The Presbyterian Church in Wales

University of Wales, Lampeter
University of Wales, Lampeter

This week, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Wales has been meeting at the University of Wales at Lampeter. We have a strong link with this denomination through Stephen Williams, our esteemed Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological College, whose father and grandfather were both ministers in the Presbyterian Church of Wales. It is also the church in which Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was ordained, and where he served until he was called to Westminster Chapel in London.

Interestingly, in the Welsh language, Welsh Presbyterians are called “Methodists” because of their origin as Calvinistic Methodists, as distinct from Wesleyan Methodists. That heritage is still represented in various aspects of their form of church government where the Association rather than the Presbytery is an important decision-making assembly.

These are difficult times for PCW. The church continues to decline, and having lost 20% of its membership in the last five years, it now stands at just over 30,000 members. Significantly, they have no students in training for the ministry, and they are reduced to less than 70 ministers in active service. There was some controversy at this year’s assembly that, because of employment legislation, a number of ministers who had reached their 67th birthday were being forced to retire even though there was no one to replace them. In spite of their appeals, the church had to apply the law rigidly.

The theme for the Assembly was “Rediscovering the Way” and it seemed clear that a number of people believe that as a denomination they have lost their way. One younger minister who led the morning devotions based his remarks on John 3 and asked if the church was clear that all her ministers, and those who led services and organisations within the church, were genuinely “born again”. The fact that he asked the question indicated his deep concern.

Dr. Bill Hewitt, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, was also in attendance, and he and I had opportunity over a few meals to discuss the pattern of decline in mainline denominations, especially as it applies in Scotland and Ireland. It got me thinking about the human, as well as the divine, factors which may apply in the growth or demise of a church or denomination.

If human factors are significant, what are they? The report of the Youth Board of PCW identified “passion” as being one of the primary characteristics of adolescents. It seems to me that if we are going to retain and nurture a significant group of committed young people we must be clear as well as passionate about what our calling is as a church. In a word, we must have a passion for Christ.

That theme came through at the assembly. One of the highlights of the Welsh Assembly was a lecture by Rev Bryn Williams on “The Unique Christ in a Postmodern World”. He exegeted, with precision and good illustrations, the nature of postmodernism and showed how the approach of Paul on Mars Hill still provided the pattern for Christians to present the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. It was most thoughtful and encouraging.

We recognise too, that if there are no young people in the churches, then there is no one to respond to the call to be shepherds and leaders of the people. And if a church has no pastors, then the sheep are not fed and they are not gathered as a flock. Healthy churches require good pastors.

It is unChristian and unwise to ignore the needs of any group or individual in a local congregation, and especially in the choice of the style of music, we must be flexible. Grandparents should not be deprived of their hymnology, which is their language of worship, and always be required to sing the newest and the latest praise and worship song. We should expect that older, more mature Christians would be ready to be flexible in their approach so as to see their children and grandchildren fully integrated into the life of the church. We should not be slaves to a middle-aged imperialism where all decisions that are made reflect the preferences of an older generation. It is the marginalisation of young people that causes them to walk away to other churches or to write us off as irrelevant, and which ultimately leads to a loss of vitality and passion within our congregations.

We value our links with our brothers and sisters in Christ within PCW. Their new moderator is Rev Gwenda Richards, the first woman to be ordained as a minister within PCW, but, interestingly, not the first female moderator of their Assembly. That distinction belonged to Miss Mary Roberts, an administrator in the denomination, who held the post in 1984.

19 Replies to “The Presbyterian Church in Wales”

  1. Great blog. Wonderful to see your passion to see the church grow. Having had Irish Presbyterianism in my family for generations it saddens me to see PCI in decline. Though having moved away from Ireland to the mainland I’ve really become encouraged at what’s happening in a few of the mainline denominations but even more so in the newer churches. I’m now part of New Frontiers which has such a missional drive and passion to plant ‘word & spirit’ churches. We’re seeing numerous churches planted each year. New frontiers aren’t the only ones but just an example of what’s happening. Encourage you to learn from them and they could inturn learn so much from Irish Presbyterian history.

    God bless you as you serve to advance the work of the gospel

  2. The great things about blogs is that they allow someone to take their thoughts to a wider audience; so, if the Moderator will oblige, here’s mine!

