Isn’t God devolved? Why Archbishop of Canterbury has shown contempt for Wales
Dr Huw Evans
The Bishop of Saint Davids, Joanna Penberthy, is going through uncomfortable personal times in the wake of her Twitter proclamation that you should “never, never, never, trust a Tory”.
While not denying the significance of the issues that the Tweet has unleashed, the focus of this article is on implied assumptions concerning the nature of the response as encapsulated by the Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. This is a matter for the Church in Wales, but that position has not been respected.
The ‘offending’ tweet was made on 25 March 2021. On 2 June 2021, the Bishop of Saint Davids issued a public apology which was published on the Church in Wales website. That was followed by a Church in Wales statement the next day welcoming the apology and reminding its clergy of their responsibilities.
With that exchange of public statements in place, it might have been thought that a line could be drawn in the sand. But it was not the case. In fact, the exchange seems to have been the catalyst for the escalation of matters.
The Secretary of State for Wales then intervened and wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury on 8 June asking about his plans “as leader of the Anglican Church to ensure such situations can be avoided in the future”. He also justified writing directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury because of the absence of an incumbent Archbishop of Wales.
The Archbishop of Canterbury responded on 17 June saying that the Bishop of Saint Davids’ behaviour was “absolutely unacceptable” and that he was “deeply embarrassed by the use of such language by a church leader”.
But why is the Secretary of State for Wales (a UK Government minister) writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England, on a matter related to the Church in Wales? After all, God is a devolved matter.
Until 1920 the territory of the Church of England included Wales. The delayed implementation of the Welsh Church Act 1914 disestablished the Church in Wales and created Wales as a separate province in the Anglican Communion.
Church in England
The effect of that legislation is that the Church in England remains as the established church in England – and ‘established’ means that it is part of the state. But from that time the Church in Wales has not been part of the state. It has the same status as any other church or religious group.
The Church in Wales is part of the wider Anglican Community, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is acknowledged as spiritual leader (as ‘first among equals’ or ‘primus inter pares’). That position though is materially different from the role of, say, a line manager to which a complainant might go running for the alleged misdemeanour of a person in an organisation with more junior status.
But in writing as he did, the Secretary of State, implicitly suggests that he does regard the Archbishop of Canterbury as the as the Bishop of St Davids’ de facto line manager. Furthermore, the tenor of the Archbishop’s response suggests that was how he also saw his role.
That is not to suggest that the Archbishop was not entitled to a view, but he should have expressed things to better acknowledge the autonomy of the Church in Wales and how the matter was being dealt with by the Church in Wales, as evidenced by the website statements.
The reason for the Secretary of State writing directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury due to the absence of incumbent Archbishop of Wales is wholly unconvincing. The Church in Wales does not cease to function when there is no incumbent archbishop. As provided for by its constitution, there is a de facto acting Archbishop who is the longest serving sitting bishop – and which, in this case, is the Bishop of Bangor, Andy John.
Even if, despite the apology from the Bishop of St Davids on 2 June and the subsequent statement from the Church in Wales, the Secretary of State continued to be dissatisfied with things, he could have pursued the issue further with the Church in Wales through the Bishop of Bangor.
Why does this matter? Because the episode shows a contempt for structures and arrangements in Wales, of which this is not the only example.