Thursday 12 January 2012
Why I am no longer a Minister in Secular Employment
This is an edited version of a talk I gave to Churches Together in Earley and East Reading on the 13th October 2011. It is also incorporates material from a farewell editorial I wrote for the journal Ministers-at-Work which can be found here.
First a brief word about who I am. I am Mike Rayner, Director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford and have been so for over 15 years. I am also an ordained priest in the Church of England and Assistant Curate at St Matthew’s Church, Oxford. I have been a member of the congregation of St Matthew's for over 30 years but the Assistant Curate for only four. I’ll be telling you more about myself over the course of this talk.
In this talk I will suggest that all Christians have a ministry where they work. And we all work – whether we think it or not – and whether we are paid to do so or not. So in that sense we are all ministers at work. But I also want to suggest that some people should be recognised by the Church as having a special ministry where they work – even if that work is not paid by the Church. They should be ordained in other words.
Then having convinced you of that I want to go one step further and suggest that ministry is something we can do when we are not working - for the Church or anyone else. I want to suggest that all of us are 'called' - to have a vocation - to be ministers in all of our lives – both working and non-working. I want to suggest that this should be called Whole Life Ministry - WLM for short. I will also suggest some people should be ordained to be WLMs and I will also try and explain my reasons for this.
But before I really get going I want to talk briefly about four descriptions (used in the Church of England) for ministers who have a ministry, at least in part, outside of the parish in which they live. These terms are Non-Stipendiary Minister (NSM), Self-Supporting Minister (SSM), Minister in Secular Employment (MSE) and Worker Priest.
So first we have that absolutely horrible description ‘Non-Stipendiary Ministry’. This is a horrible term because who want to be defined by what they are not. It implies that non-stipendiary ministers are somehow deficient relative to stipendiary minsters: that they don’t have a stipend and are therefore second class.
Slightly preferable to my mind is ‘Self-Supporting Ministry’: which is coming to replace the term Non-Stipendiary Ministry. But even this term isn’t particularly helpful. What on earth is self-supporting? I am not self-supported and I wonder how many people are. I am supported by the University of Oxford who pay my salary. Self-Supporting Ministry also implies that that person’s ministry is done in their unpaid time – as voluntary work presumably. But I for one see my ministry as being done just as much during the time I am paid to work as in the rest of my time.
The description of my ministry that I have preferred until recently is ‘Ministry in Secular Employment’. I am currently on the ‘management’ committee of an organisation called CHRISM – Christians in Secular Ministry. In fact, until recently, I have been the Editor of its Journal called Minsters-at-Work.
CHRISM - according to its website is the - national association ‘for all Christians who see their secular employment as their primary Christian ministry and for those who support that vision. CHRISM has around 200 members, an Annual Meeting, a journal, tries to set up local branches, etc. Its members are therefore generally NSM/SSMs who see themselves as MSEs. Most members are ordained but not all by any means.
Now I have increasing come to dislike this term MSE. This is primarily because I do not see my employment as secular. To me it is sacred. I have always thought of myself as having a vocation to the work I do. Whether I have always responded in the way God would have had me respond in response to his call I cannot be sure but I hope that I have tried to listen to what he was calling me to do. So a brief description of that aspect of my calling: to paid employment.
I’m not going to run through my cv but at the moment I work full time for the University of Oxford in the Department of Public Health. I am the director of a research group there. The funding for my salary comes from the British Heart Foundation and the research we carry out is into issues such as food labelling, food advertising to children, food taxes, etc.
We aim to do research which has an impact on Government policy – in that we are quite unusual for a university-based research group – but we have had some success in this regard. For example some people credit us with inventing traffic-light labelling for foods and we played a part in writing the current legislation around the tv advertising of junk foods to children. In all of this I see a sacred dimension.
My job for me is part of my ministry. What I do day-to-day – manage staff, write papers, apply for grants, go to meetings etc – I try to do for the glory of God, to help build the Kingdom of God, or however you like to put it. To this extent I am still a Minister Who is Employed by a Not-Overtly-Religious Organisation - the University of Oxford!
