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Church in Wales: Separated, but not cut off from old privileges

15 May 2020

Norman Doe assesses a century’s ‘non-established’ Anglican life in Wales

Church in Wales

The Most Revd Alfred Edwards, portrait by Solomon J. Solomon

The Most Revd Alfred Edwards, portrait by Solomon J. Solomon

IT ALL started some 50 years after the Welsh invasion and conquest of England by the army of Harri Tudur (Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII). Under the Acts of Union 1536 and 1543, Wales and England became a single political unit. They had the same laws, but a distinct system of courts. Yet assertions of Welsh national identity continued. By the 19th century, these assertions questioned how the law in Wales could differ from that in England. Religion was the test case.

Welsh Nonconformists were the driving force behind the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881: the first modern Wales-only legislation. It sought to reduce the effects of alcohol consumption on the workforce and families. The confidence that this instilled helped to fuel another largely Nonconformist, and national, campaign to disestablish the Church of England in Wales, which came in 1920 pursuant to the Welsh Church Act, which had been enacted in 1914 (the same year as the failure of a Welsh Home Rule Bill).

Discontent had been brewing for years. In England, the Anti-State Church Association (formed in 1844) gave little thought to the issue in Wales. Welsh agitation for disestablishment was stimulated by various factors. Nonconformity was the majority religion; and Nonconformists refused to pay tithes, leading to violence in the 1880s. There was a belief that the minority and alien Church of England was anglicising Welsh life, on the heels of the 1847 report on education portraying the Welsh as backward, barbaric, and bone idle: The Treachery of the Blue Books.

The Liberal Party supported the Nonconformists. It inherited, from its Whig roots, sympathy for their causes. It had a strong Nonconformist following, and advocated religious freedom and equality, and the separation of State and Church. Gladstone’s Liberals had disestablished the Irish Church in 1870.

In contrast, the “throne and altar” Conservative Party defended establishment, and its unionism opposed Wales-only law on religion. Indeed, as the century closed, the English Church in Wales no longer had power to monopolise education, control university life, or impose church rates. While the call to disestablish waned in England, it waxed in Wales — especially after the passing of laws on denominational education, and the coming of the Welsh revival (1904-05), which increased Welsh Nonconformist numbers dramatically.

National identity, numbers, and history had all been used by Henry Richards in his address to the electors at Merthyr Tydfil in 1868: “The people who speak [Welsh], who read this literature, who own this history, who inherit these traditions, who venerate these names, who created and sustain these marvellous religious organisations, the people forming three-fourths of the people of Wales — have they not a right to say to this small propertied class . . . We are the Welsh people and not you? This country is ours and not yours and therefore we claim to have our principles . . . and feelings represented in the Commons’ House of Parliament.”

THE legislative battle to disestablish was long and hard. It took half a century from the first Bill to disestablishment day. Two Welsh barristers and Liberal MPs kicked off. In 1870, George Osborne Morgan sought to reform burial law, and Watkin Williams proposed the first Bill to disestablish. Both were sons of Anglican clergy.

alamyDavid Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, 1916-22

Welsh disestablishment became official Liberal Party policy in 1887; and, by the end of his political career, Gladstone unequivocally and publicly supported it. Yet, after election success in 1892, the Liberal government was reluctant to proceed. This led four Welsh MPs (including David Lloyd George) to refuse the party whip. In turn, disestablishment Bills were introduced in 1894 and 1895. Both failed. The House of Lords opposed them, and the Liberals lost the 1895 election.

In that year, Lloyd George wrote: “It is quite idle to expect Liberal legislation from the Imperial Parliament — for Wales, at any rate — as long as England dominates our law-making. Parliament has neither the time nor the inclination to attend to our wants. . . All our demands ought to be concentrated in the great agitation for national self-government.”

But a landslide Liberal election victory in 1906 led to a Royal Commission, which eventually reported in 1910 — itself a delaying tactic. The report was heavily criticised, and its proposals were not unanimous, but it was quite clear about numbers in Wales: 549,123 Nonconformist communicants, and 193,081 Anglican.

The Bishop of St Davids, John Owen, who opposed disestablishment, responded: the Church was “the strongest religious body in Wales”; Anglicans outnumbered the two largest Nonconformist bodies combined; and all Nonconformists were less than half the population — and the Church looked after the other half. Thrust and counter-thrust.

Another disestablishment Bill was introduced by Asquith in 1909. Again, along with Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget”, it was rejected by the House of Lords. So, the Parliament Act 1911 was passed, enabling the Commons to present a Bill for royal assent without the Lords. This was itself a constitutional revolution, and its passage was not without incident.


