By Rod Thomas
The retirement this month of the present Bishop of Lewes removes the last serving evangelical bishop who believes in the biblical doctrine of male headship. Wallace Benn has been a great example of a teaching bishop –thousands have flocked to hear him; he has been a gospel man through and through as many attending ‘Bible by the Beach’ will testify; he has been a doughty defender of Biblical doctrine – particularly during recent controversies; he has helped to establish close links between evangelicals here and orthodox Anglicans worldwide, playing a pivotal role in the 2008 meeting of GAFCON; he has been an encourager of many.
There is, however, one rather obvious feature of Wallace Benn’s tenure as Bishop of Lewes that is in danger of going completely unnoticed – namely that he has very successfully pursued his ministry within a diocese (Chichester) noted for its Anglo-Catholic leadership. He has given the lie to the myth that conservative evangelicals are temperamentally incapable of serving the needs of the wider church.
This was a myth I found myself having to address when I was a member of the Pilling Group (The Senior Appointments Review Group) back in 2007. The subsequent report stated that there was clear evidence of discrimination in the appointment process against both traditional Catholics and conservative evangelicals.
So what has happened since 2007? There have indeed been some very encouraging appointments of bishops, but none have held to the beliefs expressed in the Reform Covenant about God’s ordering of church and family life.
By any standard it is extraordinary that you can have nearly one in 10 members of General Synod holding to an understanding of male headship in the church, yet have no serving bishop anywhere within the Church of England supporting this view. The result is that our voice is going unheard in the House of Bishops. It is not that members of that House are unaware of these views; it is just that there is such little intrinsic understanding of our position, that our views continue to take bishops by surprise. Increasingly, the language we speak is diverging.
It could be argued that Reform incumbents are themselves responsible, since so few are willing to take the first step of becoming archdeacons. However, that succumbs to the view that seniority increases by virtue of Diocesan appointments. Many evangelicals have senior managerial roles in the big city-centre and suburban churches combined with an active pastoral ministry.
So does the problem lie with the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC)? My own view is that despite their desire to see more conservative evangelical appointments, it is often difficult to persuade diocesan representatives on particular CNCs that such persons will meet the needs of the whole diocese. Similarly, Diocesan Bishops may feel that appointing Reform incumbents as suffragans will generate a local controversy they would prefer to avoid.
There are two possible solutions. One is to require such appointments in legislation. Although the draft Women Bishops Measure is fundamentally flawed by its reliance on a potentially changeable Code of Practice, the controversial addition of Clause 5(1)c in the draft Measure might have helped here. By stating that a future Code would have to cover the selection of bishops whose Episcopal ministry was ‘consistent with’ the theological convictions of petitioning parishes, it implied that such bishops would have to exist. Some procedure for their appointment would therefore have had to be put in place by the House of Bishops.
The second solution is to increase the pressure on CNC members to consider individuals who would otherwise be overlooked. This could be done if both Archbishops championed their cause. At the very least this would give the Diocesan representatives on the CNC pause for thought.