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Bishop Thomas urges conservative Evangelical churches to be ‘transparent’ on male headship

25 January 2019


The Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, and the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, are consecrated in Canterbury Cathedral, in July, 2015

The Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, and the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, are consecrated in Canterbury Cathedral, in July, 2015

THE criticism that conservative Evangelical churches are not transparent about their commitment to male headship “must be heard”, the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, has said.

In a newsletter published last month, Bishop Thomas suggested that parishes under his care should mention on their websites that their PCC had “sent in a letter of request for arrangements to be made under the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the ministry of Bishops and Priests”.

“It is, of course, entirely understandable that churches want to keep the focus on the gospel and want to elevate what they see as a secondary issue into a primary position,” he wrote. “Also understandable is the desire to invite people to discover God’s word for themselves, before they have to address an issue that is so counter-cultural. However, the criticism that we are not being altogether transparent must be heard.”

He was responding to an article in the summer magazine of the group WATCH (Women and the Church) in which Lizzie Taylor, a member of the Cambridge Churches Women’s Equality Network, raised a concern that “those churches that espouse male headship . . . do not mention this on their church websites or in general communications.” New joiners might never be aware of the PCC’s original choice, she argued.

Her article recommends the following wording: “The leaders of this church subscribe to the doctrine of male headship. The PCC has passed a Resolution and sent a Letter of Request to the diocese about this.”

This week, she welcomed Bishop Thomas’s response, but said that his wording “does not look optimally crafted to communicate candidly to churchgoers the information they need to receive”.

“The danger of saying too much is that it starts to give the wrong impression of what church is about,” Bishop Thomas said in response. “If you are trying to attract non-Christians, then there is a good chance they won’t have had not only awareness of the debate, but knowledge of biblical teaching, or any knowledge of why they should be concerned about biblical teaching, so they will just react immediately against something they don’t understand. . . It’s something that has to be dealt with transparently, but also very carefully.”

One option was to state: “We believe in the distinctive ministry of men and women as equally valued by God,” he said. “I’m very happy to chat that through with people but I’m not laying down the law about what people should and shouldn’t say: it’s entirely up to them.

“I agree there’s no point in putting things down that do not mean anything, but equally there is no point in saying things that won’t be understood until they are explained.”

Ms Taylor believes that “it’s almost pre-Reformation to decide to withhold information from churchgoers on the basis that they aren’t able to understand it and respond to it appropriately. . . It’s not up to those in the Church to decide whether they can handle it.”

Without transparency, people who joined churches that subscribed to headship could end up “feeling betrayed, feeling they were deliberately kept in the dark and losing their trust and respect for the clergy, often then leaving at great personal cost to their church relationships”.

She was aware of students and older churchgoers who had not learned about the doctrine for months, or years, after they had became fully involved in their churches.

The impact on vocations was among her concerns: there were “missed and denied years when individuals’ vocation to the priesthood could have been identified and furthered”, she wrote in WATCH’s magazine. Young people were not able to see women’s leadership modelled, and sometimes received no explanation about why it was not their diocesan bishop who was confirming them.

The vice chair of WATCH, Felicity Cooke, said: “I find it difficult to understand why anyone would not want to state clearly and unequivocally their deeply held theological conviction.”

On Wednesday, the Vicar of Christ Church, Cambridge, the Revd Stephen Midgley, said: “What we are after is clarity, because you want to communicate something that is accurate and helpful and enables people to understand. I think my puzzle is how we do that in a soundbite.” It needed to be “brief enough but without being simplistic”.

He expressed “sadness” that the debate had become “polarised, as if there are just two views”; there was a “huge spectrum of ways” in which the complementarian position was “applied on the ground”. If somebody was exploring the Christian faith, he suggested, “you wouldn’t start with this issue”.

But he had “sympathy” with concerns about people discovering the complementarian position months after joining a church, he said. “I have had similar conversations with people here. . . At the moment, it comes up when it comes up — we don’t go out of our way to explain ourselves on that issue at a formal meeting, but then again lots of things don’t come up, or come up in due course. But I am sympathetic — I can see the argument. It’s one of many things where the Church is counter-cultural.”

In the past year he had been supporting a woman through her exploration of ordination, and their positions, while different were not “very different”.

As of April last year, 117 Evangelical churches have passed a resolution under the Declaration. A survey carried out among those churches, and published in the Bishop of Maidstone’s newsletter, found that only four per cent were happy for women to preach regularly to mixed congregations in Sunday services. Fifteen per cent had commended a female candidate for ordination, and 12 per cent had enabled female candidates to explore an ordained vocation with a priest from another parish.

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