The Chapels of Wales

Mike Hedges says the decline of the local chapel is a detriment to Wales.

In recent decades, we’ve seen a gradual and continual decline in what can be referred to as the two great traditions of nineteenth and early twentieth century Welsh society; that being the tradition of attending the local chapel and the local public house.

Wales is often considered the land of castles but we have substantially more chapels, churches and other religious buildings across Wales. We have some great church buildings and chapels such as St David Cathedral and Tabernacle chapel in Morriston, which has been described as the cathedral of non-conformity, as well as many others with historical significance and architectural merit.

Wales’s ecclesiastical heritage is a very significant part of the nation’s built and cultural heritage. Many who do not attend the chapels of Wales attach a huge significance to their architectural merit and the status they carry within their local communities. As you look around Wales, it is obvious that, in this day and age, Wales now has a huge excess of chapels for its current religious needs. What we have seen in response to this excess is the closure of many in an attempt to not only save money, but also save some of the really magnificent buildings of the same denomination. The upkeep of these remarkable buildings has fallen on the shoulders of the remaining members of the congregation, most of whom vary from the elderly to the very elderly. As one deacon said to me, ‘We inherited this chapel from our parents, but our children do not want to inherit it from us’

The congregations are declining and you’ve got to remember how many chapels there are. According to ‘Blwyddiadur Undeb yr Annibynnwyr’, there are 668 independent chapels in Wales and four Welsh independent chapels in England but at the time of writing that number will almost certainly have declined. We have witnessed former chapels being sympathetically adapted or converted for a number of different uses, ranging from flats, which are the most common, to houses, businesses, restaurants, offices, community centres and, in some cases, converted to places of worship for other religions. Unfortunately others have become derelict, burnt or fallen down.

One notable example of a former Swansea chapel that has been sympathetically adapted is the chapel of Christmas Evans, which now hosts the NSPCC Swansea offices, but they allow people to visit it and see its plaque commemorating Christmas Evans. It is amazing, how many people visit despite the fact it’s not advertised and you have to engage in substantial research to find out where it is, what it is now and arrange to visit

Then there are the people such as Daniel James (Gwyrossydd) composer of Calon Lan buried at Mynydbach chapel and Evan Roberts the preacher who led the great revival from Moriah chapel in Loughor these were just two of the great preachers and hymn writers from Wales.

Wales has got a huge reputation for its preachers, church and chapel buildings which is something we need to build on. I think that, if we’re looking at the American tourism market we need to produce denominational tours in Wales.

It is not just America but countries in the Far East such as Singapore, We have got the situation where New Siloh in Landore, one of the largest 19th century chapels, has been taken over by a church in Singapore.

So, the question is should we in Wales be when aiming at the American tourist market, should we be aiming some of tourism advertising to promote our great religious history its people and buildings.

I think there’s a huge opportunity to promote tourism relating to our chapels, churches and the great preachers and hymn writers of the past.

This is an opportunity that we in Wales need to take before it is too late.

Mike Hedges is AM for Swansea East.

8 thoughts on “The Chapels of Wales

  1. I really enjoyed this article and wonder if a photo journalist has been commissioned to produce an exhibition of some of these chapels? It could be toured in Wales and promoted to tourists and the general public.

  2. Great to see Mike once again highlight the significance of Moriah chapel in Loughor. A place where I spent many hours as a young child. Sadly they didn’t bother teaching us under 8s much about the Great Revival. Instead most lessons were spent watching an American produced religious kids video which stared a 6ft Mr. Blobby type blue talking Bible on a train – at least this is how I remember it now.

    Clearly there is a lot more Wales could be doing to market its religious history (be that Christian, Pagan, or the many circumstances where they have merged beyond distinction). And America is the natural market for this. The issue of course is the impact such a campaign would have on the total estate given the need to ‘pick winners’ – something which naturally implies picking losers too.

