I DON’T generally do God, I tell Andy John. That’s a rather strange Zoom confession, especially when I look up and remember my audience.

After all, the Bishop of Bangor, also the Church in Wales’ senior bishop, is on my screen. He is not here to help me wrestle with my faith; the main reason we are speaking today via Zoom is to discuss the future of the Church in Wales.

The pandemic has been transformative for every religious institution. In Bishop Andy’s case, for example, Bangor Cathedral has transitioned from a place of worship to a vaccine centre. Sermons have moved from the pulpit to online across the country.

I wonder whether the pandemic has tested or strengthened his faith. Neither, apparently. “The big questions have been answered a long time ago,” he says. “I don’t come to the pandemic thinking: ‘Does this impact on my faith?’ I think Christianity was born into a world of conflict, where the big order issues were from the outset at the very forefront of faith’s formation.”

He says the pandemic has reminded the Church of its purpose: to serve. “Our job is to argue for a more humane, compassionate, loving society, and to be unafraid and to be unapologetic about that.” His colleagues have “done remarkably well” during Covid-19 too. And it is hard to disagree. Even more so considering that – in his words – that the Church in Wales is “a bit like an oil tanker: it takes ages to turn us around”.

Alas, they are far from safe waters yet. Not only because of the looming possibility that there will be fewer in-person worshippers after Covid-19, or the numerous social problems the Anglican community in Wales will want to help tackle. The elephant in the Zoom is a tweet which has plunged this pillar of modern Welsh society into its biggest public crisis this century; it has caused a vitriolic pile-on and led to questions over the institution’s purpose and inclusivity.

“Never, never, never trust a Tory”, read the post from the Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy, in March. Her Twitter username had the #GTTO #FBPE hashtags: abbreviations for ‘Get The Tories Out’ and ‘Follow Back Pro European’. The ensuing media storm set the oil tanker ablaze.

The first woman bishop in the institution’s history apologised swiftly and has been on sick leave this month. Conservatives were outraged. So much so that an unsurprisingly bullish Simon Hart wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury – despite the fact Justin Welby is not the leader of the Church in Wales – who replied that he was “deeply embarrassed”.

Bishop Andy wrote back to the Secretary of State too. And just as in his letter, he is measured and conciliatory as we reflect on events. “Bishop Joanna held up her hands. For all sorts of reasons said that what she had said was inappropriate. And that she wasn’t at her best in terms of when she tweeted. All of those things, I think, are true.”

He goes on to emphasise, however, that it’s critical the Church continues to engage with wider society. “We don’t want a situation where, as being put by people who have written to me: they expect us to say pleasantries from the pulpit and not to interfere. We’ve always interfered. And we always will. And we will continue to interfere where we see injustice; where we see wrong; and when we see things that the Christian faith has something to say about.”

Despite the controversy, he is defiant. The independence of the Church, in addition to its active role in Wales, is clearly not up for grabs. Nor is the prospect of regime change in west Pembrokeshire.

“I think the question whether Bishop Joanna resigns is done and dusted”, Bishop Andy states. “She made clear that she regretted what she had to say… I think if we cannot provide a way in which people can acknowledge wrongdoing, learn from their mistakes, and come back, then it begs questions about whether we believe people can change. Whether or not we think the Christian faith is about second chances. To me, fundamentally, it’s about that. And those who are baying and frothing at the mouth seem to me to be part of what I think is quite pernicious in society: which is that we dress up in virtue – or in the language of virtue – a kind-of campaign to persecute.”

He is an impressive communicator. But I am curious as to how the Anglican leadership handled this saga in the first place. Why did Justin Welby, for instance, take charge and respond so ferociously? In the absence of an Archbishop of Wales, the senior bishop – Bishop Andy – is responsible for what happens here, not Lambeth Palace. Wales is not England – when it comes to politics or God.

Perhaps there is more work to be done to assert that distinctiveness. “I would expect matters relating to the Church in Wales to be discussed, managed, and responded to by the Church in Wales,” I am told, firmly. “And I wouldn’t expect anyone else, whoever they are, to involve themselves in matters relating to this province.” Clear red water, again. And this time it’s a unique blend as offered at Eucharist.

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I turn away from the immediate crisis to the question that must now follow: what (and who) is the Church in Wales for? Upon his retirement earlier this year, Archbishop John Davies argued the pandemic had forced the Church to be “more relevant”. His predecessor, Dr Barry Morgan, did his best to be just that: campaigning publicly for a fair devolution settlement. I ask whether Bishop Andy would stray into such radical territory.

