AN APPRAISAL OF THE INITIATIVE BEHIND THE SOCIETY FOR INDEPENDENT CHRISTIAN MINISTRY
“A historical and contemporary assessment”
There are usually two strands of action behind the emergence of any new Movement: one, the seizing of an initiative, and secondly the wave of opposition that invariably follows. A close look at some of the Movements within the Christian religion will confirm this. St. Francis, in his attempt to focus on the simplicity of the gospel was ridiculed both by his contemporaries and the Church of his day. A failure to understand the experience of his own conversion, which re-orientated his life, was the result of a failure to appreciate an initiative so clearly overdue in Medieval ecclesiology.
William Sawtrey, an early English priest, attempted to develop a social conscience among the clergy of his day, emphasising a need for more pastoral awareness, with less concentration on sacerdotal matters. The charge of heresy was brought before him under a new statute De Haeretico Comburendo, and after his degradation, was burnt at Smithfield. His initiative became a contributory element taken into the English Reformation. William Booth faced fierce opposition, even serious rioting, as he sought to evangelise, through social welfare and preaching, the masses of the submerged one tenth of Victorian society and, with subsequent initiatives, and worldwide expansion The Salvation Army gained such respect unimagined at its inception. The Wesley brothers struggled with determination and persistence to invigorate the spiritual life of early Industrial Britain, not without considerable opposition. John Bunyan had to endure twelve years of incarceration at the hands of the Anglican authorities for seeking an alternative to worship at his parish church. The irony of his forced ‘retreat’ gave to the world a rich medley of hymns and spiritual writing.
Regrettably, elements within the Christian religion have not moved ground on treating with indifference and suspicion initiatives aimed at expanding both the awareness of how to make the faith effective in terms of using fresh endeavours, or in recognising ideas which seem to threaten entrenched orthodoxies, unless they can be controlled, systematised and acknowledged. The pages of history tend to provide numerous examples of the worst aspects of bigotry, humiliation and destruction of communities and of pioneering individuals by mainstream Christian Churches, which they later come to regret, asking forgiveness for opposing, then seeking to incorporate into their own systems the very ideas and methods previously denigrated. Sociologically, this process is all too common, especially when authority is questioned and the status quo challenged.
From common assumptions The Society for Independent Christian Ministry will, in its early stages, probably suffer the same fate. This may strengthen its resolve, although in reality all would seem a terrible waste of time and energy, as if the lessons of history have not been learnt.
On a positive note SICM may have to stand at the bar of intelligent reasoning bruised and shocked in order to associate with the same spirit of determination exemplified in similar developments already mentioned.
All Movements, or rightly understood, “the moving of ideas within the body established” (e.g. The Christian Church) are a response to ever changing circumstances in the lives of individuals within a given social context. Movements meet the particular needs of individuals when institutional structures seem too weighed down to take action, and in so doing actually enhance the work of the Institutions. This could be seen when, for example, the impressions made by The Salvation Army upon the Established Church led the latter, under the inspiration of Prebendary Wilson Carlisle, to found ‘The Church Army’, a similar organisation.
In modern western societies it is apparent that the institutional bulwarks of the Christian Church are less secure than in previous generations, although each generation has presented its own set of problems for the Church. The end of the twentieth century witnessed an increase in secularisation unparalleled in the whole of Christian history, and the Churches could not satisfactorily turn the tide of an apathetic trend in Christian commitment. This alone would be a justified reason for welcoming a fresh initiative in Christian outreach, but moreover such an endeavour would need to be conscious of a better understanding of the whole person. Strategies of blatant evangelisation, seen solely in terms of offering solutions either from testimony or scripture, would fall on deaf ears. Processions with banners or bashing of drums, relevant in another age, become nothing but carnival trivia. There would have to be a far greater recognition of an individual’s place within a spectrum of values, which may include an embrace of the person for what they are and not for what they might become. Any clergyperson in the SICM would pace the path of pilgrimage, being alongside others, not leading or giving an unwelcomed push. Even the process of spiritual regeneration may not be seen in terms of introducing Church membership or subjecting an individual to the rigidity of some Church structures. Sustained spirituality, when less reliant on organisations, can have a lasting quality.
Everywhere fragmentation is in evidence. The Society for Independent Christian Ministry has responded to this both creatively and as a challenge. All its members, by working independently and without ministerial and denominational sanctions, are free to meet the seemingly broken and splintered strands of modern society head-on. No longer do they have to wait for authority to permit their ministries to function; they do not have to fear the fire or wrath of Churches still plagued with the indifferences of history; they do not have to take risks against the abuses suffered by St Francis, Sawtrey, Booth, the Wesleys and many others - or even wait for centuries to be recognised. They have a good reason to be members of the SICM and to maintain its existence; and they have our Lord’s authority behind their work.
The Society for Independent Christian Ministry (S.I.C.M.) came into being after extensive and regular discussions between The Reverend Jonathan Blake and The Right Reverend Richard Palmer, during the latter part of 1999.
Jonathan had previously been a priest in the Church of England, and a graduate of Durham University. He served in Bradford, Rochester and Bexleyheath.
