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Bishop of Maidstone committed to ‘healthy’ culture

28 April 2022

Five pledges include treatment of women and transparency

Lambeth Palace

The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas

The Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas

THE Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, is urging the congregations to which he ministers to sign up to five commitments aimed at fostering a safe and healthy culture. They concern safeguarding procedures, the treatment of women, and transparency about complementarian Evangelical beliefs.

The Maidstone Commitments, published on Monday, are the product of a working group convened by the Bishop last year in the wake of a lessons-learnt review by the independent safeguarding charity Thirtyone:Eight of the activities of the Revd Jonathan Fletcher, a former minister of Emmanuel Proprietary Chapel, Ridgway, in Wimbledon (News, 26 March 2021). The review identified a culture of fear at Emmanuel, but also in the wider conservative Evangelical constituency.

Bishop Thomas provides episcopal ministry for conservative Evangelical parishes whose PCCs have passed resolutions on the ministry of women, under the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests. He is due to retire in October.

He writes in a foreword to the The Maidstone Commitments: “I do not believe that conservative evangelical churches are necessarily more at risk of abusive cultures than other types of church, but I firmly believe we should be willing humbly to learn lessons, wherever they may be found, that will help us to be more Christ-like in our leadership and in our ministries.”

The first commitment that parishes are called to sign up to is “to act with impartiality and justice”. Parishes should seek to address “the extent to which women’s voices are heard appropriately, the existence of ‘inner circles’ in church life, and the extent to which members of staff or key volunteers are consulted, listened to, and treated fairly”.

Particular care should be taken in showing “honour for all women”, it says, in the light of research carried out by the Revd Dr Kirsten Birkett last year, which called for better training for women’s ministry in complementarian Evangelical churches, and proper pay scales for women in lay ministry (News, 30 July 2021).

The Commitments document says that PCCs should consider introducing pay scales and terms of employment for staff, and provide opportunities for training and ministry.

“Since advocates of complementarianism may be particularly vulnerable to accusations of sexism and/or misogyny, complementarian churches need to demonstrate the equal worth given to men and women, however distinctive their roles,” it states.

The second commitment is “to signpost[ing] safe pathways for raising concerns”. The document states, in bold, that “safeguarding concerns should always be dealt with via the relevant Parish and Diocesan policies.”

Non-safeguarding concerns “will normally be handled within the local church”, but, if a satisfactory resolution cannot be reached, concerns should be raised with the archdeacon or area/rural Dean. In “exceptional situations” where relations between the parish and senior clergy in the diocese are “strained almost to breaking point”, Bishop Thomas suggests the use of Say So, “an external speak-up service”.

The third commitment is “to ensur[ing] awareness of a PCC’s convictions over men’s and women’s ministry”.

The Commitments document states that “just as churches are rightly also required to display details of insurance, safeguarding, and other information that is administrative but important, it is also appropriate to display information that clarifies the PCC’s theological convictions over men’s and women’s ministry, and the relationship (if any) with the Bishop of Maidstone. PCCs should state their complementarian position in an open and transparent manner.”

A sentence on a parish website, together with a link to the Bishop’s website, is suggested — “The PCC of this parish has passed a resolution under the House of Bishop’s Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests in order to reflect its convictions on the distinctive ministry of men and women” — as well as a poster on an internal noticeboard giving details about Bishop Thomas and the oversight that he provides.

Bishop Thomas has previously called on parishes under his oversight to be more transparent about their views (News, 25 January 2019). A spokeswoman said this week that his office did not have a record of how many parish websites stated their positions, because it did not have the capacity to monitor them.

Campaigners such as Lizzie Taylor, an honorary lay canon of Ely Cathedral and a member of the Cambridge Churches Women’s Equality Network, have said that progress has been too slow.

She said on Wednesday: “It’s a further step that Bishop Rod has again acknowledged the need for resolution parishes to state openly their theological convictions about male headship. However, he has asked them before to do this voluntarily, to little effect. They won’t do it unless they are required to.

“The other thing is that, after all this time discussing transparency, their suggested website wording is not transparent. In fact, yet again, it looks deliberately obscure. It refers to the ‘distinctive ministry of men and women’, without making it clear, as it should, that the doctrine is that women should submit to men in church and in marriage. ‘Distinctive’ suggests parity, even equality, not hierarchy of authority and roles, which is what Bishop Rod’s ministry is mainly about.”

The fourth commitment in the document is “to foster[ing] positive working relationships within dioceses”. It is acknowledged that some parishes under Bishop Thomas’s oversight have “strained or even broken” relationships with their dioceses, owing to theological differences. In such instances, “there is a significant danger of parishes becoming isolated from important support and accountability structures.”

Suggestions for ways to improve relations between parish and diocese include: arranging an informal meeting between a senior cleric from the diocese and the standing committee and/or PCC; inviting diocesan clergy to attend “an event in the parish”, such as a lunch or fête; attendance at diocesan functions; and “positive” emails and phone calls.

The fifth, and final, commitment, is “to review[ing] carefully a PCC’s own church culture”. The Bishop commends a booklet, Church Cultures Review Questions, published by the Church of England Evangelical Council late last year (News, 3 December 2021).

Parishes that have not done so already are urged to complete this review by the end of the year.

The Maidstone Commitments can be read in full here

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