Review: A History of Christianity in Wales
The historian Tom Holland wrote a book in 2019 titled “Dominion.” Its argument, which garnered much attention, was that the moral and social norms which prevail have their roots in Christianity. St Paul made the claim – revolutionary for its era – that God chose the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong.
The chapels in 2022 may be over-abundant in number; the values they held for their packed congregations have merged deep into the civic fabric. The concept of the nation of sanctuary as instance derives from a religious past, not least in its challenge that a privileged territory might exist beyond the remit of the civic power.
That record of a Wales soaked in Christianity endures into the present day at different levels. The shadow of non-conformity pervades Cardiff Bay. First Minister’s Questions has small resemblance to its counterpart in Westminster. The preference for future effect over a pragmatism of the present can be read as a secular chiliasm.
The land itself carries the imprint of centuries of faith. Even on a high part of the Cambrian Mountains without a homestead Capel y Soar stands as an imprint of faith. A television documentary this winter about the ruins of Wales declared the country holds more buildings of religious purpose per square mile than anywhere else on earth. Certainly, the artistic heritage is as much located within stone walls of old as in urban galleries.
The glass at Gresford, the crosses of Nevern and Carew, Abergavenny’s Jesse wood carving, Llanrhaiadr’s Jesse window, St Cadoc’s at Llancarfan: these are all triumphs of artistry resting in Christian ubiquity.
The four authors of “A History of Christianity in Wales” bring decades of scholarly experience to the work. As a University of Wales imprint it has a high production finish, is fully annotated and indexed. It ends with thirty-seven pages of bibliography and suggested further reading. Theological complexities within are rare.
Gwalchmai ap Meilir certainly pointed to a paradox of Mary within the Trinity. But a line like “Elidir Sais came perilously close to the Patripassian heresy” stands out for being uncommon. The thrust of the text is historical narrative, delivered by all the contributors crisply and lucidly.
Pace of change
Division and change have been constant, their drivers historical and doctrinal. In a time of conquest by new Norman overlords Rhygyfarch ap Sulien, writing in Llanbadarn Fawr, observes “Alas that the present time led us into this state of things…Our limbs are cut off, we are lacerated, our necks condemned to death and chains are put on our arms.”
In the sixteenth century the bard Siôn Brwynog laments the pace of change and the arrival of an English liturgy. A century later dissent is again diluting central authority. But dissent itself succumbs to heterodoxy. “The antinomian, the Socinian and Arian doctrines get ground daily” observes a saddened cleric at the loss of his flock.
The founding days are the least documented. Barry J Lewis delineates the facts of the early period. David, Deiniol, Illtud, Cadog, Teilo, Padarn were all historical personages.
Less convincing is the notion of a special Celtic spirituality. It may be inferred by selective reading but, says the scholar, it is not good history. History is never tidy. Even church versus chapel is not clear-cut.
The vicar of Nevern observes the inconstancy of his parishioners: “Those who attend Church in the morning attend chapels in the evening.” A church warden in Llanfihangel-Ysgeifiog is cited to the same effect.
The Vicar at Llandyrnog is not pleased. “Farm servants and labourers indifferent to the solemn services of the Church reserve themselves for the night meeting attended by strange teachers and other equally unworthy circumstances.”
The new wider literacy of the nineteenth century sees an explosion in demand for reading matter. But social dynamism presents challenges. In Talsarn a chapel for five hundred is insufficient in size. But often churches are distant from new centres of population with their structures dilapidated.
By mid-century nonconformity has become the dominant face of Wales. In 1850 Robert Roberts writes: “the Church has lost its charm for the people. There is no question about it: they have found a tune more pleasing to their ears.”
Catholics in Wales in 1773 are recorded as 750 in number. That changes with the great immigration. In 1948 the ancient shrine of Our Lady of Pen-rhys is rededicated as a site for pilgrimage.
Welshness itself is reasserted at the time of national revival. “With the appointment of Joshua Hughes to St Asaph in 1870”, writes Densil Morgan, “the baleful policy of appointing Englishmen to Welsh sees came to an end. Thereafter the Bishops would be native-born Welshmen.”
The final chapter is titled “Adapting to a Secular Wales 1890-2020” and captures some pungent voices. Edwin Morris, Bishop of Monmouth, declares in 1951 “the Roman clergy and Nonconformist ministers are, strictly speaking, intruders. There may be historical reasons for them being here, but we cannot recognise their right to be here.”
Living with modernity is difficult. R Ifor Parry in 1962 writes that it is not just non-conformity that is in decline but “the Welsh way of life”. Not least, he says, “plainness of its worship had bred a negativity to towards beauty and the senses.”
The last page of the book records the chill of pandemic. The doors are locked, Christian witness observable only by a video-link. But the very shape and form of centuries old is up for question.
An external review in 2012 recommends a fundamental overhaul of the structure of the Church in Wales. “The parish system as originally set up with a single priest serving a small community is no longer viable.”
But a paradox remains. Densil Morgan records that St Michael’s Aberystwyth grew a large congregation from the 1980s under the ministries of first Bertie Lewis and then Stuart Bell.
The Heath Evangelical Church in Cardiff has done the same in this century. The values are immanent. A poll for YouGov in 2016 recorded that 38% of the British population had no belief of any kind and 14% were not sure.
The remainder affiliated themselves still with some kind of spiritual belief. But a culture that is in low in deference is not primed to lean towards discipleship. A new form of bond between faith and the many awaits the working-out.
A History of Christianity in Wales is a fine distilled account of the millennium-and-a-half journey to where we are today.
A History of Christianity in Wales is published by University of Wales Press and can be ordered here
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