Where are the Reform Bishops?

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.

12 Responses to "Where are the Reform Bishops?"

  1. Rosina Elston   02/09/2012 at 19:29

    I can see that the author of this report has not read the ARCHBISHOPS’ INTERIM REPORT ON CHILD ABUSE IN THE CHICHESTER DIOCESE. Please do your homework. Bishop Wallace Benn is no role model for ‘Reform’ bishops. We have had enough of such people in Chichester. I don’t care about churchmanship. We need a bishop who CARES AND INCLUDES THE OUTSIDERS. Go and do your politics elsewhere.

  2. Val Gibbs   02/09/2012 at 21:00

    How can you claim that Wallace Benn has had a successful ministry when he has TWO clergy Discipline Measures against him. You didn’t mention this in your very biased report.

  3. Richard Ashby   04/09/2012 at 20:51

    God help us. The last thing we need is more bishops in Wallace Benn’s mould, Currently subject to a CDM for his role in the abuse scandals in Chichester, supporter of the odious Stephen Green, and endoser of Green’s book without having read it. Perhaps if he had spent more time actually caring for his whole flock in the Diocese, rather than whoring after GAFCON, inciting conservative evangelicals and persecuting gay clergy he might have been more aware of what was happening under his nose and done something about it. He was part of the ‘dysfinctional’ diocese, contributed in full measure to its failures and should take his share of that responsibility. He should have resigned when the allegations about his failure first came to light. That he didn’t speaks volumes about the arrogance of the man.

  4. Lucy Duckworth   07/09/2012 at 11:33

    “Wallace Benn has been a great example of a teaching bishop” If exemplar bishops harbour abusing priests and have two CDM’s against them, what would one have to do to be a bad example in the Rod Thomas’ eyes? What a shameful uninformed propaganda article. How sad that once again, the truth has been avoided.

  5. John Richardson   08/09/2012 at 15:43

    I find the above remarks about Wallace Benn extraordinary in the light of common justice. Yes, a complaint has been brought against Wallace under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure. No, it has not been finalized yet. When it is, we will be able to take a view on Wallace’s role in the ‘dysfunctionality’ of Chichester – but ought we to be talking about it now?

    As to Rod’s overall case, it is undoubtedly true. Would we say there must be no ‘liberal’ clergy in the CofE because several of them have been disciplined under the CDM? (Read all the CDM Tribunal Decisions here – there is no ‘monopoly’ on such things. http://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/churchlawlegis/clergydiscipline/tribunal-decisions.aspx)

    The fact is that the Church of England has broken the key commitment of the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod not to discriminate in the case of senior appointments on the basis of people’s views about women’s ordination. If it hadn’t, perhaps we would have more Conservative Evangelical bishops than Wallace to talk about!

  6. John Richardson   08/09/2012 at 21:42

    By the way, does anyone actually know what the specific charges are against Wallace Benn? I don’t mean what he is SAID to have done (whether by the BBC, Butler-Schloss, etc), I mean what the CDM proceedings actually state as the grounds for a complaint. I’ve tried looking on line and it is hard to pin this down.

  7. Stephen Bates   09/09/2012 at 10:24

    Surely one problem is that many conservative evangelicals have a low view of bishops: they like them when they agree with them and ignore them when they don’t, which is a bit of a problem in an episcopal church which doesn’t go much for congregationalism (or lay presidency for that matter).
    One large, rich, conservative evangelical parish church in the diocese of Rochester is currently refusing to pay its parish share (£150,000 or thereabouts) yet still expects to play a large part in the appointment of the diocese’s bishops, which doesn’t say much for team spirit or concern for the wider diocesan community. Conservative evangelicals seem to negotiate by threat rather than love…not a good recipe for bishops as focuses of unity.

  8. simon Bravery   10/09/2012 at 22:53

    There was a heavy hint in the report into child abuse in the Chichester diocese that there had been a breakdown in the working relationship between John Hind and Wallace Benn and John Hind himself described teh diocese as ” dysfuntional”. I did not see any details of a farewell service for Wallace Benn, rather suggesting that hs stipendiary ministry was ending not with a bang but with a whimper. It’s a bit of a stetch to suggest that overall he’d been a success in Chichester, although it may be unfair to lay the balme for all the (very serious an deep rooted ) problems of the dicoese at hos door. But that’s damming with very faint praise.

  9. Roger Mortimer   12/09/2012 at 03:00

    “Bishop Benn faces serious questions of, at best, his competence to ensure children are protected, and at worst, his gross negligence in the face of serious allegations against staff he was responsible for.

    “His position as bishop is plainly untenable until these matters are fully investigated.”

    Letter of 16 May from Matt Dunkley, director of East Sussex County Council’s children’s services, and Cathie Pattison, independent chair of the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board , to the Archbishop of Canterbury.


  10. Richard Ashby   13/09/2012 at 10:10

    I understand that there have been ‘farewell’ events for Bp Benn, which makes it all the more extraordinary that he remains in post and that he is still listed on the diocesan website.

  11. Steve   14/09/2012 at 14:27

    “Come in, Mr Blackscarf, and sit down. I’ve invited you here because I would like you to be the next suffragan bishop of Westtown in my diocese.

    “I very much want there to be a conservative evangelical voice on the senior staff team in the diocese; we’re quite a diverse team as to tradition and churchmanship, we have one woman archdeacon, and I dare to hope that I might be able to appoint a woman suffragan to Easttown if the legislation goes through and if it falls vacant. But we haven’t had a conservative evangelical among us and I think it’s time we did – and I believe you to be the right person to fill this vacancy.

    “I know you’re opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood, and I won’t ever ask you to ordain one; indeed, I’d like you to take responsibility for the churches in the diocese which have passed Resolution C. But there will, of course, be churches you’ll be looking after that have women priests and women incumbents.

    “The western part of the diocese, where you’ll be ministering, is predominantly low to middle in churchmanship, but there are some Anglo-Catholic churches within it, and I think that all the churches in the diocese which have passed Resolution C are from the Anglo-Catholic tradition; that means, of course, that when you visit them you’ll have to celebrate with unleavened bread, wear the vestments, and swing the incense if they have it, just as there are churches I go to where I wear convocation robes and celebrate at the north end. As you’ll know, these are not my preferences, but the churches in question have decided that this is the way they want things done and as long as it’s not illegal – I did stop one church from using the Roman rite and another from simply reading 1 Corinthians 11 over the elements – I do it their way and not mine.

    “I hope very much that you will accept and come and join us. I’m not, of course, expecting an immediate answer – do go away and take time to pray about this, and to consult your wife and your spiritual director or mentor if you have one – but is there anything you’d like to ask me now?”

  12. Stephen Wilderspin   13/02/2014 at 11:29

    It just goes to show the opprobrious level of vitriol that can be aimed against someone just because they are investigated for their part in an undoubted scandal. Would this have been the same for any public figure? Or is it reserved for Wallace Benn in particular because people dislike his views. Slurs about bullying behaviour of Conservative Evangelicals are surely based on hearsay and are at the very least uncharitable and sub-Christian. I have heard similar slurs of other bishops, but would not share them here.
    I have no idea whether Wallace Benn has been poor, good or excellent, but his restraint in engaging in his trial by media suggests that he far outstrips his detractors in morality. It is salutary to note that he was entirely vindicated in all his actions and was suitably measured and generous in his response to the judgement.