    My view is simple, it is not any particular style of music or any other idiosyncrasy (dress, building functionality, ‘PowerPoint’ presentations, ancient hymns or ‘cool and funky’ programmes etc.) which makes the church irrelevant, rather, it is our preoccupation with these very things which have led some to conclude that the church is irrelevant. We have fallen into the trap of believing that the medium is the message, we of all people!

    Honestly, if it’s the syncopation or the type of instrument used which bothers us, we’ve missed the point.


  3. Totally agree Peter. The gospel changes people and we’ve got to hold on tightly to that and never lose sight of it. Other issues like style & traditions we need to hold losely to. But I think the traditional churches (and some newer churches) can hold on too tighly to secondary issues were music style, buildings, traditions, form of service (not bad in themselves) become consuming issues within the church and distract from the mission of the church. For the sake of the gospel we’ve got be willing to give up our preferences on worship styles, which seat we sit on Sunday, style of building etc. Everything done in the church should serve to worship God and express Jesus to a hurting world.

  4. amen to what peter and gareth have said!!!! i hope more people realise that!!! including me when im tired!!!!

  5. I don’t quite know what to make of the paragraph,’It is unChristian and unwise to ignore the needs of any group or individual in a local congregation … .’I am confused because, on the one hand,I am told that as a grandparent ,I should not be ‘deprived of my hymnology’. A little patronizing , but on first reading it sounds awfully reasonable,even reassuring.But then it is asserted that if I am a ‘mature’grandparent / Christian,I will be flexible to the music of a younger generation and ‘not be a slave to middle-aged imperialism,’whatever that means!

    Whilist it should be borne in mind that older people can also feel marginalised,I fear we miss the point in what constitutes worship.In this apparent fixation to appease the perceived wishes of the larger,younger audience,we risk turning worship into entertainment.If this happens,then worship becomes an event and ‘Passion for Christ’, albeit a nice evangelical soundbite,is mere enthusiasm.

  6. Interesting blog, sometimes we do mix up the methods with the message. On occasions and in some circumstances we have lost part of our hertitage for being forward looking. Personally I regret the lack of the use of the psalms in our churches – yes even to the metrical forms.

    While I didn’t believe my parents when they said they would be a present help and rock in times of trouble – they certainly are. Conversely with the frequency and volume of many new hymns very few are able to get into our bones.

    We all have favourite hymns, psalms and spiritual songs that bolster and support us – will this generation have the same experience especially if the hymns are replaced every six – twelve months?

  7. Thank you Stafford for the encouraging comments on the Davies Lecture at Lampeter. You blog was passed on to me by a friend.

    God Bless you and regards to Stephen Williams


  8. Having attended a few Roman Catholic services, I think we sometimes forget one particular enriching distinctive of reformed worship: congregational singing. Roman Catholic liturgy chiefly focuses on what is happening ‘up front’ – true, reformed worship does too, but it embraces congregational participation at a level that is somewhat absent in the Roman Catholic experience. Usually the ‘singing’ is undertaken by the choir / soloist; the congregation rarely participates. This probably follows from the congregation’s mediatorial expectations of what is going on ‘up front’ – one trusts reformed churches don’t have such mediatorial expections!

    Yet… despite the great talents we employ in reformed churches – singers, musicians etc, whether they sing old or new is not the issue – care needs to be taken that congregational singing isn’t sidelined. This is far more dangerous than singing either Wesley, Watts, Getty or Tomlin! Congregations NOT singing them together – or handing the responsibility of singing over to a set group – sends us back pre-Reformation.

    I have been in reformed worship services where the congregation stand idly by while the ‘worship team’ sings. Equally, I have heard the ‘worship leader’ say words to the effect that the worship team / the praise / the worship leader will now lead the congregation into ‘God’s presence’.

    There is but one mediator…

  9. Stephen’s comments highlight another issue related to the content and form of our congregational singing, that of theological outlook and expectation.

