Who will drink the ‘ingredience of our poison’d chalice’ of Ebbsfleet?

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The head-hunt is now on for a new ‘flying bishop’ for the scandal-hit conservative evangelical constituency in the Church of England after Rod Thomas’s retirement this month as Bishop of Maidstone.

The CofE announced in June that ‘the Bishop of Maidstone Rod Thomas’s successor will now be known as the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’. Ebbsfleet previously ministered to Anglo-Catholic parishes, but that role has now moved to the bishopric of Oswestry in Lichfield Diocese.

The Maidstone replacement is due to be announced by the end of this year. Ebbsfleet will be based either in London or close to the M4 motorway heading west out of the capital ‘for ease of travel and will minister nationally to complementarian evangelical parishes’ of which there are now around 150 across England.

With a combination of high administrative ability and smooth social skills, Thomas has successfully built up his own conservative evangelical department within the CofE since the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, consecrated him in 2015 to have delegated episcopal oversight over ‘those who cannot, on the grounds of complementarian evangelical theology, accept the priestly or episcopal ministry of women’, as the CofE press release put it.

Thomas retires before the imminent publication of the Makin Report into the savage serial abuses by the lawyer John Smyth, which is poised to hit the conservative evangelical constituency very hard. Earlier reports into the scandal by the Scripture Union, under whose auspices the Iwerne evangelical holiday camps took place, at which Smyth groomed many of his victims, and by Winchester College, the top private school where Smyth had an entrée for his abuse, have already uncovered a culture of secrecy, snobbery and empire-building among the CofE conservative evangelicals involved in the cover-up in the 1980s. Makin is set to lay that culture bare.

Who is likely to get the Ebbsfleet role? Certainly in the running and very possibly the frontrunner is the Rev Mike Smith, vicar of St John’s Hartford in Chester Diocese. Smith, 53, is a member of the working group Thomas set up to produce his Maidstone Commitments in 2021 ‘in the wake of concerns that had been raised about the culture of some evangelical churches’.

Smith has the advantage of having had no connection with the Iwerne camps for pupils from elite English boarding schools.  A considerable proportion of conservative evangelical clergy went on the camps as schoolboys and university students where they entered the orbit of the serial abuser Rev Jonathan Fletcher, a leading influencer on the camps over five decades. Smith managed to avoid Fletcher’s gravitational pull.

He has been helped in this by the fact that unlike most prominent conservative evangelical clergy of his generation who went to theological college in Oxford, Cambridge or Durham, Smith attended the unfashionable Oak Hill theological college in north London in the 1990s.  

By contrast, before Rod Thomas went forward for ordination training in Oxford in 1991, he had been a member of Emmanuel Wimbledon, the CofE proprietary chapel where Fletcher was vicar from 1982 to 2012. As a bishop, Thomas was a member of Fletcher’s preachers’ group.

It would seem that Smith would not say no to a bishopric. In a letter to the Church Times in July 2021 he commented on a CofE report highlighting the fact that there was only one bishop committed to the evangelical complementarian stance, that bishop being Maidstone.

Smith wrote: ‘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”.’

But could Smith be persuaded to take on Ebbsfleet given the storms on the horizon, which Thomas has managed to avoid by the timing of his riding off into the sunset? Not only has Thomas avoided Makin, he has also managed to avoid decision time at the General Synod next February over the Living in Love and Faith process on sexuality. Smith would have to face the possibility that the CofE will authorise a service of blessing for same-sex couples after civil marriage.

There would almost certainly be a conscience clause for clergy unwilling to take such services. But with the awesome power of the LGBT lobby in the UK, the CofE refuseniks would be the bad guys and Smith would be the bad guy in chief.

So, if he accepted Ebbsfleet, Mike Smith would have a much tougher job on his hands than the relatively smooth ride Rod Thomas has had.

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