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Church in Wales: Still bleeding, after all this time

15 May 2020

David Wilbourne gives a personal view on the Church in Wales now

DR SENTAMU once quipped that the Church of England had the brakes of a juggernaut and the engine of a lawnmower. After eight years’ ministry in Wales, I sense that her Church has both the brakes and engine of a humble Citroen 2CV. Prone to overheat and understeer, she is nevertheless regarded with great affection, and is able to reach parts and scale peaks that larger and more plush vehicles fail to access.

David Lloyd George thrust a cruel disestablishment and a harsh disendowment on Wales’s Church: it was more like a dissolution, which forced her to shed her snooty English Rolls-Royce image, downsizing to the most basic but nevertheless highly popular on-and-off-road vehicle.

Despite Lloyd George, however, most people in Wales — if they think about it at all — think that the Church in Wales is still established, and, whatever their religious leanings, look to her as their Church. Apart from ever-faithful Roman Catholics, she is the only Church still standing in most communities, now that Nonconformists have run out of wind.

Having escaped the Church of England’s clutches, she nevertheless fiercely guards practices that “mother” has long since shed: all occasional-office fees are still retained by clergy; and Easter Offerings are still pocketed by the incumbent, and Whitsun Offerings by the curate. Meetings are mercifully few, centring on the anachronistically titled Annual Vestry Meeting and Annual Diocesan Conference, but not much else.

The Bench of (six) Bishops met four times a year as guardians of the faith to discuss and approve absolutely everything. They often played the part of a cautious St Paul having to quell irksome Corinthian over-enthusiasm, such as the vicar of a forlorn and faraway valley who had spent a whole weekend trying (unsuccessfully) to resuscitate a corpse. Dazzled by BACSI (Baptism as the Complete Sacrament of Initiation), the Bench briefly flirted with William Wilberforce’s abolitionist spirit rather than St Paul’s, and tried to abolish confirmation, but no one took a blind bit of notice. I continued confirming dozens of teenagers in increasingly packed ceremonies up the Valleys: a record 64 on one very arm-aching occasion.

Episcopacy is a very different creature as you cross the Severn. In England, a purple shirt will slice through a crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea, but, in Wales, even clergy are bemused by bishops, who are objects of friendly pity. Welsh bishops are very hands-on, covering for clergy sickness and absence, contactable 24/7 for even mundane matters.

I was once phoned late on Friday night by a vicar of a mountainous Caerphilly parish, because the gravedigger had unearthed a live three-phase cable. Fortunately, my physics background was put to good use, and disaster was averted. But why the sexton was digging by night, or why the churchwarden had installed three-phase without telling anyone, is a mystery that goes to the heart of being Welsh. Perhaps they, too, were trying to jump-start the dead.

Wales is a very distinct place, embracing lock-out rather than lockdown suspiciously enthusiastically. The Archbishop’s PA once told a caller that our boss was out of the country, which seemed a bit of a fib, since he was actually playing golf in Gloucester. But, for her, Gloucester was another country, where she had once foolishly ventured and been sold a duff car. The Dean of Llandaff had uncles on Ynys Môn who had crossed the Menai Straits only once in their lives, to serve in the Second World War, and never ever did it again.

I adored the strangeness. Ministry was local, resourced by faithful parish priests, mingling with their flock. The fashion to unite benefices and form ministry areas was mercifully thwarted by mountain ranges, making parishes A and B impossible to combine unless their incumbent was a sherpa. Such incarnational ministry was at its best in the Valleys, populated by lovely, caring, warm, faithful folk, whose generosity shamed those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of lush Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.

We had more than a dozen valleys in Llandaff; every mile you went north of the M4 took you back ten years to lands of lost content where chaste Mothers’ Union members, cocooned in thick woollen coats and velvet hats, celebrated Christmas with cheerful tumblers brimming with Harveys Bristol Cream.

