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Let the Marble Weep

The first in a series on Revitalizing Ministry in Wales (Part Two is here). 

By Mark Clavier

Hither sometimes Sin steals, and stains
The marble’s neat and curious veins:
But all is cleansed when the marble weeps.
“The Church-Floor”
George Herbert

As chair of the Standing Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales, I’ve been leading a series of theological conversations about the ordained ministry in contemporary Wales. In our report, “Faithful Stewards in a Changing Church,” we raise a series of questions in the hopes of getting people to think about their own ministry theologically and contextually with what we call critical faithfulness — a shorthand for taking stock of our current situation and charting a way forward within the Anglican tradition we’ve inherited. It’s aimed at the Church in Wales, but it addresses a ministry context familiar elsewhere.

The process of discussing and writing the report afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my experience of ministry in America, England, and Wales, and five years in theological colleges. Most of my public engagement with the document has been in my capacity as chair of the commission. In this essay, I offer my personal observations about how we might revitalize the mission and ministry of a church that’s increasingly stretched thin. I hope they can at least encourage continued conversations here in Wales about how to revitalize our ministry.

Like other provinces, the Church in Wales is struggling to face the challenge of diminishing finances, declining attendance, and a lack of vocations. We now find ourselves with a constellation of (often ancient) churches with an average Sunday attendance too low to sustain for long and with too few clergy to serve in them. Each of our dioceses now has no more than a handful of thriving churches (loosely understood), few of which can take their long-term security for granted.

For example, here in my part of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, we have 58 churches ministering to a population of around 47,000 people, of which less than 5 percent attend church. Many of these churches are located in villages with fewer than 1,000 residents. They have long seen average Sunday attendance of under a dozen with hardly a person below retirement age. The overall situation is dire: probably even more so post-COVID.

In response to our predicament the Church in Wales has developed Ministry or Mission Areas: a legally-defined network of former parishes brought collectively under the ministry of a single team of stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy collaborating with an array of licensed lay minsters. The ideal is that members of these teams can support and encourage each other as they serve a dozen or more churches. They are effectively mini-dioceses.

Although often dressed up in exalted language, the introduction of Ministry Areas is basically a last ditch attempt to avoid the sweeping closure of churches. Yet, most of the evidence in England and Wales suggests that approaches like it have generally failed to reverse or even halt decline. Statistics produced by the Church of England paint a familiar picture of churches without dedicated clergy shrinking faster than those with full-time ones. Clergy burnout and demoralization are of increasing concern as expectations and pressures multiply beyond reasonable management. And where Ministry Areas are working, this is often due to charismatic leadership that is not easily replicable.

On the other hand, critics of these changes rarely propose realistic solutions. Some say that we need more priests, as though these can be summoned (like Abraham’s sons) from rocks. Others argue for the widespread closure of churches and even withdrawal from much of the countryside. The first proposal is right but is like telling drought-stricken people that they’d be healthier if only they ate more. The second is probably inevitable in many places but fails to account for the difficulty of closing ancient churches and the subsequent impact of a landscape littered with abandoned church buildings. Too often, frustration boils over into condemnation of church leadership, little recognizing how difficult it is to find long-term solutions to our difficulties.

How then might we respond effectively to our predicament? In answer, I begin with two fundamental propositions:

Structural change is not itself an answer to decline. Although I have come to believe that structural change is necessary, I remain convinced that it has featured too high in planning and strategy. Such change alone doesn’t address the reasons for our current predicament, nor is it a serious strategy for mission and ministry. It’s a bureaucratic solution to financial and deployment issues rather than a missional strategy for inspiring and revitalizing ministry. It can be like reorganizing the management of a fast-food franchise with the goal of improving the quality of the cuisine.

Instead, enduring reform requires a recommitment to and effective formation in the Christian faith. The crisis of Christianity in Wales and the UK is a crisis of faith and commitment. We simply aren’t sufficiently knowledgeable and convinced about our faith to proclaim the gospel with any conviction. We think of ourselves as more service providers than those commissioned to proclaim the kingdom of God in word and sacrament for the salvation of souls. We probably also care a little too much about being liked, especially by the Establishment. Unless we can become confident and enthusiastic about our faith, no reconfiguration of our ministries will succeed. We need fire in our missional bellies.

