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Time’s up for stipendiary ministry

14 January 2022

The C of E should follow St Paul’s example, not secular trends, says David Power


A mosaic of St Paul in the Holy Saviour, Chora, Istanbul

A mosaic of St Paul in the Holy Saviour, Chora, Istanbul

THE current pattern of ministry has become financially unsustainable. Various new schemes have been reluctantly accepted “with resignation and without much joy”. It seems that the mind of Christ has not yet been discerned.

God is missionary. He looks beyond himself and acts lovingly towards his creation. The Church is called into partnership with God to serve his mission. Therefore, the primary question is: how, in today’s context, with our expected resources of people, buildings, and finance, should we order the life and work of our churches so that they are most able to participate in God’s mission to his world?

St Paul established each local church to be, from the beginning, self-supporting, self-governing, and self-reproducing. Soon after establishing a church, Paul departed to continue his apostolic work elsewhere, entrusting the new church to very recently converted leaders. Paul trusted the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire each Christian community in its life and work. They need not be dependent on him; for that would limit his apostolic work. Of course, things went wrong — sometimes, very badly; so he visited or wrote to advise them, but — and importantly — Paul still gave them the freedom to make mistakes.

The Church is not an organisation to be managed and restructured, but a living organism to be nurtured. The Church is a living body, filled and animated by the Holy Spirit, not a cumbersome machine that must be managed and “got going” by those who hold the “levers of power”.

The Bishops’ task is fully to equip, empower, and release each church for worship, mission, and ministry. Of course, congregationalism and parochialism must be avoided, but, by nature, each church is local, rooted in its community.

While churches are to be encouraged to work together in partnership, legal amalgamation is contrary to the very nature of the local church. Why? Because it removes Paul’s principle of local self-government, and we break that principle at our peril.

FOR decades, the Church of England has been amalgamating parishes, and it has been disastrous, producing neither health nor growth. It is a strategy based on financial expediency and secular-management theory, having neither biblical warrant nor theological justification.

Paul always ensured that he left a complete and self-sufficient church, with a team of leaders and the capacity in its own membership to celebrate the eucharist. He knew that a church without sacramental power, having to look elsewhere for the provision of the sacraments, was an incomplete church — a truth that we seem to have forgotten.

Before leaving a place, Paul invited the church membership to “Choose from among yourselves” those whom God was calling to serve as their leadership team. Usually, such leaders were not paid, but self-supporting. The availability of leadership and sacramental ministry was never dependent on the availability of money. Sadly, today, we have learned to feel helpless without money.

This New Testament pattern is ideal, being wholly compatible with Anglican tradition. It was considered by the House of Bishops in 1979, was advocated by the Tiller report of 1983, and also commended to the Church of England by the 1998 Advisory Board of Ministry Policy Paper No. 8: Stranger in the Wings. Sadly, the full potential of these documents has never been realised.

Ordained Local Ministry schemes were created; but these retained stipendiary incumbency, whereas the usual pattern of sacramental ministry left by Paul had no paid ministers.

Today, we should embrace Paul’s pattern, with each local church having several self-supporting ministers only, sharing the leadership with lay leaders. Occasionally, circumstances may require the appointment of a stipendiary minister, but, after a period of transition (15-25 years?), during which the majority of today’s stipendiary clergy would continue to receive stipend and housing until retirement, this would be the exception.

EXAMPLES of the non-retention of stipendiary incumbency exist in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States, and South Africa.

One example is the diocese of Michigan, in the US. When a vacancy occurs, the parish is invited to call, from within its own membership, at least two candidates to serve as priests, and at least one to serve as deacon, exercising leadership collaboratively with lay leaders.

The diocesan handbook, covering all aspects of their scheme, can be found at www.edomi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Total-Ministry-2016-Handbook.pdf —although the principles need adapting for our context. The diocese invests its budget in the training of clergy and laity, rather than paying and housing clergy, plus pension contributions.

These clergy are not to perform all that stipendiaries traditionally do, but focus on providing sacramental ministry, doing so according to their gifts and personal circumstances. Since ministry belongs to the whole Church, most other ministries are undertaken by lay people, including sharing in leadership. These priests do not attend every meeting; the life of the church does not revolve around them. This cost-effective way of generously resourcing the local church endows all with spiritual resources and confidence for God’s work.

A local leadership team of lay and ordained people is named not the “Ministry Team”, but “The Ministry Support Team”, which conveys the truth that ministry is to be exercised by all the baptised, rather than by the team on their behalf. The issue of clergy well-being is currently a grave concern in the C of E, and this pattern would greatly enhance it.

PAUL could risk leaving recently planted churches to manage their own affairs, being confident that the Spirit would “Lead them into all truth”. Corporately, the local church would know “the mind of Christ”. By virtue of their baptism, all baptised Christians are enabled, empowered, commissioned, and authorised for mission and ministry. Nothing more is needed: it is their right by virtue of the new birth.

The potential benefits are numerous:

• Sacramental ministry and leadership would be generously provided to local churches, boosting the confidence of congregations for worship, ministry, and mission.
• Every-member ministry would be energised and released.
• Clergy well-being would be enhanced by having manageable jobs, without the expectation that they be “omni-competent”.
• Lay training would be increased; clerical dependency reduced.
• Financial capital resources would be released, plus a reduction in housing maintenance costs.
• As more parishes embrace the new pattern, each diocese would increasingly become financially sustainable.
• Parishes would see their parish share reduce, and retain more of their income for local use. (Many churches in New Zealand now have sufficient finance for a wide range of ministries, and keep their buildings in excellent condition.)

Some may dislike or feel alarmed at these ideas, but that is no reason for rejecting them. If there are theological arguments against, let them be advanced and considered. Does it work?

A thriving congregation in the diocese of Michigan was asked about the transition from a traditional pattern of church and stipendiary ministry to that described above, and they replied: “It has been extremely difficult and very painful, but we would not now go back”.

Canon David Power is a former Adviser in Evangelism in the diocese of Portsmouth, where he served as a parish priest from 1981 to 2018. He has permission to officiate in the diocese.

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