A New History of the Church in Wales: Governance and Ministry, Theology and Society, edited by Norman Doe


An Overview by Norman Doe

This paper draws on themes and materials explored in N. Doe, ed., A New History of the Church in Wales: Governance and Ministry, Theology and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020) as well as elements of N. Doe, ‘Separated, but not cut off from old privileges’, Church Times, 15 May 2020, and a lecture delivered at St Davids Cathedral in Wales by N. Doe, ‘Liberals, Loggerheads, and Laws: Welsh Church Disestablishment Remembered’, on 12 September 2020 at the annual meeting of the Friends of St Davids Cathedral.

From the sixteenth century, in Wales (Cymru, in the Welsh language) the Church of England was the ‘established church’, its four Welsh dioceses within the Province of Canterbury. In England, it still is, with a myriad legal links with the State, and the Monarch as its Supreme Governor. However, on 31 March 1920, it ceased to be the established church in Wales. The last day of March was also the day on which, in 1406, Owain Glyndŵr—the Welsh leader in a military campaign against English occupation of parts of Wales who also set up a Welsh Parliament—wrote a letter to Charles V of France proposing independence for the Welsh Church from Canterbury.  The enactment by Parliament of the Welsh Church Act 1914, implementation of which was postponed until after World War I, occurred in most extraordinary political circumstances. One hundred years on, therefore, we are invited to remember this—and to reflect on the foundation, fortunes, and future of the Church in Wales (Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru) as an autonomous member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion—by the edited book, A New History of the Church in Wales: Governance and Ministry, Theology and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

The antecedents of the modern Church in Wales go back a long way. From the time of the so-called Celtic Church and the Age of the Saints, Welsh Christianity predates English Christianity and Augustine’s Canterbury mission in 597 to convert the English (the Welsh word for which is still Saeson, Saxon).  In the Middle Ages the four ancient Welsh dioceses—St Davids, Bangor, Llandaff, and St Asaph—were absorbed into the Province of Canterbury and so came under the control of Rome. The period was one characterized by conflict between the Welsh and the English (similar to that between the Scots and the English). The Welsh invasion and conquest of England in 1485 by the army of Harri Tudur (Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII) led to the rise of the Tudor dynasty which ruled England till 1603. It was under Harri’s son, Henry VIII, that Wales and England became a single political unit with the passing of the Acts of Union 1536 and 1543, and the Reformation saw the enactment of parliamentary statutes which terminated papal jurisdiction and established a national Church of England under the royal supremacy—consolidated and developed under Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch. It was in her reign that the Bible was translated into Welsh and Richard Hooker (whose forebears came from south west Wales)—‘father of Anglicanism’—wrote his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

In the seventeenth century, while civil war, the abolition of the monarchy, and the Commonwealth resulted in its disestablishment, the English Church was re-established at the Restoration in 1660. This heralded new laws tolerating dissenters unable to conform to the established church: Nonconformists. By the eighteenth century, the English Church in Wales was on the back foot: absentee bishops; non-resident clergy; resident clergy unable to speak Welsh; and dilapidated buildings. Yet the following decades saw a revival of Christianity (and Anglicans played a part), the spread of dissenting denominations, and, in the industrial age of the nineteenth century, renewed assertions of Welsh national identity and calls for Wales-only law. Religion was the test case. Welsh Nonconformists were the driving force behind the Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881, which aimed to reduce the effects of alcohol consumption on workforces and families. The confidence this helped instil fuelled a largely Nonconformist, national, campaign to disestablish the English Church.

There had been discontent for years. The Anti State Church Association—set up in England in 1844—gave very little thought to Welsh disestablishment. In Wales, the Nonconformists out-numbered Anglicans. They refused to pay church tithes. They believed the minority English Church was an alien force anglicizing Welsh life—the 1847 report on education portraying the Welsh as backward, barbaric, and bone idle certainly did not help. The Liberal Party supported Nonconformists. It had a strong Nonconformist following. It advocated religious freedom and equality, and separation of Church and State—Liberals had disestablished the Irish Church in 1870. By way of contrast, the ‘throne and altar’ Conservative Party defended establishment—and its unionism opposed Wales-only law on religion. Indeed, as the nineteenth century closed, new legislation ensured that the English Church in Wales no longer monopolized education, controlled university life, or imposed church rates. While the call to disestablish waned in England, it waxed in Wales—especially after the Welsh Revival (1904-5) increased dramatically the numbers of Welsh Nonconformists.

The Welsh Church Act 1914 was made ‘to terminate the establishment’ of the Church of England in Wales.

