06 May 2016

Is the chapel tradition in
steep decline in Wales?

A converted chapel on Church Street in Beaumaris serves many secular uses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I wondered this week whether the Welsh Chapel tradition is dying.

Everywhere you go in Wales, in urban and rural areas, the streetscapes and the landscapes seem to be dominated by the Chapel.

Large and small buildings dot the towns and the countryside, generally with two entrance doors, one for men and one for women.

They can be tiny barn-style buildings in the middle of fields filled with grazing sheep, or they can be towering, if not domineering buildings, like Bethesda, with its imposing classical fa├žade and that gives its name to the town in North Wales that grew up around it.

Indeed, as I travelled throughout North Wales earlier this week, I wondered how many of the small town and villages I passed took their Biblical-sounding names from the chapels they grew up around: Bethesda, Bethel, Carmel, Golan, Nasareth (sic), Nebo …?

The Chapel tradition and Nonconformity have been a significant influence in Wales from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The Welsh Methodist revival in the 18th century was one of the most significant religious and social movements in the history of Wales. The revival began within the Church of England in Wales, partly as a reaction to the neglect many people in Wales felt because of absentee bishops and clergy.

From the 1730s on, for two generations or more, the leading lights in the Methodist revival, including Howell Harris (1714-1773), the Revd Daniel Rowland (1711-1790) and the Revd William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791), remained in the Church of England, albeit on the margins. But the revival in Wales was markedly different in tone from the Methodist revival in England. In Wales, the theological emphasis was Calvinist instead of Arminian, and these Calvinist Methodists gradually built their own chapels in Wales.

Out of this movement, the Revd Thomas Charles (1755-1814), a former Anglican priest was a leading figure in the separation from the Church of England in 1811, when ministers were ordained in Bala, close to Frongoch which I visited last Saturday, and in Llandeilo. The divisions were formalised when the Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian Church of Wales was established in 1823.

But the 18th century revival also benefitted the older, non-conformist or dissenting churches, including the Baptists and the Congregationalists, who also experienced fresh growth. As a result, Wales was a predominantly nonconformist country by the mid-19th century.

Chapel Court on Church Street, Beaumaris … many Welsh chapels had separate entrances for men and women (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The 19th century was the golden age of Welsh nonconformity, and the villages and towns that grew up around the new chapels became citadels of dissent.

A census in 1851 showed that 80% of those who attended a place of worship on Census Sunday in Wales were Nonconformists.

A second popular revival began in 1859, a spread mainly through the Welsh language. By the 1880s, the Welsh chapels were experiencing their golden age. Chapels were built in confident architectural styles, in sharp contrast to the severe and austere styles of earlier chapels.

By the 1880s, over 350,000 men and women were members of one of the four main Nonconformist denominations, with many more adherents who went to chapel on Sundays. There was yet another Welsh revival in 1904-1905 when at least 100,000 people declared they had become Christians.

As they grew in numbers and became more confident, the chapels were often heard as one voice as they spoke out against social conditions, despite their denominational differences.

The Calvinistic Methodists were the largest of the denominations in numerical terms, and their greatest strength was in rural Wales, including Anglesey. The Congregationalists, usually known in Wales as Independents, were especially strong in south Wale. The Baptists were more concentrated, primarily in Glamorgan and Carmarthenshire, but also in Pembrokeshire. The Wesleyan Methodists were not particularly strong in Wales and were found more often in English-speaking places.

But the “chapel” label was applied in Wales to many other traditions too, including the Unitarians and at times the Quakers.

By and large, the chapel tradition was a conservative dimension of Welsh life. Sabbatarianism was often extreme, so that public houses remained closed in many parts of Wales until very late in the last century. Women were often marginalised in the chapels and denied any positions of responsibility, rivalry was rife between neighbouring chapels, and many denominations suffered from internal divisions and schisms.

But the chapels also inspired choirs, choral festivals and community activities, developed schools and educational facilities, and played a significant role in the rise of the Liberal Party in Wales.

Chapel Court on Church Street, Beaumaris … built as the English Presbyterian Church but now divided in apartments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But recent decades have seen a gradual decline of Christianity throughout Wales, and as I walked through the streets of Beaumaris, Bangor and other parts of North Wales, I wondered how severe is the decline in the Welsh Chapel tradition?

It is a tradition that I have an abiding affection for. As a 19-year-old with a fresh enthusiasm for my Christian faith, I spent a weekend in Chester on my way between Lichfield and Dublin, and on that Sunday morning, visiting a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel, I was taught the only three words in Welsh, the only phrase, I have ever learned in Welsh: Duw cariad yw, ‘God is love.’

Last Sunday morning [1 May 2016] in Beaumaris, two of us went to Church in the Parish Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, the parish church of the (Anglican) Church in Wales. But on the same street, I noticed how at least two former citadels from the Welsh Chapel tradition have been converted in recent years to serve non-religious functions.

Chapel Court, on the corner of Church Street and Margaret Street, was built in 1871-1876 as the English Presbyterian Church in Beaumaris. But the chapel closed in 1992, and the building was converted into flats and holiday apartments 20 years ago in 1996.

Further down Church Street, the Forum on 6 Church Street, opposite the George and Dragon, was once a chapel but has been converted into a number of commercial units, including the Triple 8 Coffee Shop, the Penny Farthing traditional sweet shop and Little Jack’s Gift Shop.

The former Capel Seion was a Welsh Congregational Church but has been converted to housing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Behind the parish church, the Capel Seion Welsh Congregational Church was built on the corner of Steeple Lane and Chapel Street in 1821. It replaced an earlier Capel Seion, which was built in 1784 and was the earliest non-conformist foundation in Beaumaris.

Capel Seion (Zion Chapel) closed some years ago too and it too has been converted into housing. But it was once a typical, almost classical Welsh Chapel, built in the Italianate style.

The round-headed central doorway has Tuscan pilasters with a moulded arch and keystone, and double fielded-panel doors with radial-glazed overlights. Inside, the entrance vestibule has plastered round arches on consoles to gallery stairs to the right and left, with moulded newel and plain balusters. The main chapel had a panelled plaster ceiling with ornate moulded ribs and ceiling roses. There was a three-sided gallery, a tall pulpit and cast-iron Corinthian columns.

Last night, I served as deacon at the Ascension Day Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, reading the Gospel and assisting at the administration of Holy Communion. I thought of the Welsh Chapel tradition and its rich contribution to the wider Church as we sang the procession hymn ‘Hail the day that sees him rise,’ by Charles Wesley and the Revd Thomas Cotterill of Lane End, Staffordshire. When it was first published in 1837, the tune was known as Bethel. But by 1896 it was renamed as Llanfair, and was ascribed to the blind composer and Welsh singer and blind composer known as Robert Williams (1781–1821) of Anglesey. He was born near Llanfair PG, the village with the longest name on these islands and which I visited last weekend.

I would cringe to think that visitors to Ireland might judge the state of the health of the Church by looking at closed churches dotting the countryside or former churches in our towns and cities that have been converted into apartments, shops, garages, restaurants and lighting display showrooms. But as I processed in the cathedral last night to tune known as Llanfair and Bethel, and as I walked around Beaumaris earlier this week, I wondered whether the Welsh Chapel Tradition is dying, and thought of what a loss that would be.

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