I use this description of my Christian ministry advisedly, despite it arising from a parishioner’s mishearing (or misunderstanding?) of the term MSE (or Ministry in Secular Employment in the Church of England). It has, also, a provocative element – the suggestion that, as a priest, I might be employed in one of the world’s oldest professions. The reality is that I am a sex educator, a qualified social worker and experienced counsellor engaged in training and consultancy on sex and relationships education (SRE), specialising in the needs of people with disabilities, and creating and distributing resources to support this work. As a priest, this is, and always has been, the main focus of my ministry.
In a few months’ time I shall celebrate 25 years in this role – and all within the same benefice in the Diocese of Worcester. I thank God that each of the three bishops under whom I have served has been supportive, while being fully aware that my role might be seen as controversial.
Why is the juxtaposition of God and sexuality deemed controversial? Our sexuality lies at the very core of our identity and understanding of who we are – as does our faith in God who created us and affirmed out humanity in the Incarnation.
Twenty-five years ago I had my doubts that the church would affirm my vocation – not because of my role as an ‘out-Christian’ in my place of work (Brook Advisory Centres, an organisation offering sex advice and services for young people) but because my husband was not a Christian. However, there was an acceptance that I was already being called upon to give a Christian interpretation of the work undertaken by that organisation when some other Christians were vocal in their denial of its compatibility with Christian belief. When I went to be interviewed by the Principal of the School for Ministry for my training for ordination, he was the first to raise the possibility that some might view my work as being incompatible with the Christian faith as, indeed, being a Roman soldier was viewed by the early churches because of the army’s veneration of the gods.
There has been a huge element of trust involved throughout these 25 years, both on the part of the church in my diocese and on my part, too. At the time of my ordination there was no ministerial template for me to choose from or follow. However hard I looked, I could not find another MSE in this area of work. I had to trust that if this calling was authentic, then the way would become apparent. And, indeed, it did.
The ‘vicar’ who spoke openly and professionally about sexual issues became widely known through the training work undertaken with teachers, youth workers and health professionals and through the authorship of numerous sex education resources. I became, with Martin Pendergast, one of the Faith Advisors to the Department of Health’s Teenage Pregnancy Advisory Panel. Within the Diocese I was part of a group looking at the theological and pastoral issues surrounding the establishment of a Child Protection policy for our churches and training those with contact with children and vulnerable adults. There were even occasions when I was called upon to support adult victims of clergy abuse where a woman, a priest and someone with sexual counselling skills was called for. I served for a term on General Synod when issues of sexuality and gender were on the agenda – the role of gay and lesbian clergy, and women bishops were to be debated, among other topics related to human sexuality.
More recently, I have acted as convenor for an initiative of CSCS – the Theological Educators Group. This is an inter-denominational group of theologians in positions of responsibility for educating future church leaders and with a real concern that teaching and spiritual formation should prepare ordinands for the range of sexuality issues that they are likely to face in their ministry. After nearly three years of sharing experience and knowledge, this project is to come to fruition in July 2014 at the two day conference at Ripon College, Cuddesdon entitled ‘Embodied Ministry: Gender, Sexuality and Formation’.
I’m often reminded of the story of Elijah hiding in a cave when fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel (1 Kings:19) when he hears God asking him, “Why are you here?” Elijah’s answer, “Because of my great zeal for the Lord” would not go down too well with many of those with whom I work although it lies at the heart of what I do. For me, as with Elijah, God is often to be found, not in the earthquake or fire but in a “faint murmuring sound”. My presence is sometimes symbolic – affirming the church’s concern for issues of human sexuality. On other occasions I represent access to the ministry of the church to the vast numbers of believers who are not, or not yet, members of a church. This is of particular importance for those who feel themselves excluded from the church because of their sexuality or the nature of a close personal relationship. A colleague who is known and trusted and who speaks openly and with compassion about sexual matters can feel like a breath of fresh air to such troubled souls. This ‘go-between’ role has been evident, too, in my efforts to explain to the church the reality of the secular world I’m engaged in. Of course, it also works the other way when, inevitably, I’m challenged about church teaching and practice on sex and gender issues.
I’ve seen many changes over this period, not least in the growing acceptance of women priests in the Church of England. Women were first ordained as deacons the year before my ordination and, five years later, we were ordained as priests. The validity of this (still not accepted by some) should be affirmed in the current legislation before General Synod on the consecration of women as bishops. We have still a way to go on the full acceptance of LGBT clergy but an increasing number are registering their relationships in civil partnerships. I hope and pray that another, future generation of ministers in sex employment will take forward the need for the church to engage in a more active and pragmatic way in the social and sexual education of young people – and not just those within our churches.
The Revd Canon Jane Fraser is a Minister in Secular Employment and Dean of NSMs and MSEs in the Diocese of Worcester