Here we are at last.
This is the year that the Vision for the great revitalisation of the Church in Wales finally comes to fruition.
We have climbed the steep slopes to the top of the mountain and now we can stand and admire the view.
Trouble is, when I think about standing on a mountain peak I remember my New Zealand sister-in-law. On one occasion, while visiting us, she took the train up Snowdon. It was beautifully sunny when she left us but by the time the train reached the summit the weather had closed in and she could see little through the mist and cloud. She wondered if she could get her money back. Apparently, if you go whale watching in New Zealand you get your money back if you don’t see any whales.
I think I would like my money back from the Church in Wales!
Way back in 2012 the bishops announced an in-depth review of the state of the church in Wales on the run up to its centenary in 2020 as an independent church. The Chairman of the Review was the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, together with Professor Charles Handy, a former professor at the London Business School and Professor Patricia Peakes, a former Chair of the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. (We all know what has happened there.)
At the time I remember thinking that the ivory tower of All Souls College, Oxford, home to Lord Harries, was not an obvious place to begin a review of churches in impoverished mining villages in the south of Wales or the dwindling rural communities in the north. Anyway, this threesome interviewed over 1000 people throughout the Principality and 2020 Vision was the result of their investigations, cogitations and, I hope, their prayers and meditations.
The Review reminded us that “the church is a great institution designed to carry the Gospel message through the ages.” No disagreement there.
It also challenged us on the need for “urgent” change, particularly in the way our churches were set up. The biggest change was the decision to ditch (the Review said “move beyond our system of”) parishes and deaneries and create Mission Areas. (I’m always on my guard when people use five words when one will do.) The fact that many of the clergy now refer to Misery Areas tells you all you need to know. This change would lead to a group of church communities no longer being “inward looking” but would go out into the communities they served. I hope this is true for big towns but it has had the reverse effect in the great, wide, magnificent countryside which makes up most of North Wales.
I only know what is happening in the Diocese of St Asaph, where we have been ‘Unlocking our Potential’ for the last eight years. In Wrexham, for example, Bishop Gregory has spent £2 million of the £10 million given to the Church in Wales, on buying the old Burtons/Dorothy Perkins store on, can you believe, Hope Street. It was clearly meant!
A “brand image” as recommended by the Bishop for use with 20:20 vision. A keyhole. Get it?
One of the things the Review pointed out was that people no longer have to go to church on a Sunday morning for a coffee and to meet people because shopping is the new leisure activity. So it makes every kind of sense to open a “Church/Shop” in the middle of a Mall. Also, an old department store will feel much more welcoming and normal than any of the eight churches in the Rectorial Benefice of Wrexham with their odours of sanctity, overtones of religion and sense of a sacred space.
In my Mission Area things haven’t worked out quite so well. The congregation has halved in number from 40 to 20 and three of those remaining members turn 80 this year! We don’t complain. We struggle on with amazing fund raising efforts and we still manage the occasional community event for the village. But we do it alone without the support of either the Vicar or the wider Mission Area, who, nevertheless, want us to hand over any money we make for the benefit of the wider community. I’m sorry if this sounds selfish. I am not alone in giving very happily to something tangible like more tiles for the church roof or dealing with the damp. Once my groat reaches the MAL who knows where it ends up! Administration? Support for a bishop’s jolly? Money for roof tiles for a church who has failed to fund raise adequately?
I’m afraid the bishops are asking a lot and giving very little in return. The changes they identified to “re-energise and re-invigorate our life and ministry across the country” are not happening here — but the bishops are doing OK.
Lots more brand images the bishops would like you to use.