In January 2016, I was covering a couple of eucharists in the Rhondda for a vicar who was having a well-earned holiday. Our Archbishop’s wife had just died after a long and brave fight; so we were all feeling pretty raw. At the second eucharist, the churchwarden, in welcoming me at the start of the service, announced that that she had asked Mr Evans to make me a corned-beef pie to assuage my grief. Mr Evans, in his best suit, then processed up the aisle with a huge pie, which he presented to me, for my sole consumption. He had been making the delicacy all weekend, and had got up at 6 a.m. that day to put the finishing touches to it. Disappointingly, I didn’t devour it as part of the eucharist; instead, it fed Rachel and me for days.

The Aberfan disaster bisected the Church in Wales’s century, and, for me, catches the essence of its spirituality. As an 11-year-old boy, I watched the mass funeral of 116 children on our grainy TV screen far away in Yorkshire, and was moved to tears at the haunting strains of “Jesu, lover of my soul”. It set my vocation, to be an ambassador for the Christ who was impaled and buried at Aberfan, as he was impaled and buried at Calvary. Glyn Simon, then Archbishop of Wales, effectively said “Bugger disestablishment,” and arranged to have a cuppa with every single grieving family. He then appointed Fr Michael Short, a first-rate priest, to care for them in the dark aftermath.

Nearing death, the playwright Dennis Potter was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, who dismissed faith as nothing but a bandage around the wound. “No,” Potter replied, unfazed, “it is the wound; faith is the wound.” Having been exploited for century after century, Wales is a wounded place, and her Church’s genius has been not to shy away from the wound, but be in the wound, to be as Christ to the wound, celebrated in the hymnody of Timothy Rees, a former Bishop of Llandaff:

And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow’s iron rod,
Then they find that selfsame aching
Deep within the heart of God.

And marked massively by the Church in Wales’s greatest son, R. S. Thomas:

This Christmas before an altar of gold
the holly will remind us how love bleeds.

I once tried to get the Governing Body to canonise Thomas, or at least elevate him to the status of a Church Father, whose writings we could ponder every day. I was shot down in flames by those who could not forgive him for being a clerical curmudgeon, the bane of bishops: the Bishop of Bangor had once taken him to a Consistory Court for the heinous sin of breaching banns regulations. A prophet is not without honour except in Wales.

Archbishop Barry Morgan certainly honoured him, visiting him when he was his archdeacon, preaching at his funeral and carrying his torch. Aberfan struck in Barry’s first term at London University, and some wag had joked that Taffy would no longer be mining for coal but for dead children. Barry flew at him, making his mark as a doughty street fighter, personifying a wounded Church who punched above her weight to champion equality, standing by victims and underdogs wherever, in Gaza, Armenia, South Africa. . .

Supremely standing by the exploited people of Wales, cherishing her language as the language of the heart, thoroughly committed to a bilingual Prayer Book and practice. During the recent pandemic of live-streaming liturgy, I found nothing more numinous than the simple act of worship broadcast entirely in Welsh by Cardiff’s Eglwys Dewi Sant. Given my poor grasp of Welsh, inevitably a lot of words went over my head; but so will the language of heaven.

My strongest picture of my time in Wales is when I once stole away from a Bench of Bishops meeting in St Michael’s, Llandaff. As I hurried down Llandaff high street, a tramp squatting in a shop doorway called me over. “Father, will you pray for my daughter? I’ve just heard she’s died in a car accident.” He often hung around the high street, plied with coffee and soup and sandwiches by kindly hairdressers, who used to cut the Archbishop’s and my hair for a concessionary fiver.

I knelt on the pavement beside him, held his hands, and prayed for his daughter by name. As I said Cardinal Newman’s lovely prayer, “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life,” he wept, his tears dripping on to my hand, a sort of benediction. It seemed the quintessence of the Church in Wales, captured by David Gwenallt Jones (who travelled with her for a while) in his poem “Catholicity”:

. . . Cardiff is as close as Calvary,
And Bangor every inch as Bethlehem,
The storms are stilled on Cardigan Bay
And on every street the lunatics
Can find salvation from the fringe of His hem.


The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York. He was Assistant Bishop of Llandaff from 2009 to 2017, and chaired the Church in Wales’s Board of Education. He is the author of the new biography of the former Archbishop of York Lord Habgood, Just John, published by SPCK at £19.99 (CT Bookshop special price £16).

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