A melancholy centenary for Wales

A hundred years ago, the Church was plundered of its wealth and sent out to die. The Church in Wales has had a quiet celebration of a hundred years, but it should be mourning its despoliation. A limb was torn from the Church of England and stripped of its assets by Parliament, by Lloyd George, a non-conformist.

The celebrations were booked for June; all cancelled because of the lockdown. Perhaps it is as well to spend the time looking at what actually happened.

The Act disestablishing and disendowing the Church in Wales was passed in 1914 against a great deal of resistance: the Lords refused approval and this was the only time the Parliament Act was ever invoked to override the Lords until 1949. The great F E Smith spoke against the Bill in the Commons with such vehemence that he was mercifully satirised for his claim that it was:

 “a bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe”

It was not about establishing a specific Welsh voice of the church: it was to strip the Anglican church of its privileges and assets in Wales and to let it die.

The Church of England was not wholly innocent: the valleys had been thoroughly evangelised in the past hundred years while the established church had its back turned, by Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and such enthusiastic, evangelical minsters such that the Church of England was a minority body, yet one which was still collecting tithes from farmers who did not worship with it, still running the schools and allegedly reacting to challenges by shutting non-conformists even from burying their dead in village graveyards. The distancing of the church form the people was made worse by the appointment of bishops of a ‘high-church’ persuasion when all around were more earthy evangelicals.

It took two years to pass the Welsh Church Act 1914, then it was suspended at the outbreak of war, and revived in 1920. It struck the Welsh dioceses, handing much of their property to the local councils and to the University of Wales. (Maybe the Church in Wales was meant to fade away but it has outlasted the University of Wales, which was dissolved in scandal a few years ago.) The Act is bland and bureaucratic in its wording, but effective. Smith and later Lord Robert Cecil examined the philosophy behind dis-endowment and found it wanting, but there was no stopping David Lloyd George; there never was.

As of 1920, in Wales, the bishops were no long bishops, ecclesiastical law and no longer law nor its courts courts, and the property of the church, beyond the churches themselves and vicarages and recent donations handed to Commissioners for disposal.

The distinction between what is England what is Wales is not a sharp line but a cultural slurring in the hills. There are parishes which spread across the line clerks drew on the map, and these were given a choice, to continue in the Church of England or leap into the newly stripped Church in Wales – all but one opted for the former, which is why the Cross of St George flies over the tower of St Andrew’s in Presteign, Radnorshire.

Looking at a hundred years, we see the Church in Wales shrinking (even before the churches were barred by the lockdown) so as barely to function in places. However its place is not filled now with the old enthusiasm of the Methodists and Baptists: they have shrunk away even faster. It is a curse of the Anglican churches that they cannot rise suddenly with effusions of the Spirit and preach sermons of fire to draw the people in as surely Christian churches should, but consequently they do not dry up as a puddle in the dawn the way less rooted churches do.

Today the Church of England has a radical power, to make and unmake any Act of Parliament affecting it, by a Measure of Synod passing three Houses of Synod and two of Parliament. If the Church in Wales looks at it decline, maybe the centenary should have been a time not to celebrate separation but to look for reunion.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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