“I don’t have an easy answer,” he admits. Being vocal on public debates depends on several factors, Bishop Andy adds, and should really focus on the “big picture” rather than “smaller political issues”. He tells me the Church ought to be able to “articulate something about what kind of society we want in the future”.

So is he a devolutionist like Dr Morgan? “I do support devolution. I think devolution is a good thing. People ask me my personal opinion; I will want to make a distinction between what I would advance and what I would write on a piece of paper into a ballot. And, actually, anything that I would say as a bishop.”

Surely the recent furore shows that separating the office holder from the office is impossible, though? “I think it’s impossible. That’s why you have to be quite careful when you make public statements when they are personal. You ought to say less personally and say much more in terms of your office because people will look at you and they won’t make that distinction.”

Fair enough. Although something that is certainly a personal and institutional question for those in the Church is gay marriage. In September, the Church in Wales’ Governing Body will be voting on whether to authorise formal blessings of same-sex partnerships and marriages. A draft Bill was outlined in December, which, if passed by a two-thirds majority, would allow a five-year trial period for priests who would like to hold a service to bless a same-sex couple after their marriage or civil partnership.

Does he hope the motion will be approved? “Very much so… I think this will make us a more generous Church, which will make us a Church that provides space for people who demonstrate by their lives that they can be wonderful disciples of Jesus Christ when they want to live in love with a person of the same sex. I fail to understand… I fail to really understand why that is problematic.”

I detect a modernising spirit: one that recognises some age-old religious rites do not resonate with modern Wales. “We ought to always be responsive to what we see happening around us,” he adds. “To me, this will be a really positive step forward, and I’m very much hoping the Church in Wales will be bold and courageous.”

Or, more bluntly, some clerics could stop being so out-of-touch. “As a child, I read a story called Chicken Licken,” Bishop Andy recalls, to a bewildered interviewer. “Chicken Licken was all about a little chick who felt that if they didn’t do something that the sky would fall down. And when the Church in Wales takes this step – as one day it will, I hope it’s in September – it will discover the sky won’t fall down… We’ll be a little bit better, a bit more compassionate, and a bit more inclusive than once we were.”

The National Wales: Andy John, the Bishop of Bangor. Picture: Church in WalesAndy John, the Bishop of Bangor. Picture: Church in Wales

But the Church’s place in Welsh society has been precarious for some time. The declining number of Anglicans is a sad reality for one of the oldest Christian countries in western Europe. Is there any road back? Bishop Andy says the Church in Wales’ fortunes cannot be turned around by chasing “every new novel development”. He also recognises young people are perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to engagement.

“People like you don’t come on Sunday mornings. We need to ask why. And when we do that, then maybe again we’ll have earned the right to speak with a clearer voice into Welsh society.” He is excited to be in “listening mode but also assisting mode” for issues such as climate change. In short, it’s not about offering a “cold remote God who has got nothing to say to those issues” but “connecting with young people’s concerns”.

Despite the trials and tribulations faced by the Church in Wales over recent months, he sounds optimistic. Apparently, the prospect of a smaller Church, with fewer worshippers in-person, is not all bad news. “That gives an opportunity to say: ‘Well, what are we going to do and be? How are we going to arrange our lives? What are the things that we can give such as we are? I get really excited by that kind of question… The Church hasn’t run its course at all. It’s got an awful lot to give and to offer Welsh society at the moment.”

Noted. But Bishop Andy’s vision of a “self-confident and unapologetic” Church in Wales is only really possible with long-term strategic leadership. A new Archbishop of Wales will be decided by the Church’s electoral college later this year. Even I am a bit frightened to ask if he’d like to take on the role. “I am grateful that you are not going to ask me that question… I will work with whoever is Archbishop and do so with passion and energy.”

But whoever is in charge, it will take time for the Church in Wales to earn its “right to be speaking into the public domain”, as Bishop Andy points out. The backlash following the recent crisis shows the Anglican community in Wales cannot look to the past to justify its contemporary position in society. Bishop Andy understands this more than most. Leading the institution now requires a delicate balancing act of speaking out on the big issues but doing so while advancing the values of the Church.

And come to think of it, throughout our conversation, Bishop Andy has done just that. He doesn’t pull his punches, but they are landed at the appropriate moment with the right intensity. “The virtues of compassion and the virtues of belonging need to stand at the forefront, not in the background of our life,” he says. “I hope that all of our politicians will take those virtues seriously, and not just doff their hats to them. Because those will cash out in policy decisions that we make about our nation.”

A very confident and unapologetic message from a bishop who is very confident and unapologetic. With the possibility of him at the helm, perhaps this Welsh oil tanker will chart the right course, after all.

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