THE CHALLENGE OF THE NSM

Rodney Schofield believes that the Church is being challenged to look again at the implications of non-stipendiary ministry

 

How serious is the Church of England about its non-stipendiary ministers? As a body, they appear to be growing in number, currently approaching the 2000 mark. This compares with a steadily diminishing number of stipendiary clergy, anticipated to dip below 9000 over the next 3 years (the figure excludes those working in specialist roles such as chaplaincies). Until very recently NSMs have been held in fairly low esteem. They have been welcome as makeshift priests to help out during interregna, and to cover holidays and times of illness, but otherwise they have been invisible in the normal deanery and diocesan structures. Chapter meetings, for example, frequently take place without them, and when pastoral committees assess "ministerial needs and resources" the underlying assumption often seems to be that the system hinges on the deployment of stipendiary priests. NSMs have been seen as assistants who relieve something of the pressure on the full-time clergy, but who cannot - because of their freedom of mobility - in the last resort wholly be relied upon.

Nevertheless, the same selection criteria are used for both categories, stipendiary and non-stipendiary. It is no easier to be accepted for NSM training than it is for stipendiary training, although many an NSM applicant has been misled into thinking otherwise. After all, if the church appears to value NSM ministry less highly than it does that of the full-time priest, should it not be less demanding of its intake? It may be that some DDOs make this mistake too, and certainly many incumbents who put forward a candidate. The statistics speak otherwise. For the 5 years 1993 to 1997 the recommendation rates for NSM male candidates were 34%, 50%, 51%, 53%, 45% compared to generally much higher rates for SM men of 50%, 52%, 59%, 71%, 77%. The last discrepancy is particularly marked: is this because selectors are now more lenient towards stipendiary candidates, recognising the shortage, or is it because many dioceses differ from ABM over what might be expected of NSM clergy? (Figures for women candidates reveal similar divergences.)

But of course ABM is no independent quango. Its policies and its selection criteria are approved by the House of Bishops, and it acts on their behalf. The bishops in fact know full well that before or after ordination quite a number of NSMS seek to become full-time priests and for this reason alone it remains essential that the selection criteria for clergy in either category must be the same. (The latest revision of categories encourages such flexibility: candidates are sponsored either for stipendiary and non-stipendiary ministry or for permanent non-stipendiary ministry - but I have yet to discover whether the word permanent has any meaning in the Church of England!) Additionally, with the falling number of stipendiary priests, there is evidence that NSMS are being taken more seriously. "House for duty" advertisements appear frequently in the church press, and NSMS are found more commonly as priests-in-charge - even occasionally as incumbents, since church lawyers discovered this was possible. More effort is made to include them collaboratively in benefice or deanery teams, and where once committees required a token woman it is becoming more common for there to be a token NSM. There is even a move towards a more positive appreciation of their work by changing from non-stipendiary to something like "self-supporting" (if its Pelagian overtones can be disregarded).

On more than one score the recent recommendation, rates can be justified, therefore. NSMS are not to be thought of as second class clergy, nor would they want to be so considered. But candidates of sufficient calibre are not easily found for whatever category. So it is with some alarm that one notes the outcomes of selection conferences for OLMs (ordained local ministers): the recommendation rates (men and women together) over the same 5 year period were 72%, 68%, 79%, 77%, 82%. Why should there be such a huge contrast with NSM candidates? The argument is propounded that there is more careful preparation and scrutiny of OLM's, involving the parish itself as well as the candidate. Unfortunately, however, the argument cuts both ways: parish perceptions may well be more narrowly conceived, and in any case it would take a very brave bishop to say No to as many as 50% of the parishes involved! I do not query the idea of ordained local ministry, although I think that NSM ministry is sufficiently flexible to have the same local significance when appropriate. I do however wonder about the church's expectations of those actually selected for this ministry, and whether in practice the statistical evidence begins to suggest something of an inferior priesthood (not withstanding the existence of a number of excellent and worthy counter-examples). I also wonder why the church's training programmes need to be duplicated in most of those dioceses with OLM schemes: there is surely an urgent need to utilise more fully the existing resources of colleges and (especially) regional courses. To train OLMs and NSMS together would be one way of demonstrating that different yardsticks are not being applied.

Given the extent of divergent thinking in the Church of England at the present, and the variation in diocesan policies, it is not at all easy for anyone considering NSM ministry to know where they stand. One can however distinguish between those for whom priesthood is a total commitment and those for whom it is something of a part-time occupation (misled, as noted above, by some of the official downplaying of the role). The challenge is to realise that being a priest is a calling that embraces one's whole existence ("seven whole days, not one in seven" as George Herbert wrote in a hymn). It is not simply taking on different responsibilities and managing different tasks for the church, as though one progressed from the narthex and the nave into the sanctuary for certain special occasions, but otherwise carried on with life as before. Rather, it is the receiving of holy orders, and coming to understand the re-ordering of one's existence accordingly.

Deep questions have to be asked as they are, for example, in the ordination service itself; we read in the Prayer Book:

 

Will you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?... Will you be diligent to frame and fashion your own selves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ?

Assuming, in other words, that God is calling the candidate to serve in the priesthood of the church, how is that ministry to be exercised? How will one's time and energy be used? What values will be given priority from day to day? What sacrifices may need to be made so as to be more fully the priest that God ordains?

Some NSMS may in effect be full-time (or nearly full-time) pastoral priests in "retirement" ministry, or because they have no need of a stipend. It may be (as in the Orthodox Churches in this country) that they need to earn a living because the church cannot support them, thus limiting their pastoral availability. Such work ought surely to be at the very least compatible with their priestly calling, and at the very best an expression of it. I have a great admiration for those (known as Ministers in Secular Employment or MSEs) who cross boundaries on behalf of the church and explore pioneering ministries in areas as varied as education, nursing and medicine, legal work (I think of an NSM solicitor specialising in family law and marriage reconciliation), and farming. They have an important, if somewhat lonely, work in extending the mainly parochial role of the incumbent, and can touch lives and issues often beyond his reach. Of course they are less likely to have much time for church organisation, so it is all the more vital that what they do is properly supported and valued.

The candidates who concern me, though, are those who have not thought through the range of their interests and existing commitments, and simply want to have priesthood bolted on, almost as if it is a spare time activity like belonging to a gardening club or doing Meals-on-Wheels. Priesthood for them is one among many of their interests, which are kept in separate compartments. Their view of priesthood is, shall we say, functional rather than ontological. And even if (sadly) this is admissible in the Anglican Church as we know it, I still doubt how adequately the functions will be performed in the face of so much competition for attention - the family, the outside employment, the leisure activities. Where is the time so much needed for prayer and for study? Candidates such as these will I fear have been led astray by too much talk of "enabling" ministries to ponder the demands of maintaining a well-resourced teaching ministry. How will they be readily available pastorally either, or to take the sacraments to those in need? In the end, will they just be "helping out the Vicar" as a sort of clericalised lay person? Perhaps the challenge has to be: Is NSM priesthood for you an evasion of God's calling? The church's greatest need is not for more clerics but for more wholly committed priests, which may mean that some of those who prefer to be labelled NSM ought really to be looking to the stipendiary ministry. As I noted above, the trend today is towards a greater proportion of NSM priests in the church. It would be very sad if part of the reason for this is the failure to take bold and imaginative, if sacrificial, steps for Christ's sake. I suspect however that in rejecting some of the would-be NSMS, Bishops' selectors are detecting some vocational confusion, and that there are good candidates here whom God actually wants in the full-time parochial ministry.

 

Rodney Schofield is Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells.

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