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.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon in the Church in Wales, Bishop’s Chaplain, and Vicar of St Mary’s Brecon.

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7 Responses

  1. C R SEITZ

    In France church properties were handed over to the communes in 1905. Pride and patrimoine from non-attenders mean they are well cared for in most regions. In our rural area there were 24 parishes, some only a few miles apart. All ancient edifices. There were 3 clergy. The laity are extremely involved and make it work. They have the ownership, as the clergy get moved around France. Three parishes were chosen for every-Sunday 11.00 worship, usually the biggest or where the rectory/presbytere was being used by the priests in charge. As for the others, they were on a rota, for the earlier 9.30 service. This meant that every church remained in use, though in a rota. We lived in the rectory of one of these. On the Sunday when there was 9.30 worship, the villagers would attend. Otherwise, they went to 11.00 at the main church. (My mother’s ancestral family rest in a parish graveyard in N. Wales. Though not as old, it reminded me a bit of the typical rural French parish church.) I think the biggest positive factor is the buy-in from faithful Catholics on the ground. They do the catechesis, music, serve sheets, Sunday school, administration, even pastoral visitation. They are faithful Catholics and they have their job to do. Pere M has his. I have not experienced this in Anglicanism, not in the US, Scotland, or Canada. Catechesis is a great leveler. It gives everyone a sense of “I am a Catholic and I know what that means and what my responsibilities are.”

    • Mark Clavier

      Thanks for this. I didn’t know about the French context, which is a fascinating possibility. It sounds like something in the same vein as what Simon Jenkins has proposed, though more sensible thank his.

      Your final comment is what my final essay in the series will address. The Church has allowed a whole ecology of lay devotion and participation to decline massively over the past 50+ years. As a result, there is neither the faith, commitment, nor the inhabited knowledge to perform even the fundamentals of church life. I may steal your line ‘catechesis is a great leveler’. It gets right to the heart of the matter.

      • C R SEITZ

        We lived in secteur pastorale Val d’essonne. Two brief anecdotes. I was doing a Christmas lessons and carols service, knowing the French in our little village would love it. The priest at Milly had asked his organist to play. There was some confusion about the psalm. Rather than fall silent and expect the officiant to stumble along, the worshippers rallied and found the way. That would not happen in TEC. They had buy-in. It was their service.

        On Good Friday a ‘way of the cross’ was announced on the sign board of our church. We went. I asked, ‘where is Pere M.’ Almost offended, our friend Brigitte, and elderly widow, replied, ‘this is our service.’ And so it was. One of the finest I can recall, the service book handed from parishioner to parishioner. A man was severe alzheimers trundled along with us. He was the first to venerate the cross.

        I do suspect moving the clergy after limited amounts of time helps develop this sense of ownership, but it is also bittersweet. Oddly enough, some of the restrictions due to abuse also mean the clergy cannot be involved in some matters; that too has forced the laity to rise to the occasion. But happily so. Far less clericalism. Good for clergy and laity both.

        Blessings on your labors.

  2. Robin Jordan

    A number of factors account for church decline here in the United States. I am not just talking about the decline of the Episcopal Church but also the Continuing Anglican Churches, the Anglican Church in North America, and other denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. While some parts of the ACNA are growing, other parts are in decline. The Southern Baptist Convention’s new church plants have not kept pace with its church closures.

    Among these factors are changing attitudes toward organized religion and spirituality in the general population, the shrinking churchgoing population, the politicization of organized religion, the failure of local churches to embody Jesus’ teaching and example, the disinterest of churches in engaging the communities in which they are located, the inadequacy of the conventional church model for reaching the non-church going population on the North American mission field, the growing influence of social media influencers with all generations, the failure of local churches to appreciate the value of the internet in reaching and influencing the younger generations, the avoidance of the younger generations of social media that their parents’ generation frequents, and a sacramental theology that maximizes the role of an ordained clergy in the administration of the sacraments while giving a negligible role to the laity to name a few. Trends that researchers are watching are the preference for smaller gathering among younger people, the revival of interest in the neighborhood church, and the emergence of the micro-church.

