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A New History of the Church in Wales, edited by Norman Doe

30 October 2020

Michael Wheeler reads a centenary history of the Church in Wales

A MISTY land of mountains and Celtic spirituality, of rugby football and male-voice choirs, of chapels and laverbread. Or so run the clichés. The choirs have been in decline since the mines closed, and “Chapel” is not what it was. Nor is “Church”, disestablished in 1920, strong and fairly confident for fifty years thereafter, but now unsure of itself. Several contributors to this excellent illustrated collection assume that the Church must adapt itself to the needs and preferences of the people. Rarely do we get a sense of the Church contra mundum, and there is little here on Celtic spirituality, that staple of residential study weekends.

As Bishops Andrew John and June Osborne comment in their foreword to the book, “Welsh Anglicanism was always an embedded part of [Wales’s] Christian identity — and the continuity of faith from the ‘Age of the Saints’ in the sixth century through to Diocesan Conferences and the Governing Body of the twenty-first century is told with clarity and affection.” They acknowledge that Wales is the region in the British Isles where “religion has declined the most”.

After two helpful retrospective chapters by Roger L. Brown and Jeffrey Gainer, D. Densil Morgan, a Baptist Barthian, offers an overview of “A Century of Christianity in Wales”. “As the millennium dawned”, Morgan suggests, “the basic shape of Christian presence in Wales was now manifest. It would be smaller and more variegated than it once was, more a diverse mosaic of different denominations, sects and ecclesial traditions than the twin slabs of Chapel and Church (with a substantial Roman Catholic bloc, though very much to the side).”

William Price rounds off Part I with a chapter on “The Church of Wales across the Century”. Vibrant in the 1920s and optimistic in the post-war years, the Church has been blown about by the winds of change since the 1970s. The number of Easter communicants fell from 187k in 1927 to 85k in 1999 and 49k in 2017. The average Sunday attendance in 2017 was 33k, while mass attendance in the Roman communion numbered 25k (substantial indeed, comparatively).

church timesThe Church in Wales was a bastion of confident conservatism in 1930 when the Church Congress (an annual conference to discuss issues of the day, combined with an exhibition) was held in Wales for the first time since disestablishment, and under the presidency of the Bishop of Monmouth. The Chruch was “renewing its youth”, and “the last taunt of an ‘alien church’ is no longer heard,” declared the historical essay in the Congress guide illustrated here

Price tees up the rest of the book by quoting Grace Davie on “a shift from a culture of obligation or duty to a culture of consumption or choice”, and with a comment on the liberal agenda of a Bench of Bishops which was once conservative.

Part II, “Governance and Ministry”, begins with a chapter on the constitution of the Church by Norman Doe, the eminent canon lawyer who has gathered a talented team of contributors here.

Arthur Edwards then discusses the bishops and archbishops, and Barry Morgan offers a splendid account of priests and deacons in the Church in Wales. More stats: in 1924, there were 1416 stipendiary clerics; at the end of 2017, there were 423 stipendiary and 140 non-stipendiary clerics. Wales was slow to see that ministry was not the sole prerogative of the ordained. Morgan welcomes “a return to a New Testament concept of every member ministry”. Rhiannon Johnson follows up with a chapter on the laity and patterns of ministry.

For this reviewer, Part III, “Doctrine, Liturgy, Rites and Other Faith Communities”, is the most engaging. Peter Sedgwick on doctrine and Gregory K. Cameron on liturgy are masters of their crafts. While recognising the need to adopt fresh orders of service for each occasion, often thrown up on screens, Bishop Gregory reminds us that “a church which entertains is not necessarily a church which worships,” and that the Church “still exists in order to proclaim repentance and new life for those who turn to the fullness of redemption for those who believe and follow Jesus Christ”.

Interesting chapters follow on “The Rites of Passage” (Charlotte Wright) and “The Church and other Communities of Faith” (Ainsley Griffiths).

Part IV, “The Church and Society”, begins with Rowan Williams on “Welsh Anglicans and Cultural Debate”. While documenting the Church’s habit of winning battles and losing wars, Williams celebrates ecumenical developments such as Llanfair Penrhys, created by John and Norah Morgans in the Rhondda, where the mission of the Church was “consistently seen as an inseparable union of prayer and service”.

Solid chapters follow on the Church and education (Rosalind Williams) and the Church and the Welsh language (Enid R. Morgan), and the section is rounded off by the Church’s first woman bishop, Joanna Penberthy, who comments on the Church, State, and society. Penberthy emphasises that the Church’s support for foodbanks and night shelters exemplifies rather than challenges “the societal move away from a justice-based to a charity-based discourse”. The implication is that, as in other areas, the Church in Wales seeks to be our flexible friend.

In a coda, Mary Stallard addresses the image of the Church, and John Davies peers into its future. The former offers examples of the Church as “outward-looking, engaging with local communities”, while the latter returns us to the “core business” of acting upon the Great Commission by making disciples who would be “faithful in word and deed to all that Jesus had commanded and taught”. Indeed.


Dr Wheeler is a former chairman of Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, a visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and the author of The Athenaeum: More than just another London club (Yale, 2020).


A New History of the Church in Wales: Governance and ministry, theology and society
Norman Doe, editor
CUP £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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