Bishop Richard Palmer had been a priest in the Old Catholic tradition, ordained in 1975 and consecrated to the Episcopate at Royal Holloway, Egham in 1997 to serve as an Auxiliary bishop in The Liberal Catholic Church. He had been a student at the House of the Sacred Mission, Kelham and trained as a teacher at King Alfred’s College, Winchester. He graduated in History and Education.
Both men had experienced misgivings about institutional Christianity after having been on the receiving end of some of the harsh realities of it. Jonathan eventually created and developed an independent and much freer form of ministry, enabling him to travel widely to give new meaning and purpose to his vocation. Bishop Richard attempted to create a reformation in his own Church, but soon became aware that Churches seek only to perpetuate their own agendas and often fail to navigate unchartered territory!
The idea of establishing a Society for Independent Christian Ministry was the outcome of a pilgrimage of discovery to form a community of independent clergy, held together in Christian love, with a willingness to offer support in diversity to a cross-section of the whole community. It was initially envisaged that an Order of Independent Ministers and Priests be organised, but the name could appear unattractive to some Christians.
Religious orders tend to be within the Catholic tradition and unwittingly repel the very people who might otherwise consider joining them.
Once the Society had commenced, it sought to interpret itself through its ‘Founding Principles’. This became its legal document, upon which the precepts and tenets were based.
The Founding Principles were drawn-up by Jonathan, and revised and shared with Richard, leaving open the possibility for gradual development and change by the membership. Bishop Richard designed the official seal of the Society.
Many people, well intentioned in their faith and spiritual commitments, may ask why should there be a Society for clergypersons working outside of the mainstream Church organisations. Similarly, anyone with an inkling of theological understanding will want to question the ministerial authenticity or validity of independent clergy. To answer such questions, and they are quite legitimate and meaningful, requires sensible answers that will seek to justify the work of the Society and enable its credibility to be tested and judged. Answers, as well as questions, can so easily seem prejudicial, if something new and untried is seen as a threat to recognised and established patterns of working. An essential ingredient of the S.I.C.M. is that its formation is not for negative reasons. Rather, its purpose highlights a need to explore the opportunities to progress an entirely new form of ministry and permit its development as its mission unfolds.
Christian Ministry, throughout history, has adopted many and varied forms. At times it has tried to mirror patterns of service known to Early Christianity, such as the Orders of Bishop and Priest, and the development of the Diaconal Ministry. The Reformation doubted the authenticity of Apostolic Succession with many reformed communities adopting their own ministerial hierarchies and of none. Even where new ministries were tried much abuse, ridicule and scorn were poured heavily from historic churches on new and invigorating changes.
National Churches refused to acknowledge the status of clergy within non-conformity, even doing their utmost to destroy new approaches. The many independent Christians of church history testified to this, like the early English Methodists whose ministries were not acknowledged, to say little of the Officer-pioneers of The Salvation Army who incurred the wrath of the established clergy! But why should this be? An answer at this point may go some way to provide a clue as to why the S.I.C.M. may be viewed with suspicion by some. The ‘Call to Ministry’ has its tradition in many Protestant evangelical Churches. Usually, a congregation will invite a pastor to be its Minister.
Episcopal Churches ordain clergy to obey canonically both the bishops and Canon Law of the whole Church, with parishes accepting the appointment with little, if any, local consultation.
None of these systems has any significance for clergy authorised by the S.I.C.M., and herein may be the dilemma. No one would ever seek to pursue the work of a Minister of Religion unless they first perceived an inner feeling of motivation towards such work. The call of God is no empty phrase. Many people, like Moses of old, can testify, to an impetus to draw closer to a reality beyond their comprehension: and in this very personal experience are often quite alone, wrestling in conscience and faith with a higher order. This sense of the presence of God, known so personally to the individual, is not the product of the voice of a Church seeking ministerial recruits. How that ‘call’ is articulated in terms of service is another matter. The very call itself is the authentic basis on which allministerial work is founded. Therefore, an individual who can provide witnesses to the S.I.C.M. to confirm that they are able to offer Christian love, and are known to have felt the call of God in their life, becomes a sure candidate for Christian service. But this responsibility rests with each individual.
The S.I.C.M. is not a denomination and does not facilitate ministerial opportunities, although these may be carried into Christian fellowships and into patterns of ministry instigated by the member. In as much as the S.I.C.M. recognises, through its membership-community, by love and support, the desire of an individual to serve, this recognition itself forms the basis of a valid and authentic Ministry. It is therefore legitimate that a faculty of Ordination be attributed to the Society, but only in the sense of adding to the process already set in motion by the individual in seeking to share their life with others in ministerial service. In essence, the Society mirrors the wider community, as ultimately the latter itself must come to recognise and appreciate the fruits of the member’s work and offering. By avowedly testifying to being part of the Christian Church the S.I.C.M. links itself to the vine of Christ, and in so doing validates the purposes behind an individual`s quest for ordination. If Holy Orders finds no other focus than that of either a `Call to Ministry` by a church or the receipt of `transmitted powers` in a Christian Community, they only remain useful to the very societies that created them, and can only sustain them and validate them.
The established ministries which already exist in mainstream Churches, and smaller movements, need feel no threat from clergy ordained in or associated with the S.I.C.M. Competition in status would be a fruitless exercise. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’, says Jesus, and it is only in seeing independent clergy in action can their work be justified. Theological arguments or perceptions of academic ignorance, should they be found, are not significant criteria for making ill-considered judgments.
