WHEN I LEFT the Diocese of Peterborough in 1979 to work in the land of my paternal fathers, I was, of course, aware that I was moving to a disestablished church. This was immediately apparent in the fact that on my licensing (and subsequent induction to benefices) in the Diocese of Bangor, I was not required to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, as would have been the case in England. If anything, I found the fact of disestablishment something of a relief. I had been brought up a nonconformist, and the legal relationship between Church and State had, I suppose, struck me as an archaic relic of past conflicts and a somewhat dubious but necessary price to be paid for freedom from the overblown claims and unscriptural teachings of the Bishop of Rome.
It did not take long, however, for the realisation to dawn that in certain key respects disestablishment had made very little difference to the Welsh Church, apart from its separation from the Church of England and its subsequent life as an independent province of the Anglican Communion (and I certainly would not underestimate the significance of these).
In spite of the proverbial strength of nonconformity in Wales (a chapter of Welsh history now rapidly coming to an end), the relationship between Church and Society was little different from that which I had known in England. On days of national significance, such as Remembrance Sunday, in many parishes (my own is one such) the wider society expects of the parish church exactly what might be expected of the local manifestation of the established Church of England.
If any parish priest is asked at what point the established status of the English Church becomes most palpable, he is likely to say "the law of marriage". By virtue of being an Anglican priest, he is ex officio empowered without further reference to solemnise marriages recognised as such by the State. In Wales at Disestablishment, the law of marriage was left unchanged: as a priest of the Church in Wales, I remain in exactly this position, still involved with banns and quarterly returns. Thus, where disestablishment might have been expected to make an observable difference, it has in fact had no impact.
During 1996 the Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales issued a document entitled the Cure of Souls. Readers of New Directions may recall discussion of its contents in these pages. This document was drawn up by a working party under the chairmanship of the Very Rev. Peter Baelz, formerly Dean of Durham. It was intended to be a code of practice for clergy, the initial occasion of which was the need to put in place procedures addressing the delicate question of child protection. But it reaches far beyond this issue, for it aims to cover all aspects of a priest's responsibilities and relationships with the laity, his bishop, and his fellow clergy. Strangely, the bishops decided not to have the document debated in draft form in the Governing Body, but to issue it purely on their own authority. Here I want only to draw attention to what it assumes to be the relationship between the Church in Wales and Welsh society as a whole. It clearly sets its face against any sharp distinction between church and society, almost as though it sees the two as largely coincident - in just the manner, of course, of a church by law established.
Thus, for example, the clergy seem to be under an obligation to baptise any child for whom baptism is requested, and any form of baptismal discipline which seeks to restore the link between faith in Christ, active membership of the worshipping church, and sacramental initiation is implicitly frowned upon. To be fair, the preparation of parents and godparents is commanded, but the bald statement that "to refuse to baptise is prima facie a breach of duty" coupled with the appeal to Canon LXVIII of 1604 is very revealing of the working party's theology: there is a verbal recognition that "the historical context of the Canons of 1604 no longer obtains," but the logic proceeds as if it did - as if, in other words, the relationship between church and society has continued much as it was in 1604. Similarly, we are told that "a parish priest may not refuse to marry a couple who seek the Church's blessing on their union and who are legally entitled to be married in the parish church. To refuse to marry such a couple is a breach of duty." Again there is no recognition that in such a society as ours applications for marriage may not be as straightforward as once they were in the days of Christendom. What if a couple demanded their rights, while informing the priest that they did not believe a word of what the marriage rite proclaimed, but were merely interested in placating the family or securing a photogenic backcloth for the event? Disestablished the Church in Wales might be, but we are told that "the law of the land recognises the right (my emphasis) of parishioners, even the unbaptised, to be married, with certain specified exceptions, in their parish church."
