Presidential Address – Governing Body April 2007

You will recall that at the September 2006 meeting of the Governing Body I devoted part of my Presidential Address to expressing concern about the government’s commitment to a long-term replacement for Trident.  You, yourselves, consequently overwhelmingly supported a private member’s motion deploring the Government’s decision to maintain and renew the Trident nuclear weapons programme.  When we pass motions like that, the secretariat writes to the Prime Minister of the day and I personally wrote to him as well, together with fellow church leaders in Britain.  In fairness, the Prime Minister always responds or at least the letters are always signed by him.  His response this time was that the UK is already setting an example to the world as far as nuclear weapons are concerned because the British Government has already declared a 20% reduction in its nuclear warhead stockpile.  But he went on to say, that since no other nuclear weapon state is, or even considering divesting itself of its nuclear weapon capability, Britain cannot do so either.  I personally thought it would be setting an excellent moral example if it were to do so.

In some ways of course all this is water under the bridge.  The United Kingdom Parliament has endorsed the Government’s plan to replace Trident even though there seems no good reason why the decision needed to be made so hastily.  It is sad that the debate was curtailed and no real opportunity for dissent offered.  Even the Labour dominated Commons Defence Committee published a report before the House of Commons vote, claiming that ministers had failed to give MP’s important information to help them decide, or really answered questions such as – what is the actual cost, who does it deter and how is hanging on to Trident consistent with signing a nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty?  When a House of Commons Committee makes observations such as these, then the rest of us have to take notice because something fundamental and crucial is being said about the way we are being governed.  In our name and without much consultation the Government has decided to renew a weapons system that is morally reprehensible.

January sees the tenth anniversary of the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood here in Wales.  I think I am the only Bishop left on the Bench who ordained those women in 1997 – women who had been deacons for years and who had been waiting patiently for the church to make up its mind on the issue.  For my part, although I realise that not everyone shares my view, I am extremely glad that the Church in Wales took this step because I happen to think that the priestly ministry of the whole church has been enriched and women have brought to the priesthood new and different gifts.  My experience has been, that even when parishes have been a bit hesitant about the prospect of a woman cleric, once there, the acceptance has been overwhelming.  I am only astonished that when I trained for the ministry in the early 1970’s I did not even question why the ordained ministry was restricted to men.

We will have a discussion at this Governing Body as to whether women should be ordained to the episcopate and again for my part, I am totally convinced by the theological arguments as to why that should happen.  On the human side the priest/bishop represents the Christian community to God and since that community consists of women as well as men, it is right that it should be open to women as well as men.  On the divine side since the priest/bishop represents the risen Christ who redeemed both men and women, ordaining women is a testimony to that redemptive inclusiveness.

I do not personally see how having agreed to ordaining women to both the diaconate and priesthood the church can logically exclude women from the episcopate, since the Church in Wales believes in a three fold order, though I recognise that I live in a church where not everyone agrees with me.  However, the whole Bench is totally supportive of opening the episcopate to women.  Lest you think we are a bunch of ‘trendy lefties’, it is interesting that a Bishop of the Episcopal Church of America, who regards himself as a moderate conservative, said of the recent meeting of the House of Bishops under the direction of the new female presiding Bishop that “she had brought to us an new sense of collegiality and prayerfulness”.  Now I know that these gifts are not confined to women but it is interesting that he should make remarks of this nature.

Those who are opposed to the ordination of women have for the most part been gracious, courteous and kind to women priests in neighbouring parishes, deanery chapters and diocesan events.  Bishop David Thomas, whilst obviously holding on to his own theological convictions, has been especially so.  But there have been occasions when that has not been the case and I draw that to your attention, not because it is necessarily a frequent occurrence but it should not  happen at all in the Church of God, where we ought to accept diversity in unity and where we should be gracious and courteous to one another.  Discrimination may not be intentional but it does happen and it has happened to me simply because of the views that I hold on women priests and I know on the odd occasion that I have been snubbed or ignored how painful and undermining it can be.  How much more so to those who are women.

So let me turn to the position of women in general in our world and in our church as opposed to the question of their ordination.  The United Nations has an International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women in November each year because, as the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said “violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violence and it is perhaps the most pervasive.  It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth”.  You may think that this is not a UK problem.  In 2003 however, the British Crime Survey estimated that one in two women has experienced some form of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  In the UK an average of two women a week are killed by a male partner or former partner.  Every minute of every day one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police.  We may have abolished slavery but there are still people who are in chains in our world and they are for the most part women and children.  Women make up four-fifths of the poorest people in our world.  At least 5,000 children work as sex slaves in the United Kingdom, according to the Independent on Sunday, and Britain is a major transition point for the movement of child slaves around the world, according to the Rowntree Foundation, and vulnerable women and children as young as five are threatened with violence and are sold either as sexual objects or as domestic servants.  There is need in our country for these to be treated as victims and not immigration cases, for if deported back to their own countries all that happens is that they are re-trafficked.  Britain has not yet signed up to the European Convention to stamp out such practices.  Globalisation promises further relegation of women to low paid or part-time labour whilst they still have the primary responsibility for bringing up the young.

