Jeffrey Gainer considers the challenges facing traditional Christians in Wales


In 2020, church people in Wales will mark a hundred years since the establishment of the Welsh church as a province within the Anglican Communion. For half a century before the First World War, the defenders of the establishment had argued for the continuation of the link with the state, but in 1914 the Liberal government forced through the necessary legislation which deprived what were then the four poorest dioceses of the Church of England of many of their endowments. Parliament also removed the Welsh bishops from the House of Lords, and clerical representatives from Wales ceased to sit as members of the Convocation of Canterbury. There were unsuccessful protests that these actions were constitutionally questionable inasmuch as Convocation preceded the existence of Parliament by some 250 years. The protests failed to change the political decision. In response to the new situation, the Welsh bishops called upon the services of some outstanding laymen such as John Sankey in order to leave the Church of England in an orderly manner. A representative body was formed to hold the church’s property and a governing body came into being to determine policy within the terms of the written constitution to which all members of the Church in Wales swore their adherence. That is the past. What of the present and in particular the situation of traditional believers in Wales today?

The Welsh church, like its Scottish counterpart, was once regarded as inclining to the high side of Anglicanism in its churchmanship and especially so in the populous south-east where from the 1930s the diocesan bishops were of that school of thought for half a century. In fact, it was in north-west Wales and in the Diocese of Bangor that adherents of the Oxford Movement first made an impression from the 1850s onwards. By the late nineteenth century, however, a more liturgically explicit form of Anglo-Catholicism had gained ground in Cardiff, Aberdare, Port Talbot and even in a few rural communities. An important factor in this trend was the support of influential landed families who exercised their ecclesiastical patronage in favour of the Tractarians. They were also responsible for establishing St Michael’s College, Llandaff, which was organized on definite Tractarian principles under successive wardens. All this has now changed.

After disestablishment, a system of appointments to livings was agreed which incorporated the episcopal, clerical and lay elements. Elected clergy and laypeople sat on the diocesan and provincial patronage boards and, whilst diocesan bishops were able to appoint their own man on occasion, nonetheless even in such circumstances the churchwardens had a right to object to the appointment. This system broke down, largely because of a shortage of stipendiary clergy and especially such as were fluent in Welsh. In practice, if a parish had not been filled after a few months, the appointment lapsed to the Bench of Welsh bishops who generally passed the responsibility to the bishop in whose diocese the vacant living was situated. But matters did not stop there. In recent years a reorganization has taken place which has been superimposed on the old parochial system. In all six dioceses large groupings of the existing parishes have been formed. They are known as ‘ministry’ or ‘mission’ areas in some places. They are served by a mixture of stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy, by readers and other licensed laypeople. Some of the last group have even been given responsibility for congregations. The result has been described as being similar to a Methodist circuit scheme. 

The justification for this innovation is that financial constraints, which include an ever-lengthening list of pensionable clergy, reduce the ability of the Representative Body to support the existing numbers of stipendiary clergy. Moreover, a notable decline in regular worshippers throughout the province has exacerbated the problem. The diocese first affected by this problem was Bangor which, despite its history outlined above, has fewer traditional believers than any other. It appears that there is now not one serving incumbent there who upholds mainstream Christian teaching about eligibility for Holy Orders. It is also a diocese which has seen a marked numerical decline as theological liberalism has come to be the dominant force in its life. However, all of the dioceses are facing the same difficulty. Whereas from the 1960s onwards increasing numbers of Nonconformist chapels were closed—over a hundred of them closed in the Rhondda valleys alone in the twenty years after 1965—it is evident that over the last decade a significant number of Anglican churches have also closed. It is likely that this trend will continue since all the indicators of attendance and support point to a significant decline. In the fifteen years up to 2017 the Church in Wales lost over a third of its attendees. In 2017 the dioceses recorded fewer than six hundred candidates for confirmation for the whole land. Over a hundred churches have closed throughout Wales over the last decade.

Shortly before disestablishment happened, A.C. Headlam warned that one of its consequences might well be a narrowing of the basis of Anglican fellowship. He had in mind the experience of the Irish church which had been disestablished in 1871. The evangelical party had become dominant there and the Prayer Book had been revised in a more Protestant direction and canons passed to restrict ritualist innovations, some of which would nowadays be regarded as very moderate. This did not happen in Wales but it may be argued that, with a century’s experience of disestablishment, another kind of narrowing has happened and it is related to the virtual abolition of private patronage which so helped the Tractarians to make progress. The dynamics of a small province and the episcopal control of patronage has led to a church where traditionalists have been marginalized and unable to secure continuity of teaching and witness in eucharistic communities. In this respect the situation is closer to that described recently in an article about the Scottish Episcopal Church than it is to England with its synodically agreed provisions to enable mutual flourishing. Thus, the newly devised office of leader of the new ministry area is appointed directly by the bishop, serves as the incumbent of the large number of parishes, and also acts as the Area or Rural Dean. There is no involvement in the process of appointment by clergy or laity. The result of this change is to make it unlikely, to say the least, that parishes of a distinct churchmanship will be able to maintain continuity of teaching. 

