Reform Leader Says Church of England Must Press the Gospel or Face Extinction
Women bishops debate is the aggressive face of intolerant liberalism, he says
While in London attending General Synod, VOL interviewed the Rev. Rod Thomas, chairman of REFORM, leader of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England
By David W. Virtue in London
February 13, 2010
The Rev. Rod Thomas believes that the debate on women bishops is very revealing because it shows the aggressive face of intolerant liberalism. He argues that if evangelicals don’t take warning from that, it is difficult to see how they could take warning from anything else. He believes this is a prophetic issue for the Church of England’s Evangelicals.
VOL: How serious is the situation for Evangelicals in the Church of England?
THOMAS: Everything hinges on the forthcoming votes on women bishops, because if we fail to get adequate provision, and eventual legislation is voted through in a couple of years time, then the game is up for evangelicals within the C of E.
VOL: What will happen then?
THOMAS: If that happens, then conservative evangelicals would stop putting ordinands forward for ministry training because they could not assure them of a long-term future in the C of E.
Existing conservative clergy would face the prospect of their churches being taken over by less conservative clergy once they moved on.
VOL: That sounds ominous and somewhat threatening.
THOMAS: In truth, it means the formal structures of the C of E would clearly no longer provide a home. The legislation guaranteeing no discrimination against conservative evangelicals who believe in male headship will be repealed and everything will depend on the good offices of a female bishop.
VOL: Are there any evangelical bishops you might be able to trust to give you a break?
THOMAS: I don’t know of any evangelical women bishops. There are evangelical women priests, but they would be of no help in this situation
VOL: Can you define the problem more closely?
THOMAS: The problem is not first generation, but second generation women bishops who won’t see any reason to be considerate and their attitude will be increasingly aggressive just as the attitude of the liberals who are campaigning for a women bishops measure without any protective provisions are becoming increasingly aggressive today.
VOL: Why is the possibility of women bishops the line in the sand?
THOMAS: The reason why women bishops issue is a line in the sand is because it demonstrates the aggressive nature of liberalism within the C of E and therefore provides a good indication of what they will seek to do when the issue of same sex blessings comes up in the next synod, which for the moment are prohibited.
VOL: I am hearing that the issue of women bishops is tied to the whole gay agenda of the church and that they feed off of each other. Is that true?
THOMAS: The arguments in favor of women bishops are exactly the same as the arguments that are mounted for a more inclusive approach for gay clergy. They all concern “justice” rather than righteousness. So if the women bishops issue is comprehensively lost to the evangelicals then that is the only warning signal about the future of the gay issue.
VOL: So how do you see the future?
THOMAS: I imagine that the future will be extremely messy. Potential ordinands will continue to be sent to theological training colleges, but for ordination into churches, which regard themselves as Anglican, it will not be done within the formal structures of the C of E.
VOL: Are you saying that you might see a parallel church alongside the C of E emerge?
THOMAS: I can envisage all sorts of weird stuff. What will happen is that they will stay on in their churches, but they will not invite a woman bishop to minister in our churches. They will have nothing to do with her if they have a woman bishop foisted on them.
(VOL footnote. In the Episcopal Church a parish must accept his or her bishop once every three years by canon law. An orthodox priest may apply for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO), but that can be a long drawn out, often nasty, messy with bitter exchanges between the bishop and the parish with its vestry. It is not always successful.
VOL: What is the long term impact?
THOMAS: The Long term impact will be on succession. The problem is not in the immediate but the long term succession. New people come in at one end, but they go into ministry outside the formal structures of the C of E. At the other end, as reform clergy leave their parishes, congregations will increasingly have to make financial provision for employing ministers who will operate without a bishops’ license. It will be highly irregular and messy, but frankly so long as we can see a way of preaching the gospel effectively we will do it. I see a right mess.
VOL: Does it have to be like this?
THOMAS: No, it doesn’t have to be like this at all. If General Synod is minded to take the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words seriously where he said we mustn’t pursue our argument for the best of our rights to such an extent that it undermines the rights of others, then perhaps other possibilities might arise. However, it is only helpful in the short term; the long term is not very helpful. We need to make provision for those who dissent from what is going on and not de-church others.
