A leading conservative evangelical has been appointed Bishop of Maidstone, giving the Church of England its only 'headship' bishop to minister to evangelical parishes that do not accept the ordination of women.
Preb Rod Thomas, 60, currently chairman of the influential conservative evangelical group Reform, has been appointed to Maidstone in a conscious attempt to advocate for those who take a conservative position on headship.
This is the belief that men and women have complementary ministries and is based on the writings of St Paul, that the man shall be the "head" of the woman.
It is a remarkable admission to the episcopal establishment for Thomas, who as press officer for Reform before becoming chairman achieved a reputation as someone who would not compromise the slightest on the absolute orthodoxy of his position on the Bible or women, making him not the most popular person with the Church's more liberal leadership.
Although there are already evangelical bishops, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, they all support the ordination of women. At no previous time in the few decades, possibly longer, could a man of Thomas' convictions have hoped for episcopal advancement. "I thought I had done most of the things necessary to avoid becoming a bishop," he told Christian Today.
Reform is not expected to alter its position that its members do not participate in the shared conversations currently taking place on sexuality. However, Thomas said today that when the sexuality talks reach General Synod next year, more "shared conversations" are expected to take place and he believes Reform will at that stage recommend its members take part.
He said he had no idea how many parishes would wish to opt into his episcopal care but believes that as many as one in ten members of General Synod are conservative evangelical.
The proposal that a conservative evangelical become Bishop of Maidstone was made by Archbishop Welby. It followed a public commitment to conservative evangelicals given by the Archbishops and the House of Bishops before the measure to consecrate women bishops was passed.
As well as ministering to parishes that ask for a headship bishop, Thomas' duties will include fostering vocations from other conservative evangelicals.
Archbishop Welby said: "Rod has served the Church tirelessly, both as a parish priest and as a member of the General Synod, and engaged constructively and graciously with those of differing theological views. It is my hope and prayer that Rod's distinctive ministry as Bishop of Maidstone will enable those with a conservative evangelical view of headship to flourish and to be assured that the Church of England has a respected place for them."
Thomas said: "My hope for the Bishop of Maidstone's new role is that it will help to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ, encourage church members in their faith and witness, and generate widespread confidence in our commitment, as a church, to mutual flourishing."
Thomas' predecessor as chairman of Reform, Canon David Banting, said: "Rod's presence in the College of Bishops will strengthen and enrich the priority of the mission of the gospel to the nation and the centrality of Biblical witness in the Church."
Susie Leafe, director of Reform, said, "The members of Reform are all too aware that this is an immense undertaking and we will be in prayer for Rod as he seeks to establish the necessary working arrangements to allow conservative evangelicals to flourish throughout the country."
The appointment was challenged by supporters of women's ordination and of homosexual equality in the Church.
Women and the Church said the appointment of a specifically "headship" bishop raised questions regarding "mutual flourishing". Watch said: "We are 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."
￼Watch added: "To state the challenge clearly, the theology of headship states that women will only truly flourish under the authority of men as part of the created order. Conversely, we believe that the theology of headship is inimical to the true flourishing of women, and indeed the true flourishing of the church as a whole."
Vicky Beeching, the prominent Christian commentator and former worship leader who came out as gay last year, tweeted: "Very disheartened that a man whose organisation claims to dispel 'gay myths' (Reform) has been made a Bishop." She also linked to Reform's papers on the subject.
Churches in the Reform network are on average 30 per cent larger than average in the Church of England and a third have planted new congregations or churches in the past ten years. Reform has consistently opposed the legislation introduced to introduce women bishops as being divisive, alienating the very churches that represent the future of the Church of England.