The teaching is important. The cleric may continue to dress in the same manner as his predecessors whilst officiating at public services, but that does not mean that he will uphold the same doctrines. In particular, parishes which have indicated that they have conscientious objections to female clergy have had their standpoint ignored despite declarations that traditional believers are assured of an honourable place in the life of the church. As a senior cleric stated publicly at the recent Anglican Essentials Conference at Cardiff, the Church in Wales in 2019 is now a much less friendly place for traditionalists. 

It should surprise nobody then that some younger clergy have gone elsewhere, some to England and some to other communions. The numbers are not large, but they are significant signs of the narrowing of the basis of Anglican fellowship in Wales where the bishops have throughout refused to provide any structural provision for traditionalists even though the innovations in sacramental life and teaching that they have promoted have made the inherited structures less unifying. The sense of collegiality between bishops and clergy is reduced in some instances and some clergy from Wales renew their ordination vows by attending chrism masses outside the province as result. This practice has developed after the Provincial Assistant Bishop, who ministered to traditionalist clergy and laity, was not replaced after his retirement in 2008. No theological explanation for this decision was given then or since; there was no consultation with Credo Cymru, the organization representing traditionalists. Recently, the relatively new Archbishop of Wales, acting on behalf of the whole bench of bishops, declined to meet with representatives of the same organization to discuss matters of concern and argued that the positions of both sides were evident. It was simply a matter of episcopal fiat again. Likewise, at the most recent meeting of the Governing Body, held at Cardiff, the archbishop stated publicly that the code of practice was purely in the hands of the bishops, and could be torn up tomorrow should they so wish.

How has this situation come about? Much of the answer lies in the fact that at disestablishment the bishops were a sure and certain sign of continuity and unity. They may have lost their seats in the House of Lords but they had not lost their apostolic credentials. Indeed, it may be suggested that the loyalty to the Crown still required by the constitutional and established status of the Church of England has, in Wales at least, been transferred to the bishops. What the Tractarians had diligently taught their flocks about the importance—nay, necessity—of retaining the historic episcopate took root in the loyalties of Welsh Anglicans. Moreover, Welsh Anglicans, like many of their English counterparts, saw their church as being a ‘bridge church’ which was able, because of its fusion of catholic and reformed elements, to establish closer links with the historic communions of west and east as well as with the heirs of the Reformation. It was also hoped that the disestablished church would once again become truly the national church of the Welsh people. After all, during the protracted disestablishment controversies, one of the charges often made against the church was that it was an alien body which had lost the support of the bulk of the people and had become alienated from Welsh language and culture. 

In one significant respect at least the situation of the Welsh church differs much now from what it was a century ago. From the late 1860s the church showed increasing signs of numerical growth, of missionary zeal, and of renewed vigour in the parishes, a point that Asquith and other Liberal leaders conceded even as they introduced bills to disestablish and disendower the same church. It was in fact two of the Nonconformist bodies that manifested decline in attendances as early as 1900 although this was masked for a few years by an influx of new adherents in the wake of the 1904 revival. By contrast with the revival between 1870 and 1920, there has been an accelerated loss of adherents through death, indifference and disillusionment and especially in the new millennium. In 2019 less than one per cent of the Welsh population is to be found in an Anglican church on a Sunday. In 1905 there were over 180,000 Easter communicants. Now, despite a significant increase in population, there are fewer than 50,000. 

In this respect the Church in Wales is similar to other Anglican provinces from North America to Australasia which have striven to commend their claims by accepting the social mores of the societies in which they are set and have ended up being ignored as offering very little that is distinctive. Especially since the major social changes of the 1960s all churches in Western Christianity have had to confront the issue of the extent to which they challenge or conform to profound change in attitudes and behaviour. As has been remarked by many, the fault lines in belief and practice nowadays do not run so much between denominations as within them. It might be supposed that Anglicanism with its inherited patterns of diverse churchmanship might be better equipped to face this challenge but that is a claim that is more optimistic than accurate. In fact, the Anglican churches have found that whilst engaging with contemporary culture they have been tempted to capitulate to that culture. Part of the reason may be that without a strong centre, such as the Papacy, they are tempted to follow the model of provincial autonomy. The Lambeth Conference has failed to fulfil the role of securing eucharistic communion and mutual recognition of ordained ministries, a clear sign of a breakdown in common faith. After all, in 2008 a third of the Anglican episcopate did not even attend the Conference which also did not issue teaching, say on the family, as the 1958 Conference had done.