The Society for Independent Christian Ministry welcomes ordained clergy who have ministerial responsibility in various Churches to associate with it, and does not preclude anyone from seeking the fellowship of the Society.
What of the future? The Founders and Members of the Society firmly believe the Holy Spirit is active within the S.I.C.M. Accepting the Lord’s promise that the Holy Spirit will guide into all truth can only create speculation about how the S.I.C.M. will be used within the divine purposes - and where it will go! It may become a model for an invigorating and dynamic new form of Ministry, eventually being adopted by the Churches themselves. It may act as a catalyst for spiritual growth among people in the Third Millennium. Maybe it will adapt itself out of all recognition, who knows? It can only place itself in the hands of its Lord, to be used as He wills and pleases.
AN APOLOGETIC FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SICM AND ITS CLERGY
"For what reason and by what authority?”
Samuel Johnson said that ‘questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen’, although Kipling was adamant by asserting that ‘them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie’.
Be that as it may, questions which have been asked of a Society in the context of its work and development centre on efficiency, relevance and purpose. If the replies offered are to enhance the credibility of that Society, such answers should be both honest and succinct, and even conversational!
The Society for Independent Christian Ministry, unlike the longevity of some well-established Societies, cannot draw upon its own tradition or experience. It cannot explain itself according to well tried and recognised processes, and cannot draw parallels between modern day systems of ministries adopting similar methods of operation, although it resurrects principles of ministry inherent in the experience of Jesus, the disciples and the early Church.
The many aspects of ministerial service offered by the Christian denominations are widely known and recognised. Clergy appointments are regularly made in the context of stable and settled congregations and parishes, with the exception of special chaplaincies or missionary enterprises. Clergy are usually supported by the Institutions that created their appointments. SICM clergypersons, unless offered appointments within the aforesaid context, work differently. An emphasis has to be placed on an appreciable value system of ministry entirely different from what mightnormally be expected. Such a ministry has to find an alternative focus which gives it a uniqueness, whilst at the same time creating purpose and credibility.
To work in any ministerial engagement independently means being alone, autonomous, individual, separate and unaided. Adjectives which seek to highlight the essence of independent ministry may at first appear both peculiar and frightening, and in negative assessment irrelevant and dangerous. But it is precisely the extraordinary nature of such a ministry, when positively understood, which forms the basis of a society that will encourage its development.
The Society for Independent Christian Ministry seeks to draw together the wealth of experience of many clergypersons who wish to find support in diversity and to gain encouragement from colleagues working in similar ways. Such an Association would not seek to regulate, subjugate or even measure against prescribed methods, the professional work of each individual in membership. However, in a wider context there may appear to be a need to unite individuals, working independently, to experience legitimacy within a recognised Society. This may also be necessary at a time when the community at large becomes ever increasingly dependent on those able to evidence credibility and security in the work they undertake. No one would deny the right of qualified individuals a platform for their work, but loose cannons wholly unaccountable may become easy prey to unscrupulous exploiters, or themselves be susceptible to human weakness.
The SICM is able to exercise a dual role in that it can draw together the shared functions of individual members, and can also ordain for service others who feel so inclined to work independently with the SICM as the origin of their work. The Society is able to confirm and recognise a vocation to the ministry, and to advise on the suitability of working independently, within the scope of a candidate’s preferences and strengths. The SICM would be irresponsible if it advocated this type of ministry simply to advance its membership. Under the mandate and authority of its Founding Principles it exercises, as part of the Christian Church, a right to ordain, although it would not wish to encourage the adoption of ministerial status unless a clear level of understanding had been reached on the implications of the duties involved. Were this not so the SICM might be accused of ordaining indiscriminately. Each member of the SICM belongs to the Society not to advance the cause of yet another Institution or to assist in the speculative process of defining more theological dogma, but simply to demonstrate a corporate identity as a core base from which to work independently. The Society is better known by its corporate membership in association, than by its singularity as an Institution. This idea is rooted in the apostolic faith of those who are ‘sent out’ for service; and unless the accent is placed on outreach, any gathering has little purpose save in as much as it fosters a huddle of clergy -centrics and little else.
There are many instances recorded in the New Testament of the Apostles engaging in a variety of ministries - they are truly an independent band! Their purpose seems not to centre on establishing assemblies. These may continue their work, save only as to enable others to do what they themselves had done. There are clear indications that the continued purpose is one of moving out into situations which provide opportunities for advancing the gospel message.
Clearly, the modern Western World has shifted its eyes away from much of the treasured Christian heritage of past centuries. Evolution has been at work both within the changing nature of community and in the expectations individuals have of what it is to be considered fully human. Tribal patterns aimed at cohering social structures have given way to individual expressions of freedom and liberalism in nearly every department of human experience. The modern world is one of fragmentation and change, with Tennyson’s words having a certain ring of truth about them: ‘The Old Order changeth giving way to new; and God fulfils Himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world’. SICM would see a purpose behind its existence as being a response, aided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, to enter into the changing processes at work in modern society. To encourage its clergy members to drop labels and traditional identities and move alongside individuals to support them, not in the name of Churches or established organisations, so often dictating what individuals do not wish to hear, may make for an approach in which acceptance and openness are easily discerned. A malaise of our modern times is fear: with many people firmly in its grip. Institutions which may havetried to loose individuals from its menacing tentacles have, unwittingly, generated much fear and uncertainty. The SICM clergy, by offering unconditional Christian love without compromise or limitations, affiliations or attachments, demonstrate, unequivocally, the very antithesis of fear, the like of which so easily stultifies growth in the human spirit and sadly hinders the possibility for healing and contentment to be experienced and accomplished.
