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The Welsh Church is now a ‘more welcoming place’

03 February 2017

Dr Barry Morgan, the retiring Primate of Wales, talks to Tim Wyatt about the changes during his years of ministry


Goodbye: the former Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, greets people after his farewell service in Llandaff Cathedral on Sunday

Goodbye: the former Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, greets people after his farewell service in Llandaff Cathedral on Sunday

IT WAS the quotation from the great Welsh priest-poet R. S. Thomas, delivered in Dr Barry Morgan’s gentle Welsh lilt, which summed up the mood of the newly retired Archbishop of Wales.

Asked whether his time at the pinnacle of the Church in Wales had taught him about using power, the former Primate explained: “All you have got is the power of influence and persuasion, but then that’s all God has got as well. . . There is no coercion about God — God lures and persuades people. As R. S. Thomas says: ‘Remarkable merely for the absence of clamour’.”

The poet was speaking of Jesus, but Dr Morgan connected it to his own style of leadership: unshowy, and encouraging, rather than browbeating.

“All church-people are volunteers, aren’t they?” he said. “They are not going to fall into line simply because an archbishop tells them that this is what they must do.”


DR MORGAN stood down as Archbishop of Wales on Tuesday — his 70th birthday — after nearly 14 years in post as Primate, and 45 as deacon, priest, chaplain, lecturer, director of ordinands, archdeacon, and bishop. In a long interview last week, he returned again and again to the theme of respectful, collegiate, servant leadership.

When asked how the ministry of clergy had changed during his career, he said that the days of “all-singing, all-dancing vicars” who did everything by themselves were over. “That’s the wrong concept of ministry — it belongs to the whole Church. The job of the cleric is to enable the gifts of all God’s people to flourish. Nobody has got all the gifts.”

And what of his own time as Archbishop — of what was he proudest? “I can be quite honest, and say that I didn’t set out to achieve anything, in a way.” Rather than enter office with a firm agenda, Dr Morgan said, he had just dealt with things as they happened. He politely refused to indicate what he thought his successor as Archbishop should prioritise, or even to suggest what challenges he or she would face as Primate. Whoever came after him must do what they thought was right. “I think it would be presumptuous of me to give any advice to my successor. Once you’re gone, you’re gone,” he said. “And I deliberately have not sought permission to officiate for the next six months at least, because I think I just want to go and worship at the back of churches.”


CENTRAL among the changes during Dr Morgan’s time in office was the introduction of women to the episcopate: the Church in Wales’s first female bishop — the Bishop of St Davids, the Rt Revd Joanna Penberthy — was consecrated by Dr Morgan last month (News, 27 January). This had been a “great moment”, both for him and the wider Church, Dr Morgan said. He had not expected that a woman would be elected bishop at the first vacancy since the law was changed in 2013 (News, 12 September 2013).

But this significant reform, which had been attempted and had failed once before, was nothing to do with him, Dr Morgan said.

“That wasn’t something I achieved; that was something that the Governing Body achieved,” he said. “I encouraged it, and tried to put forward arguments as to why they should do it, but at the end of the day you have only got the power of persuasion and influence. You can’t force people.”

Could it have happened without his leadership? “I think so,” he replied: the time had not been right under his predecessor as Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams. When pressed, Dr Morgan allowed that perhaps his persistence in not letting the question of women bishops drop might have played a part.

“Joy would be the word. Joy for [Bishop Penberthy], joy for the Church, that now it was the norm,” he said. Just 30 years ago, for fear of the repercussions among traditionalists in the diocese, the then Bishop of St Davids had refused even to ordain women as deacons, despite the Governing Body’s endorsing it. Now, the diocese of St Davids was itself being led by a woman; a mark, Dr Morgan said, of the change he had seen during his four-and-a-half decades serving in the Church in Wales.


PERMITTING women to become priests and then bishops, although perhaps the most significant change, was far from the only lasting one to had taken place during Dr Morgan’s ministry, he said.

He highlighted the Church in Wales’s shift in approach to marriage after divorce as one sign of how the Province had become “a much more welcoming place”. When he was first ordained in the early 1970s, divorced and remarried clergy had to leave Wales if they wished to continue serving as priests. “Mercifully, that has changed.”

The Church has also seen sweeping internal change, becoming more collaborative. There are fewer and fewer clergy, and they now work with lay people and the community to serve in ministry areas rather than being constrained within the traditional parish structures. Dr Morgan saw these reforms in a positive light, since they allowed teams of clergy and lay people to play to their own strengths.

