Presidential Address – Governing Body, April 2010
1996, in the diocese of Bangor, was a year of celebration with the holding of all kinds of events culminating in a day of festivities and a Thanksgiving Eucharist. Why? Because the diocese was 1450 years old. You may think 1450 years is an odd number of years to celebrate – why did we do it? Well, partly because Dr Enid Pierce Roberts told us we should and when Dr Enid tells you something, you obey, because she said we were the oldest territorial diocese in Britain. We also did it, of course, because we realised that most of us would not be around to celebrate the diocese’s 1500 years of existence. Although the hope of all of us here is that we will be alive in 10 years time to celebrate the centenary of the Church in Wales as an independent Province, 90 years on seems an appropriate point to at least look at our past but more importantly to think about our future.
The whole story of our Dis-establishment ought to give us hope. Why? It was forced upon us and one of the aims was to weaken the influence of the Anglican Church in Wales. Whereas disestablishment might be seen as aspirational in our own day and age, back then it was regarded as something of a blow for every single senior cleric fought tooth and nail to prevent it, arguing that it would destroy Anglicanism in Wales. And what happened? After getting over the initial shock, we got on with the task entrusted to any church in any country of continuing to offer worship to God and of serving the needs of the communities of Wales. Assets were certainly depleted but morale was not and with characteristic determination, the people of the Church in Wales raised money on two occasions that would secure the continued ministry of parish clergy who, contrary to the prevailing political view, did so much among the working people of Wales. The ordinary everyday stuff of parish life that was carried out quietly, assiduously and by God’s grace, ensured that the spiritual life of our nation was nourished and nurtured in every community, whether that particular community could afford it or not. Dis-establishment did not lead us into thinking that we should merely look after our own members.
Over the years the Church in Wales acquired a new sense of national standing, helping to heal, at times of tragedy like Aberfan, working for the preservation of the Welsh language through its liturgy, acting as a guardian of the nation’s conscience in such situations as the miners’ strike in the eighties; we never lost our sense of being part of the wider picture and it was with pride and sacrifice that we saw the elevation of my predecessor to the throne of Augustine just seven years ago.
In other words, impending disaster and crisis did not happen and in the words of the folk singer Dafydd Iwan “Rydym yma o hyd” – “we are still here”. Over the last 90 years, the Church in Wales has become a distinctive church and Province, better able to serve the people of Wales, better able to identify with the nation of Wales whilst still belonging to a world-wide communion. With such an experience we can help our nation not to be afraid of devolution and of the benefits it can bring within a United Kingdom framework. The booklet produced by the Church in Wales, given to all GB Members last year, shows the extent of our presence in the life of this nation. We have more than 1400 places of worship, 29% of which are Grade I listed, and two million people visit them every year. Our 350 church halls are used extensively by our communities – 15,000 sessions per week and 30% of those sessions are by young people. We employ 160 staff to run Social Responsibility projects and 3,000 volunteers help with them, investing £2.5million in such community projects which have helped more than 8,000 people. We are involved in affordable housing and homelessness projects and are responsible for 165 church schools which are not restricted to church-goers but are open to every denomination and faith. We have chaplaincies in Higher & Further Education, prisons, hospitals, schools and work with Public and Private Sector as well as the Voluntary Sector to further the wellbeing of the people of Wales.
In other words, what the Church in Wales discovered with dis-establishment was that everything good and glorious wasn’t just to be found in the past. As Jeremiah reminded the people of Israel in exile in Babylon, who were looking back nostalgically to the exodus from Egypt, “not how great was our God who led us out of Egypt, but how great is our God who even now is leading us out of exile”. And that is precisely what God did. The Church in Wales grasped that lesson after 1920.
So as we face our own problems with fewer attendees, fewer clergy and a shortage of ordinands, we need to remember that the God we believe in makes all things new and leads us into truth if we trust ourselves to His providence.
