Essex Man Moves South

THE BEST-KEPT EPISCOPAL secret of the closing days of 1996 and early 1997 was hardly the announcement that Wallace Benn, vicar of St. Peter’s, Harold Wood, in Essex, was to be the new Bishop of Lewes, in Chichester Diocese. Due to a severe viral illness through the summer and autumn, his future as a whole was in doubt until a top specialist gave the all-clear and said a complete return to full health and strength was imminent. For his many friends in the Church, this medical verdict was the best news of all and the subsequent preferment to Lewes the icing on that cake. Such has been the widespread influence of Wallace Benn – originally from Dublin and in his day one of the youngest churchwardens in the Church of Ireland! – that to have lost his calm, far-sighted wisdom in difficult times was a prospect many evangelicals found hard to even contemplate. “The fiercer a debate gets, the quieter Wallace Benn’s participation becomes, so that you’re straining to catch what he says. However, at that point what he contributes is inevitably balanced and fair and not infrequently leads to a resolution of difficulty,” commented a member of Reform’s council, where the vicar of St. Peter’s has been both founder-member and active participant in subsequent development of the campaign group.

The demands on the bishop-elect are bound to be such that he will be unable to please all and will doubtless disappointment some. He is not the “flying bishop” repeatedly requested by Reform, nor the diocesan appointment of a man with clear-cut conservative evangelical conviction many would see as an indication that the shamefully inadequate representation of that conviction on the Bench of Bishops was being addressed. Rather – and this is neither a slur on Wallace Benn nor an implied restriction on the power for good and the Gospel that he will undoubtedly be – the Lewes appointment owes a great deal to the insistence of Bishop Eric Kemp, the oldest member of the Bench, that this time round he wanted a genuine, unambiguous “conviction evangelical” as a colleague. It is worth reading Hugh Craig’s swansong survey of the state of the Church as he retired from General Synod after forty-five years serving it and the previous Church Assembly (published by Latimer House, 131 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 7AJ as a Latimer Briefing). In a scorching indictment of the Crown Appointments Commission, he shows how the Commission and the system is inept and verging on the corrupt with “the two main criteria for secular appointments, interviews and references, entirely omitted” and with any effective lay voice excluded.

Hugh Craig quotes the Synod’s own figures (GS Misc 464) to show that while 2.9% of the bishops claimed to be conservative evangelical, 13.5% of the laity questioned owned similar convictions, a huge imbalance which Lambeth Palace has shown no inclination to correct in the interests of natural justice alone. The 21% of open evangelical laity, in sharp contrast, are represented by 22.9% of the bishops. Asked to suggest the names of suitable conservative evangelical candidates by the two archbishops, Craig supplied three. After a year’s silence he enquired why no action had been taken and received the answer “Oh, we were told they would not work with those of other churchmanship” about which Hugh Craig comments “I can personally vouch for the fact that is blatantly untrue of certainly two of them, and almost certainly untrue of the third …. the system makes it easy to damn a man, and militates in favour of those who have offended nobody because they have achieved nothing.” So no triumphalism from Reform, therefore, about Wallace Benn’s preferment. It is right, it is excellent news for the Church of England and especially for the Diocese of Chichester and it shows beyond doubt that the venerable Kemp has by no means lost his marbles …. but it does not redress the episcopacy anomalies Reform must continue to point out to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Yet the last word must be in the direction of Wallace and Lindsay Benn and their family, assuring them of huge support in affection and prayer as they prepare for consecration day on May 1. Nor do we forget the thriving parish of St. Peter’s, Harold Wood, and its search for a pastor/teacher to carry forward the work the Benns have so effectively developed there. The churchwardens and PCC will need copies of Reform’s new guide for parishes in interregnum, Whose Church Is It Anyway?, available from St. Matthias Press, P.O.Box 665, London SW20 8RU.