What the SICM’s critics seek in identifying marks of the Society’s authenticity, may be left to serious and unprejudiced questions being asked, which may ultimately enrich and strengthen the Society. The SICM will remain truthful about its purposes, which are clear and unambiguous.
THE WORK OF CLERGY IN SICM
“Into All The World”
The Society for Independent Christian Ministry began in 2000 on the initiative of The Reverend Jonathan Blake and The Right Reverend Richard Palmer. Jonathan, formerly an Anglican priest and Richard a bishop of the Old Catholic tradition, Consecrated to serve the British Province of The Liberal Catholic Church, firmly believed the Holy Spirit was guiding them to extend their understanding and practice of an independent form of ministry.
In order for the SICM to be truly ecumenical it had to embrace and welcome all shades of theological opinion and types of religious adherence. A mix of Catholic, Evangelical, or Free-Church practices, as well as alternative ideas on worship, would be no hindrance in encouraging individuals into membership. ‘To offer Christian love to all’, the motto of the SICM would override any disharmony often created by different forms of spirituality. Nothing would stand in the way of affiliation to the Society; issues of gender, sexual orientation, biblical interpretation, academic qualifications, un-licensed ministerial status, even Church Selection Conference rejection, would not prevent the encouragement of committed individuals, filled with the Holy Spirit, the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and a genuine desire to be of Christian service anywhere and in any capacity, from joining.
Candidates seeking to be ordained in the SICM are asked to produce letters of recommendation; ordained persons apply similarly according to the Founding Principles of the Society. A Service of Ordination usually takes place at a SICM gathering where members come together to share experiences and learn from one another. Clergy in Holy Orders are incardinated into the SICM, some may have an associated membership of the Society.
Some people may ask how SICM clergy develop their spiritual responsibilities. Firstly, as the SICM is not a denomination it does not provide remuneration for its member-clergy, neither does it appoint individuals to specific ministerial duties. It has no career structure to offer or schemes for professional advancement. As a consequence the SICM is not empowered to dictate to individuals the type of ministry best suited to their vocation and work. It may assist in advising on ministerial training courses through the links it has established within its membership and beyond, but does not insist on a member acquiring theological qualifications applicable to the form of ministry envisaged. Responsibility for this remains the sole prerogative of each individual.
Secondly, clergy create whatever form of Christian service is ideal for them to follow. Those, who at ordination, are made deacons* and ordained priests* may develop their own Eucharistic communities with the cooperation of people who value having a full independent clergyperson, or may simply assume the role of community priests in an open and less restrictive manner of working. Some may develop chaplaincies to families, friends and Institutions. There would be nothing to stop a SICM minister from accepting a pastorate of a local church, knowing that their ministerial authenticity and validation originated in the SICM. Being answerable to the employment conditions of a particular fellowship would in no way compromise their valid status as a Minister of Religion authorised by SICM. This faculty is permanent with or without a ministerial appointment and facilitates the on going support of member-colleagues exercising ministries in a variety of ways.
Thirdly, as the SICM gains greater acceptance within the Christian Church, of which it is truly a part, clergypersons may be asked to assist and complement existing ministries.
This will depend upon the extent to which ministries already established value the genuine commitment of the SICM clergy to assist. Recognised patterns of ministry are not instantly created. Observation may be necessary with some assurance of soundness in terms of ability and confidence.
In essence, a person called by God to be a minister/priest/deacon/pastoral worker in reality fulfils the duties of ministry whether in association with the SICM or in a denomination. All are the servants appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ and ordained through the power of the Holy Spirit. Questions of status should not arise; humility and a desire to serve, sometimes quietly without assuming recognition, may be required in certain cases. SICM clergypersons realise that they are not a contradiction to established patterns of ministry, only in so far as they offer a new and invigorating ministry which will benefit the whole community.
Working independently requires adopting systems of administration and sound record keeping for which costs have to be applied. These may form the fees charged by clergypersons in keeping with a need to sustain themselves in full time active ministry, and to meet expenses incurred. There are no monies available upon which to draw a salary or stipend so careful arrangements have to be agreed between clergypersons and those to whom they minister. Fees and disbursements for special services are usually negotiated between all parties concerned, as the SICM does not stipulate how much these should be. Doubtless, SICM members will not make an issue out of financial contracts, necessary as they are, but value the opportunity to serve as the object of their work. Some members may have personal reasons for not accepting payment, but gladly accept a gift or donation. At any rate no one would be excluded from receiving the ministry of SICM clergy on grounds of an inability to pay. Each situation is different as circumstances vary in every case.
SICM clergy have much to offer, but they bear a heavy burden and responsibility. They are vulnerable, and must also be aware of the vulnerability of all the people they serve. Their high calling has to be placed alongside a commitment to standards of morality and sound judgement, especially in the pioneering of initiatives aimed at securing a foothold for God’s Love in areas possibly untouched by others in the field of Christian outreach.
