Interview: Rod Thomas chairman of Reform

by
24 December 2008

by Terence Handley MacMath

REFORM is an Evangelical network in the Church of England, the aim of which is to preserve and foster gospel ministry. It’s as simple as that.

I suppose we’re stuck with the title of “conservative”, but our concern is not with labels — our concern is with gospel ministry. We think the country should have the opportunity to hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus as it is in the Bible, and so the authority of the Bible should be para­mount. Undermining the au­thor­ity of the Bible undermines the gospel. If you can’t trust one bit, how can you trust the rest?

Critical reading of the Bible is good, if it means seriously to engage with the text. If it means to put it to one side in favour of other author­ities, it does undermine its authority.

We don’t do major membership cam­paigns. But we have about 1600 members, about 500 of whom are clergy. We estimate that two or three times that number of clergy are sym­pathetic to our aims, if not to every aspect of our covenant — that’s the essential statement of what we be­lieve, and I think it’s the best ex­pressed statement of Evangelical faith at the moment.

Homosexuality is not at all the main issue — we want to welcome everybody, irrespective of their sexuality. But where the authority of the Bible is undermined, we will stand up for it. We’re not a single-issue group — we’re fighting the battle wherever the battle is.

There should be male headship of the local church because it’s a visual aid of Christ’s relationship with his people. Reform believes that there needs to be a valued ministry of women in the church as there needs to be a valued ministry of men; it’s a difference of function. The way we order ourselves is a visual aid of how we relate to God. But there are gradations between us on this issue.

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We intend to remain faithful, and to be part of the Church of England. An important part of that is re­specting the biblical basis of the Church. Canon A5 is based on the teaching of scripture. If people move away from that, we’ll find a way round those obstacles — for ex­ample, if a bishop of a diocese started to teach something which seems against what the Bible says, we’d remain part of the diocesan structures, but look for spiritual oversight elsewhere.

The Anglican Church isn’t an organisation which welcomes a range of beliefs. It has core beliefs which stand at the heart of its identity. You can’t ignore the formularies of the Church — that’s not Anglican. Having said that, it does have a reputation for tolerance and allowing space for people to disagree over secondary issues, and that’s something I prize enormously. It’s a genuinely national Church.

I alternate between admiration for Dr Williams, and despair. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t admire his courtesy, huge thought­ful­ness, and desire to keep people together; but what makes me some­times despair is the lack of any clear action to support the confessional basis of our identity as Anglicans. It’s one thing that prompted GAFCON.

The Bible became significant to me slightly later in my life. I became a Christian from the age of seven, and grew up in a Christian family — Plymouth Brethren and then Baptist. In early adulthood I fell away from Christ. I came back, partly as result of getting married and thinking about the fundamental things I wanted to base my life on, and partly on discovering a Church of England church where the Bible was taught in a way I’d never heard before. It opened God’s revelation to me.

I went into the Civil Service, but de­spite being fast-streamed, I decided to move out when Margaret That­cher came into power, and worked in various business organisa­tions. I fin­ished as Director of Em­ployment and Environmental Affairs at the CBI.

My most embarrassing moment was when I had to carry the can for a real mess-up in a visit of a senior Japanese trade delegation. At one point, the entire delegation walked out — something nobody had heard of before.

When I was a young child, I wanted to be a farmer. When I grew up, I wanted to go into politics. But the polarisation of views among political parties at the time I finished uni­versity left me feeling unhappy about committing myself fully to one party.

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The ordination process started with the reconciling of my faith with un­derstanding the Bible as being the living word of God. And I was given increasing numbers of oppor­tunities to teach the Bible, which I hugely enjoyed — and found very chal­lenging. Professionally, I’d reached a point where I needed to move on, but I wasn’t attracted to any of the options available to me. It was a long process of discernment with fellow-Christians, and also with my wife.

I’m married and have three chil­dren, who are very much moving into adulthood now: the youngest is 17. I’ve loved seeing them develop. You give them exactly the same op­por­tunities, but they all turn out different.

I was brought up in the most exclusive version of the Plymouth Brethren. Leaving it opened up life in a way it hadn’t been opened before. I came out with the rest of my family, except my father. He was later excluded — probably for not being able to control his family. When you see these things happening, you know it has nothing to do with Christian love, nothing to do with standing firm in the faith.

I hope the first impression of my church is that it’s joyful and friendly. People say that. Emphasis on the Bible’s teaching is at the centre, and we’re in the process of change. We were a small church, now we’re a medium-sized church, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to change and grow.

Being in the Exclusive Brethren and seeing the destructive effect it has on families has given me a lifelong love of the tolerance you find in the Church of England. Leaving was an important choice. So was marriage, and finding a church which taught me the Bible. And, of course, becoming ordained.

I gave my life to Christ at the age of seven as result of reading The Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St John. I’d be hard put to choose between the books of John Stott — they’ve all been hugely influential. I’ve just finished Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. I loved it.

When I was relatively young, Billy Graham had quite a strong influ­ence on me — his story and what he did. I read his biography and went to the Earls Court mission, and was selling song books there for one or two weeks. I remember dashing out to get his autograph and being disappointed that he refused — on the grounds that he’d have to give everyone else one. I looked around and there wasn’t anyone else there. . . But I still admire him enormously.

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My biggest regret is selling my house in London at the bottom of the last recession.

I do remember a sermon by Dick Lucas which explained to me for the first time how the Church is at the centre of God’s purposes for the whole of history. I heard it on a Walkman as I walked round a super­market and was utterly gripped. I don’t know what happened to my shopping.

Fairtrade coffee tastes delicious. Yes, I do support Fairtrade — and we sell it regularly at our church.

Leisure time is any time spent with my family, particularly as the youngsters are now becoming adults. Spending time in conversa­tion with them is wonderful. Living in Plymouth, I enjoy going out in a boat. I built a sailing boat when I was 16, after reading Swallows and Amazons, and that love has remained with me all my life.

I might have said the PA system at the Reform conference was the last thing that made me angry, but the National Evangelical Anglican Con­ference in November. . ! That dread­ful inability to vote about the doctrine that lies at the heart of An­glicanism astonished and angered me.

One of the things which makes me really happy is seeing the changes in people’s faces after a Christianity Explored course. I run them regularly, and as people discover Christianity for themselves, one of the wonderful things is to see their whole manner change.

There are innumerable people in the epochs of history I would like to get locked in a church with — and yet I think I could only understand someone within reach of my own generation. I once heard Tony Benn say that he felt in some way he was accountable for his life. I’d love to pick that conversation up with him.

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