    Sadly when this has been raised in the past there has been relatively little action:

  3. Pending another Great Revival (I’m not holding my breath) the future for chapels as places of worship seems bleak. Back in the day when they were central to the life of their communities their value was as much social as spiritual. That the Christian religion is in decline is not a reason why chapels (and parish churches for that matter) should lose their social function. Indeed, their survival as buildings may depend on their adapting to a new/modified role, a role that the Deacon’s children may value more than their spiritual one. Is this the time for an honest debate on the future of such buildings between chapels/church hierarchies, local authorities, local communities and Welsh Govt (Visit Wales, Communities Minister etc), with interventions from CADW as appropriate? I suppose the churches have the toughest bullet to bite on.

  4. A very good commentary of the situation.As a descendant of David Charles ( The Hymn writer ) and Peter Williams( The Cleric , Bible Translator & Commentator) both of carmarthen, I am sure that the thought of looking for contact & Help in Our former colonies is a good thought.I know of cousins in the U.S.A. Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
    However support for the Mary Jones Centre in Bala opened two years ago in Oct 2014 to coincide with the death of the renowned Rev Thomas Charles Of Bala was very disappointing from Assembly Members! Only one Daffyd Ellis Thomas attended.Not good from a body charged with promoting our Welsh Heritage. Where was the A.M. responsible for Welsh Culture at Least and his Leaader?

  5. The social role of the chapels was protected by a Sabbatarian tradition that held most forms of social interaction on a Sunday were sinful and punishable by hellfire. If you wanted to put on your best clothes, go and meet your friends and ogle the opposite sex, chapel was your only option. You could sing too. Even if you were not devout, listening to a sermon was a small price to pay. Nowadays people have lots of ways to spend their time at the week-end so it is much harder for the chapels to rediscover a non-religious social role.

    If they want to rekindle a sense of wonder perhaps they could buy telescopes or microscopes and transmit images for public display. The vastness of the universe or the incredible complexity of the organisms that inhabit the human body would fascinate some of the kids and give them something to think about.

  6. Once again, it’s symptomatic of our feebleness as a nation that the only things deemed worth promoting by our ‘leaders’ are things which will boost that ultimate mixed blessing, ‘tourism’. That, call-centres and the ‘hospitality’ industry seem to be the only types of commerce to which we poor colonials are considered worthy of aspiring.

    A lot is always made of the contribution that ‘chapel culture’ supposedly made to the survival of the language, but there is a downside to that which is seldom mentioned; namely that the narrow, pinch-faced conceitedness of that culture destroyed much of our native folk song and dance (a comparison with Catholic Ireland is instructive here) and effectively ghettoised the language so that it came to be regarded as something which was suitable only for singing, bland and unchallenging poetry and theological pin-dancing, and not something which should be encouraged to (or even allowed to) adapt to the terribly sinful modern world, with its devilish science and technology.

  7. At the risk of praising a member of the Welsh Assembly, this is a good article on an important subject.

    The problem is not so much the decline of Christianity – there is definite potential for another Great Revival – but the decline of organised social activity in general, a phenomenon documented by the American Professor Robert Putnam and even more pronounced on this side of this Atlantic. So even if we do have another Revival, it is unlikely to take the form of filling the chapels. Nor should it. It was a poor business strategy on the part of most denominations to invest too much in real estate and not enough in human resources. While it is sad to see buildings that were the focus of so much effort and sacrifice by their congregations put to uses which they never intended, the Gospels never said anything about investing heavily in property, so it might be no bad thing that any surplus is sold. Then the best of these buildings can once again serve the community purposes of their whole localities – as was the case when they were built – and the rest used to provide housing.

  8. Nigel Stapley is right. He might have mentioned Brittany too, where the language is on its last legs but where contemporary folk song and dance is strong. Still, I think I’d take the trade off. Our language is under acute pressure but is healthier than either Breton or Irish and the tradition of penillion singing survives – even if most of our population has no knowledge of it.

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