Now I do not want to be like a certain Prime Minister who, when someone said to him that he was facing a crisis, said “crisis, what crisis?” but I want to remind you of the words of Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican preacher, who said of the Last Supper that “the church was born at a time of crisis because up until the Last Supper, the disciples had been sustained by some kind of story of what was going to happen – the hope that the Romans would be overthrown, Israel restored and Jesus crowned as the Messiah. But on Maundy Thursday Judas betrayed Him, Peter was about to betray Him and the others fled as He faced trial and crucifixion on His own. At the very moment that things were falling apart, Jesus took bread and wine and said they were His body and blood. Jesus gave Himself to His disciples at a moment when it become obvious that the future was bleak and everything was about to collapse and so” says Radcliffe “the Last Supper is the foundational story of the Christian faith, the one in which we find the meaning of our lives. And yet it is a story which tells of the moment when there was no story to tell, when the future disappeared. Our founding story is the collapse of any story at all and the community looks back to when it fell apart”.
And then, of course, Jesus was raised from the dead and the disciples pinned their hopes this time not on Jesus overthrowing the Roman Empire – the time for that was over, but on Jesus returning again to earth and bringing in the end of the world. But then, time went on and Jesus did not return and so once again the world of the early church collapsed, and because Jesus had not returned, it realised that if people were to come to believe, they had to have some written account of their founding story, and that is how the Gospels came to be written. At the first crisis Christ’s gift to the church was the Eucharist, at the second it was the Gospels.
So Radcliffe goes on to say, “we should not be fearful of crisis. The church was born in a crisis of hope. Crises are our speciality – they rejuvenate us”.
And the church has faced many crises. In Wales, during the age of the saints, a few monastic figures wandered about trying to preach the Gospel. At the time of the Reformation, medieval Christendom was torn asunder yet the church managed to survive in a new guise but it lived through the Reformation, Counter Reformation and the Elizabethan settlement. So whatever problems we now face, they are small in comparison with the ones we have faced before and at moments when we think that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”, we need reminding of the events of our salvation and of how God assures us of His presence and gives us signs of His grace at the moments when we are weakest. Whatever difficulties we are facing in the Church in Wales they are as nothing compared to the dashing of the hope in the coming Kingdom with the death of Jesus, and nothing compared to the dashing of hope in His imminent return. And the Church of God is still here.
But let us not turn that into a kind of triumphalistic victory parade either and think that we have, as a church, some kind of inherent power of survival. That’s not what the story of Jesus is about. We are disciples of a man who in weakness and vulnerability took bread and wine and shared it in the face of death. In other words, He gave a sign that He dared to trust in the future even though He didn’t know what the future might bring, or perhaps knowing that it might end in death, trusted in the power of God to triumph in unexpected ways. In other words, we try to follow Jesus because this is what makes sense of our lives and of our world and that it still makes sense whatever happens. It is the belief that God is there whatever we face.
So we embrace the future with faith, confidence and a determination to seize the opportunities it presents to serve God better as a church and as a key partner in a devolved, confident proactive nation. You could argue that we have never had so many opportunities to make a difference. Here we are, in an increasingly devolved nation, having a lot to offer with 90 years experience behind us of “going it alone” and “starting from scratch”. We have a presence still in every community in Wales and, at the same time, live in a multi-media global village. We have never had such an opportunity to show our faith in God and to demonstrate how Christian principles, such as love and respect for one another, can transform, not just us as individuals, but our communities and our nation.
As we emerge from a period of inevitable readjustment, we have the chance to carve a new role in our changing society – to be a part of, rather than to stand apart from it. We have the chance to show that Christianity is not, as seen in previous generations, a distant, controlling and judgemental force, but shares the values of our age, such as love, tolerance and acceptance, and has a message which is more relevant than ever. We are a church which believes that everyone is valued by God, regardless of their sex, race or gender. We have the chance to show that life is not about how much money we earn or how many exams we pass, but who we are and how we treat those around us – how we can become more fulfilled people, more understanding parents, more attentive neighbours, more caring communities, more outward-looking societies. We have the opportunity to show how we are all responsible for God’s planet and to be at the forefront of protecting it. We have the opportunity to show people how to slow down and step off the treadmill, to find space in their busy lives to nurture their inner lives.