The tide seemed unstoppable. But it rolled in slowly. It took 50 years. In 1870, Watkin Williams—Welsh barrister, Liberal MP, and son of an Anglican cleric—proposed the first bill: it failed. In 1887 disestablishment became official Liberal Party policy—and Gladstone was to support it. But, after election success in 1892, the Liberals were reluctant to proceed. This led to four Welsh MPs (including the Welshman and lawyer David Lloyd George, who was later to become Prime Minister) refusing the party whip. Further bills came in 1894 and 1895. They too failed. The House of Lords opposed them, and the Liberals lost the 1895 election. However, a landslide Liberal victory in 1906 led to a royal commission which eventually reported in 1910: it was a delaying tactic; the report was heavily criticized; and its proposals were not unanimous—but it was quite clear about numbers in Wales: 549,123 Nonconformist communicants and 193,081 Anglican. There was another bill in 1909. With Lloyd George’s people’s budget, the House of Lords rejected it. So, the Parliament Act 1911 was passed to enable the Commons to present a bill for royal assent without the Lords—itself a constitutional landmark. Another bill of 1912 was rejected twice by the Lords. The Commons then invoked the Parliament Act, the first time ever for it to be used, and the Welsh Church Act 1914 was passed. Its implementation was delayed until after the First World War—and so the Church of England in Wales (and Monmouthshire) was disestablished on 31 March 1920.

The Welsh Church Act 1914 was made ‘to terminate the establishment’ of the Church of England in Wales. It separated church from state. No more royal supremacy or royal appointments in Wales. Church corporations were dissolved.  No more Welsh bishops in the Lords. Welsh clergy could be elected to the Commons. It also dis-endowed: English Church property was nationalized—transferred to Welsh Church Commissioners to re-distribute. Churches and parsonages vested in the new church Representative Body. Churchyards were transferred to local authorities, and other property was vested in the University of Wales 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 filling a legal vacuum left by disestablishment.  But the Act also gave self-government. The church could: hold synods; frame a constitution; and repeal or amend pre-1920 ecclesiastical Acts of Parliament—they were no longer the law of the land but terms of a contract. Many Welsh Anglicans, like Tractarian cleric Robert Owen, who favored disestablishment, had for years pitied the English Church as an ‘Act of Parliament Church’ in its foundation and 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 the Welsh dioceses from that Province. They formed a new, autonomous province of the global Anglican Communion. So, the Church ‘provincialized’ itself; and the State ‘privatized’ it as a voluntary association like other 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 the 1914 Act ‘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 today consider the Church in Wales to be ‘quasi-established’.

A hundred years ago, Christianity was taken for granted as the religion of Wales, part of national life.  But the trauma of World War I, economic depression in the 1920s and 1930s, and resultant social and political changes, heralded secularization, and religious diversity.  This challenged all churches to foster an effective role in a more pluralistic Wales. And so, the distinguished contributors to A New History of the Church in Wales—historians and theologians, lay and ordained, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Welshman Rowan Williams – describe, explain, and evaluate how the Church evolved over the century in its ministry and its mission.

Many themes are explored in the five Parts of the book across its eighteen chapters. Following four chapters on the historical antecedents and providing an overview of the century (Part I), there are chapters on governance and ministry—the constitution of the church, bishops and archbishops, clergy, and lay people (Part II). These are followed by studies on doctrine, liturgy, rites, and other faith communities (Part III), and church and society—culture, education, the Welsh language, and charitable work (Part IV).  There are success stories aplenty in the ministry of the Church to the Welsh nation. However, the book also recounts, for example, the slow numerical decline in the membership of the institutional Church in Wales, the pressures placed on it by its custodianship of much of the built heritage of Wales, its need to engage with the effects since 1998 of devolution, and the expanding jurisdiction of the National Assembly for Wales (since 2020 the Welsh Parliament or Senedd Cymru)  and of the Welsh Government in areas such as the ecclesiastical exemption, church schools, the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, and equality and diversity in all areas of its life. The centenary, therefore, provides a good opportunity through this book for the Church in Wales, as an institution and as a community of those Christians who associate with it—together with its ecumenical partners, and wider society – to evaluate its work and contribution to Welsh life as simply one religious organization among many in a pluralistic Wales; and to re-imagine itself as a church for the future. The photographs contained in the book also contribute greatly to these narratives.

In sum, the past hundred years are but one part of a much longer history of Welsh Christianity. As John Sankey (brought up in Cardiff, a judge who drafted the Constitution of the Church, and later Lord Chancellor) 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’. What of the present? In chapter 16, Joanna Penberthy, first female Bishop of St Davids—the cathedral of which is in the place where David, Dewi Sant, Patron Saint of Wales, carried out his ministry—writes: ‘The Church in Wales marks its centenary in 2020, but the heritage of the dioceses which it comprises stretches back considerably further’; ‘While [today] the Church does not have quite the place in society it had at disestablishment, through its work at the diocesan and parish levels, it continues to exercise the responsibility to serve the people and communities of Wales to which it feels called’.


Professor Norman Doe, DCL (Lambeth), LLD (Cambridge), FLSW, FRHistS, is Director, Centre for Law and Religion, School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University. He also directs the LLM in Canon Law at Cardiff University, has acted as consultant on canon law to the Anglican Communion, and is the Chancellor of the Diocese of Bangor, Church in Wales.


Recommended Citation

Doe, Norman. “A New History of the Church in Wales: Governance and Ministry, Theology and Society.” Canopy Forum, January 15, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/01/12/a-new-history-of-the-church-in-wales-governance-and-ministry-theology-and-society.