Obviously, reform of this nature is far harder to undertake than structural change. It’s also not something that can be planned and implemented from the meeting room. It depends on the Holy Spirit and an abiding commitment to our savior. But I think there are some preliminary steps that can be taken to nurture the rich soil from which new life, cultivated by God’s grace, can blossom.

First, stop trying to save the Church. Christ didn’t redeem us and call us into ministry (lay or ordained) so that we could save his Church. The first step toward reversing decline is to stop being anxious about that decline. We would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Focusing on saving the church wastes time and attention on the institution rather than concentrating on the fundamentals of gathering people into the body of Christ where they can be fed by God’s love through worship, the sacraments, and the love of God and neighbor. We too frequently yield to a lurking Pelagianism that suggests that our prosperity is a matter more of our own ingenuity than of divine grace. We must learn to be the kind of church that can survive (if required) the collapse of the present organizational approach to church. We must discover the virtue of hope.

Embrace the diminished status of clergy in contemporary society. We’re still too hung up on the titles, prestige, and social expectations of a bygone era when clergy were pillars of the Establishment in a broadly Christian society. Rather than cling to the vanishing traces of our former status, we need to unburden ourselves of that baggage in order to focus on the essentials of our pastoral and sacramental ministry. This isn’t an argument for the abandonment of priestly distinctiveness — we should by our very lives point to a different reality — but for less clerical posturing, especially in matters where we’ve been given no particular expertise or charism.

Support clergy and healthy churches. There is comparatively little sense of the priesthood here being a shared enterprise not only within a given church or benefice but also between them. This is an area where at least the intention of Ministry Areas is good but is again a structural solution to a cultural problem. Clerical cynicism, competition, and sniping are far more damaging than we clergy like to admit. Likewise, we don’t celebrate and support our successful churches enough. In our current circumstances, such churches are effectively too strong to fail and are our only stable platforms for effective mission and ministry. Everything practical should be done to encourage their continued prosperity and to ensure they’re served by excellent clergy.

Restore the distinctive diaconate. As we say in the report, no order of ministry has fallen on such hard times as the diaconate. Long merely a period of transition within Anglicanism, it now finds most of its traditional responsibilities undertaken by the laity. Yet, its charism to embody the loving service of the whole Church combined with its traditional relationship with the bishop, whom it serves directly, should provide the church with an army of collaborating ministers who work within Ministry Areas but from a diocesan perspective. A strong corps of deacons would be healthier than theologically-suspect distinctions between grades of priests.

Embrace a new model of the episcopate. When researching my essay on the episcopacy for “Faithful Stewards in a Changing Church,” I was struck by the number of laments I encountered in reports and by bishops that their office had become thoroughly defined by management. Bishops have also become (not unrelatedly) more isolated from the worshiping community of the church. The history of the episcopacy has seen them move from their cathedra to the desk chair and from the praying household (the episcopal familia) to the head office. If we’re going to demonstrate new forms of higher service and leadership to the world, then we must surely begin with our bishops.

Finally, theology is not a bad word. There can be no hope for true reform and revival without serious engagement with Scripture and doctrine. Theology is the peculiar language of the Church and is not so much a grasp of doctrinal trivia as a capacity to inhabit our faith thoughtfully and imaginatively. Theology rooted in prayer, worship, fellowship, and love is the seedbed for everything else. Our clergy need to be prepared and supported to lead by practice and example in enthusing the wider Church in learning, discussing, and even debating theology. Scripture isn’t our handbook and guide; it’s our entry into God’s “strange new world” of which we are all ambassadors.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor do I pretend that my proposals are easy or straightforward. They all speak, though, to an overarching need for a renewed emphasis on our fundamental mission to be the body of Christ and for serious revival from the ground up. We’re a tired and often demoralized church that seems no longer to believe with any great conviction in our commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” If there’s a central lesson arising from “Faithful Stewards in a Changing Church,” it’s that we should be encouraged that though all the world may seem to be against us, Christ himself assures us: “Take courage; I have overcome the world!” The harvest field is plentiful; our Savior is ever faithful. We need to demonstrate confidently and joyfully that we actually believe this to be true.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.


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