Some of this violence is ingrained in our societies and cultures and I am afraid that no religious tradition has got a good record in its attitude to women.  Every single religious tradition has in the past denigrated women and seen them as second class citizens.  Tertullian, a second century apologist, says “you woman, destroyed God’s image, Man” and St Jerome “when a woman wishes to serve Christ more than the world then she will cease to be a woman and be called a man”.  St Thomas Aquinas regarded women as “defective and misbegotten”.  St Paul has a passage which says “that God is the head of Christ, Christ of man and man of women”.  The Christian Church I am afraid has invariably been on the wrong side of the debate when it came to the emancipation of women and giving them the vote.  Institutional Christianity has for the most part enforced a patriarchal mindset.

And that brings me to the vexed question of the place of women in the decision making processes of our church, for this Governing Body has passed a motion asking for a review of the representation of women in our structures.  It surely cannot be right in a church where most of the worshippers are women, only a third of the membership of this Governing Body consists of women, with two dioceses having no elected women clerics, another just one and a further two dioceses two women each.  In a Representative Body of twenty-five there is one woman, in the Provincial Standing Committee of twenty-three there are two, in the Appointments Sub-Committee none, in the Business Sub-Committee one out of eight; in the Human Resources Committee two out of eight; and in the other three RB Committees none at all.  The Provincial Nomination Board has one woman out of ten members and there are only two women out of ten in our Panel of Chairmen at the GB.  No women serve on the Provincial Court.  There is something drastically wrong here and we men would not put up with that position and we as a Church will have to address the issue as a matter of urgency since it does not reflect the membership of the Church in Wales.  We have recognised the problem as far as youth is concerned and therefore co-opt a certain number under thirty, but we have not recognised the problem as far as women are concerned.  The World Council of Churches carefully controls the numbers in various categories in its membership of the Central Committee by allocating certain numbers to different groups and we need to examine carefully what it does.

I want now to turn to poverty, homelessness and housing in Wales.   As indicated to you before, Shelter Cymru asked me a year ago to Chair a Commission into homelessness and poor housing in Wales.  My seven fellow Commissioners were drawn from every walk of life.  By visiting different parts of Wales and hearing the stories of people and organisations, 160 people and 80 groups, a picture of what housing was like in Wales grew and we began to address our minds as to how it could be tackled.  In 2005 over 19,000 people were homeless, 6,000 of whom were children.  These are recorded statistics and do not include people who did not approach their Local Authorities – they are the hidden homeless, young people who ‘sofa surf’ and people who think the LA cannot help them.  In addition to all that there are 35,000 children living in poor housing in Wales and 43,000 children living in overcrowded conditions, by the Government’s own standards.  Over 40% of young working families are unable to buy even the lowest cost home because the average price of a house in Wales is now £155,000.  Mortgage evictions are on the rise with a 49% increase in 2005 over 2004.  Wales is now the least affordable area in Great Britain outside London and the Home Counties.

The Commissioners made a number of key recommendations to the Welsh Assembly Government.  They published an Interim Report the week before Holy Week and the full Report will be published later on in the year when the new Welsh Assembly Government is in office.

We believe that homelessness and poor housing are the most important issues in Wales because they affect every other aspect of life such as health, social services, crime and education.  Tackle the former and you find that you ease the pressure on the latter.  We know that the First Minister has already said that he would spend £450 million on social housing if re-elected.  It is clear that the Minister for Social Justice and Members of the Social Justice and Regeneration Committees and the teams of officials concerned with housing and homelessness are committed to tackling the problem and have taken huge strides forward with limited capacity and resource.  But the issue of affordable homes and homelessness still remains a low political priority for the Assembly as a whole at least judged by the overall resources allocated compared to, for example, education and health.

  • The Commission recommends that:
    1. There is urgent need to address the serious shortage of affordable homes in Wales.
    2. That tackling homelessness and housing need requires leadership and a change in culture at all levels.
    3. Planning for new homes should be undertaken on a regional basis and resource allocations for housing homelessness and supporting people should be ‘ring-fenced’ because some Local Authorities aren’t using their housing grants on housing.
    4. There is a need to help people who cannot afford to get on the first rung of ownership through perhaps ‘home buy schemes’.
    5. The Assembly should also introduce legislation that makes it easier for local communities to set up community land trusts so that we can build homes which remain affordable to local people in perpetuity giving them assets to move on when they are ready.
    6. Intentional homelessness is a relic of the Poor Law because it punishes often vulnerable homeless people who may have lost their home through naivety or simply making the wrong choices.

I had suggested that the collections at this meeting of the Governing Body here in Swansea should be given to Shelter Cymru whose Headquarters are found in Swansea.  With the tragic murder of Father Paul Bennett I have decided to ask you to give to the Fund for the family instead, and then in September we shall give our collection to Shelter Cymru which has fought valiantly for the poor and homeless in Wales.  As we went round the Principality, again and again we were told that were it not for the support and work of Shelter Cymru then people would have been even more desperate than they were already.  Shelter Cymru deserves all the help and support that we can give it.