The Chairman of Credo Cymru on the recent election to the See of St Davids
Cymru fach – little Wales. With a population less than a third of that of Greater London, the description seems appropriate. It fits, too, the present situation of the Church in Wales, which on an average Sunday has fewer than 30,000 people who attend its services. According to the official statistics the Church in Wales has experienced a decline of 5% in worshippers in two of the last five years. In this regard we are like other Anglican provinces that have come to be dominated by a revisionist agenda. In North America and elsewhere congregations are getting smaller, and often lack young people. When I was made deacon in 1977 there were some 140,000 Easter communicants in the Province; now there are about 60,000.
You may retort that numbers are not anything; and that there were but twelve apostles at the beginning. But is important to bear size in mind when considering the present situation; for in a small Church people know one another, and the dynamics are different. This was something noticed by some of the English participants in the recent conference held in Cardiff to consider how the theological breadth of Welsh Anglicanism might be maintained (ND, Oct 2016). In a small community it is sometimes easier to move things in a particular direction. As another speaker at that same conference noted, speaking from an Evangelical perspective, the Church in Wales in recent years has moved in a more Catholic direction in liturgical matters whilst at the same time becoming ever more “liberal” in its teaching and practice. The liberalism in question is essentially that of liberal Protestantism with respect to Marriage and Holy Order.
The six diocesan bishops almost always agree on what needs to be done before they present matters for discussion by, and decision in, the Governing Body. Their agreement, however, does not always reflect the diversity of viewpoints within the wider body of the faithful. In particular, the growing influence of Evangelicals – not least in the diocese of St Davids – is not characteristically represented on the bench of bishops, and traditional Catholics have long been without a representative. Since the retirement of the Rt Revd David Thomas as the Provincial Assistant Bishop in 2008 the latter group, once strong in the south-east and especially in Cardiff, has felt pushed into a confined and precarious position.
The diversity of viewpoints found in a group of over forty diocesan bishops, as in England, is not found here; and a strong-minded Archbishop can make his presence felt over the years. Moreover, liberal Protestantism is not of itself a guarantee that its adherents are liberal in their dealings with those who differ from that particular expression of Christianity. True liberalism, after all, has a magnanimity about it which comes from a calm, prayerful appropriation of the Faith and a deep inner assurance of the Truth. It does not need to exclude or marginalise others, and is confident that the Truth will prevail in the end.
For many in society it appears to be a self-evident truth that women should be admitted to all three orders of sacred ministry. In September 2013 the Governing Body, which had been reduced significantly in numbers some years previously, passed a canon to permit women to be considered for consecration to the episcopate. At the same time the bishops were charged with producing a Code of Practice to meet the needs of the minority in Wales. That minority holds fast to the teaching and practice of the majority of the world’s Christians in maintaining a male priesthood and episcopate which they believe to be in continuity with the Lord’s example and the apostolic heritage of the Universal Church. The Code gave but small comfort to traditionalists. It allowed individuals, but not communities, to petition a female diocesan bishop to allow one of her male colleagues to administer, say, confirmation to individuals after they had made a written request – but only if the parish priest was in agreement. Because of such meagre and grudging provision there ensued a fractious exchange of letters between the bishops and Credo Cymru, followed by a calmer period until the prospect of episcopal elections came into view.
On 2 November, after the retirement of the Rt Revd Wyn Evans, the Electoral College met at St Davids. The proceedings were just a little like a papal election in that the cathedral doors were closed and the electors were sworn to secrecy. Like an habemus papam announcement the Archbishop duly came out to announce the result of the deliberations. History, we were told, had been made with the election of Canon Joanna Penberthy to be the next Bishop of St Davids. It should be emphasised that this was a constitutionally authorised action, and not some imposition of an episcopal fiat. The required votes were found for a female candidate. That does not mean, however, that the result embodies the mind of the Church Catholic in which we profess our belief in the Nicene Creed.