Special care has to be taken in terms of insurance cover and personal safety. An independent clergyperson may benefit from fulfilling a less restrictive and non-parochial calling, although set objectives and structures if adopted can become a secure base for stability and purpose. These needs not follow institutional patterns and may easily be individually developed.
In Summary, members of the SICM may exercise a working ministry by the practice of prayer and holiness at the highest level, constantly interceeding for the needs of others, especially for the vast number of people out of touch with the religious life. By showing utmost vigilance to stand alongside the unloved, so that the love of Christ may be felt, SICM clergy adopt a supportive role. To enrich the lives of individuals where they are: in the preparation, planning and performing of special ceremonies to mark important stages on life’s pilgrimage and to be readily available to all, unfettered by denominational barriers, but resolute in simply offering Christian love - these aspects characterise the work of SICM clergy. Clearly, a demanding ministry.
However, God will uphold His workers so that they do not falter. From the depths of His Love he has raised up the SICM; and all its members will carry the torch of faith in their independent ministries.
* Bishops in the SICM exercise an episcopal ministry to these clergy, if invited to do so.
THE VALIDITY OF HOLY ORDERS AND MINISTRY WITHIN SICM
The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 10 verse 15: ‘And we do not boast of work done where others have laboured, work beyond our proper sphere. Our hope is rather that ..... we may obtain a position among you greater than before, but still within the limits of our sphere’.
The question concerning the authenticity or validity of ministry carried out in the Christian Church has been the subject of controversy and debate for centuries. Issues of recognition and regularity have occupied the minds of ecclesiastical theorists since the early days of Christianity. Territorial claims of clergy from the Papacy to the appointed Priest or Minister easily fill the pages of Church history books. At Avignon, until 1408, two rival popes, Clement VII and Benedict XIII claimed a rightful authority, in spite of the return of the papal Court to Rome. Even in modern times Catholic and Anglican bishops (in England) occupy Sees in the same cities!
Churches often use their own understanding when accepting the credibility of clergy, creating criteria based either on scripture, tradition or an established legal framework. Such complex systems lead to a denial of some Orders, the declaration of invalidity or a refusal to recognise any principle or worth implicit in alternative types of ministry. The complexity becomes inflated when Christian ministry is categorised as to who the proper ordaining minister should be, or upon whom Holy Orders can satisfactorily be bestowed: men, women, gay, straight, trained or untrained, full time or part time, young or old? Complications arise when sections within organised Churches distance themselves from decisions taken to ordain irrespective of gender, to such an extent that special provisions are made to accommodate dissenters within the same Church - The case of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (‘Flying Bishops’) in the Church of England, to highlight one such example. Recent times have, however, seen a real effort made by the Churches to give more understanding to the nature of the ministry, yet old prejudices and traditional ideas still flourish in a quagmire of doubt and uncertainty. Some alternative religious fellowships remain dismissive of the whole notion of an ordained ministry, postulating a theory of ecclesiastical invention of Holy Orders to gain power and control. How then would we begin to assess this issue in the light of a Society who’s function it is to be concerned with ministry and not with Church organisations? The Society for Independent Christian Ministry is after all a ministerial Community.
In the SICM there is a two-fold basis on which ministry is understood to operate. First, and not predominately, members are ordained within the corporate framework of the Society. This affirms an identity with the whole universal Christian Church. Members already rooted in this identity, through ordination, are incardinated to the SICM. The Society rightly exercises, through its corporate association, a faculty to ordain, exemplifying its desire, in community, to draw inspiration from the source from which all ministerial authority is derived, Christ Himself. He is the true and only ordainer in actuality. Ordination is not a given right of any Church or religious organisation, save in as much as a recognition is afforded to Christ as Lord of the whole universal Church in every age and time. Ordination, practised in community, is a collective affirmation of the lordship of Christ. This principle was recognised in the Middle Ages when the Abbot of an Order exercised the right to ordain the professed within the Community of which he was part. The SICM is a ministerial Community called to serve Society at large.
Secondly, members of the SICM have each responded to the call of Christ in their own individual way. Their prime concern has been to see the ministry in terms of serving an unrestrictive dimension of Christian service, led by the Holy Spirit. Wesley’s utterance: ‘The World is my parish’
has great meaning for SICM members. Their validity is attested on the basis of their calling and in the fruit of that calling. They have the witness to this validity within themselves and in the assessment made of it by the wider community. They fail or succeed upon the judgement of society as a whole and not on the basis of a retention of some accorded status or given authority. Charles Wesley, though ordained by an Anglican bishop, only believed in his credibility to minister, after experiencing a warming of the heart in his quest for holiness.
It is easy to acquire clerical garb, and to adopt prefixes to enhance status. It is another thing to carry the pretence to a point of success at which credibility is assured. Independent clergypersons may appear to be self motivated, but for the right reasons. Their actions have to be sustained else they will incur the condemnation of the public at large.
