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Do not let fear hinder change, Archbishop Davies warns Governing Body

20 April 2018

Tim Wyatt reports from the Church in Wales Governing Body in Llandudno


The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, giving his presidential address

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, giving his presidential address

THE Church in Wales must over­­come those within it who are resist­ing all change, the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, Bishop of Swansea & Brecon, told a meeting of its Governing Body in Llandudno on Wednesday of last week.
In his presidential address at the start of the two-day meeting, Archbishop Davies said that he was aware that there were problems, “some of which are significant and others which, upon closer examination, some­­­­times turn out to be cleverly placed smoke-screens”.

Archbishop Davies warned that pockets of resistance to the Church’s vision were causing “deep anxiety, and, worse than that, a disabling fear” which were causing the Church’s leaders to shy away from tackling its challenges.

This could, he said, “sow in the hearts and minds of all of us, who are called to be leaders, the seeds of a deep anxiety, and a disabling fear, both of which have the potential to cause us to shy away from the challenge and weaken the desire to seize or even try to create opportunities”.

He reminded the Governing Body that, last April, it had “unanimously affirmed our core task to be evangelism”. He conceded that these were “confusing and challenging times” for the Church, but insisted that the Governing Body needed to take up its responsibility to lead the rest of the people of God in mission.

“Sometimes, it feels safer to wait, anxiously, for a better moment, a more acceptable time. But, as the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians, the acceptable time has arrived. The acceptable time is always now.”

In 2013, the Church in Wales began implementing a report which proposed reorganising the institution around new mission and ministry areas, instead of the traditional parishes, to reorient its focus on to evangelism and outreach (News, 27 September 2013).

It is also working towards its 2020 Vision, which has used the Church’s centenary year in two years’ time as a target to reinvigorate ministry across Wales.

But, as in the story of Joshua leading the Israelites across the River Jordan into the promised land, nothing will happen until the leaders of the people of God take the first step, Archbishop Davies said. “On the banks of the Jordan, nothing happened, no progress was made, until the feet of the ones chosen to bear the Ark of the Covenant were dipped in the water. They had to make the first move. They had to lead the many.”

Looking at the declining attendance figures, it was easy to fall victim to doubts that the Church’s ambitious plans could be realised, he said. But the Church could not just stand forlornly on the shore and gaze across at the other side: it must begin to cross the river.

“Change will happen. As members of its Governing Body, we are duty-bound to give the lead, make the running, here and everywhere, and duty-bound to put our feet in the waters as ones chosen to lead.”

Rather than allowing fears and anxieties to paralyse them, Archbishop Davies exhorted the members of the Governing Body to instead remember that, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, they were surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”.

Many of them — he named Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Mary, as well as Joshua — could have “run a mile” from the challenge that God called them to. But they instead allowed God to strengthen them, to “gird up their loins”.

“But they ultimately proved to be people who, with faith and trust and courage and grit, got the work going.” And so, too, must the Jeremiahs, Joshuas, and Marys of the Governing Body, he concluded.

 RITCHIE CRAVEN/CHURCH IN WALESDarren Millar, Conservative member of the Welsh Assembly, speaking during debate on the Church in the public square

‘Privilege to speak into national life’

THE Governing Body was urged on Wednesday afternoon to consider how it could amplify the voice of the Church in the “public square”.

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, introduced the discussion by arguing that it was not just the Church in Wales’s privilege to speak into Welsh national life, but its responsibility, too. “It isn’t a case of ‘Should we have something to say or contribute to these areas’ . . . but how can we. If we are criticised for intervening or trying to say something, my response to that is: ‘Bring it on.’”

Darren Millar, a Conservative member of the Welsh Assembly and the Shadow Secretary for Education and Children, was then invited to speak of how his own Christian faith motivated him to enter into public service.

He quoted a verse from Proverbs: “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan.” If God’s people did not seek to enter into politics, and, ultimately, government, then the ungodly would instead, and “the outcome of that won’t be pretty”, he suggested.

Christians must not keep their faith private, but instead boldly step into the public sphere, Mr Millar said. “As people of God, we make a difference wherever we go. We change the environment. We read in the gospels that we are to be salt and light in the earth . . . adding flavour to all parts of society.”

Churches must see political life as another mission field, just like any other unreached part of the world: “If we can readily send mission groups to Africa, but not unreached groups in Cardiff Bay, or Westminster, then we are missing the mark.”

Evangelising in the public square was also strategically wise, Mr Millar said. The Church had been good at preaching the good news to the “down and outs” in society, but what about also reaching the influential and the powerful? A whole nation rather than just one soul could be transformed “on the back of a single encounter with Jesus”, should someone in a position of authority come to faith.

