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By Julian Mann
Special to Virtueonline

The eve of General Synod letter by Reform chairman Rod Thomas highlighting the practical difficulties of women bishops for Conservative Evangelicals has arguably proved most controversial within his own constituency.

There are some glaring absentees from the list of 50 incumbents who signed it. Three Reform council members who lead churches are missing and two large-church incumbents who would be associated with Reform, one in the north and the other in the south of England, are also no-shows. There may be perfectly innocent reasons for these - the gentlemen in question may be on holiday/sabbatical or were otherwise non-contactable.

But credible reports have been circulating that some large-church incumbents refused to sign because the letter was perceived as 'threatening'.

This is likely to have been the offending passage, so it pays careful reading:

'Since we cannot take an oath of canonical obedience to a female bishop, we are unlikely to be appointed to future incumbencies. We see nothing but difficulty facing us. In these circumstances we will have to discuss with our congregations how to foster and protect the ministry they wish to receive. This is likely to generate a need for the creation of new independent charitable trusts whose purpose will be to finance our future ministries, when the need arises.

'These twin developments will need to be financed from current congregational giving. This will inevitably put a severe strain on our ability to continue to contribute financially to Diocesan funds. Where we are unable to contribute as before some will see this as a form of retaliation. However, that could not be further from the truth. We long to contribute to the well being of the Church of England. Over the last ten years we have encouraged more than 180 young men into the ordained ministry, over 50% of whom were under the age of 30. We have together contributed a gross figure of more than £22million to Diocesan funds.'

The Diocese of Sheffield, where I minister in a net-receiving parish church (one that does not pay for the cost of the ministry it receives), is led by an excellent bishop in Steven Croft, who was consecrated last year. Clergy morale is on the up and he is proving to be an outstanding leader in mission. It is also true to say that under his very liberal predecessor I found the diocesan staff more practically supportive of me as an Evangelical incumbent in a non-Evangelical church than the Conservative Evangelical constituency locally.

So why did I sign the letter? Three reasons:

1). Just because my situation is sunny at the moment does not mean the same is true of other orthodox brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Church of England. Also, Sheffield may get an awful bishop after Steven. That's the reality of Buggin's turn in the national Church. So there is the need to take a firm biblical stand in the driving rain or in the sunshine.

2). Loyalty to the leader. Of course, that needs qualifying and can never be absolute. But if a man undertakes leadership of our network and has the courage to stick his head above the parapet on a matter relating to the Reform Covenant (in this case male headship), he is innocent until proven guilty. As a member of the network, I must have really good reasons not to sign it and I could not see any in the letter Rod asked me to sign.

3). Whilst Rod affirms Reform's sincere commitment to the Church of England, his letter rightly puts the requirements of Christ's mission and ministry above institutional considerations. I personally do not see anything threatening about Rod's description of the conscientious difficulties women bishops will place on Reform churches and the likely financial consequences. His statement presupposes that Reform churches are stewards of the resources God has blessed them with. What is threatening about affirming that those resources must be used in the best way for Christ's Kingdom?

----Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge in South Yorkshire. His weblog is Cranmer's Curate - www.cranmercurate.blogspot.com

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