It was in October 1974 that I was ordained a priest “in secular employment” by our former Bishop, Gerald Burch.
It was a bold experiment at that time. A number of interested lay people, competent in their own fields of employment, but without full theological training, were ordained to work (without pay), as ‘honorary assistants’ to the Rectors of their parishes. The particular concern at that time was a shortage of candidates for ordination, and the perennial financial problems of the church, and this was a way of tackling both problems at once.
Seventeen years on, how has it all worked out? Perhaps I can pass on my thoughts and my experiences.
Firstly, it seems to me that an honorary assistant can be of immense help to the regular clergy, simply by being available to help with services, cover in sickness and holidays, and be a useful sounding board to the Rector as to what is going on within the Parish.
Secondly, without the training that the regular clergy have, particularly in pastoral and administrative matters, and without much available time during the working week, it seems to me important that honorary assistants work under supervision. If not, then there will be the danger of the assistant giving an appearance of doing a job that in actual fact is not getting done—and the temptation is for parishes to allow this to happen, because honorary assistants come cheap.
Thirdly, It is very difficult for the priest in secular employment to participate in clergy days and regular clergy activities—every hour out of regular work carries a price, and indeed, may not be available because of the demands of employment, let alone that fact that the day by day activities of the ‘worker priest’ are different from those of the parish clergy. All the more reason that those who supervise his ministry keep him informed on trends and policies in the Diocese. They have to be his eyes and ears from the point of view of the Diocesan administration.
Fourthly, the honorary assistant has an important place in the working world. Rightly or wrongly, there is a status given by ordination in the eyes of the working world that the regular lay person, regardless of training, does not have. The “priest in secular employment” has a chance to minister to the needs of the world as a Deacon in a way that the average parish clergyman does not have. His ‘parish’ is quite often with the needs of his contacts in the workplace—a different kind of ‘parish’ that is a most useful bridge between the church and the everyday world.
It’s a different ministry: cheap, a little bit amateurish, but also, in its own way, very effective, because it operates out where the world is, and not within the fortifications of the consecrated building. It is also incredibly rewarding to the minister himself.
I am impressed, in the Anglican cycle of prayer, at the number of Dioceses where the comments show non-stipendiary clergy to be at work. If the evangelization of the world is our target in the next few years, it’s a technique of ministry that should not be neglected.