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Ten years on, Harries review has changed the Church in Wales

11 March 2022

Covid ‘took ministry areas up a notch’ after mixed start


The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Andrew John

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Andrew John

IT IS ten years since the Church in Wales accepted the findings of an external review that judged it to be in crisis, with structures no longer appropriate to the times and a prevailing culture of deference and dependence on its bishops and clergy which it defined as “Father knows best.”

The review noted the expected retirement of large numbers of clergy in the next few years, the shortage of ordinands, the combining of more parishes than could be adequately ministered to by a single priest, declining church membership, and the almost total absence of young people.

Its parish system, pre-dating disestablishment in 1920, was no longer sustainable, the review said. It suggested that the catchment area of the local secondary school was a guide to the kind of area that the Church should regard as natural for ministry. “Honesty demands that we report that morale in some parishes is very low indeed,” the reviewers said, chief of whom was the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford.

But the review also found “warm, friendly and welcoming communities”; a legacy of establishment resulting in “a continuing sense of responsibility to the wider community and a respected position from which to speak to it”; and “a great desire for energy and creative ministry to be unleashed”.

What was needed, it concluded, was “a new, more collaborative style of leadership, modelled by the Bishops and reflected at parish level”. Lay people’s talents and willingness to serve needed to be used more fully. In conclusion, the reviewers said: “We believe that the Church can only continue into the future if it taps into this human resource.”

Most notably, the Harries review recommended replacing the parish system with ministry areas (MAs), each with a leadership team of lay people as well as clergy. It was not prescriptive. There would be no “one size fits all”: a designated ministry area might have 25 churches or congregations and a leadership team with perhaps three stipendiary posts. A few large churches in urban areas might remain viable as single entities, because they had large congregations and were financially self-sufficient.

A decade later, as the Church of England confronts many of the same issues, the picture across the six Welsh dioceses is mixed. Bangor, the diocese of the present Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Andrew John, has 27 mission areas. Deanery life had already been acknowledged to have collapsed here, replaced with a system of grouped parishes which “proved a bit of a disaster”, which, in turn, became a single united benefice: “one PCC, one set of accounts — even one bank account. That’s a big one,” Archbishop John says.

“We had to change an awful lot, and we found agreement not just to structure our lives differently, but to gather around a new description of what it means to be an Anglican in north-west Wales: worshipping God, growing the Church, loving the world.

“The journey was absolutely transformative. What was difficult? Even now, we still find that the sense of localism can be paralysing. The strength of parish life will always be the local church, but, sometimes, that is defended and guarded with such passion that we fail to do together what we couldn’t do apart, which is a great pity.”

Chris McAndrewThe chief reviewer was the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a former Bishop of Oxford

All the churches are in ministry areas, “for better or for worse”. They can choose to opt out of things that the MA does together — new youth work, or pioneer initiatives, say, which need the area to be “a dynamic bit of geography” to draw from it. But opting out altogether is “certain death, because they will not survive being poor and on their own”.

The diocese had needed “to cut its cloth in a way that would end up in our wearing a bigger set of clothes than the lining”, he says. Early appointments included four children-and-youth enablers, which, “in an enormously heartening piece of good news”, led to early results in widening youth work in the diocese.

Ministry-area leaders take responsibility for a large team of lay and ordained people, including commissioned, locally discerned lay ministers. The Archbishop believes that that has enabled them to feel a new sense of purpose, but, he acknowledges, “What we are asking them to do is challenging and hard. It has been costly for them, but they have risen to the challenge with spirit and courage.”

He believes that the general perception reported by the Harries review that “nothing can happen without the Bishops” is weakening. “The whole Church has changed: not just because of ministry areas, but because of the need for safeguarding. Bishops’ clear responsibilities, with other senior lay figures, mean they have to be accountable.

“That really does bring an end to the old phrase ‘prince bishops’. That really does end that culture. Their expectation, until 20 or 30 years ago, was simply continuing their life of faith within the diocese. Now, they are responsible for a whole raft of ministries, which has given more energy.”