A FURTHER Welsh Church Bill was introduced in the Commons in 1912 and was rejected twice by the Lords. The Commons then invoked the Parliament Act — the first time to do so — and the Welsh Church Act 1914 was passed. Its implementation was delayed until after the war; so the Church of England in Wales (and Monmouthshire) was disestablished on 31 March 1920.

Intriguingly, the last day of March was also the day on which Owain Glyndwr’s “Pennal Letter”, written to Charles V of France in 1406, had proposed independence for the Welsh Church from Canterbury.

The Welsh Church Act 1914 was made “to terminate the establishment” of the Church of England in Wales. It separated Church from State. There was to be no more ecclesiastical royal supremacy or appointments to church offices in Wales; church corporations were dissolved; there were to be no more Welsh bishops in the Lords; and Welsh clergy could be elected to the Commons.

PAMiners cheer as Edward, Prince of Wales, visits Insoles Ltd colliery at Cymmer, in 1919

The Act also disendowed: English church property was nationalised and transferred to Welsh Church Commissioners to redistribute. Churches and parsonages were vested in the new Church Representative Body (the provincial trustees). Churchyards transferred to local authorities (reversed in 1945). Other property passed to the University and the National Library of Wales.

The Act provided that English ecclesiastical law ceased to exist as the law of the land in Wales; but its pre-1920 norms continued to apply to the Welsh Church “as if” its members had assented to them, as terms of a statutory contract that sought to fill the legal vacuum left by disestablishment.

The 1914 Act, however, also provided for self-government. Nothing was to prevent the bishops, clergy, and laity from holding synods or electing representatives to them, nor from framing “constitutions and regulations”. In addition, the Act empowered the Church to repeal or amend Acts of Parliament forming part of pre-1920 ecclesiastical law, because they were no longer the law of the land, but terms of a contract.

Many Welsh Anglicans, like the Oxford Movement cleric and canonist Robert Owen, who favoured disestablishment, had for years pitied the English Church as an “Act of Parliament Church” in both its foundation and its subjection to the State — indeed, Parliament made, on average, 25 Acts on it each year in the 19th century. The 1914 Act liberated the Church from the State.

In 1920, the Archbishop of Canterbury released Welsh dioceses from his Province. They formed a new, autonomous Province of the worldwide Anglican Communion. In other words, under the new dispensation, the Church “provincialised” itself, and the State “privatised” it as a voluntary association like other Free Churches in Wales.

But state courts struggled to classify the Church: one judge spoke of the “disestablishment of the Church in Wales” (1944); another said that “the Welsh Church Act 1914 did not disestablish the Welsh Church, but only disestablished the Church of England . . . in Wales” (1951); and, for a third, the object of the 1914 Act was to “re-establish the Church in Wales on a contractual basis” (1957). Some still call it “quasi-established”. The better view is the second: the Church in Wales is not a disestablished, but a non-established, Church.


ONE hundred years ago, Christianity was taken for granted as the religion of Wales; it was part of national life. The trauma of the First World War, economic depression in the 1920s and ’30s, and resultant social and political changes heralded secularisation and cultural and religious diversity. This challenged all Churches to foster an effective position in a more pluralistic Wales.

How has the Church evolved its place in Wales over the century? What has it done for us to celebrate — and, equally, lament?

Public DomainJudge John Sankey, later Viscount Sankey and Lord Chancellor (1866-1948)

In terms of ethos and constitution, after 1920, the Church was still seen as part of the Establishment: it was “Tory and Toff”; its Governing Body had significant numbers from the aristocracy; its Representative Body was incorporated by Royal Charter; the Sovereign still has a stall in St Davids Cathedral. The first task was to make a constitution for itself, drafted by a judge, John Sankey, later a (Labour) Lord Chancellor. Innovation was avoided, and continuity was protected.

The original structure of the constitution continues today. Revision has been piecemeal. Unlike most Anglican Churches, the Church still has no modern code of canons. We still await a modern statement of its inherited pre-1920 ecclesiastical law. An external review of the Church in 2012 criticised the constitution as outdated and too complex, and called for modernisation. Nothing has happened — yet.

In contrast, the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons has undergone great change. After 1920, the power base in the Church was predominantly clerical, hierarchical, and male; there was a culture of lay deference to the clergy; and development was in the keeping of the bishops. In 1924, there were 1400 stipendiary clergy: by 2017, there were 416. And so the Church became more equal, diverse, and inclusive — driven in part by wider society.

