The meeting was notable for the number of contributions from members with a common message: “The Church cannot go on doing the same things in the same way; some things need to change and we are open to – and indeed encourage – that possibility.
Sound like a familiar sentiment? But rather than being from the just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the sentence is how the new Review of the Church in Wales begins. The Welsh church commissioned the report two years ago and it was released earlier this week.
On the assumption that the Episcopal Church—which just created a super-committee to consider restructuring—has something to learn from our Welsh sisters and brothers, I had a look through the report.
The report spends a lot of time calling for larger Ministry Areas—something like deaneries, though it is careful not to call them that—in which the lead pastors would be both ordained and lay. “A radical change of perspective is needed,” the authors write, “from parish to a much larger area, and from a single priest, to a team with different gifts.” (p. 8) I think the report is to be commended for so highlighting the role of lay people in ministry. The call to move to the larger Ministry Areas is a sign of the straits the church is in that it feels it can’t keep the close connection to communities the parish system gives it.
Given the recent focus of this blog, the report’s commentary on ordination training was interesting, particularly the way in which it upholds residential training as a part of such training, even if combined with non-residential portions (p. 14). The report also acknowledges the increased need for non-stipendiary clergy (p. 17). We call them “bivocational” clergy in the U.S. but the idea is the same. Clergy need to start thinking about income sources independent of the church. The report suggests the church in a few years think about moving from six dioceses to three (p. 19). Since you need to have four dioceses to stay a province of the Anglican Communion, I’m not quite sure what that would mean for the Church in Wales status but that doesn’t seem to have been considered by the authors. (Perhaps Wales could get around that by having some missionary areas?)
The most interesting aspect of the report is its identification of a problem in the culture of the Church in Wales: “namely the respect in which the office of Bishop is held in the Church in Wales and the authority which he wields by virtue of his office.” The authors write:
A number of people have said to us that the Church in Wales is still characterised by a culture of deference and dependence. This is a model of leadership that is carried over into the parishes, where so often the complaint has been that it is all about the clergy, that there is a culture of “Father knows best”. What this means in practice is that people look to the Bishops and clergy to take initiatives and it has been suggested to us that nothing much happens without this. (p. 6)
I’d say there’s an element of this in the American church as well, though less than there used to be, perhaps, and less so than there is in Wales. Moreover, I think many bishops in both Wales and the U.S. would be happy to give up some of this authority if only we’d take it from them. I hope that this Review, as well as whatever process the Episcopal super-committee goes through, can start a conversation on what we expect of bishops and how we remain true to our Anglican tradition while remaining able to relate to the challenges of our time.
One thing that is clear, however, is that no structural change can change this cultural situation the Review identifies. And so what I think this report reveals most fundamentally is that we can tinker—even quite dramatically—with the structure of the church but it all means nothing if the people in the church don’t change as well. It’s one thing to (unanimously) establish a committee to investigate church structure (and sing it into being). It’s quite another to look in the mirror and ask how—independent of any structural concerns—each member of the church can become a more missional follower of God in Christ.
And that, I think, is the ultimate disappointment of this Review. It doesn’t go far enough. Perhaps that’s what you get when your committee is composed of three well-connected church personages. I get the sense that the report’s authors simply decided to shrink and combine the church’s functions in response to its diminished financial position. The Review does a good job at the beginning and the end of identifying what the purpose of church is —”to proclaim the Gospel and draw people into the life of Christ” (p. 37)—but sometimes I struggle to see how that goal is connected to some of its recommendations.
The annex of this Review is fascinating: a summary of all the other structure reports in the last generation in the Church in Wales. And yet here is the church, again calling for review and reform. Will this report end up on a similar list at some point in the future? It might, if we put all our energy into changing structure and none into changing the disciples we are forming.