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Moment for change and rethinking

10 December 2021

The newly elected Archbishop of Wales talks to Pat Ashworth about past, present, and future ministry

Church in Wales

The Rt Revd Andy John delivers his presidential address to the Governing Body, in September

The Rt Revd Andy John delivers his presidential address to the Governing Body, in September

THE electoral process for an Archbishop of Wales has been known to take the full three days allowed for it; so there was relief all round when the metaphorical white smoke appeared and the Bishop of Bangor, now the Most Revd Andrew (Andy) John, was elected on the first morning.

He has been carrying out many of the duties of the archbishopric, which he holds in addition to his diocesan bishopric, for the past seven months, and having the responsibility but not the authority had been hard, he said on Tuesday. He became Archbishop from the moment that his election was confirmed by the other bishops of the Church in Wales, and acknowledged this week: “It’s all a bit of a haze at the moment, but my feet are going to have to hit the ground running, sharpish.”

Andrew Thomas Griffith John was born in Aberystwyth on 9 January 1964. He graduated in law in Cardiff, before studying theology at St John’s College, Nottingham, and graduating in 1988. He was ordained in 1989, serving as assistant curate at St Mary’s, Cardigan, with Mwnt and Y Ferwig until 1991. He returned to Aberystwyth, as a curate in the Aberystwyth Team Ministry, becoming Team Vicar in 1992.

From there, he moved in 1999 to be Vicar of St David’s, Henfynyw, with Aberaeron and Llanddewi Aberarth with Llanbadarn Trefeglwys. He then spent two years, 2006-08, as Archdeacon of Cardigan (as well as Vicar of Pencarreg and Llanycrwys), before being elected and consecrated for Bangor on 29 November 2008.

He has now been in Bangor for 13 years. He is Welsh-born and Welsh-speaking — not an essential for the job, but certainly an advantage, he says, since up to 70 per cent of his ministry has to take place in a bilingual context: “Certainly, when I am in touch with politicians in the area and in public service, most of that takes place in the medium of Welsh; so it makes relational work much easier.”

His diocese in north-west Wales covers all of Gwynedd and Anglesey, and stretches down to mid-Wales. It is the most rural and the most Welsh-speaking, and, while tourism has to some extent replaced the former heavy industries, life there is still a struggle for many. There are no big employers. “We have Snowdon, we have a huge number who come on holiday — so we have issues around second homes and the capacity of a rural area to cope with an influx of people, but it is a stunning part of the world,” he says.

He takes up post at a time of massive change, stemming both from the impact of the pandemic and the changed context of ministry. It gives him not a blank page but an opportunity to rethink. “Life’s narrative has changed, perhaps permanently, whether it’s the work/life balance that people are adopting or whether it’s what the churches learned through this,” he reflects.

“We’ve often berated ourselves in the Church in Wales that we are slow off our feet, and, like the oil tankers, we take an awful lot of time to turn round. But we discovered we were quite adept at moving on, and, at the same time, we discovered our voice in terms of some of the ministry and services we were able to offer. These were highlighted in a way much more obvious, certainly at the height of the pandemic, than prior to it.”

It’s about the way the Church continues to have significance, and marks the way it has to go forward, he suggests. “It’s a big challenge, but we are conscious of some of the things we have taken for granted. Our ancient places are becoming really quite important, as people look for some of the certainty that was exposed as lacking in the pandemic.

“Life no longer has boundaries. I’ve been very conscious, travelling across some of the churches in this area, of finding the prayer boards full and people wanting to access buildings that have a story, a history, a saint, a message. They’ve got an awful lot still to give us in an age when secularism seems less satisfactory than before: a church that has something to say, a gospel to proclaim, not just in the public space but in terms of its locality and our communities.”

He is “singing from the same hymn sheet” as the Archbishop of York, he acknowledges, when it comes to the mixed economy of the future: “not wanting to jettison the old, but to stimulate the new”. Three-quarters of Wales is now arranged into ministry areas: an experience that has been overwhelmingly good and “relatively painless”, he says, even for those who have been slower in the developments that they have had to make.

“They’ve come to see that this is not the lesser of two evils, but something that has brought new energy and life, and is here for the long term. The new groupings allow for a platform to support different kinds of churches, whether that’s Fresh Expressions, or choral traditions, or the simple, familiar parish church — all of these can exist in a ministry area.

“We seem somehow to have avoided much of the hostility around what is the future of the parish, because we have maintained a parochial system, but adapted it and made it larger in a way that has brought new capacity and new energy.”

He is optimistic, “not persuaded that in the Church of England or the Church in Wales the direction of travel is one way. There is an ongoing searching and seeking, an ongoing need for spiritual things in the life of our nation, and we are better placed than anyone to provide this story and the things that allow people to access that. We have something really precious to give.”

The Anglican Communion is increasingly important to the Church in Wales, he suggests. “As certain parts of the Communion no longer find themselves able to participate in it as once they did, it throws forward the need for us to be more engaged, and celebrate those Churches who find they do want to engage in conversation, and who remain curious as to why there are differences and even disagreements between us. We want to make the most of the things that bring us together rather than separate us.”

The Bench of Bishops in the Church in Wales was of one mind over blessing same-sex unions, and the first service took place last month. “But that wasn’t a bolt out of the blue,” Archbishop John emphasises. “We have thought about this long and hard for a long period of time in our Church. That process of engaging in robust conversation is essential to the liturgical provisions that might be provided.

“I think that we will gently but firmly walk forward and find this adds to our life and doesn’t diminish it. We continue to listen, and we provide space for those who don’t agree. We move as one. I think we will not lose many from our number, but find the essentials draw us together in faith, hope, and love.”

The Archbishop married again after divorce, and reflects with candour: “I think the Church in Wales has been really very good at allowing people whose lives have been scarred and marred, and where there have been failures, at drawing them back in and and providing a space for people who haven’t always got it right. I think that’s part of the gospel, and it’s essential that we do make space for people who have failed.

“It’s part of our humanity. That’s not to say we don’t need proper disciplines and proper order, but, at the same time, if we end up excluding more than including, we have done something wrong.”

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

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