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Opinion: Keep NSMs (Local) free from central control

22 September 2023

Their training and formation must reflect that they are called to a radically distinctive ministry, argues John Saxbee

IT IS ten years since the first NSM (Local) ordinations in the diocese of St Davids. It is, of course, that bracket that makes all the difference. While non-stipendiary ministers have continued to offer invaluable service to often quite large groupings of churches and communities (now called Local Ministry Areas), NSM(L) ministry has homed in on the characteristics and needs of specific communities — which, in their turn, play an active part in calling and equipping one or more of their own.

Crucially, this development entails formation having an independent and distinctive character in preparation for a categorically distinctive ministry. While acknowledging the importance of catholicity as implicit in the rite of ordination, a shift in emphasis from catholicity to contextuality is necessary if formation for NSM(L) ministry is to be appropriate and effective.

In a series of publications in the 1980s, Anthony Russell traced the development of the clerical profession. Medical and legal practitioners had already formed professional associations by the late 18th century, with the founding of specialist training institutions, common standards of conduct, and disciplinary procedures. It was well into the 19th century before it was possible to speak of a clerical profession; but the same dynamics were at work, particularly with regard to establishing a network of theological colleges, independently founded and funded, but well on the way to becoming the institutional providers for ensuring the formation of professionally trained and accredited clergy, potentially deployable wherever needed and called to serve.

This generally welcome development did have a downside. Many regretted what they perceived to be the homogenisation of a clerical calling noted for its diversity, individuality, or eccentricity. And, to a great extent, so it proved. As with other professions, standardisation of selection procedures during the 20th century, and the evolution of common curricula, did tend towards normative models of ministry, patterned according to uniform expectations and converging job specifications.

Full-time stipendiary ministry remained the default benchmark, even when other forms of ministry (Sector, MSE, NSM, SSM, OLM, etc.) became significant elements in the clerical mix. Likewise, withdrawal from current domestic and occupational arrangements, so as to be formed in a residential or semi-residential institution for a new and radically different way of life, remained the model in relation to which all alternative provision was developed and evaluated.

NOW, the time is overdue to affirm the distinctiveness of NSM(L) as a sui generis category of ministry, for which processes of discernment and formation should be correspondingly distinctive.

The development of regional training courses in England and Wales introduced geographical rather than churchmanship criteria into the mix when it came to who trained where — and candidates’ current and, in the case of NSM candidates, most likely church and community context was also taken into consideration. The emphasis on transition to a new future in Holy Orders still informed and probably dominated the development of formational pathways, however.

Although candidates on these courses were likely to continue in secular employment during training and thereafter, the centripetal dynamics characteristic of such institutions worked against the recognition, let alone harvesting, of non-ecclesiastical experience and social engagement.

It is vital for NSM(L) formation to be freed from such centralising tendencies. This entails strategic and structural separation from institutionalised providers such as colleges and regional courses. The emphasis on locality and contextuality as key to the discernment and formation of candidates for this categorically distinctive ministry shifts priorities from the requirements of catholicity to the requirements of indigenous belonging, incarnational presence, and contextually tailored ministerial priesthood.

IT IS difficult to see how geographical areas larger than a diocese could ensure such an intense degree of contextual focus. In St Davids diocese, the NSM(L) course has a proven record in delivering what is required for its candidates, for whom the specificity of where they live, work, and worship takes priority.

From a theological point of view, ordained ministry necessarily manifests the marks of both catholicity and contextuality. By virtue of their episcopal ordination, NSM(L)s bear no less the mark of catholicity than any others so ordained. But, for them, it will be the marks of contextuality which define their ministry, and which will determine the theological thrust and contextualised content of their pre-, initial, and continuing ministerial formation.

This all amounts to saying that NSM(L) is not better or lesser than stipendiary or non-stipendiary ministry: it is categorically different; and so to attempt to integrate their formational pathways into an institutionalised provision serving a whole Province or region is to make a category mistake.

While financial, logistical, and resourcing issues will inevitably have to be addressed when determining what is delivered, and by whom, where, and when, these are second-order issues. Of the first order is the theological integrity and existentially distinctive identity of NSM(L), and distinctively customised formation delivered, administered, and overseen as flexibly and locally as possible.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee, a former Bishop of Lincoln, is an hon. assistant bishop in the diocese of St Davids.

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