There were a string of debates and reforms which would not have been shaped in the way in which they were had there not been committed Christians on the Welsh Assembly who spoke into the debates informed by their faith in God, he said. He cited as examples assisted suicide, organ donation, guidance on prayer in the NHS, and faith tourism.

There were three things every member of the Governing Body could do to push this forward, Mr Millar concluded: pray for those in politics and other public roles, even if they disagreed with them; encourage those in congregations to get politically engaged; and consider supporting some to even stand for election themselves.

The Governing Body was then shown a short film that featured the reflections of Church in Wales members who had high-profile positions — among them the leader of Cardiff Council, a former police chief constable, a magistrate, and a think-tank leader — before splitting into smaller groups to discuss the topic.

The group debate will inform a second formal debate on faith in the public square at the next meeting of the Governing Body, in September.

 RITCHIE CRAVEN/CHURCH IN WALESLaura Williams, reporting back from trip to New York for the latest UN Commission on the Status of Women

Give women confidence, Governing Body told

HOPE for the future of women around the world was shared by Laura Williams, the Church in Wales’s delegate to the recent United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, in New York.

Miss Williams told the Governing Body that, while women still suffered from things such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, domestic abuse, and lack of access to health care around the globe, “there is hope”. Faith leaders could play a huge part by challenging harmful cultural practices, and offering a consistent presence of encouragement and support for girls and women, the seminars in New York had concluded.

The Church in Wales should be proud of how gender-inclusive it was, Miss Williams said, urging every woman in the room to stand up to show just how many attended each Governing Body. “Hats off to the Church in Wales. We have achieved some great equality,” she said.

But the job was not complete. She asked if women were fully involved in the various sub-committees of the Church, or on parochial church councils. In response to one question from the Governing Body about what issues for women remained in Britain, Miss Williams said that younger women needed to be empowered, since, thankfully, women in the UK enjoyed legal freedoms, educational opportunities, and relative equality compared to many other countries.

“It’s about giving them that confidence that they are unstoppable,” she said “We all are. Especially within the Church in Wales.”

RITCHIE CRAVEN/CHURCH IN WALESThe Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, introducing the discussion on the admission of the unconfirmed to Communion

Strong feelings on Communion

A HEATED debate over admission to holy communion before confirmation was reignited on Wednesday morning during a session which explored feedback to the contentious 2016 decision by the Bench of Bishops (News, 23 September 2016).

Introducing the discussion, the Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, emphasised that, contrary to some suggestions, the Bench’s decision to permit anyone who was baptised to receive communion, irrespective of whether they had also been confirmed, did not “come out of the blue”. It was, instead, the product of an earlier query at the Governing Body and years of theological and historical reflection.

Despite the bishops’ welcoming the feedback and opportunity to debate the issue again, they had no intention of reversing the change, Bishop Cameron said. “We’re ready to look at its improvement, and ways it could be theologically better articulated and received, but we have stepped out in faith and we are not minded to step back.”

The Revd Chancellor Patrick Thomas (St Davids) said that he warmly welcomed the proposal, as did the parents in his parish when he discussed it with them. The Revd John Connell (Monmouth) said that, as a “mission-minded priest in the Catholic tradition, this was just what I needed at the right time for a parish developing its ministry with children”.

Others, however, were less keen. The Revd Dean Roberts (Co-opted), made a lengthy and impassioned speech which decried the inadequacies of many clerics’ approach to baptism, which was now the only sort of initiation which was needed to receive communion.

Too many parishes did little or no preparation of parents and godparents before baptising an infant, sometimes only asking them to fill in a form and post it back to the incumbent, he said. He agreed that there was a “right” to be baptised by anyone living in a parish, but this was a dubious and archaic hangover from Christendom. “This does untold damage to those who have left churches thinking their children have been turned into Christians because they have had water poured over their heads.”

Churches could fully welcome children from all backgrounds and none without baptising them — through services of thanksgiving, for example. Those who suggested that baptising the children of unbelieving parents was still usefully sowing seeds for future mission when the infants grew up were really offering only a “cop-out for a low-bar baptism policy”, Mr Roberts argued.

Growth in one of his churches had not come from baptising children without any questions or preparation, but from “consistent and explicit teaching of the historic Christian faith”. If parishes had “low expectations” for people who came to have their children baptised, then do not surprised if congregations do not grow, either spiritually or numerically, he concluded.

Canon Pam Powell (St Asaph) said that she strongly supported the change in policy, and that returning to the old system would cause problems in ecumenical services with other Churches, let alone circumstances where children were bringing their unbelieving parents to church rather than vice versa.