We are pushing at an open door because this is an age in which people have more time than ever to question their lives and their values and are looking for help and guidance. It’s interesting that recent surveys have shown that job satisfaction, doing something worthwhile, helping others are stronger motivators and lead to greater contentment than making a great deal of money.
Most people have been sickened by the expenses scandals of the Houses of Parliament and by the bonuses of bankers. And it is interesting in all of this that the world of business is increasingly turning to spiritual, even religious language. It talks about the need for vision and mission plans. The literal meaning of the word “company” is a place where people share bread with each other. Good businesses value and care for people and do not treat them like cogs in a machine. That’s what the heart of the Gospel is about as well. People are more receptive than we think. Fewer people may come to church but most people say they believe in God and pray to Him and as one writer puts it, “when churches are brave enough to engage with questions such as the meaning of existence, far from turning people away they draw them in”.
So how can we make the most of these opportunities? We are, as I said, in so many ways involved with schools, community projects, Government leaders and initiatives such as Fair Trade. But there is so much more that we could do.
1. We could have greater engagement in public life. We still have an enormous number of paid personnel – our clergy. They are central figures in our communities. Very often, they are the last professional person left in some communities. They are there to point out and champion moral concerns and to lead and build up the Body of Christ. We need to encourage clergy to take bold initiatives and we need to make sure they are trained to do so in ways that connect with the society we live in.
2. We ought to accept all people, unconditionally. Firstly, because that is what Christ taught us to do and secondly, because endless wrangling over the place of, for example, women or gay people, inevitably affects our mission. How can we expect to draw people in if they do not feel accepted? And how can we be taken seriously when most of this country has moved on as far as those issues are concerned and they look at us still disagreeing among ourselves?
3. We need to use our church buildings to greater advantage. We are custodians of a fine heritage which we rightly celebrate, but we should not preciously guard our churches for our own purposes – they need to be flexible to serve today’s communities.
4. We also need to resolve quickly some of the internal issues that we’ve been discussing for decades about what to do, for example, about an Archiepiscopal See, diocesan boundaries, how to re-organise ourselves as a church, and how to simplify the Constitution. They are minor questions in comparison to the larger questions our church and nation faces. We should not allow them to absorb a lot of introspective energy for years to come. Too often we take great initial steps towards reform then take fright and run for the shallows. We were among the first of Anglican Provinces to ordain women as deacons in 1980 and then did not proceed to ordain them as priests until 1997. And we still haven’t taken the next logical step of making it at least possible for a woman to be ordained bishop. It makes no sense at all to ordain women to the order of deacons and priests without also making it possible for them to be ordained as bishops. So too, when it comes to administrative reorganisation, our innate conservatism and vested interests prevent us from finding solutions.
5. Finally, in today’s frenetic world when we sometimes feel we do not have the resources we need to do the job properly, we need to give more time for God, to listen, to pray. It is an important example to set. We need to commend the faith that is in us and we have to remember that people are drawn to the life of faith by people of faith. Most people are drawn into the life of the church by families and friends so each one of us has a part to play and the rule of life we commended some years ago is as relevant now as it ever was. As someone put it, “lifestyle is far more important than dogma in the 21st Century”.
Our challenges are the challenges that Wales faces – poverty, depression, addiction, loneliness, lack of aspiration, lack of self-esteem. We have the chance to show that there are alternative ways of tackling these problems – ways that are truly effective, rather than short-term patches of pills and paperwork and packages of insufficient grants. We have a Gospel to proclaim and we have a vision to which Wales can aspire – one that is self-aware, self-confident and grounded in faith. Our story begins here. So let’s take the opportunity we now have to think about what we can be doing over the next ten years as we move towards our centenary.