The validation of clergy across denominational lines seems to place the emphasis on specific criteria established primarily by the Churches, such as types of formation, training, acceptance, status, to say little about monetary considerations. This may fail to appropriate how the wider elements of society envisage the authentic duties of clergy in a realistic role of function and commitment. Why denominations need to appear protectionist on issues of clerical recognition only seeks to highlight the high value placed on the institutions rather than on those called to work within them, or, in the case of SICM, outside of them.
A principle of ‘reception’ can be applied to clergy from any background simply by reinforcing the recognition of a call to minister. SICM clergy do not have to fulfil the mechanics of forms of acceptance instigated by the Churches. In association with Churches, individual members of the Society may negotiate their own terms of recognition, especially when such members create their own working links with such bodies. Some members might have theological opinions at variance with a position adopted by Churches, which would preclude open acceptance of their ministerial position. But it has to be stressed that SICM clergypersons do not have to match the complex systems of ministerial recognition afforded by the Churches. To do so would be to re-affirm methods which have been a source of acrimony and suspicion for centuries.
The SICM recognises the ministry of those within its membership. Their source of validity derives from this recognition, and the Society recommends this authority to the wider community. Judgement on this ministry is not the sole prerogative of the Churches, only in so far as they may share an assessment of it as part of the community in which they themselves function.
At Ordination, members of the SICM indicate their particular vision as to the nature of ministry, which reflects that to which they have been called. The Ordination confirms this position, safeguarding the wishes of each individual alongside the collective ‘laying on of hands’ by the gathered membership as a whole. In this ‘rite of ordination’ the two principles mentioned above find their signification, and wonderfully embrace the wide spectrum of spiritual identities, truly making the issue of ecumenism both positive and real.
The test of validity is one of affirmation and experience. Members of the Society affirm one another before God and practise the gift of a spirit- filled life in association with the public at large. With each member of the SICM being entirely responsible for their own ministerial identity they have no need to appear as representatives of the SICM, as if they were servants of yet another denomination. The Society is not a further opportunity for ordained persons to hanker after denominational authority and security. The purpose of ministerial authorisation, through the SICM, is to enlarge the concept of independent ministry, to broaden the knowledge of the responsibilities of such work and to
åwiden the horizons in personal dedication afforded by this ministry. The notion of validity is experienced in an on-going working relationship and engagement, rather than in some initiating sacerdotal event within the confines of structured bodies.
Ordination not only possesses a utilitarian value in that it contains a commissioning aspect, it is of itself functional by virtue of its inherent spiritual elements. The attributes of Ordination contain many roots, as well as outward purposes. The Apostolic Succession by its very nature reflects not only a continuous dimension but an affirmation of originality. Whereas Ordination by a Congregation, acknowledging Ministerial authority, enlivens a present awareness of God’s action in the Church militant here and now. Both aspects are creative pointers and powerful symbols of the richness of Holy Orders. Members of the SICM would feel uneasy about inventing new ideas concerning Holy Orders simply to refute the wisdom of the ages. Such wisdom can be drawn upon without creating segregation in the Society. In fact the Society is enhanced when its members are able to share the fruits of this wisdom and together agree on what to each individual has depth and meaning.
[The subject of Apostolic Succession and the sacramental nature of Holy Orders as understood by Churches of the Catholic tradition is dealt with in the leaflet ‘The Apostolic Succession and Congregational Ordination in relation to Ministry within The Society for Independent Christian Ministry’. An appraisal of the Ministry of the Reformation Churches is similarly discussed.]
As St Paul asserts, ministry among equals should not be provocative. There is a proper sphere of Christian service available to those who are called, and whose one desire is to offer Christian love to all.
THE APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION AND CONGREGATIONAL MINISTRY WITHIN THE SOCIETY FOR INDEPENDENT CHRISTIAN MINISTRY
Occasionally, people ask what life may have been like in the early Christian Church. What, for example, was the ministry of those leaders that guided and nurtured the Church? How were they ordained, and what status did they have? With hindsight it is easy to believe that a carefully constructed system operated; a vivid imagination may suppose there was a singleness in thinking on the subject.
The emergence of the Christian Church from an intense, yet loose, evangelistic and social Community into a structured legal institution, operating initially under the shadow of the Temple in Jerusalem and in plurality with very ritualistic pagan cults within the Roman Empire, may have crystalised itself into a ceremonial and ordered organisation, without doubt. Although the indications are that its preoccupation was more in line with discovering inner illumination, and experiencing the realisation of prophecy, it may not have intended the cementing of any firm or ordered structures at all. The New Testament provides clues as to the shape of the ministry, but this may only have been part of a much wider arrangement. Whatever developed, two factors are worth considering. First, there was a practical feature involved. Second, a belief in divine inspiration. Both these factors are important in any debate on the ministry in the Society for Independent Christian Ministry, in contrast with the early Apostolic Tradition.