THE six dioceses are all at different stages of the transition, as are the ministry areas within them, which makes it very hard to get an overall picture. The Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, remembers the Harries review as being received with a great deal of cynicism as “just another report”. It is said that “we didn’t put many resources behind implementing it at first because we just didn’t know whether it would be taken seriously.”

Bishops and diocesan leaders were positive, but a malaise had gripped parts of the Church “that we were on a route to closure. That had dominated areas of church life and still does. . . It’s part of having to tackle that narrative, and change it, which is the important task.”

Pre-Harries, the diocese had already started to build larger pastoral units. At a critical diocesan standing-committee meeting to look at the review’s 50 recommendations, ministry areas and work with young people emerged as the outstanding areas of engagement. The Governing Body had given the green light for experimentation, and St Asaph opted for mission areas as more outward-facing.

The Church does not like change, the Bishop says; so, while some embraced it from the start, and others were won over as things began to take shape and start working, “There are still both clergy and laity saying, ‘It’s a dreadful idea, and we won’t go anywhere near it.’”

But the really interesting thing, he says, has been the challenge of Covid. “What has happened over the last two years is that our mission areas have gone up a notch in terms of their importance. Faced with the shock to the system, churches and clergy and lay ministry have suddenly seen the value of working together.

“And a whole new generation of lay leadership came forward. We have seen a burgeoning of volunteer support — almost as if people needed to be convinced that the Church could change and move forward.”

There is a burgeoning of vocations, too, he says. The deaneries that have become the most successful mission areas are acknowledged — perhaps inevitably — to be the larger ones that had a core team big enough to drive change.

Each of the 19 mission areas has a conference empowered to take its own decisions. St Asaph has 63 stipendiary clergy. One deanery had 22 churches and could afford three stipendiary clergy. Its new team has emerged as three stipendiary clergy, two self-supporting clergy, four retired clergy, and 14 licensed lay ministers. “It’s a case of changing the mindset so people see it as being in things together,” the Bishop observes.

Where he sees the new culture being enthusiastically adopted, he sees the life of the Church being turned around; but it will take a long time for the new culture to come through, he suggests. Among the 19, he would describe several as “going places”, “really going places” or “working well”; others as “struggling”, some as “problematic”.

The fundamental choice, he considers, is: “Do we want to build a culture of individual entrepreneurs, where the brilliant priests can reach for the skies and the rest are left a bit in the doldrums?

“Or do we want to go for a more communitarian approach, which is about people coming together and enriching each other’s ministries? I don’t think we can afford individualism any longer, because many churches are just too weak to sustain themselves, and, therefore, the future is one of alliance and co-operation.”


THE Revd James Henley is the Ministry Area Leader in East Cardiff, in Monmouth diocese. He has seven congregations: five have their own church, and two meet in church-school halls. There are two ecumenical churches.

For the past year, he has been the single stipendiary priest. But he is about to be joined by three people whom he has been able to recruit from scratch, and is taking a portfolio approach more akin to a cathedral’s. One priest’s primary responsibility will be for belonging and pastoral care; another’s will be for liturgy and worship. The third is a joint post with St Teilo’s Church in Wales High School.

“It all goes further than a grouped benefice could have done. It’s a much more innovative and collaborative way of working,” he suggests. The positive response has been heartening: in place of the expected anxiety, “congregations have got together and rallied round a sense of vision for how to be a renewed and faithful presence for the whole of east Cardiff.”

He has no licensed lay ministers, but several worship leaders are part of the team. The buck does stop with him, as overall leader, he says; but he is determined to avoid at all costs “the risk that you end up with a lot of glorified curates running around and doing the one person’s bidding still. We want low control and high accountability.”

Of the big picture, he concludes: “The most significant and challenging thing to achieve is that we don’t just change our structures while the culture remains the same. It’s got to be a process of dialogue, shared vision, and managing to bring everyone on board to have a really good understanding of the direction in which we’re travelling.”

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