By Anna Meredith, Church in Wales
On the face of it there is not much Wales has in common with Bangladesh. Wales is a rich and prosperous country of three million people, the majority of whom profess to be Christian. Bangladesh has about 158 million people, half of whom live below the poverty line and less than one percent of whom are Christian.
One piece of common ground the two countries do share, however, is that they both have churches which are members of the Anglican Communion. Over the last year or two that link has been informally nurtured in Llandaff but now it has been signed and sealed as the Diocese is officially “twinned” with the Church of Bangladesh.
Bishop Paul Sarker, the Moderator of the Church of Bangladesh, came to Wales in June to sign the link agreement and spent a week touring the diocese, staying with Archbishop Barry. During the week he visited all corners of the diocese – from the Lightship in Cardiff Bay to St John the Baptist High School in Aberdare to Llantwit Major nursery and a Mothers’ Union meeting in the Vale. He was also able to join in the Petertide ordinations at the Cathedral and it was during that service that the link agreement was signed.
He left, he said, feeling encouraged and inspired and looking forward to a strong relationship developing between Llandaff and Bangladesh.
He said, “The contrast between Llandaff and Bangladesh is very great – our people are very poor and most are Muslim. Many of our churches are in rural areas and thinly spread – many a five or seven hours’ drive away from Dhaka.
“Our greatest challenge as a church is to be self-sufficient, not to be dependent on aid from mission bodies such as USPG. But we need the prayers and moral support of Llandaff. Sometimes it can feel very lonely being a Christian in Bangladesh but this link with Llandaff will give us courage as we will know that we are not alone.”
Bishop Paul also hoped the link would bring teaching and medical experts from Llandaff to Bangladesh to work with the church, helping its schools and the services it runs in the communities for those living on the edge of society.
Meanwhile, one of the challenges he noticed that Llandaff faced was keeping hold of the Welsh language and he urged the diocese to treasure it.
“I am glad to see Wales is going back to learn its own language,” he said. “Our cultures are a gift from God and we must treasure them. Western missionaries brought Christianity to Bangladesh but we adapted it to suit our own culture – using our own music and language to express our faith.”
Bishop Paul lives in Dhaka with his wife Janet, a teacher. They have two children – Olivia,21, who is studying for a degree, and Elvin, 16, who is in school.
In February he will welcome Archbishop Barry to Bangladesh on a return visit.
The Archbishop said, “A link with another province of the Anglican Communion reminds us that we belong to a world-wide fellowship of Christians. It also makes us realise that the problems we face in Wales both as a nation and Church pale into total insignificance when we look at Bangladesh’s poverty and the terrible effects of climate change particularly on its coastal areas. It is a Church that will have much to teach us.”
One of the key people instrumental in setting up the link between Llandaff and Bangladesh was Revd John Webber, who retired last year as Rector of Llantwit Major. He first got to know the area and culture while teaching in neighbouring West Bengal in India in the Voluntary Work Overseas scheme more than 40 years ago. That was followed by 16 years in the capital city of Dhaka working as Principal of its theological college.
He returned to the UK to work with the Bangladesh community in Tower Hamlets in London before settling back in Wales. He was born in India but brought up in Cardiff. His father was Welsh and his mother Anglo-Indian and he still has cousins in India.
He says he feels as at home in Bangladesh as he does in Wales and he still visits regularly.
“I think the churches in Llandaff and Bangladesh have a lot to give each other,” says John, who now lives in Grangetown, Cardiff. “The church in Bangladesh works very effectively in a multi-cultural society where most people are Muslim. It also has a lot of experience in reaching out to the wider community – it runs a huge programme of social outreach, most of which benefits non-Christians. And it has a strong spiritual life that we can still learn from and be encouraged by.
“Although Wales is a richer nation, the aim of this link is not financial. Bangladesh might benefit, for example, from our professionalism in administration and organisation. Also, there are several important minority ethnic groups with their own language and culture which play an important part in the church in Bangladesh. They will be interested in how the church can appreciate the rich contribution of these minority cultures. And as Bangladesh is a small and isolated church this link will help it get exposure to the wider world.”
Excitement about the new link rippled through the Diocese quickly. The parish of Radyr was one of the first to set up a link with a parish in Bangladesh and St Mary’s Church in Wales Primary School in Butetown was the first school to find a match. St Michael’s College, Llandaff, has also set up a link with St Andrew’s Theological College in Dhaka. Two students from St Michael’s College, will visit over the summer – Martyn Evans, a first-year ordinand, will spend a month there in the summer while Kate Tiltman, a deacon from St Asaph Diocese, will be there for a fortnight.
Meanwhile, the Diocesan World Mission Committee, which was chaired by John, and now by Martyn Perry, has a roadshow on Bangladesh which they are happy to take to deaneries, parishes or schools to show them more about the new relationship.