One SSM said: “Fitting the ideal with the reality may be harder than it sounds.”

Others suggested that the distinctiveness of SSMs was part of the problem. Representing the diocese of Leeds, the Revd Tony Collins, said that “difference” might be a more useful description: “‘Distinct’ sounds slightly exclusive. Difference does not always have to be worked at: it is noticed.”

A recurring theme of the conference was how SSMs were viewed in their community, as opposed to how they might be identified by their stipendiary colleagues: either by title, payment, or expectations of the post.

The organiser of the conference, the Revd Dr Nick Fisher, NSM officer for the diocese of Gloucester, and Rector of Sherborne, Windrush, the Barringtons and Aldsworth,said in his introduction that it was a “great mistake” that SSMs had been omitted from the lay ministry report Setting God’s People Free (News, 27 January), a view that was held by Dr Saxbee and others. “It is the SSMs in secular employment who are the cutting edge of ministry in all our parishes, but the dioceses have not cottoned on to this,” he said.

Although there were echoes of the 2015 survey of SSMs, however, which suggested that as many as half of SSMs felt that they were seen as “second-class” by their stipendiary colleagues, the outcomes were more positive (News, 15 May 2015).

Dr Fisher, who also led the session on how SSMs are used by parishes, said that SSMs were primarily separated by money. “I get frustrated when some clerics assume they have all the answers because they are being paid. We need to handle money differently: some of us may need to be paid so that we are free to do God’s work. It would also stop this tension.”

Representing the diocese of Derby, the Revd Dr Gillian White suggested giving more financial support to SSMs, such as grants for robes, courses, sabbaticals, study leave, and annual clergy conferences.

Dr Saxbee said that there was a wider issue of what a stipend was for: clerics were paid a stipend so they did not have to do another job; but what about the ministering of distinct offices, such as funerals, which attract a separate fee — “Is that for the minister or ministry?” he asked.

Canon Bill Rogers said that there were “too many” titles for SSMs, which often overlapped and confused the community. Dr Saxbee agreed: “Joe Public doesn’t understand ‘stipendiary’; but knows about vicars.” He suggested that all forms of ministry be addressed in the same way, to incorporate all posts, as is the case with nurses, police officers, and bishops.

It was agreed in the plenary session that the duties, titles, and training of SSMs should be reviewed, and that SSMs should be considered for appointment as deans and archdeacons.

A non-stipendiary minister in Ealing, the Revd Dr Margaret Joachim, led the session on ministry in secular employment (MSE). “My parish is as much of a support to me as I am for them. My job is to show people that the things they do for most of the time — work and family life — are just as important as what they do in church on Sunday.”

The Revd Dr Tom Keighley, of the diocese of Chelmsford, agreed. “You [MSEs] have a different burden on your heart. My principal role is to teach the Church about what this is like: what happens when life is not quite as polite as it should be.”

The spiritual, financial, and time pressures that result from juggling secular employment with self-supporting ministry were discussed. But a key concern was training.

Dr Keighley suggested that courses were “out of touch and out of date”, because the Church remained “culturally remote” from society. “If SSMs understand secular society, then why are they not calling us on to post-ordination training courses?”

Dr Joachim, who is a retired IT consultant, agreed that MSEs have an “immense reservoir” of lived experience and knowledge that the Church should be using. It was suggested that all previous reports and reviews of self-supporting ministry should be drawn together to create a “more sophisticated understanding” of the position as being more than “ecclesiastical Polyfilla”.

The diocese of Chester had already done this, Dr Joachim said, by adjusting the training and working expectations of SSMs. “It is not that the SSM does everything the cleric does not have time to do; it is what SSMs can do with the fixed number of hours they have available.”

Summarising the group session on Initial Ministerial Education (IME), the Revd Dr Charles Sutton, Adviser for Self-Supporting Ministry in Bristol diocese, said: “Why not collectively create an SSM pathway towards ordination across dioceses? Why not create a learning package to include SSM learning or thinking which could be clipped into what dioceses are already doing?”

These were big ideas that would require resources and energy, he admitted. But one simple step for diocesan SSM officers would be to discuss and distribute more widely work agreements, job descriptions, training packages, and other resources, to raise the profile of self-supporting ministry.

Of the 30 dioceses absent from the conference, eight had been unable to send an SSM representative, while 15 had not responded. There was clearly much work to be done, Dr Saxbee concluded. “It is a pioneering venture that this meeting has taken place at all. Nothing is going to happen unless a group of informed people with a passion for SSM do something about it.

“The time is now to claim, proclaim, and ensure that self-supporting ministry takes its rightful place within our overall economy of faith, mission, and ministry.”

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