by Michael N. Jagessar
Leonora and I were very warmly welcomed to the 2013 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Wales (PCW) which was held at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre (at the University of Aberystwyth) from the 15th to the 17th of July. The theme, taken from the parable of The Good Samaritan, was ‘Go, and do likewise’. It offered multiple opportunities for reflection as the PCW.
In comparison to the other General Assemblies I have attended (including our own) this was a very small gathering of about 150 representatives and guests. In bringing greetings to such and other gatherings on behalf of the United Reformed Church, I often begin by saying that “we (the URC) are a small church with a large heart”. These words would have resonated well with the PCW which has shown a steep and massive decline over the last decade. What was interesting to note was that throughout the GA, the PCW’s recognition of the United Reformed Church, as a fellow small church was very minimal. We seem to be always an after-thought that follows any recognition given to our Scottish and Irish sisters and brothers. How ‘minorities’ defer to the larger and more ‘powerful’ siblings or partners is a fascinating study!
The PCW’s current statistics offer a glimpse into one of the massive challenges before the PCW: a membership of just over 24,000 with only in one-third active membership, over 615 chapels of which about half are served by one of the 40 active ordained ministers. And 80% of the chapels are in the North which is mainly Welsh speaking!
Among other things, the above underscores the urgency of a skilled ministry of the whole people of God and more intentional ecumenical partnerships (which currently tend to happen more in the South). The matters that generated much discussion included funding of the pension scheme deficit, the restructuring of the Connexion, the financing of the Connexion, debating the unifying scheme brought forward by the Commission of Covenanted Churches and the recommendations of the Commission on the Blessing of Civil Partnership. As regards the latter, the PCW decided that the Church should not have a policy on the blessing of civil partnerships in an attempt to ensure the unity of the Church. In terms of financing its work, I was struck by the distressing fact that much of the funds came from the sale of chapels.
Notwithstanding the declining membership and challenge of people resources, a number of highlights at the General Assembly suggest a counter narrative to that of depletion. Those 150 representatives sang as if it was a large heavenly multitude! Evangelism, Church Growth and Discipleship are very high on the agenda of Connexion and local congregations, and I sensed that here there could be some fruitful partnerships ecumenically. One concrete example of how a small Church can think big and take up the challenge of “Go and do likewise” is in the way the PCW raised an additional £233, 391 (in 2012) for the ‘Viva Guatemala Appeal’ Christian Aid appeal.
Both the past moderator and the newly inducted moderator in their addresses spoke of hope in the midst of the current realities and challenges for the present and future of the PCW. Past Moderator Dafydd Andrew Jones urged the PCW to concentrate all its resources on facilitating local worship and training the laity. In his plea for “treasuring the local”, the Revd Jones called for structural changes so that it is easier for local churches to “dream dreams” and put those dreams into action without having to seek permission to do so. He also reiterated the need for a more intentional place for ecumenism on the agenda of the PCW and for members of PCW “to see the possibilities rather than obstacles”. The newly inducted moderator, the Reverend Trefor Lewis, in continuing the emphasis on giving more agency to the local congregation, highlighted the need for team ministry and for a task oriented way of working (rather than by committees). His vision is that local congregations can become more active in order to turn the tide for the glory of God! Perhaps, with the commitment of all and the presence of God’s Spirit, members of the Presbyterian Church in Wales may be able to make the word of Nehemiah ‘so we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart’ (3:1-8) their own. I certainly hope so!