What has ensued is a pragmatic acquiescence in provincial autonomy. In Wales this has led within a few years to unilateral innovations affecting the administration of the sacraments. One example is a recent attempt to reduce confirmation to little more than a reaffirmation of baptismal vows which also showed a failure to appreciate the role of the Holy Spirit in the entire process of Christian initiation. No wonder, then, that in 2017 there were only 559 confirmations in the entire province. Also damaging has been the failure to insist on careful catechesis and formation before reception of the sacraments of initiation and ordination. A church that once claimed to be a worldwide body that had the capacity to form bonds with the ancient historic churches as well as with those communities emanating from the Reformation upheavals is now struggling to maintain its own coherence and identity. Provincial autonomy is not the answer but rather much of the problem, as the Welsh experience shows.

A century ago, however, the Welsh bishops had a key role in maintaining the unity of the church at a time of crisis. There were reassuring signs of continuity in the disestablishment crisis and they knew themselves to be such. The churchmen rejoiced in belonging to a body of believers which claimed lineal descent from St David and the other Celtic saints who had established eucharistic communities in these islands. The names of these saints and martyrs, evangelists and confessors, adorn the names of many of our churches and villages to this day. Moreover, the Tractarians had diligently instructed their flocks concerning the necessity of adhering to the apostolic succession of bishops and had boldly contradicted those, whether Roman Catholics or Protestant Nonconformists, who argued that the church was no more than the creation of a lascivious king and serial wife-killer called Henry VIII. So, in the south transept of St Davids Cathedral was affixed an ornate tablet listing the succession of bishops from the time of David himself. The constitution of the new province ensured that the bishops had the initiative in bill procedure which was required in order to change the doctrine and discipline of the church. Unlike the Irish church, where some had sought to reduce episcopal powers in the wake of disestablishment, the Welsh church was to be governed by the diocesan bishops who were seen as guardians of the Church’s doctrine and life. All very much consonant with catholic order—provided the bishops upheld the same catholic order! What was not envisaged was that the bishops would promote changes which, on a prima facie view at least, are at variance with such order and lack ecumenical consent. Charles Green, the second Archbishop of Wales, wrote in 1937 of the ‘omnicompetent’ Governing Body: ‘the members of the Governing Body, recognizing that the Province of Wales is only one Province of the Catholic Church, will in all their doings feel themselves under a mental inhibition to refrain from acting contrary to Catholic Tradition.’

But who or what determines the limits and substance of catholic tradition? That is the problem. Nonetheless, it was not a pressing problem for most Anglo-Catholics for some time after disestablishment and especially so when the Welsh bishops were either adherents of their school of thought or at least sympathetic to it. But things have changed and some of us are aware that the emphasis on episcopacy, whilst attractive to those who wished to stress their difference from the chapels and to emphasize their own continuity with the apostles, was unbalanced and concealed a clericalized view of the church which did not give adequate attention to the fundamental sacrament of baptism which unites all Christians. It is no accident that Green’s study of the constitution opens with a chapter, not on the church, but on the historic episcopate.

A successor to Green as archbishop was Glyn Simon of Llandaff. In the 1960s he maintained that Anglicans were the most clericalized of all the major Christian traditions. Certainly, as the arguments over female ordination wracked the Church in Wales from the 1970s onwards, there was an often unacknowledged assumption that to be a priest was the most authentic form of Christian ministry and with this went a downgrading of the honourable order of the laity. Matters were worsened by the sad failure to establish a vigorous monastic tradition in Wales, despite several sometimes heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to do so. Moreover, an exaggerated emphasis on the inner call or experience as justifying some women’s claim to the right to be ordained, or at least to have their call tested by the church, was in fact akin to Montanism with its claim to private possession of the Holy Spirit. Along with this went the aggressive advocacy of feminism by some who, dividing the world and the church into the oppressors and the oppressed in a manner reminiscent of Marxism, clearly saw themselves as belonging to the latter group and called for justice. There is nothing peculiarly Welsh about this phenomenon, but it has led to the curious contemporary situation that the minority of traditionalist believers in Wales, whilst being assured of an honoured and permanent place in the church, are in fact being given stones instead of bread. 