But before I explain more about how I see my current ministry and this thing I want to call Whole Life Ministry I want to deal with that fourth term ‘Worker Priest’. This term isn’t generally used in this country. I quite like it but most others don’t. It’s not considered appropriate for a variety of reasons. Firstly some (many?) of us - like me – who feel we have a ministry at work are not exactly workers but managers. ‘Manager Priest’ would be a better description for me rather than ‘Worker Priest’.
A second reason for avoiding the term – not a particularly good reason – is that the term ‘Worker Priest’ is associated with an initiative of the Roman Catholic Church in France, in the 1940s, to pay priests to be based as workers in factories and such like rather than in parishes. However many of these worker priests then got involved with the Trades Unions and were quickly called back to parishes by the Pope who effectively suppressed the movement in the 1950s. So ‘Worker Priest’ is distinctly non-Anglican and has a ‘pinkish tinge’ to boot.
Thirdly of course – whereas NSM, SSM, MSE can be applied to someone who is not ordained and if ordained either a deacon or a priest – the description Worker Priest can only reasonably be applied to someone who is ordained to the priesthood.
I am not going to apologise for spending so much time on words because words are important as John clearly thinks when he begins his gospel with the words ‘In the beginning was the word’. But now I want to try and explain more about how I currently see my ministry. I’ll start by explaining why I am ordained.
Now it is relatively easy to see why someone who has a ministry in the parish in which they live – whether they be stipendiary or non-stipendiary (or self-supporting) should be ordained. But why should some who sees their secular employment as their primary Christian ministry, as CHRISM members and I used to do, be ordained? This is always a difficult question. I guess my answer is: why not?
My own history here might be useful. Whilst I always felt I was called to the work I was doing I also from my late teens felt a calling to the priesthood which I tried to explain to various people at various times. Eventually in my late forties I found some people who thought I had such a vocation too and one of them – a bishop – ordained me (over four years ago now).
I have never, or hardly ever, seen my calling to be a paid employee of the Church of England and also I have never, or hardly ever, felt a calling to be in charge of a parish church. But does an ordained priest remain a priest does when he/she goes off to work for a Not-Overtly-Religious Organisation? Yes of course they do. But do they have a priestly role when they are working for that organisation. This is more difficult. I personally don’t have (much of) a sacramental ministry at work. For example I have never baptised a work-colleague’s baby nor have I celebrated the Eucharist at work. The first has never presented itself as an opportunity. I have never particularly felt the need for the second but I wouldn’t rule either out. I think my priestly ministry at work is primarily through blessing – but I would be hard pushed to explain this adequately.
But back to my ministry at work as opposed to my priesthood at work. One thing to say about this is that some like me see their actual work as their ministry. Others see their work as merely the vehicle for their ministry: the work place as just another possible setting for their ministry.
For people who see merely their work place as a setting for their ministry then various options are open. But here there is, perhaps, a temptation to replicate the things that you might conventionally see or do as ministry where you live in the place where you work. Classically people for example have sought to find and meet together with other Christians at work. Workplace Christian Unions are one expression of this. Taking this further Workplace Alpha courses have been run apparently successfully in some places. I’ve experimented with this sort of thing by, for example, running a series of meditation sessions at my work-place. I wouldn’t recommend this. It didn’t really work for me and the sessions were quite a lot of work for little – in my view –reward (though I am not sure all those who attended would agree.)
Of course preaching the gospel doesn’t need words as St Francis reminds us. Workplace ministry is as much about being as talking. And for me it is not just about whether or not you steal the odd paper-clips from your employer. I confess I do. It’s clearly much more than that. For one it’s much more about how I interact with my boss, those who work for me, my work-colleagues, my competitors at other universities, the civil servants and politicians I lobby, etc. etc. Actually everyone who works has these types of relationships.
At St Matthew’s we – at one point – set up a ‘Faith-at-work’ group – which attracted a lot of people for a while. And this is something I would recommend trying out, if you have a big enough congregation, and a few people who are prepared to set up such a group. One of the successful things our faith at work group did was spend a morning discussing relationships at work and how we could bring our faith to bear on sorting these out.
