Our Holy Ground: The Welsh Christian Experience
John I. Morgans and Peter C. Noble
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A GREAT strength of this book is that it treats the political history of Wales and its Christian experience as closely intertwined. Wales emerged with its own identity between 400-600 as already in the process of becoming a Christian nation. This Christianity was based on the Clas, larger churches dedicated to local saints in a loose federation with smaller Llanau similarly dedicated.
John Morgans avoids over-romanticising this Celtic period, but rightly emphasises its distinctive nature. This was overlaid first by the mission of St Augustine in the sixth century, and then decisively by the Norman invasion, the conquest of Wales, and the death of the last sovereign Prince of Wales, Llewellyn, in 1282. Huge castles were built to keep the Welsh under control; and the diocesan system with English bishops was imposed. Owen Glendower’s revolt in 1400 failed, and Wales was fully incorporated into England under Henry VIII as a nation of the Reformation.
In 1588, however, there occurred one of the most significant events in Welsh history, the translation of the Bible by John Morgan. This became the inspiration in the next centuries for significant educational programmes. In 1734, Griffith Jones initiated his scheme of circulating schools. He trained tutors to go into parishes and stay there for three months. By the time he died, 3325 schools had been held, in which half the population had been educated. Wales became the first country in the world to have a literate working class. All this was mainly due to the Nonconformist churches, and, in the 19th century, Wales was clearly a Nonconformist country.
On the Sunday when the census was taken in 1851, the bald figures suggest that the vast majority of the population were in church, 80 per cent in chapels, 20 per cent in parish churches. The first half of the 19th century was an amazing period of chapel-building: one chapel was completed every eight days for a period of 50 years. This was because of a series of remarkable revivals, but, as John Morgans points out, these revivals were built on the solid Christian educational work being done at that point by the Established Church.
The last big revival was in 1904, but now all these chapels, sometimes as many as eight in a single community, are empty. What went wrong?
Wales had become the first country in the world in which the majority of its population worked in industry. This brought tremendous life to the iron- and coal-producing areas in the south, but also massive injustice and the political struggle to remedy this. The Churches were left behind, squabbling about denominational differences, the Nonconformists being mainly bothered about the privileged position of the Established Church, while the issues that mattered to most people lay elsewhere. On top of this, a mainly Welsh-speaking literate people had English imposed on their education system as the language of commerce and progress.
The English and the Established Church, with their arrogance, come out of this story badly. But, since disestablishment in 1920, the Church in Wales has repositioned itself to work with other Churches to express a more authentically Welsh expression of faith.
Morgans himself started an ecumenical church in the Rhondda, not one independent of the denominations, but with their full support; and he sees this as the way forward. He has written this book, which seeks to treat all forms of the faith fairly, because he thinks that they can all claim its history as their own, and learn its lessons.
This absorbing study is accompanied by scores of photos by Peter Noble of places associated with the Christian faith.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.