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Archbishop of Wales: ‘It’s not all doom and gloom’

07 May 2021

The Most Revd John Davies reflects on ministry as he retires

Church in Wales

Archbishop John Davies holds the farewell gift of a painting of Brecon Cathedral

Archbishop John Davies holds the farewell gift of a painting of Brecon Cathedral

THE Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, retired on Sunday after three and a half years as Archbishop and 13 as Bishop of Swansea & Brecon.

The coronavirus pandemic put paid to the Church’s planned centenary celebrations in 2020, and he had greatly missed “being in front of a congregation, teaching and expounding the scriptures. It’s been a funny old year,” he reflected on Friday.

But a centenary appeal to raise £100,000 over five years for Housing Justice Cymru, which he chairs, and for peace-building activities with Christian Aid in South Sudan, stood as testament to the Church’s resolve to look outwards, he said: a theme of his ministry.

He reiterated the need to recover the key purpose of the Church in Wales — attended by less than one per cent of the population in an increasingly secular country — in his final presidential address to the Welsh Governing Body (News, 23 April). “I have focused quite frequently on the Great Commission: go down the mountain and do the work rather than go down and build lots of buildings,” he said.

“That doesn’t signal an agenda for a massive raft of church closures. But our buildings are not only our family homes but also places from which you go out to business.” He noted situations where “three parish churches within a mile and a half of each other each have a Sunday service at 9.30 a.m.” This indicated “an element of unreality sometimes about what we do.

“But it’s not all doom and gloom. We are recognising that our buildings are part of the tools of our trade, but that unless they are properly viewed as such, and properly audited and resourced, we can be running round in circles just to retain the things.”

Evangelism has been high on his agenda: he launched an Evangelism Fund in 2018 (News, 21 September 2018), designed to bring about significant positive change in church culture. The fragility of the Church’s foothold “in terms of Welsh society and numbers coming through our doors” was recognised, but was not the fault of the absent people, he emphasised.

“If Christianity, which a huge proportion of people would say was a ‘good thing’, is not seen to be properly represented by the institutional religion, then something has gone wrong. I think, to people outside the Church, we can seem, frankly, strange. That is partly because we are not articulate enough in being able to explain what we do and why we do it.”

He has worked to dispel as “wildly inaccurate” the popular caricatures of the Church: “That we do bad things to people; that we are self-interested, insular, more concerned with preserving the institution than anything else and always arguing with each other. . .

“I point out that the Church does immense amounts of good work, both in the way it works in communities and the way it is able to influence others in public life who have the capacity to bring about change. Speaking on behalf of those whose voices get drowned out is something I have been able to do.”

There were unique factors, he acknowledged, in an officially bilingual Church that affirmed the place of the Welsh culture and language. “One thing we would do well to rediscover is the history of the Celtic saints, that Wales was a land steeped in the teaching and ministry of the saints down the centuries.”

Did he look across with any envy at the established Church of England? Only its “infinite capacity to engage, from a financial perspective, with new initiatives”, he said, observing that the Church in Wales had sometimes been dubbed “the Established Disestablished” Church, for its recognised place in the public square.

“We don’t claim that as giving us some superior access, but it is an opportunity not to be wasted,” he said, rejoicing in the growing trust engendered by the work of Churches Together in Wales (CYTÛN), and the Welsh Government’s Faith Communities Forum.

Implementation of the Harries Review of 2012, which concluded that the parish system was no longer sustainable and recommended its replacement with leadership teams serving designated Ministry Areas, continues. The increasing number of vocations to full-time ministry were a cause for rejoicing, but the financial implications for dioceses presented a challenge, he said.

The grandson of a Monmouth miner who experienced pit closure, Archbishop Davies expressed support for initiatives based on regenerating communities in Swansea & Brecon. “But parts of the Welsh valleys in particular, and and our post-industrial suburbs, are very sad places,” he said.

“Our schools work hard to create a sense of aspiration in young people. But too easily it’s crushed because there just aren’t opportunities around. I’m hopeful when I see things coming back like technical colleges and apprentices, and the desire of young people to protect the environment. Sometimes, it is for us to look in the mirror and say, what legacy are we handing on to them?”

The Archbishop of Canterbury commended Archbishop Davies’s “wisdom, his passion for the gospel and evangelism, and his skill and diplomacy in dealing with often complex situations”.

The chief executive of the Church in Wales, Simon Lloyd, said: “Archbishop John has brought his extensive experience, encyclopaedic knowledge, sense of humour, and deep love for the Church to his role. He has been a persuasive advocate for change.”

The Archbishop will continue his work with Housing Justice Cymru: “I don’t think you stop saying things and doing things about Christian justice when you retire.” He hopes to hone some of the gardening skills that he learnt from his late father, and to dust off the golf clubs in the corner of his office.

“And I do want to watch some live cricket,” he said. “If you’d asked me what would have been my dream job, it would have been a commentator on Test Match Special: not exactly heaven on earth, but pretty close.”

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