    In many communities an equipped and energized laity and micro-churches would be a way forward except for one major obstacle—Anglican sacramental theology. Anglo-Catholics bulk at lay administration of the sacraments because with the exception of emergency baptisms their sacramental theology does not recognize the validity of sacraments administered by lay persons. Evangelicals bulk at lay administration of the sacraments because it is not a part of the Anglican tradition. Administering the sacraments has always been a clergy prerogative or so it is claimed. Such scruples are keeping communities from having vibrant micro-churches. We are tying our own hands! There is an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and the United Kingdom. Micro-churches can meet a need that the internet cannot meet!
    The New Testament church did not have buildings. While local churches may have had elders, it did not have an ordained clergy. It had peripatetic apostles who evangelized, taught, and encouraged, but they did not do all the evangelizing, teaching, and encouraging. That was primarily the responsibility of the local church. The local churches did not wait for them to make a visit to baptize or to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
    In a number of dioceses in the Anglican Church of Australia district priests are recruited and licensed to serve a cluster of small, widely scattered congregations. Except when a congregation received a visit from the district priest, a licensed lay reader conducted services and preached sermons. In the Episcopal Church some dioceses yoke small congregations in a similar manner with a peripatetic priest serving these congregations. The priest is usually based out of one of the yoked churches. This scheme has its limitations. The priest tends to focus his efforts on one congregation, the one which is the most viable (and which is the most rewarding). The primary function of the priest in the other congregations is to preside at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. While this scheme may keep the participating congregations from shutting down altogether, it generally does not help them to grow.

    The Episcopal Church has also tried ordaining and licensing local priests. As in the case of regular priest their preparation is lengthy process and denies the local church of their ministry until their preparation is completed. This preparation includes ordination to the transitional diaconate. While it is not a bad idea, it has its drawbacks, chiefly the length of preparation. It is also a maintenance-minded scheme, not a mission-minded one. From what I have seen, the most important thing that should go into the candidate’s preparation is overlooked—growing a church.

    To my mind a far more effective approach would be to plant and multiply micro-churches, form them into clusters, and train and assign someone to serve as a spark plug to these micro-churches. The micro-churches would be fully churches, their members evangelizing, discipling, preaching, teaching, ministering, and yes, administering the sacraments.

    Too radical for Anglicans? But I have to ask is letting the Church in Wales or any other denomination disappear really being faithful to the Great Commandment and to the Great Commission?

    • C R SEITZ

      My own sense is that the reason the Catholic Church is holding ground in France is that the country is not beset by such a vast array of competing denominational entities. One can have a sense of common cause, of the oddness of being a Christian at all, and of a wide variety of socio-economic and national groups in attendance. I doubt the Church in Wales will die out, and if not, perhaps for something of the same reason. TEC bobs along in a sea of 150 denominational choices, each scrambling for ‘market share.’ I cannot imagine anything further from the church in Acts or those bodies to whom Paul wrote his letters.

      • Robin Jordan

        It may be the lens through which you are looking. The Church has never been fully united. Even in New Testament times there were divisions which was one of the reasons Paul wrote his letters. The split that occurred between the Eastern Church and the Western Church was long in the brewing. The idea of an undivided Church, a Church that was in agreement on everything, is a myth. It is a myth to which some branches of the Church appeal but it is a myth nonetheless. The Catholic Church is not as monolithic that it would those outside of that branch of the Church to believe. In some countries it may be easier to maintain that illusion than it is in others. What percentage of the population in France actually attends Mass on a regular basis and what percentage of the French population actually live their lives in accordance with Jesus’ teaching and example. As for the Church in Wales not disappearing, God has pulled the plug on churches before, on those churches that have proven unfaithful to their Lord.

      • C R SEITZ

        I do not believe the Body of Christ Paul addressed in the NT has any analogy in post reformation denominationalism. The Yellow Pages will give you *self-consciously, intentionally distinctive* denominated brands. The churches at Colossae and Ephesus are nowhere on this plane. (‘Monolithic’ and ‘fully united’ are your adjectives, chosen to help you make your point).

        As for France. The point is that once Christianity is decoupled from state and culture, people make conscious choices to live their lives as practicing Christians. That is, in accordance with Jesus’ life, teaching and the faith passed down through the centuries.

        Of course God can allow churches to disappear. He does so quite regularly. I have said I do not think TEC will survive. Perhaps the Church in Wales will not either. The CofE demographics are very sobering.

        The Catholic Church similarly? I doubt it.

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