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Letter from the final service at Bethesda Chapel, Brynmawr

16 Dec 2023 5 minute read
Bethesda Independent Chapel, Brynmawr

Stephen Price

There won’t be a service at Bethesda Independent Chapel, Brynmawr this Sunday.

The six remaining members who had been relegated to the warmer Sunday school room annexe for the past few years were treated to one last service in the main chapel building on Sunday 10 December before the lights were turned off and the key turned in the door one final time.

For the faithful few, this was no cause for celebration, or a sign of lower heating bills, this was to be Bethesda’s swan song. Her final service. Her farewell to a dwindling but no less passionate flock.

Witnessing the past

The finale was as bittersweet as could be expected. The downstairs pews were full, old friends were reunited, and time slowed down for one last moment.

Being among the congregation felt like straddling two very distinct eras, or possibly as if we were all witnessing the past. A past where everyone knew where they stood, or more precisely where they sat – heaven forbid anyone sitting in someone else’s pew.

Mair, who came down from Manchester to say goodbye

The service began with a reading of Ecclesiastes 3.

‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.’

The theme, returned to again and again throughout the service led by Deacon, Gayron Williams, was time. The passage of time. The ebb and flow, the running sands that seem to pass with greater speed and greater loss with each passing year.

With a potted history which began with the founding of Bethesda in 1850, the chapel’s story headed further back in time to its rather more complex foundations in nearby Llangattock in 1672, when Brynmawr (or Gwaun Helygen as the area was known then) sat in Brecknockshire and not the much-less-admired Blaenau Gwent, and when the Declaration of Indulgence allowed nonconformists who had previously been worshipping in secret to come out into the light.

In 1829 the people of Clydach and Brynmawr decided to build their own place of worship. Thus Siloam Chapel in Clydach was opened on 16 December 1826. In 1845, a handful of members left Siloam Chapel in Clydach and founded Bethania Church at Blackrock. And just as before, the  congregation from Brynmawr tired of travelling to their new place of worship and decided to construct their own church, their own Bethesda, in Brynmawr.

Brynmawr was primarily a Welsh-speaking area up until the early 20th C, and with time Bethesda followed suit, but its purpose never swayed as it remained an integral part of the community, from Christening to marriage to death and every point in between.A time to be born, a time to die.

And they sang ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’

Like all places of worship in Wales, the chapel was, from its very beginnings, an important place of education for Brynmawr’s citizens. As we still see in our art, in our literature, in a simple reading of our history, the importance of these buildings to Wales, to Welsh communities, for good or bad, cannot be underestimated.

A rousing rendition of Away in a Manger followed a recounting of Bethesda’s brief timeline, and prayers were said for Gaza and the West Bank (the final collection being for Christian Aid’s Middle East Crisis Appeal), with a reminder that Jesus himself was born under occupation amid a massacre of the innocents.

A time for peace

This was a powerful service, a bold and an emotional one too. There are no complexities in the one commandment that matters: to love.

There was also a great deal of honesty from Gayron, who herself had passed over sixty years among Bethesda’s walls. A recognition of the ages of even the youngest faces among the crowds. Wales is changing, community is changing, we are all subject to the passage of time.

The final reading came from Margaret Williams, Minister of Bethesda’s sister church in Llangattock. She had been invited to read and, unaware of the order of service and its contents, had quite aptly arrived with an intention to read Ecclesiastes 3. It was meant to be.

As the last hymn played, the lights from Bethesda glowed one last time

Despite Bethesda’s founders, funders and builders being of the town itself, her legal owners of today, the Congregational Federation based in Nottingham, will soon put the chapel on the open market. It will go to the highest bidder despite local interest in forming another place of worship or centre for the community. 

Through her tears, Gayron’s last prayer gave thanks for the worship, faith and fellowship of Bethesda, and a hope that it continues to be of benefit to the people of Brynmawr.

More questions seemed to be raised than answered in Bethesda’s final service. Faith, community, our very identity. Turn! Turn! Turn!

Whatever the future holds, for the time being we can all surely get behind Ecclesiastes’ hope for ‘a time for peace’ this troubled season.

Who could argue with that.

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