There is little doubt that the Orders of Apostles and Servants (deacons) ranked highly in the Early Church. The idea of priesthood as a third order may have originated as a way of assistance, as the bishops (as Apostles came to be known) were unable to be in every place. They delegated some of their powers to deacons who, as priests, came to share in the bishops’ ministry, representing them but not being spiritually empowered to transmit their Apostolic office to others. The issue was one of facilitation, not an attempt to secure privilege or position, or even to create a clerical cabal. There must have been a need to concentrate their thinking in keeping with the earliest Tradition known to the Church. Any departure from this may have spelt chaos. But this desire to remain rooted within the Tradition probably enabled the essential spiritual identity of the Christians to be sheltered from organisational bureaucracy and the authoritarian constructs of human enterprise. Such ministerial formation may have had little to do with subjugation and obedience. The transmission of the Apostolic ministry may not have been an opportunity to advance territorial claims, or to use orthodoxy to hound and persecute dissenters. Sadly, this developed both as a distortion of the work of the Apostles, as well as becoming a hindrance to maintaining the Christian love enshrined at the heart of the gospel. The Reformers attempted to understand another purpose of ministry, if only to forget the earlier tradition in the attempt. However, they did most wonderfully place the ministerial office in the context of the worshipping community, seeing ministry as integral to, and not in isolation of, the people.
Unless the work of the Apostolic ministry could be related to both the needs of Christians and the wider community, it served little purpose. It was only sacerdotal in being able to channel the grace of Christ, to offer Christian love and to be available as need presented itself. There could be no other reason for its existence, least of all to maintain tradition for its own sake. And those called to the Apostolic ministry saw themselves reflecting the work of the Apostles in and through time. It was the Lord Himself calling them to live the Tradition in their persona, not in the Church. The latter was necessary as an ingredient to aid the Apostolic work, not to institutionalise the freedom and liberality of those called to serve. The more the Church became institutionalised, the less spiritually effective was the true work for the Master and His ministers. To equate the church with institutionalism is to refuse the true life of Christ lived openly both in the lives of Christians and in the ministry.
The apparent looseness and flexibility of ministry in the SICM may find an origination in the Apostolic Tradition. In fact it might be argued that such ministry may be unimaginably closer to that Tradition. To recognise the apostolicity of the Christian ministry may not be an acceptance of church organisation but an affirmation of being centred in the work of the Apostles. SICM clergy ordained as deacons and priests bring themselves in line with this awareness, and spiritually find an enhancement to their ministry in such consideration. They see value in being called to an open ministry relevant for our times, especially when fewer people are engaging with institutional religion; also in knowing themselves as exemplars of the Tradition founded by the Apostles in purity of commitment and intention. The acceptance of episcopacy in a spiritual sense relates to the unlocking of the divinity in every person, and linking that divinity with the incarnation which is at the heart of the Christian faith, being ever present in the Apostolic Succession.
The only assurance of the presence of Christ given in the New Testament come from the Apostolic injunction to ‘Go into all the World......and to preach I am with you always...’ and ‘when two or three are gathered together in my Name’. Here we have beautifully expressed the Apostolic ministry and the gathered Community. Christ is present in the Community of the Christians. They form the ecclesia; the ministers are the ones ‘sent forth’ for service. They are the true independent workers for the Master! They assist the Christians out of love, not in order to rule. In the SICM this dimension is extended to the whole of God’s Creation, as all life finds its origin in a Creator God. The Universal Church is the whole of humanity in actuality made up of all who, as St. John says, ‘have the light that lighteth every person coming into the world’, and Christians are called to be the servants of mankind. God’s life is at the centre of all the manifested order; nothing is outside His love - the whole Universe being the overflowing of His love. With this in mind ordination within the succeeding operation of the Apostles, or in the realisation of the Holy Spirit in the gathered Congregation, serve a single purpose: to facilitate the work of the incarnation in love and service.
At the heart of an ordination service is an intense spiritual dimension exemplified in the affirmation of vocation by the ordinands, in the devotion of the congregation in recognition, and the unquantifiable element of which the Apostolic Succession is the custodian. To describe the reality of the latter in terms of form, matter, or intention, is to use language codes based on intellectual reasoning or a cultural invention within the inherited Tradition which simply may be untrue.
When ordinands in the SICM decide that their ministry, which began under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, is enriched in ordination by both a recognition of the significance of the Apostolic Succession and in their reception in Community, they experience a sense of unity with the Early Church and the ministry of the Apostles. What they do not experience is a receipt of authority or regularity empowering them to seize control or to feel superior. They have demonstrated by conviction the position they have adopted, and may see how both divine inspiration and the practicalities of ministry, axiomatic when operating, are focused in the way the SICMperceives the issue of ministry.
All the difficulties more noticeable between Catholics and Protestants over the nature of ordination need not concern the SICM ordinands, that the transition from being ordinands to clergy is personal in response to each individual calling. Ordination is a shared activity, seen in what has been and is being bestowed and in the presentation of commitment. Only when this is realised can ordination have any significance. In the service of the Christ there has to be perfect freedom, even a conscious unbinding of the yoke considered important by Churches when they ordain. Christ would be less than liberator if he drew his Apostles into a net not of their own making.
It is interesting to note that St. Paul in Corinthians introduces his great ‘Hymn of Love’ with a mention of the ministry, beginning first with Apostles, but in conclusion he asserts that not all are called to a particular office. Love itself has to be the objective behind all service. Ministerial positions may be of great value, but even the importance of the ministry itself has to yield to the supremacy of love. Making love their aim, all clergypersons in the SICM try to move ever increasingly toward the ideal which characterised the Early Church, and in so doing discover what is at the heart of the Apostolic Tradition.