But for me – as I said earlier - it also matters what I do at work, not just how I do it. This is the famous question addressed by Luther who claimed that there is nothing un-Christian about being a hang-man if you hang people to the glory of God. In CHRISM meetings we argue quite a lot about whether some or indeed any jobs are incompatible with being a minister (ordained or otherwise). Prostitution at least seems to be ruled out by most people, hanging people, not by all.
But to finish I wanted to elaborate upon this idea that for all of us our ministry is surely not just done in one place or is neatly delineated from the rest our life. Over the past few years I have come to see my ministry as being in and through the whole of my life and not just or even mainly in or through my employment. And this is why I would no longer wish to call myself a Minister in Secular Employment and prefer to call myself a Whole Life Minister – not a particularly felicitous term but I can’t think of anything better.
In his important book, the ‘Stature of Waiting, W H Vanstone points out that for most of our lives we do no work: we receive rather than give, we wait. He notes that Jesus’ life can be divided into two halves: his active ministry and his passive ministry if you like where the turning point is the Garden of Gethsemane. Up to that point Jesus has been doing and acting. Rather breathlessly if you read Mark’s account. Then after the Garden of Gethsemane he is done to. Arrested, tried, tortured, killed. His passion is non-active. It is the paradigm for the waiting we must all do –particularly, but not exclusively, at the beginning at ends of our lives. Are we a lesser human being when we wait rather than do? Did Jesus not have a ministry while he was being arrested, tried, tortured, killed, done to? Of course he did. Reflecting on waiting is one reason why I think why we don’t just have a ministry while we are rushing about, at work, if you like, but also when we are just being.
Moreover I am not quite sure why I have to see my ministry as primarily in any particular activity or even non-activity. But if pressed to do so I would say that at this particular stage of my life my primary ministry is, for the moment at least, ‘in’ and through food and art! By primary I mean the aspect of my ministry I feel most passionate about.
Are food and art anything to do with my paid employment? Well the food is but the art isn’t.
As I said earlier food, or at least research into food, is what I am paid to ‘do’. And this has led to a developing interest in the connection between food and faith and giving sermons and talks and even organising a conference, on this issue. I have also begun to lead meditations around eating and making food. My latest experiment has been in running contemplative bread making sessions which seem to work quite well.
I find it interesting – but perhaps not surprising – that this ministry through food (sermons, contemplative bread making sessions) takes place not at my workplace (the University) but in churches or church halls but it clearly has a connection with my paid work.
And art? What is this about a ministry through art? Is that Ministry at Work No I am not employed as an artist. I have an amateur interest in art that’s ‘all’. I have always enjoyed going to art exhibitions but I cannot say art has been a particularly big thing in my life. Rather strangely (at least to me) I have found that I have developed an embryonic ministry ‘in’ art though a developing passion for giving ‘art sermons’. You can find further details elsewhere.
In some ways I have given up trying to define my ministry. I don’t want to be labelled. In particular I do not want to be labelled NSM/SSM or MSE. If you must, call me a WLM. Of course everyone of us has to work out for ourselves – in discussion with God - what shape our Whole Life Ministry should take but for me it has been though trying to make connections between my faith and the rest of my life – be it my paid employment, a rather undeveloped hobby, my relationships. It seems easier – more fruitful that way.
The questions remains: why does a WLM need to be ordained? The answer seems to be in reversing the question. Shouldn’t everyone who is ordained be a WLM? The answer to that question in clearly yes. There is no ‘time-off’ from ministry for anyone ordained or not. I suppose there is then the question of why anyone should or needs to be ordained at all. But that’s for another day.
I am bad at summarising but here are some take home messages. We all have a ministry. A ministry of all believers if you like. Some of us are lucky enough to be paid for it. Those who are paid by the Church have the roughest deal I feel. All of us work – at least for part of our lives - and for all of us our work is part of our ministry – an important part but not the only part. We all have to work out our ministry in fear and trembling.
Updated on the 9th June 2012
A note added on 3rd March 2018:
This is where I originally had after the words: 'In all of this I see a sacred dimension,' the words: 'You may not believe that I have heard God aright but I think God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country'. I removed these words from this 'blog' - not because I was embarrassed by them, or because I didn't believe them anymore - but because they were being used by the food industry and others e.g. here in their opposition to the sugary drinks industry tax (now to be introduced later this month).