    Having been a member of some of our newer informal charismatic churches (and now a Presbyterian again) what I find interesting is not simply the differences in style of music, but what the form of worship and the content of many new hymns tells us about a church’s understanding of God. In my experience, for most charismatics, the issue is not primarily that of a modern musical style, rather, it seems to be the expectation that one will encounter God during the ‘worship time’. This explains the intensely personal, reflective, confessional and devotional content of many of our newer songs, the concept of ‘worship leader’ and the idea of ‘God’s presence’. The theological expectation is that in singing, in worship, that God will draw especially close to an individual and minister to their needs. It could, I suppose, be called a ‘divine factor’, and, obviously, if one holds to a charismatic theological outlook this is perfectly understandable. As a Presbyterian who has no particular preference I think we have something to learn from this understanding, however, what this experience is not, is something which might be described merely as ‘lively’.

    Perhaps we Presbyterians need to spend some time considering what our view of congregational worship actually is, what it’s distinctives (as Stephen has said) are, and what our expectations of worship are, as we seek further negotiate what some have called the worship wars. It may be worth noting too, that spiritual passion is not dependent upon musical style or worship leaders, unless, of course, what we actually mean is ‘lively’.

    Then again, in light of Ethiopia, it matters little what we sing.

  10. Peter and Stephen make many good points. What concerns me about the concept of the “Worship time” or the “praise time” is that it sectionalises public Worship,.

    We are here to Worship G-D that is our purpose – our chief end to Glorify G-D and enjoy Him forever. Our lives, our devotions, listening to the sermon, giving our offering, socialising with our Brothers and Sisters are all part of our spiritual worship. Over emphasis on the style of singing or the age of the hymns we sing detracts from the purpose of public gatherings to worship.

    Where I believe some churches have lost focus is in some cases particularly our young people love the “worship” or the “praise” and think the sermon is boring or irrelevant and if we are honest we sometimes pander to this attitude by attempting to make the “worship” or “Praise” time more appealing to young people but we dont make the sermon or the rest of the service relevant.

    In a strange way what I am attempting to say is – when we are gathering for worship, all aspects of the service must be seen equally and must be used equally to glorify G-d. Any focus on one particular aspect that highlights this aspect as “worship” or “praise” demarcates the rest of the service as something else and this I think is wrong.

    All our lives are called to be Worship not just singing. Maybe we need to regain Work as worship, Living as Worship, meeting together as Worship etc.

  11. #10: “All our lives are called to be Worship not just singing. Maybe we need to regain Work as worship, Living as Worship, meeting together as Worship etc.”

    Is this not the reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers? Yet, how many apply / downgrade the priesthood of all believers to what simply happens at public worship? How narrow & completely misses the point – I remember hearing someone characterise this as the ‘performance of all believers’ ie the priesthood of all believers is my ‘right’ to publicly play a role during Sunday public worship.

    Regarding the point about ‘sectionalising’ public worship – do Presbyterians believe the sermon is worship? Sometimes a minister might say before the offering, “We continue to worship God as we…” – probably the aim was to stop the chat and prevent people putting sweetie papers in instead of their money. “We continue to worship God” should preamble the sermon…

    ‘Sectionalising’inevitably compromises simplicity. Should ‘simplicity’ be the defining characteristic of Presbyterian worship? Is this what we need to aim at? Less clutter = more emphasis on the one Mediator. Less static = clear air-play of the Word. Would simplicity ensure that the ‘solas’ of the Reformation theologically inform and saturate what we do on Sundays – and therefore impact our lives as we go into a new week? We naturally want to justify ourselves and ditch the ‘alone’ of the Gospel of grace – “surely I can help God do something!?”; it doesn’t help if Sunday public worship feeds that craving. Our historical understanding of the ministry of word & sacrament has gone awol.

    You’ve heard it here: Presbyterians should be simple 🙂

    I think it’s the key to spiritual passion and true Gospel ‘liveliness’.

  12. “All our lives are called to be Worship not just singing. Maybe we need to regain Work as worship, Living as Worship, meeting together as Worship etc.”

    Ultonian could not have summed it up better.