CANDIDATES FOR MINISTRY AND MEMBERSHIP OF SICM
When the initial discussions were held by the Founding Members of The Society for Independent Christian Ministry it was decided to adopt a form of Constitution which would embrace both the ethos and way forward of a Community of independent clergypersons in keeping with the developing openness of the modern world. ‘The Founding Principles’ were to appear unambiguous in proclaiming a genuine and unrestricted welcome to all people from whatever background, who felt the call of God to minister in Christ’s Name in the power of the Holy Spirit, without the imposed limitations of doctrinal regulation, institutional policy or authoritative controls often found in many Churches and religious organisations. Members of the SICM may be drawn from backgrounds of theological expertise or administrative competence, or maybe simply responding to the promptings of the heart and mind to offer themselves as servants of the Lord Christ.
Candidates may or may not have had a college or University education, or may even have experienced a reluctance in feeling confident about becoming ordained persons. A simple and profoundly uncomplicated desire to offer christian love to all may have been the trigger to begin the process of ministerial vocation, leading to acceptance by the SICM as accredited and authorised Ministers of Religion.
Some candidates may have felt the call of God to minister but were inhibited from doing so because of considerations of unworthiness, inculcated by the harsh and uncompromising attitudes of bigotry and narrowness still prevalent in many mainstream Churches. Issues of homosexuality, marital breakdown or divorce, a past record of criminality, or alienation from religious roots of childhood or family - attitudes of judgement , to mention only a few, perpetrated by some Churches - may have been sufficient reasons to deny the call of God, from stirring the heart to action in service for Christ, as a clergyperson.
The Society for Independent Christian Ministry, having a duty to facilitate a policy of inclusivity, would not have to waste time over, or become party to, the hypocrisy and bigotry or blatant and destructive fundamentalism which prevents the Holy Spirit from leading women and men into a full and active desire to minister in Christ’s Name and to offer unconditional love to everyone. Because of this enlightened and unprejudiced approach the SICM welcomes all, without any difficulty, women and men, black and white, all shades from every continent, country and culture, every social group, heterosexual, homosexual and transsexual, young or old, the ‘upright’ and ex-prisoners, traditional and alternative: and because this list is not group-extensive, all and every sub-division and classification that there could possibly be, are all welcome. The Society is founded on such openness and impartiality that any attempt to reverse this action would be seen as both destructive and damaging. Individual members have the right to maintain their own personal interpretation of ethical, moral, social or theological issues, and, if shared with other members, may do so in the light of the over all conviction exemplified in the SICM’s ‘Founding Principles’.
Such conviction remains inviolate as part of the Society’s acceptance and openness. The Society is not a platform to advance or advocate a particular form of doctrine or form of church, and would discourage any association with a partisan or polarised position being adopted by individual members, save in a respect for beliefs held personally by each member. The SICM is not a denomination and cannot speak singularly on matters left to the personal understanding of each member. All new candidates for ordination or incardination should acquaint themselves with this policy. Many possible ordination candidates are often refused admission by some Churches on grounds of prejudice. The SICM unequivocally calls anyone to its membership including those who have experienced the hurt that such rejection so often brings.
Dealing with the basic details about applying to the Society may entail the following considerations:
Before the final decision is taken to seek membership of the SICM, either for purposes of ordination or incardination, it should involve a close assessment of the reasons behind such action. Opportunities for ministry vary across the spectrum of the Christian Churches. Independent Christian Ministry may, on face value, appear attractive, and no one would seek to deny the advantages of it, but the motivation to work within the sphere of such a ministry may require an honest appraisal of all the facts involved. It may not be enough to believe that an individually structured ministry opens possibilities of greater freedom, when a great deal of hard work and effort are required. The calling is extremely worthwhile, yet the challenges at times may be daunting.
What has to remain uppermost in a candidate’s mind is that the object of living out the SICM’s motto ‘to offer Christian love to all’ must be without equivocation. The SICM clergy may at times be faced with situations that other clergy dare not engage with. ‘... love as its goal, the love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith’.
Working on the fringes of society, responding to the spiritual needs of many non-church individuals, or offering hope in times of crisis, especially when the institutions can go no further, may be aspects of the role of the independent priest or minister. The qualities clearly required of an independent clergyperson might be a fearless spirit, a friend to all, an advocate in times of need, a counsellor of both heart and mind, an inspirer, and one not afraid to stand alone.
Whenever possible a discussion with a member of the SICM would benefit any potential ordinand. This member before and after ordination could act as a ‘journey-person’ to advise, if required to do so, and to be a point of reference for the new member. So long as a member remains linked to the Society, the SICM in turn offers uninterrupted support, commitment and abiding love at all times and in perpetuity to those authorised in ministry. The love that was so clearly a feature in the ministry of Jesus, and became the distinctive characteristic within the early Christian Church, runs through the veins of the SICM.
Candidates for the ministry authorised by the SICM are asked to familiarise themselves with ‘The Founding Principles’ and apply on the basis of the information given there. It has to be borne in mind that the ministry within the SICM, because it operates so differently to the clericalism of the Churches, may appear peculiar to them, although in fact it reawakens the basic call to ministry exercised within the Early Church. Independent ministry is no easy option, although the SICM’s support offered gives a wonderful sense of liberation in service to God and all God’s people everywhere.
‘..... for we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord and ourselves servants for Christ’s sake’.