Conservative evangelicals not sanguine about the prospects for a new Bishop of Maidstone

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Would the next conservative evangelical Bishop of Maidstone be able in conscience to defend the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF) ‘consultations’ on marriage, sexuality and gender?

That question comes into sharp focus after a traditionalist parishioner in Hereford Diocese launched a devastating critique of the LFF process.

Anglican Mainstream has published the letter from the unnamed ‘south Shropshire parishioner’ to the Bishop of Hereford, Richard Jackson.

Having engaged with the LFF materials and finding the experience ‘discouraging’, the parishioner told Bishop Jackson: 

‘Although cleverly disguised, I felt the whole tenor of the LLF process was to try and persuade those of “traditional” beliefs on morality to “listen” to LGBTI+ views and change their stance. This seemed to be the dominant message coming through rather than a truly impartial look at the topic.’

Anglican Mainstream’s editor, Rev Andrew Symes, attached a note to the parishioner’s letter:

‘The fact that the author did not feel safe to reveal his/identity…shows why many people with a traditional, “orthodox” understanding of Scripture in the CofE feel silenced and sidelined.’

The parishioner told Bishop Jackson that the ‘assumption’ in the LLF process seemed to be that church members who hold an orthodox view ‘must never have met trans or same-sex attracted individuals’. 

‘The Bishops may themselves be surprised to find that many church members have known and been friends with such people (you could hardly have been alive for the last few decades and not have), have listened to and read numerous stories and yet are still of the view that the Bible’s teachings on marriage (traditionally interpreted) are the best for mankind and should be upheld in contemporary churches,’ the parishioner wrote.

He or she concluded: 

‘Those who go along with same-sex marriage will find it very easy to say their bit, knowing they have the approval of society, and the most powerful voices in the church too. 

‘I suspect the CofE will approve same-sex marriage, falsely believing the majority is for it, but will alienate many of their members and possibly destroy the church in the process.’

The current Bishop of Maidstone, Rod Thomas, 67, who has just announced his decision to retire in October, is a member of the LLF Next Steps Group of nine bishops overseeing the process. The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who chairs the group, is urging CofE members not to ‘jump to the end’ of the LLF process.

She told the Church Times: ‘Yes, of course something will come to Synod at some point, but the real risk is that, if we focus on what we think at the end, we may miss . . . that “God moment” on the way. If we are only ever focused on the end, will we really spot the movement of the Spirit in this process?’

Bishop Thomas’s retirement statement said he ‘will continue as a member of the House of Bishops’ “LLF Next Steps Group” until the conclusion of its work in 2023’. 

The statement added: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury will be undertaking consultations both among Diocesan Bishops and conservative evangelical clergy before any future appointment to the See of Maidstone is made.’ 

Anglican Ink contacted Bishop Thomas, who oversees nearly 150 conservative evangelical parishes across the CofE, to ask how he would defend the LLF process in the light of the Shropshire parishioner’s negative experience. 

He told AI:  

‘I think many of the issues the writer raises – particularly in regard to Scripture – are important and I’m sorry that the introduction to the piece (Andrew Symes’s note) registers such concern about raising them. As you know, the intention was that LLF should create safe space for all views to be graciously aired.

‘I hope the writer is mistaken in thinking that concerns of the sort aired here won’t be properly registered by the wider church. Certainly all the material produced by CEEC (Church of England Evangelical Council) has been designed to encourage not only participation, but also clarity about the biblical witness.

AI also asked the Bishop whether he was still in favour of the traditional Christian sexual ethic, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite, and if so, how he would justify his continuing membership of the Next Steps Group.

He replied: 

‘For my own part, my understanding of God’s will for human relationships is based primarily on His revelation to us in Scripture. It remains unchanged, although I do hope that, partly as a result of the LLF process, it is better informed. 

‘I am, therefore, happily still committed to the “traditional Christian sexual ethic”. As for my participation in the Next Steps Group, I trust that “working within” will be of value as we seek to encourage one another in biblical faithfulness.’

Hereford Diocese has also issued a statement in response to the parishioner’s letter:

‘We acknowledge that the Living in Love and Faith materials means people may find themselves able to engage, while there will be others who do not.

‘By following the Church of England’s Pastoral Principles to create safe spaces for conversation, we hope as many people as possible will be part of the conversation. 

 ‘We have a team of advocates supporting people across our diocese in each deanery area. These individuals can signpost to the most appropriate support, including counselling, raising a safeguarding concern, or an opportunity to chat to someone in confidence about any concerns about the subject matter. 

 ‘This process of conversation and feedback will continue into the summer. Gathering feedback is a significant part of the project. The outcome will be a decision by the House of Bishops as to what to bring to General Synod.’

A potential candidate to replace Rod Thomas as Bishop of Maidstone could be Rev Mike Smith, vicar  of St John’s Hartford in Chester Diocese. He was on the steering group of the conservative evangelical network, Reform, and seems to place a high value on the episcopate. 

In a letter to the Church Times last July, Mike Smith commented on a CofE report highlighting the lack of conservative evangelical bishops committed to the ‘complementarian’ stance on the differing roles between men and women: 

‘I was surprised to read that there had been even a single suffragan bishop appointed since 2014 who “identified as complementarian Evangelical”, before realising that this referred to the Bishop of Maidstone. Given that this solitary bishopric was revived specifically to minister to that constituency, he could hardly have identified otherwise.

‘The report notes that there is a common concern among complementarian Evangelicals (as we are designated; I think that I am just a Cranmerian Anglican who would cheerfully subscribe ex animo to the Thirty-Nine Articles!) that our “positions are tolerated at best, rather than being encouraged to flourish”.’

 Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in the UK.