THE Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he was “deeply embarrassed” by the “unacceptable” comments made by the Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy, about members and supporters of the Conservative Party (News, 4 June; Comment, 11 June).
He was responding to a letter from the Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart, dated 8 June, written “in the absence of an Archbishop of Wales following the retirement of John Davies last month”.
The letter said that Dr Penberthy’s “unprovoked criticism of their integrity” had “proved hurtful to the party’s members, representatives, supporters and voters”.
Dr Penberthy, in reaction to rumours that Conservatives in Wales planned to abolish the Senedd, had tweeted on 25 March: “Never, never, never trust a Tory.”
Mr Hart wrote: “With every passing day we are learning more and more about the many risks associated with inappropriate online content, not only as far as individuals are concerned but also what impact that this has on divisiveness and discrimination in society as a whole.”
Dr Penberthy had used her social media platform for “divisive, ill-informed comments. It does not reflect well on the Church in Wales’ reputation for tolerance and inclusiveness.” He noted that “many of the Church in Wales’ staunchest supporters may have political views at odds with her own”.
Dr Penberthy’s apology had done “little to restore faith in her judgement”, he wrote, before asking Archbishop Welby about his plans “to ensure that such situations are avoided in the future”.
In his reply, sent on Thursday, Archbishop Welby wrote that he was “deeply embarrassed by the use of such language by a church leader. It is absolutely unacceptable, and I am truly sorry. I am especially sympathetic because I am very well aware of what it is to be trolled in this way (including by people of all shades of political opinion). It is intolerable, and I am determined to work with my sisters and brothers to find better ways to express disagreement.”
He went on to mention his commitment to reconciliation, as one of the themes of his ministry, and said that the Church in Wales “seeks to be welcoming to everyone in the nation of Wales”.
The Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Revd Andy John, also replied to Mr Hart on Thursday, in his capacity as Senior Bishop of the Church in Wales.
He wrote: “I was grateful that, in your letter, you acknowledged that clergy have a role to play in holding politicians and others to account in their public office. In order to do this effectively, clergy need to be respectful and robust in both their delivery and discourse.” Mr Hart’s letter spoke of the right of clergy to “use the written and spoken word to challenge and criticise our political leaders”.
Bishop John added his own apology on behalf of the Church: “I regret the intemperate language she used and the hurt it caused. I have spoken to the bishop and believe her to be sincere in her apology and that she wishes to improve the way in which her ministry operates in the public domain.”
The Church in Wales “does not discriminate and I regret the impression that has been formed that we favour one political viewpoint over another,” he wrote. “The Church in Wales share with our political leaders a longing for a better, fairer, more just society where discrimination and poverty are consigned to history.”
Last month, Save the Children reported that almost a third of children in Wales were living in poverty — the highest percentage of any UK nation.
On Friday, Mr Hart welcomed the letters of response, which “should reassure the public — whether they are churchgoers or not — that the Church takes these concerns seriously and that there are no circumstances in which they can be justified.
“We hope, and expect, that the Church will continue to engage with politicians, to challenge us and to hold us to account, but to do so in a way that avoids legitimate views being demeaned.”
On a Twitter account that she has since deleted, Dr Penberthy made numerous comments about Conservative Party supporters, including “How can anyone with any moral fibre stand as a Tory candidate?”
The Conservative MP for West Dorset, Chris Loder, has called on Dr Penberthy to resign.
In a letter to her, he said that her comments were “disgracefully divisive”. He also alleged that his political affiliation had caused clergy to “turn their back on me when sharing the peace of Christ at the eucharist. There are some churches and some clergy who don’t welcome me, even in my home constituency — even though I have raised thousands of pounds for my local food bank, and even though I raised thousands for my local church as a teenager, even though I deliver food to those in need. . . Why? Because I am a Conservative.”
The MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, which covers a large part of Dr Penberthy’s diocese, is the Conservative Stephen Crabb, a former Secretary of State of Wales. In the 2019 General Election, his majority increased to 5062.
Read more on this story in this week’s Press column here