MSE content on diocesan websites: a random survey
The aim of this unscientific survey is to see what the interested visitor to a Church of England diocesan website might find when using the site's internal search facility for information about NSM, SSM and MSE ministry. The material below was gathered between March and August 2013. See below, right, for 'messages for dioceses and their web people'
Bath & Wells
Ripon & Leeds
St Edmundsbury & Ipswich
Sodor & Man
Southwell & Nottingham
NSM - "Sorry your search returned no results. Please try again"
SSM - 5 results, none directly relevant
MSE - no relevant results
Southwell & Nottingham has a downloadable leaflet entitled 'Exploring vocation to the ordained ministry'. There is a good deal of useful information for the enquirer but, very strangely and regrettably, no mention of the role and calling of MSE clergy. There is the all too common talk of those who show potential to be 'incumbent' clergy and those - less able it seems - destined for 'assistant ministry' ("someone who would be unlikely to exercise ministry at incumbent level but rather in a supportive ministry").
Non-stipendiary minister (NSM)
Not a very nice term. It identified certain clergy by what they are not (in this case, paid by the church). Still widely in use but I believe replaced in official use by...
Self-Supporting Minister (SSM)
This still has the uncongenial flavour of money to it, for that is what the institution means to convey: not on the payroll, and financially supporing themselves. The theological observation that God's grace means that none of us is ever fully self-supporting seems beside the point. Confusingly, in recent times (very recent) the SSM acronym is also taken to refer to 'same sex marriage'.
Minister in Secular Employment (MSE)
Better than the others for those priests who beleive their priestly vocation focuses upon paid work beyond the conventional institution of the church, but still slighty problematic in that it perpetuates the unhelpful distinction between the sacred and the secular.
Not very popular. Some stipendiary clergy resent the implication that they don't 'work'. Not so of course. Many work exceedingly hard. Some MSEs (me included) feel that what we do (often white collar, professional) lacks the credibility and sacrificial nature of the 'true' worker-priests. Still, we think its a better designation that the others on offer, and seems easily understood by those beyond the church.
A problem remains in distinguishing those clergy who believe themselves, vocationally, to be called to an 'unofficial' priestly presence in the world of paid employment. Those paid to be priests (chaplains in schools, the NHS, prisons, the miliitary) are a different group, responding differently to their vocational call.
Hanging out the washing...
Peterborough Diocese mentions SSMs/MSEs quite high up the list of search results (good), but illustrates the calling with a picture of a woman SSM hanging out the washing. Thoughtlessness or are gender and ministerial stereotypes proudly at work in Peterborough?
Messages for dioceses and their web people
The most striking aspect to emerge from this unscientific survey is that the church-as-institution does not have a grasp of the MSE priestly presence and so cannot 'celebrate' it as something God might call people to. This is related to its poor grasp of the day-to-day world of the laity.
This should not be read or taken as criticism of individuals, or even individual dioceses. It is always a grave risk affecting all institutions that they become myopic. Yet having created the possibility of priests serving in so-called secular roles as well as sacramentally in churches, we simply have to promote and nourish this particular expression of priesthood far, far better than is currently the case.