Lessons from the Church in Wales

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.

The harvest is plentiful…

Students of history will know that the Episcopal Church (and other Anglican churches) used to have missionary areas overseen by missionary bishops. In places where the church did not yet exist, the church consecrated men to serve as bishops who had the sacramental authority needed to build the church in that area. Over time, the missionary areas grew into full dioceses capable of supporting themselves.

(For the record, one of the reasons the Anglican Church in North America is so purple-heavy is that they’ve adopted a similar strategy. Todd Hunter’s Accidental Anglican has more on this. Evaluating that decision is for another post.)

A lot of great missionary bishops are in the commemoration calendar of the church, people like Jackson Kemper and Philander Chase. (The latter of Kenyon College fame: “The first of Kenyon’s goodly race / Was that great man Philander Chase; / He climbed the Hill and said a prayer, / And founded Kenyon College there.”) But they are no longer. While some dioceses of the Episcopal Church receive financial support from the central church, they are all self-governing. Missionary areas and bishops are a thing of the past.

Or are they?

News comes from the Anglican Church of Canada that one of its dioceses, the Diocese of Moosonee, will become a mission area of the province of Ontario.

The plan evolved after almost a year of discussions and consultations on the fate of the diocese, which has been burdened by extreme financial difficulties….

Under the plan, the Ontario metropolitan will exercise the authority, jurisdiction and powers presently held by the diocesan bishop. The metropolitan may authorize other bishops to perform episcopal duties including the ordination of deacons and priests, confirmations and consecration of churches, chapels and churchyards.

Is Moosonee the canary in the coal mine for dioceses in the Episcopal Church? There are many dioceses that face similar financial difficulties. (Just look at this list of diocesan giving and see how small some of the budgets of dioceses are. How do they survive?) There’s been talk of combining dioceses. (In at least one case, it was tried and the vote failed.) What would it mean if, instead of combining, dioceses reverted to mission areas?

I happen to know something about the diocese of Moosonee and the part of the country it’s in as it’s where my grandparents lived. (In fact, the current bishop of Moosonee presided at my grandfather’s funeral.) It’s rural. It’s relatively poor. There’s a large native population. It is The North (capital T, capital N), rich in natural resources, plagued by chronic illness, shut out of political power. It is a place dear to my heart, though the years I spent in the northern latitudes were to the west. It’s an area (like every other) that needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, many Christians recognize this. If you drive through some of these hard-up towns in northern Canada, you’ll see quite a few pentecostal-style churches in old malls and storefronts. The spread prosperity gospel churches on First Nation reservations is one of the great unreported trends of North American Christianity. Evangelism is happening here. I just happen to think the Anglican/Episcopal interpretation of the Christian faith has a lot to offer. That, sadly, is not happening.

I was reading about the Moosonee at the same time I was reading about news from the ongoing General Convention of the Episcopal Church. There’s all kinds of talk about how the church needs to change, take risks, be bold, make sacrifices, etc., etc. Love it. It’s great rhetoric. But as more than a few have noted, where’s the action to back up the talk?

There’s no doubt in my mind that there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the church, especially among its younger generation. What would it mean for some of this energy and enthusiasm to be translated into some of the great missionary areas of this continent, places like Moosonee, that so need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ? What would it mean to consecrate missionaries—bishops or not—who don’t expect any perks of status or rewards of income but are so fired to share the teachings of the kingdom of God that it doesn’t matter to them? What would it mean to take this great well of energy and enthusiasm that is—let’s face it—concentrated in the urban areas of the country and spread it wider across the land? It’d be risky. It’d be bold. It’d be sacrificial.

I’m not sure what the result would be. But I do know that if we don’t try, we’re going to end up with a few American dioceses going the way of Moosonee.