All changes within the Church in Wales in recent years, however, have taken place in the shadow of declining congregations and church attendance, he said.

In 2004, after the first year of his archiepiscopate, 41,000 adults attended an Anglican church service on an average Sunday in Wales. The most recent statistics, for 2015, show that figure has dropped to 29,000, a fall of nearly 30 per cent in 11 years.

But, when asked if his Church had a future, Dr Morgan remained bullish. There was always an “ebb and flow” in church affairs, he said; many in the past had written off the Church in Wales, only to be proved wrong.

Yes, Wales had changed dramatically over his lifetime: when he was growing up, people had gone to church three times every Sunday, largely “because there was nothing else to do”. Yes, the Church in Wales had made mistakes, and had taken too long to wake up to the fact that it was “losing its hold on people”. But the fight-back had already begun, and initiatives such as Messy Church, breakfast clubs, mother-and-toddler groups, and foodbanks showed that Anglicans in Wales were engaging once again with their communities at the point of need.

The question of church buildings was, perhaps, next on the list to be tackled, he said: in most Welsh dioceses there were too many churches, especially Victorian ones, many of them in poor condition.


IF FINALLY seeing a woman take her place on the Bench of Bishops will inevitably dominate most consideration of Dr Morgan’s 14 years as Archbishop, the rumbling disagreements on how to respond to sexuality and same-sex marriage will loom almost as large.

After a vote in the Church’s Governing Body revealed a small majority — 52 per cent, but not two-thirds — in favour of allowing gay marriage in churches (News, 25 September 2015), Dr Morgan and his fellow bishops released prayers to be said with same-sex couples, but decided against any attempt to change the canons (News, 15 April).

Dr Morgan admitted that this compromise solution went too far for conservatives and not far enough for liberals. The vote in favour of same-sex marriages “astounded” him, he said, but it would have been “foolish” to introduce a Bill knowing it was destined to fail and risk splitting the Church in two.

A majority of 52 per cent was enough to set the UK on a course to leave the EU; is it wrong that the same majority should not be enough to change the Church’s teaching? “We have got the rule, and I think it’s a good rule, that it is a two-thirds majority for any major change in faith or order questions,” Dr Morgan replied. “It is right, therefore, that we should pause and think — majorities aren’t always right.”

He conceded, however, that the question would not go away, and suggested that there could be a parallel with the Church in Wales’s gradual acceptance of divorce and remarriage.


THE questions surrounding sexuality have been at the heart of growing tensions in the Anglican Communion across the world; tensions that Dr Morgan, as the Communion’s longest-serving Primate, has seen first-hand. Some Primates run their own Provinces in an “authoritarian” manner, he said, and wanted the Primates as a whole to impose their will on the Communion in a similar fashion.

He described the Primates’ Meeting in Dublin in 2011 as a “seminal moment”. “We all said: ‘We haven’t got the power within our own Provinces that some Primates want to exercise towards the Communion as a whole.’” But that had never been the Anglican way, he said.

Nevertheless, the Communion was not yet a busted flush, Dr Morgan said. “Although there may be differences of opinion, especially on the sexuality question, Provinces that differ vastly from one another on that issue . . . the links still continue. For example, the Primate of Bangladesh and I perhaps wouldn’t agree on the question of human sexuality, but, nevertheless, the links still continue between us of mutual affection, and interchange visits, and so on.”


SELF-EFFACING to the last, Dr Morgan said that he was looking forward to fading into the background in retirement: working on his golf handicap, playing with his grandchildren, reading more novels. “I don’t know when I last went to the cinema. That’s not good,” he reflected. “Life is busy — it’s too busy; it’s too full. I have neglected friendships and things, so I hope to make up for lost time.”

Asked if retirement would also allow him properly to mourn his wife, Hilary, who died, aged 68, in January last year, he paused for a moment to think. “I miss her every moment of every day,” he said. “But I think having to keep going has, in some ways, helped me, but also it has hindered the grief process.”

His final year as Archbishop, while marred with grief and sadness, had also seen the Church at its best, he said. He reflected on the numbers of people who had prayed for him, written to him, and attended Hilary’s funeral.

“I know that people are meant to pray for their bishops week by week in the liturgy, but I have certainly felt, over the past year, upheld in a particular kind of way. That’s been very moving, and very humbling, really.”

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