Some may suppose that the recent rejection of a private member’s motion at the Governing Body points in a different direction. It is true that Archdeacon Peggy Jackson’s motion was heavily defeated after ten speakers criticized its attempt to bar traditionalists from access to the ordination process. However, what should not be missed is that not one bishop voted against this illiberal proposal and that two of their number, Joanna Penberthy of St Davids and Andrew John of Bangor voted for it. Moreover, the indications are that in Bangor the policy advocated by the motion has been the de facto reality for some time. In St Davids, a traditionalist parish with one of the strongest congregations, and with a significant ministry to children and young people, has been told that it will not have a resident cleric although it is still expected to contribute over £60,000 in ministry share. Another parish, elsewhere in the diocese, and one which did not ask for a male bishop to officiate at confirmation, will have a new priest resident in its parsonage after only a month’s interregnum. This strikes many as anomalous, to say the least.

When the legislation to admit women to the episcopate was passed by the Governing Body, assurances were given that the conscientious beliefs of the minority would be respected. A Code of Practice was issued by the bishops, but those most affected by the code were neither involved in its drafting nor asked for their comments before it was issued. The code itself is vague, and probably deliberately so, in that the bishops did not wish, it seems, to bind their successors. It is not so much a code as a statement of intent. Nor do the bishops wish to be bound by the decisions of an independent arbitrator as is provided for in the English settlement. The canon to permit female bishops was passed in 2013. Since then two of the southern dioceses have acquired female bishops in accordance with a resolution that more women should be appointed to high office. St Davids was filled by election in 2016. Llandaff, where the electoral college failed to agree on a suitable candidate, followed when the bishops co-opted a female priest from England. Once again there was no attempt to distinguish between the notion of equality of men and women, a belief shared by all Christians whatever their views on female ordination, and the idea of equivalence. It was assumed that equality presupposed interchangeability in function and that sexual differentiation was not significant for the sacramental structures of the church’s life, despite the preponderant teaching of the historic communions. Such teaching was airily dismissed by some as the product of age-old androcentrism or even misogyny. 

What has happened as a result of these innovations? In respect of confirmation, no allowance is made for the conscience of the cleric who is to present candidates but only for that of the individual candidate. Over the last decade the bishops have regarded the matter as purely one of individual conscience and sought to weaken any notion that parishes and congregations may avail themselves of any provisions for alternative provision (in this respect the situation is very different from England where parishes have been enabled to pass resolutions to ensure the continuity of their distinctive witness). Moreover, in one diocese at least each candidate is expected to submit a letter to the female diocesan to the effect that he or she wishes to be confirmed by a male bishop. In the instance of a junior candidate a letter from the parents will suffice. In practice the whole process has been made as difficult as possible for a parish to avoid the ministrations of a female bishop even although the parish may have indicated through its Church Council that it wishes to adhere to the practice of by far the greater part of Christendom. Moreover, such a parish is simply taking into account the statement in the Code of Practice that ‘individual members of the Church in Wales who, on grounds of conscience, are unable to receive the sacramental ministry of a woman diocesan bishop, shall not be required to do so against their consciences, and alternative provision shall be made.’

In respect of ordination matters are, if anything, worse. Recently a candidate was obliged to wait a year before being priested by a male bishop. Nonetheless, his convictions were eventually acknowledged, although once again only after protracted correspondence and negotiation. Not surprisingly, male candidates of a catholic conviction are in very short supply in the Church in Wales at present. Formally the bishops have stated that the ordination process is still open to traditionalist candidates, but in practice life is not made easy for them or their families. 

There is an irony here for, in the 1920s when the new province was settling down to the new arrangement, there was increasing recognition of the validity of Anglican orders by Eastern Orthodox patriarchs. Indeed, in 1925 the leading hierarchs of the Eastern church came on pilgrimage to St Davids to celebrate the Nicene Council of 325. The Nicene Creed is of course named after the same council. It expresses the mind of the whole Church and not just of a fragment thereof. Therein lies the answer to our present troubles—an appeal to the consensus of the whole Church and a trust in God’s providence. Is Anglicanism likely to disappear? Is it indeed a provisional church? It may be so. God knows. Yet we know that the truth witnessed to by generations of faithful Christians in Wales and elsewhere will survive somewhere and somehow. Our task as apostolic Christians is to do all we can to ensure that this is so in our own locality and land and to deepen our trust in that same loving providence. We also need to remind others from whom we differ that inculturation has its dangers and especially so when it obscures or damages the fellowship within and between churches. It is a good thing to engage critically with the culture around us, but a thoroughly bad thing to capitulate to that culture, deeply secularised as it now is in Wales and much of western Europe.


Jeffrey Gainer is Vicar of Meidrim 

and a former Chairman of Credo Cymru.