30 years of alternative ministry

The Revd Hugh Lee is stepping down after over thirty years as Bishop’s Officer for Self Supporting Ministers (SSMs) and Ministers in Secular Employment (MSEs) in the Diocese of Oxford. He is the longest-serving SSM Officer in the Church of England and was among the first to be appointed. “I have aimed to demonstrate and try to explain to the church the purpose of these ministries, as well as to support the clergy exercising them,” he says.

Born in 1944 in Eritrea because of his father’s wartime job, Hugh was ordained in 1981 and has ministered in a variety of parishes in the Diocese while continuing to earn his living as an energy economist in the worldwide coal industry.

Hugh initially felt called to be ordained while at Cambridge University reading maths and after two years switched to theology. He discovered his calling was not to stipendiary ministry, but to be a ‘worker priest’. He talked to the Southwark Ordination Course, which had recently been initiated by the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, so that the church could benefit from ordaining people who continued in their normal jobs. But Hugh needed to get a career first, so plans for ordination went onto the back burner for a while.

During the oil crisis of 1973/4 Hugh, then working for the National Coal Board, was seconded to travel the world talking to governments and coal companies about how coal production could be ramped up, as it was then feared that world oil supplies would run out by the year 2000!

At the end of the 70’s he revisited his calling to be an ‘Auxilliary Pastoral Minister’ (as SSMS were then called) and joined the Oxford course. When he was ordained, Hugh was living in Amersham and commuting daily to work in London. In these early years he was attached to St Michael’s Amersham where the vicar, Brian Griffiths, was very supportive of his different ministry.

The Revd High Lee

Hugh has many a tale to tell. He was deputy head of strategic planning for the National Coal Board during the year-long miners’ strike in 1984-5. During the strike he took monthly days off to meet secretly with the coalfield chaplains, ensuring that there was a good exchange of understanding between the thinking of the bosses and the miners.

Soon after moving to Oxford in 1986, while licensed to St Aldates, he convened a meeting of Self Supporting Ministers (SSMs) in and around the city. “This was a much-appreciated opportunity to compare notes on how SSMs were being deployed by the Church,” says Hugh. It led to regular meetings and the then Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, appointed Hugh and three others to be SSM Officers in each of the episcopal areas in the Diocese.

“Self Supporting Ministry provides a very different perspective,” says Hugh. “SSMs have a valuable foothold in the workplace where most church members spend their time.” So it’s no surprise that Hugh has been an active member of CHRISM (CHRistians In Secular Ministry), the national association of Ministers in Secular Employment, since its foundation in the 1980s. The strapline of CHRISM is “To help ourselves and others to celebrate the presence of God and the holiness of life in our work, and to see and tell the Christian story there”.

From 1995 to 2002, Hugh had a part-time job promoting and encouraging the ministry of workplace chaplains in the Diocese. “These chaplains have a different role from MSEs, but both demonstrate that God’s love reaches into every aspect of our lives, and love can be exercised even in the most competitive commercial environments,” says Hugh.

In 1998 Hugh co-founded Ebico, the not-for-profit gas and electricity supplier that existed to help the fuel poor. This involved him using his knowledge of the energy industry to reduce the way in which the fuel poor pay more for their gas and electricity because of unfair standing charges and the badly run pre-payment meter system. He stepped down from chairing Ebico in 2016.

In 2000, Hugh was elected onto General Synod, one of only two SSMs on Synod during the 15 years he served on it. He often spoke in debates to ensure that SSMs were taken into account in the governance of the church. Hugh also frequently challenged the Church to have a more ethical investment policy, and he continues to lobby the Church Commissioners and others to divest from fossil fuel companies.

From 2002 to 2009, Hugh was part-time priest-in-charge of St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford and City Rector while still working as a consultant in the coal industry. He supported each Lord Mayor of Oxford and all the City Councillors, and promoted the church’s ministry to the tens of thousands of people who come into the city centre to work or shop or as tourists. This included activities such as free shoe-shining on Maundy Thursday and free pancakes on Shrove Tuesday in the Cornmarket, events where the church demonstrated its care for local workers and shoppers. He also added to the 700-year-old tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds‘ of the parish on Ascension Day by praying for those who work near each boundary stone.

For the last ten years, Hugh has been part of the ministry team in four villages to the East of Oxford. He continues, as an energy economist, to look at how fossil fuel companies can reinvent themselves as net-zero-carbon energy suppliers. On stepping down after over thirty years as Bishop’s Officer for Self Supporting Ministers (SSMs) and Ministers in Secular Employment (MSEs), Hugh remains as passionate as he ever was that the Church needs to consciously promote SSMs in all aspects of its governance and life. After all, SSMs comprise about a third of the Licensed (non-retired) clergy in the Church.

Is Self Supporting Ministry something you are called to?

Self Supporting Ministry is one of the many ways people are called to serve God and the Church. It offers the opportunity to undertake flexible ministry alongside a secular career or to pursue a retirement ministry. If you’d like to find out more contact our vocations team via vocationsenquiry@oxford.anglican.org 

Hugh is succeeded, as Bishop’s Officer for SSMs and MSEs, by the Revd Mike Rayner, Professor of Population Health in the University of Oxford.