We do not know how the decision was reached; although, as ever, speculation has been rife about the proceedings. One reason for this is that the diocesan profile drawn up before these proceedings made it clear that what was needed was a fluent Welsh-speaker. This is no surprise. Two thirds of the parishes use some Welsh, and not for many decades has a Bishop of St Davids been unable to speak fluently the ancient and living speech of this land. It seems, however, that the Bishop-elect is unable to preach in Welsh; although she is able to conduct a service. To her credit she has acknowledged this, and expressed a wish to improve her grasp of the language.
Where does that leave the Diocese of St Davids at this juncture; and maybe soon the Diocese of Llandaff, where another episcopal election is imminent? First, it puts some people on the spot, because a mutually agreed provision was not in place before the advent of women bishops in Wales.
A series of consultations took place after the 2013 decision. People were free to make their point of view known to the bishop and their fellow churchgoers; and there was broad support for effective provision with an episcopal leader. Nothing came of this, as the bench of bishops produced something quite different. We in Credo Cymru (and even some of those who agree with the ordination of women) consider the Code to be quite inadequate.
Those likely to be immediately affected are the candidates for the diaconate and priesthood next summer. To be fair, the bishops stated in 2014 that traditionalists would still be accepted as candidates for ordination. They rightly contended (in the face of criticism from some quarters) that, as the matter of women’s ordination was subject to reception by the wider Church, that this should be so. It appears that there are some such candidates in the diocese of St Davids, who will now have to reflect on what they should do to act in accordance with their consciences. Please remember them in your prayers.
Secondly, although there are very few Anglo-Catholic centres in the diocese – many parishes are quite central in churchmanship – there are nevertheless quite a number of evangelical clergy serving in Cardiganshire. Some of them may have misgivings about the innovation on Scriptural grounds – the absence of reference to women overseers in Scripture, and the familiar argument about headship of the male. What is looking problematical is the very nature of the bishop as a focus of unity. The Anglican News Service made much of the fact that Wales had joined eight other Provinces, two of them in the British Isles, that already have women bishops; but it did not mention that our communion is not simply with those provinces, but also with much larger provinces that do not.
The Council of Credo Cymru has given consideration to this situation. In such a difficult situation it is important that we pray for Canon Penberthy; but we have also issued a statement expressing our conviction of our needs.
At the Cardiff conference several pointed questions were asked. One was this: Does the Church in Wales really mean what it has said over these last twenty years that there is a permanent and honourable place for those who simply wish to live out the Christian life in conformity with the practice of the greater part of the world’s Christians now and in the past?
Some clergy have already concluded otherwise and sought a spiritual home elsewhere; some are looking at serving within the Church of England. Others are disturbed by the increasing gap between the canonical and legal structures of the Church in Wales and the sacramental and pastoral realities. We shall know in the fullness of time whether the assurances made since 1996 will be honoured or disregarded – and maybe fairly soon, as well. Then at least people will know where they stand and will be able to make their judgement accordingly. It would, however, have been much better had all of us started not from the folly of provincial autonomy but from the need to secure ecumenical consent. The arguments are familiar and, to some, even “old hat”. However, the problems consequent upon acting on the basis of the supposed omnicompetence of local Anglican synods are very much with us now. In this situation we are truly grateful for the moral support, and above all the prayers, of our brothers and sisters in England. Please remember the faithful laity up and down this land who are perplexed by what is happening.
And what of the future? At the recent council meeting of Credo Cymru the suggestion was made that we start the process of forming a Society somewhat like that which is already in existence in England. Such a Society would have as its priority the need to provide for people throughout Wales that sacramental assurance which is now such a pressing necessity in our evolving situation. We trust in God’s providence and remain resolved to witness to the Truth of that ancient yet ever-new Faith which is found in the Scriptures and attested by the Fathers. They are small but necessary beginnings as we face a new situation. Above all, we remember St David’s words: “Be joyful; keep the Faith!”
Canon Jeffrey Gainer is Vicar of Meidrim, in the Diocese of
St Davids, and Chairman of Credo Cymru