  13. All main line churches are suffering decline. It is essentia the church takes up the mantel of John 13 v34&35,to serve and love each other. This means serving God by love in action BOTH inside the congregation and outside in the community. Our congregation lacks people in the 25-35 age group because they leave to go to third level education and don’t come back due to a number of factors including job opportunities, joint couple working, the general pressures of the secular world and what they see as an irrelevant church. Men especially are becoming disengaged, read Carl Beech ‘Spadework’ if you don’t believe me. We have to reconnect the church to were people are and make the connection through ‘faith and love in action’ NOW.

  14. Victor raises an interesting point when he writes about those in the 25-35 age group. Do they feel alienated from church & see church as irrelevant because church alienates them and sees them as irrelevant? Job opportunities, joint couples working and general pressures of secular work aren’t necessarily bad things – we make them bad things when we see them as barriers preventing these folk filling leadership roles in our church organisations or when they don’t allow the weekly church diary to be the schedule for their lives – and we add a great big dollop of guilt with it.

    In other words, we have failed to affirm them in their families, work and secular lives (back to the priesthood of believers again) – that they are witnesses to the Gospel in those places. What does it mean to serve Christ and his church – have we narrowed this answer simply down to the church programme & organisations?

    Our churches are far too busy. Is it a good thing that the church which supports family life organises a weekly programme that potentially prevents the family from being in the home together – eg each evening? Do our church diaries prevent Christian believers being ‘in the world’ as they have to be in the church building?

    Back to simplicity again! We’ve got to clear the decks and simplify aspects of our church’s programmes for the sake of freeing up our people to be witnesses among their families, work colleagues and friends.

    The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is engaged at various levels encouraging mission planning – a good thing. Mission planning at congregational level will encourage churches to do something – maybe something new – again, a good thing. But surely it could also be a good thing, for the sake of the gospel and mission, to stop some things in the church schedule?

    Victor writes, “All main line churches are suffering decline.” Despite our busy-ness? We need a new direction: keep it simple.

    Keep it simple on Sunday to hear the Word and keep it simple through the week to release the Word in the world through our people.

  15. ps… there’s even a hymn about simplicity … Hy395 (revised edition, Pres Hymnbook – the blue one!) It’s by FW Faber.

    It’s really beautiful – and long (the 3rd edition has chopped the first 2 verses out) The first line reads: ‘Souls of men! why will you scatter…’ Check it out.

    Here’s the last verse:

    If our love were but more simple,
    We should take him at his word;
    And our lives would be all sunshine,
    In the sweetness of our Lord.

    Or here’s how it’s rendered in CH3:

    If our love were but more simple,
    We would take him at his word;
    And our lives be filled with glory,
    From the glory of the Lord.

  16. This has become a particularly heartening thread; one which focused on the gospel rather than becoming a debate about our favourite styles (we all have them), and it leads me to think of my own children now entering their teens and how church might help them prepare for the future. So much of value has been said here.

    Lives of worship.
    The importance of family
    Love for one another.
    Love for the community.
    The centrality of Jesus.
    The importance of mission.

    Each of these calls us to understand that central to the life of the church is the gospel, grace, and the communication of such transforming power to our own lives and the lives of those around us. In terms of our young people then, what is true for us is also true for them, what each of us need is to belong to a community of God’s people, loving and forgiving one another, knowing grace and celebrating God’s kindness. It is the gospel which is of the utmost relevance to our lives and Jesus who is our greatest need. Musical preferences and polished programmes (while unavoidable to one degree or another) are of no real use in freeing us from the sins which so easily beset us, and might even lead us to a misplaced confidence.

    A word of clarity though, given my church background which I explained back a bit, it will be obvious that I have no problem with changing media or music, when I say I have no preference I really mean that, and I’ve seen things that would make the most forward thinking of Presbyterians wince (!), but simply updating the form of service or providing multi-purpose buildings (or clinging to any preference) fails to recognise that many no longer view the church or the Christian paradigm as being at the center of our society, and we run the risk of creating for ourselves mere sub-cultures alien to those outside the door.

    As the motto for Mars Hill goes, “It’s all about Jesus, it’s only about Jesus, it’s always about Jesus”, and it is Jesus who stops any of us walking away from church. Everything else is secondary.

  17. Peter,

    How long would Mark Driscoll last in PCI?

    5 minutes before apoplexy regarding his ‘clerical garb’? … never mind the things he might say!

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