The Revd Miriam Beecroft (Bangor) said that she agreed with Mr Roberts: “It’s time that the Church stopped perpetuating this system of baptising people whose parents and godparents do not intend to keep the promises they say.”

Jennie Willson (St Asaph) praised the bishops’ decision not to “step back”, despite some opposition. The Governing Body needed to recognise that there were lots of different understandings of what happened in the eucharist, she said. Teaching children was less of a concern for her than ensuring that adults, baptised and confirmed, were taught about communion.

Andrew Sims (Llandaff) asked what confirmation was for, if it was no longer a prerequisite for communion. The Church had “shot itself in the foot” if it had allowed people to believe that the only purpose of confirmation was communion. The other matter that he wished to raise to the Governing Body was those who, like him, did not drink wine while receiving communion. Was there some work to be done for people like him, and younger children, who would now be asked whether or not they wanted to be given alcoholic wine?

Canon Steven Kirk (Llandaff) spoke strongly in favour of admitting the unconfirmed to communion. “I think we are there to love people into the community of faith but not batter them with doctrines and teaching they are not yet ready for, and that is what I shall continue to do.”

The Revd Naomi Starkey (Bangor) concurred, suggesting that forcing non-Christians parents to learn about a faith that they did not have as a precursor to baptism of their children was “cruel”. “If the village Satanist showed up at communion blind drunk, and asked for the host, I would be delighted to place it in his hands and see what happened next,” she said.

The Revd Adrian Morgan (Co-opted) said that he warmly welcomed the new policy, and was happy to baptise anyone who asked. But he also believed in “proper preparation”, and encouraged families who wanted their children to be baptised to attend his parish for a few months beforehand; not because of ungraciousness, but because of love for them.

“You can easily and lovingly explain to people that this is a big decision, and you’d like to invest your time and energy to help them explore what it means for them. Surely there is nothing offensive about that? We must remember that, because the baptised are now able to take communion, it is even more incumbent upon us to prepare people for that step. Out of love, out of concern for God’s people, surely we owe them much more than sending them a piece of A4 in the second-class post which they complete at their convenience.”

Carol Cobert (Llandaff) warned the Governing Body against “underestimating” the grace of God by putting barriers up through onerous preparation for baptism, while Canon Peter Brooks (Swansea & Brecon) backed the proposals, reminding clergy that proper preparation for communion was not just about teaching in advance, but how the invitation to the altar rail was expressed during the service, too.

The Revd James Henley (Co-opted) observed that the Governing Body’s debate had revealed a tension between the idea of sacraments as a means of grace, and the importance of individual decision on faith. The Anglican via media, the middle way, was not to pick a side but to live within that tension.

The Revd Adam Pawley (St Asaph) said that much of the debate seemed to revolve around admission to baptism, not communion, and suggested that a second formal debate on this topic would be helpful.

The Archdeacon of Montgomery, the Ven. Peter Pike (St Asaph), remarked that so much about baptism and communion was mysterious and confusing, and rightly so. Instead of trying to heavily regulate these things, the Church should, instead, embrace the grace of God that comes from them.

The Revd Rosemary Hill (Llandaff) criticised the practice of sending children out of church services, and praised the new communion policy for not excluding youngsters from “the full experience of the eucharist”.

Sue Last (St Asaph) told her own story of being born out of wedlock in the 1940s and experiencing the stigma attached to her family situation. But the “grace of God” that she experienced after she was baptised as a six-year-old sustained her throughout her childhood.

The Revd Jonathon Wright (Llandaff) asked what response the Bench would make to the points raised in the debate, and also queried why the simple terms “bread” and “wine” had been used throughout the documents instead of something more complex.

The Revd Dr Kevin Ellis (Bangor) reminded the Governing Body that “grace is very messy”, and affirmed that every speaker so far, whatever side of the debate they fell, had wanted to be both missional and embracing of God’s grace.

The Revd Dr Harri Williams (St Davids) asked the bishops what their guidance would be under the new regime for children who attend Communion without their parents, or those in foster care, or those with divorced parents who disagreed about Communion.

The Revd Joel Barder (St Davids) said that it was now unclear what the Church thought about baptism. “Is each and every person baptised heaven-bound, now they can take communion as Christians straight away?”

Replying to the debate, Bishop Cameron praised its quality and sincerity, but insisted that the Bench was not abandoning confirmation. “We have released confirmation to be what it ought to be: a public, mature declaration of faith. We would all say ‘Confirm, confirm, confirm.’” He also said that he was “appalled” at the idea that Church in Wales ministers had forgotten the importance of instruction into the faith, and that their “primary duty is to communicate the gospel”.

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