Women are ordained; half the bishops are women; there is more consultation in decision-making; and bishops are more aware that their authority is not unlimited. We have also seen the end of residential clergy training; the introduction of clergy terms of service and employment rights; new provision for professional development and clergy discipline; non-stipendiary ministry; and the evolution of parishes into new “ministry areas”.


WHAT of lay people? The worshippers, donors, fund-raisers — they were and are in the majority as officers at all levels, from national to local. In 1920, the Church set up an appeal for £1 million; it closed in 1935 at about £722,000, and the laity bore the burden. But lay people do more than pay, pray, and obey. For example, Llandaff Mothers’ Union had about 5000 members in 1920, and it still did in 1993. In 1943, Cymry’r Groes became an influential lay youth movement. And the 2012 review urged that lay people should play a greater part in running new ministry areas.

But the fact remains that, although the population of Wales has grown, in 1920 there were about 184,000 Easter communicants, but, by 2017, the number was 48,000. Similarly, in 1927 there were about 1700 church buildings, but, by 2017, there were 1300. Many are listed heritage sites, and the Church has a robust faculty system for works on them under the Welsh Government Ecclesiastical Exemption Order 2018.

Church in WalesPolice in Denbighshire in 1894 during the tithe war: violence broke out as farms were forcibly sold when their tenants refused to pay tithes

As for its doctrine: in 1920, the Church was in the Catholic, or High Church, tradition. It embraced the Oxford Movement, and it still adheres to pre-1920 English historic formularies (including the Thirty-Nine Articles). But some things changed. In the 1960s, there was a resurgence of Evangelicalism; a rise in modern theology; and new attitudes to gender — and, by the Millennium, to sexuality — which posed a challenge to both Catholics and Evangelicals, and disagreement about sexuality shows no sign of abating. Yet today, theologically, the Church is more pluralistic, liberal, and professionalised.

Worship has changed, too. In 1920, the Church clung to the 1662 Prayer Book. After the Second World War, liturgical revision was conservative and experimental; in 1984, there was a new, but still single-use, Prayer Book. Today, variety is encouraged; technology allows each worshipping community a tailor-made liturgy; and the Prayer Book offers traditional and contemporary services, with multiple options, for Catholics and Evangelicals. This is pick-and-mix, perhaps, and yet it reflects the times: context privileged; worshippers’ needs prioritised. A congregation in 1920 was passive, and the part that it played was formal; now, it is active, and the part that it plays is more informal. But worship is still offered to all in Wales.


THE rites of passage also show how the Church provides for all in Wales. Church law still offers baptism, confirmation, and holy communion. The Church still has a duty in civil law to marry and bury parish residents: the 1914 Act did not entirely separate Church and State.

PAClergy in attendance as Prince Charles as Prince of Wales presents colours to the Royal Regiment of Wales at the inauguration ceremony for the Royal Regiment of Wales, in the grounds of Cardiff Castle, June 1969

The Church lifted bans: in the 1970s, on burying those unbaptised or who took their own lives; in the 1990s, on the marriage of divorced persons during the lifetime of a former spouse; and, in 2016, on entitling those not yet confirmed to receive communion. And, of course, the Church is now debating solemnising same-sex marriages. While the Church, until after the Second World War, often waited on the Church of England before it innovated, in these areas it has been ahead of England.

In 1920, Anglicans lost the disestablishment battle to Nonconformists. Bitterness continued. Welsh Churches seemed oblivious of each other, content to serve their own. Well beyond the Second World War, Anglicans and Nonconformists constructed sophisticated, slanted versions of historic Welsh Christian identity: both claimed a natural right to it.

In the 1970s, however, the Church in Wales joined a covenant for the union of Churches in Wales — which brings its own challenges — and is now active in Churches Together in Wales. This greater ecumenical co-operation is rooted in a common Christian commitment to working alongside one another to serve the people of Wales.

Likewise, internationally, the Church has made agreements with the Old Catholics, the United Churches of India, and the Nordic and Baltic Lutherans. The Statement of Principles of Christian Law, issued by an ecumenical panel meeting in Rome 2013-16, and now feeding into the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, was also seeded in Welsh soil.

Moreover, in recent years, the Church in Wales has contributed much to global Anglicanism, not least: the Communion’s leadership by a former Archbishop of Wales; proposals for an Anglican Communion Covenant (but when the Church of England rejected this, the Welsh Church reverted to type and followed suit); and the initiative behind, and original drafts of, the statement of Principles of Canon Law Common to Churches of the Anglican Communion (launched at the Lambeth Conference in 2008).