I do not intend to weigh the pros and cons of The Cure of Souls (though I believe that it would have been improved - and more readily accepted by the clergy - had it been refracted through the lens of synodical debate in the usual way). I want simply to draw attention to its presuppositions about the relationship of church to society. Those who are knowledgeable in such matters tell us that in law, the Church in Wales is a voluntary contract between its members, focused upon its Constitution. However inadequate this may be as an ecclesiology, it would seem to be the case as far as the Law is concerned. But one would never know it from the pastoral obligations outlined above, which state that anyone, apparently regardless of belief or unbelief, commitment or indifference, may as of right claim baptism, marriage, and Christian burial purely on the grounds of geographical residence within the province of Wales. What price disestablishment!
A disestablished church it is sometimes argued, has greater liberty in the choosing of its own leaders. Thus, the argument goes, the Church in Wales' Electoral College is preferable to the English system. This might have been a convincing argument in the days when the choice of English diocesan bishops was more exclusively the prerogative of the Prime Minister than is the case now, when such matters reach him through the Crown Appointments Commission (though admittedly Tony Blair seems to be injecting some interest into this procedure of late!) I cannot see that the end result of the deliberations of our Electoral College is any different from that of the Crown Appointments Commission.
There is a myth that a disestablished church is in general more free to order its internal affairs. I doubt whether in reality this is true. Measures of the General Synod of the Church of England pass through a final, parliamentary stage, which confers upon them the force of statute law. Canons emanating from the Governing Body of the Church in Wales have no such standing, and therefore the life of such a church has no way of evading or adjusting the secular law of the land where it may prove difficult to square with the intentions of the Church. Let me give an example of what I mean. One of the reasons why the first bill for the ordination of women to the priesthood failed in the Governing Body in 1994 was that it made no provisions of conscience for those of us who dissented from it. During the short period which elapsed between then and the presentation of a second bill which passed in 1996, efforts were made to find a form of words which would provide some such protection. They came up against the difficulty of the Sex Discrimination Act and although in the end a wording emerged which seemed to meet the circumstance, it was an alarming experience to fear that the Church - precisely because it was disestablished and "free' - was not in a position legally to do what it wanted to protect the consciences of its conservative dissenters. Again, what price disestablishment!
I could not easily defend establishment theologically and theoretically. It is an anomaly in a secular and, indeed, apostate age. But neither would I rush to commend the benefits of disestablishment. That there are such I do not doubt. But the world has a way of depriving the Church of her privileges while leaving her with undesired responsibilities. It would be so easy for the Church of England to lose certain advantages for no gain in terms of a clearer identity or a fuller autonomy. If disestablishment were likely to issue in a Church confident in the Gospel, unintimidated by the world and its ideologies, secure in its identity as the community of the Incarnate Lord, participating now in that kingdom which will finally and for ever dominate the created order, I for one would urge it upon my English brethren. But unless the Church of England were to meet the prospect of disestablishment with clear Biblical principles and a sound theological mind, the benefits and opportunities would be lost and the new relationship between church and society thereby established could be confused and positively unhelpful to Christian witness and evangelism.
The real problem here is the temptation (to which all of us are open, and to which liberals are especially prone) of longing to be loved by the world. For just as liberal theology tends simply to echo what the secular world is saying and impart a religious gloss to it (as the liberal agenda on sexual ethics so clearly illustrates), and just as liberal campaigning for the priesting of women was not ashamed to invoke the support of the wider world, however unconverted, so the liberal mind finds hard the prospect of being unloved by the dominant voices of the moment. The tendency then is to seek to cling on to any foothold in the social order which is left to the church, however unhelpful it may in time prove to be.
The Church in Wales did not choose to be disestablished. Its present status was thrust upon it by the secular power. It has had to make the best it can of a situation it did not choose or desire, and its achievements in this respect should not be passed over or underestimated: it has survived to a degree that its enemies at the turn of this century would never have anticipated and shown that (in the words of the late Archbishop G.O. Williams) what the State did not confer it could not take away. But if disestablishment comes to the Church of England, it will be in quite different circumstances. It is vital that orthodox Christians recognise potential pitfalls and opportunities well in advance.
Peter Russell Jones is Vicar of Conwy and Chairman of the
Bangor Diocesan Branch of Credo Cymru.
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