VOL: Are you looking for oversight where a woman bishop is put in place?
THOMAS: The likelihood next July is that the vote could go against women bishops. Even though the overall majority of General Synod is for women bishops, the liberals will ask for a vote by houses and there is a strong possibility that this compromise solution will be lost in the house of clergy. What this means, in terms of parliamentary procedure, is that if it is lost in one house, it is lost in all three houses.
For the moment, this leaves us with a draft measure, which is inadequate assurance for the future of our ministries.
VOL: What’s the next big thing for you?
THOMAS: The next thing is a big unknown quantity. A new Synod has got to be elected and that can be very unpredictable. If there is no provision made for Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, it will not go well. There has to be a two-thirds majority in House of Clergy, there could be in House of Bishops, but in present make up of the Synod there is not a two-thirds majority among the laity.
VOL: And the possibility of women bishops?
THOMAS: There could be women Suffragan bishops in place in four years time.
VOL: How did you view the ACNA vote in Synod this week?
THOMAS: I was encouraged by the ACNA vote because there was an underlying sentiment of sympathy for the ACNA position within General Synod and repugnance at The Episcopal Church’s litigation. That said, the Church of England moves slowly and it likes doing things by formal processes and therefore there was also a feeling that TEC should be given an opportunity to make its own case before a stronger vote could be given. As it is, the vote taken says that they affirm ACNA in its desire to be seen as Anglican. That is a very firm hand of fellowship and encouragement.
VOL: Do you see an ACNA type province in England?
THOMAS: No. The legal position of our churches is so very different from the U.S. and our ability to minister is protected in law. This is not available to churches in The Episcopal Church. I do see a progressive unraveling of relationships within the C of E and new more informal groupings of orthodox believers arising.
VOL: Coming from the United States, it seems to me that the elephant in the sacristy is that 98 percent of the British public could care a less about the Church of England. You have 60 million people, yet only 960,000 (less than a million) are found in church on any given Sunday morning. I suspect that most Brits don’t know much about Jesus Christ and they are heading for Christless eternities. Doesn’t that concern you?
THOMAS: Indeed it does. If the liberals can capture the Church of England, they will have a profound influence on the moral climate of the country as a whole. This is because the C of E is institutionally so tied in with every area of national life.
VOL: What about the possibility of a Wesley type awakening?
THOMAS: The huge attack on Christian belief in this country by growing secularism and the effect of multiculturalism means that the church has got to put itself onto a missionary footing if the Christian gospel is to have a greater impact.
VOL: In the Old Testament, God used the Assyrians as his agent of wrath against an unrepentant Israel. Do you think He might be using Islam and western secular humanism as His agent of wrath against a misspent church and an enfeebled Christianity?
THOMAS: My hope is that it is not so, my fear is that it might be true. The Church of England may be under God’s judgment. The financial and numerical signs seem to be pointing in that direction. If you have the gospel and if you believe in the sovereignty of God, then you never lose hope. We need a missionary church. At the moment, the C of E is not a missionary church. It is a passive church still sitting on its historical position within the nation. If all these debates on women bishops and gay sex force evangelicals to stand more firmly for the gospel, the outcome could be very good for mission. Either the Church of England makes special provision for us and together we move forward with vigor like the ACNA is doing or we operate outside the formal structure of the church with new groupings of orthodox believers and we leave these debates behind in order to press on with gospel work.
VOL: Thank you Mr. Thomas
FOOTNOTE: The Rev. Rod Thomas, 56, is vicar of St. Matthew’s in Elberton, Plymouth, Exeter. He describes his evangelical parish of 200 members as “typical.” He is chairman of REFORM, the voice of the evangelical mainstream in England which has some 1,300 members with approximately 400 clergy. He says Reform exists to reform the Church of England and thereby evangelize the nation and that is what he and Reform are working for. He will only stop doing that when the job is literally impossible. “If the Lord Jesus Christ chooses to take the candlestick away from Church of England, I just hope that, wherever the candle is lit again, we will be there.”
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