AN OBVIOUS success is education. After 1920, the Church continued its earlier commitment to the value, and free availability, of education in its schools, and to their Christian ethos. Over the century, at provincial and diocesan levels, it invested in teacher training, buildings, syllabus, and standards. It has been a strong partner with civil government, before and after devolution, in designing much education legislation, policy, and practice. And, in 2006, for example, it set up statutory inspection of its schools (also known as Gwella Inspection).

Today, it has 146 church schools, with 27,000 pupils. They are not simply for worshipping Anglicans; nor do they seek to proselytise. Rather, they offer service to everyone at the heart of Welsh communities.

Church in WalesThe enthronement of the Most Revd Alfred Evans as the first Archbishop of Wales, 1920

A different story is that of the Welsh language. The Bible and the Prayer Book were translated into Welsh in the 16th century. Yet, before 1920, the Church of England showed general contempt for Welsh. Afterwards, the Church was still seen as largely English, ambivalent — or, at worst, hostile— to Welsh. There was no equal status: English dominated.

There was scandal over the election of Welsh-speaking bishops from 1947 to 1967. But external politics impacted on the Church: in 1967, Cymdeithas Iaith yr Eglwys yng Nghymru was set up. In 1970, a bishop visited Welsh Language Society prisoners in HM Prison Cardiff. Church texts were translated into Welsh. The Welsh Language Act 1993 and devolution consolidated the principle of equilingualism in the Church, but the Church still faces issues implementing it.


THE English Church and most Anglicans in Wales had resisted disestablishment. They saw the Church as a victim of state aggression: the State had disestablished and disendowed it; society had approved. But the Church continued its charity work. In 1928, it gave £500 to the National Fund to Relieve Distress in the Coalfields. In the 1930s, dioceses such as St Davids had a moral-welfare committee, and their organising secretaries and outdoor workers contributed much to develop the social-worker profession.

Church in WalesThe Welsh Bench of Bishops, 1920

In the 1980s and ’90s, dioceses forged partnerships with local government and the Children’s Society. Today, for instance, Faith in Families has three child-care centres in Swansea; Plant Dewi runs 15 centres for young rural families; and Tir Dewi has 24 volunteers who support farming families.

Devolution has also had an impact on the Church. Welsh bishops may have lost their Westminster voice in 1920, but the Church has, in recent years, developed productive links with the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Government within the framework of a rapidly expanding and pervasive body of Welsh law.

In 1944, the Church set up the provincial Council for Moral Welfare, which, by the 1980s, became the Board of Social Responsibility. This gave the dioceses a forum to debate and act. But the Board has gone. Today, the Bench of Bishops has an adviser on Church and society. Governing Body debates, too, became more outward-looking as the Millennium approached (such as on AIDS, debt, and climate); but the impetus is waning.

While disestablishment in Wales was foisted on the English Church, it was not all doom and gloom for the Welsh Church as it embarked on its first century. There was hope and confidence — not least animated by loyalty to its past, and captured lyrically by the one person who perhaps did most for its institutional foundations 100 years ago, John Sankey, who said in 1922: “The Church in Wales is a Catholic and National Church. . . We are the old Christian Church in these islands. The saints of the Church . . . are sons of the race. They sleep in Welsh soil, hard by the shrines they loved and served so well. The self-same prayers which moved their lips move ours. Today we are [their] heirs.”

For their future, the resultant inherited responsibility of being heirs to a Church that predated Canterbury might have sufficed for inspiration, in the calm after the storm of a political world that gave little quarter.

And what of our future? Certainly, we need a balanced understanding of the disestablishment of the Church in Wales and its history since 1920. It has been a century of continuity and change. There is much to celebrate, and much to lament. Today, it faces big challenges in ministry, mission, and membership.

Yet there is hope that the Church will be confident, inclusive, collaborative, and effective in living the gospel: proclaiming Jesus’s teaching, offering physical spaces for spiritual needs, and caring for the people of Wales. For all its ups and downs, the century gives lessons aplenty for the future.


Professor Norman Doe is director of the Centre for Law and Religion, School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University, and Chancellor of the diocese of Bangor.

This article draws on themes and materials explored in Norman Doe, ed., A New History of the Church in Wales: Governance and ministry, theology and society (Cambridge University Press, £24.99 (Church Times Bookshop £22.49)).

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