By John Martin
Three women bishops have been appointed in the Church of England since mid-January. Now comes appointment to the episcopate of a complementarian — a conservative evangelical who believes women should not hold a leadership role over men.
The Rev. Prebendary Roderick Thomas, 60, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform, has been appointed Bishop of Maidstone, a suffragan see in the Diocese of Canterbury that has been vacant since 2009. Thomas’s remit, however, will be far wider, along similar lines to the flying bishops appointed after introduction of women as priests in the 1990s.
This development, unveiled May 5, is part of a package agreed behind the scenes ahead of the General Synod vote on women bishops. In exchange for this appointment, conservative evangelicals who are committed to the “headship” of males agreed not to oppose legislation for women bishops in July 2014.
Archbishop Justin Welby said he hoped this appointment would signal that opponents of the recent changes had a respected place in the Church of England.
Conservative voices welcomed the news as well. The announcement “marks a milestone in Church relations as the commitment to mutual flourishing declared by the Bishops begins to turn from words to action,” said Mrs. Mary Durlacher, a member of General Synod.
The Rev. Lee Gatiss, General Secretary of the conservative Church Society, with a firm tongue in cheek, said “We consider it an excellent further step in the process of full inclusion for conservative evangelicals within the leadership structures of the Church of England.”
Even though there is a sense of inevitability about this appointment, some voices express disquiet. Thomas probably was the key player in mobilising conservative evangelicals to defeat attempts to bring in women bishops before 2014.
Critics quickly revealed fruits of web searches proving his connections to a breakaway group of traditionalist congregations in England that operate outside the Church of England. He is a member of the executive committee of the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE), a group of non-C of E churches aligned with GAFCON, the international grouping of conservative evangelicals.
Women and the Church, which continues the work of campaigners for women’s ordination, offered a measured but mostly critical response. WATCH said it was “pleased to read that Rod Thomas sees the role as one for the whole Church of England, and not simply his constituency. We are, however, disappointed that the model chosen here so closely echoes the arrangements in the Act of Synod which proved so divisive in practice.”
The statement added that WATCH members “remain concerned that the theology of headship is essentially opposed to mutual flourishing.”
Thomas’s specific duties as Bishop of Maidstone will include fostering vocations from those taking a conservative evangelical position on headship; undertaking episcopal ministry (with the agreement of the relevant diocesan bishop) in dioceses in both provinces where parochial church councils have passed the requisite resolution under the House of Bishops’ declaration; and being available to act (again by invitation) as an assistant bishop in a number of dioceses.