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28 September 2017

Devolution and Christianity in Wales: 20 years on

Devolution and Christianity in Wales: 20 years on

Twenty years ago this week, the people of Wales voted in a historic referendum that established the national assembly for Wales. Much has been written in the past few days, looking over this period and assessing how successful devolution has been but little, if anything, has been written regarding the difference it has made for Christian groups in Wales.  

Here, then, is an attempt to begin to put some flesh on the bones of this question.  

Firstly, devolution has clearly brought government closer to the people, and this is certainly true for Christian groups. To illustrate how inaccessible government was pre-1999, it took months for church leaders in Wales to be able to meet then-Secretary of State for Wales John Redwood, on the back of controversial comments he had made on single mothers while visiting the St. Mellons housing estate in Cardiff in 1993.  

Fast forward 20 years and there are now two direct avenues by which Christians and faith groups can have their say to Welsh government: the Faith Communities Forum, chaired by the first minister, which meets twice a year; and the Third Sector Partnership Council, which arranges ministerial meetings across a range of subjects, and which has a dedicated position for faith. There are also a range of indirect forums and mechanisms that can achieve this: the Cross Party Group on Faith, for example and the National Assembly’s petition system.  

The word ‘faith’ (i.e. not ‘Christian’) and other related terms have been used throughout the life of the assembly and may seem like an alien construct to engage with for many Christians at first. In the context of devolution, however, it is neither a hostile nor compromising place for Christians and I would argue that neither has it led to Christianity’s historical significance in Wales nor its current contribution to civil society being undervalued or diminished. 

When looking back to the build-up to the elections to the first assembly in 1999, two years after the referendum, many Christians were clearly supportive of the newly-mandated institution and willing to be involved. This perhaps laid a foundation regarding the relationship between Christians and Welsh government – not as oppositional but as allies and critical friends – that we still in some ways benefit from today. 

This raises another question, as to whether Christian groups have remained sufficiently independent of Welsh government. The independence of the third sector – of which the Church is a part – has been an issue of debate over the past year or so, particularly in terms of some organisations arguably becoming acquiescent as a result of becoming dependent on government funding. By and large, however, this is not the case for Christian groups. 

These are just a few ways in which devolution has been good for the Church. There are many other prisms through which this question could be addressed, for example comparing the number of self-identifying Christian AMs then and now, asking if the Assembly is a secular institution, looking at different policy responses – but these will all have to wait for another time. Suffice to say that in many ways devolution has been good news for Christians.