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Evangelicalism in Wales, 1967–2017

September 2017 | by Jeremy Bailey

The last 50 years have been years of change, both for Wales as a nation and for its evangelical witness.

Its geography, culture, languages and politics have always been distinctive. Almost three million people live in this beautiful part of the United Kingdom and they speak two official languages, Welsh and English. However, Wales has changed and is still changing.

Its coal mines and much of its heavy industry have disappeared. Its devolved government meets in a new parliament building in Cardiff. And its religious life has changed. Wales is a country of chapels, hundreds of them across the length and breadth of the land, but many of them now disused, converted into homes and businesses, or left to decay. Clearly it was once a very religious nation.

Christianity has a long history in Wales, probably arriving in the mid- to late-fifth century and then spread by such people as Dyfrig, Illtud and Wales’ ‘patron saint’ David. The Methodist revivals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transformed the religious complexion of the country, but that is now a distant memory.

Before 1967: the seeds of change

Between the end of the Second World War and 1967 the number attending chapels halved.1 All of the denominations declined sharply. Sunday schools were disappearing and churches faced a crisis of numbers. Much of this was the result of merely nominal members at least behaving honestly and resigning their memberships.

Some churches boasted memberships of over 200, but had congregations of 50 or less. But it was not only numerically that the churches were suffering. Ministerially, there was a crisis in all the denominations. For instance, the Presbyterian Church of Wales had 1,338 churches in 1969, but only 390 ministers. Within the next few years some left the denomination and others retired.

Meanwhile, only a tiny number of ministers were graduating from theological college. The root of the problem was a spiritual crisis.2 The denominations were fast approaching spiritual bankruptcy, because of departure from their confessions of faith allied with support for the World Council of Churches, unfaithfulness to the Bible and the general worldliness of their church members.

But there were positive developments also. The period immediately after the Second World War was a time when several significant men were converted; men who, by God’s grace, would shape evangelical life in Wales.

One of those was Elwyn Davies. Converted while a student in Bangor in 1947, Elwyn was convinced that the Lord wanted him to stay in Wales by the words of a lecturer: ‘Unless Wales lays hold of true religion in our time, generations will pass without it’.4

Influenced greatly by the ministry and continued encouragement of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Elwyn joined others in an evangelical witness that, in 1955, became the Evangelical Movement of Wales (EMW). Through its various activities, the EMW became a focal point for those evangelicals who felt alienated from their largely liberal denominations.

1967: separation

As a result of this doctrinal and spiritual decline, after much anguish, debate and unsuccessful attempts to reform from within, some ministers from across the major denominations in Wales — Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists — took the difficult step of seceding from their denominations.

Not all evangelicals left, and this caused much heartache; old friendships were often strained and mutual suspicion created between those who remained and those who left.

Divisions between leavers and remainers reached a peak in the late 1970s and 1980s, but, since then, the pace of church decline and the hostility of the wider culture towards Christianity has thawed relations considerably. For example, there is now more co-operation between Independent, denominational and Anglican evangelicals than a couple of decades ago.

By 1967 several Welsh-speaking ministers had left their denominations. The Welsh Evangelical Church in Aberystwyth was started in 1967 (it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year).

Eight such churches were established over the years, including one in Cardiff in 1979. They remain in existence today, although some are quite weak numerically. Some churches, such as the one in Lampeter, have separate English and Welsh services, but the trend has been to establish entirely separate English- and Welsh-speaking churches (sometimes this had led to unnecessary polarisation).

Support networks for Welsh evangelicals have proliferated in the last five decades. The EMW organises conferences, fraternals, and camps. And more recently Llanw and DAWN have emerged as popular Welsh-language conferences and theological training courses, respectively.

There have also been significant publications in Welsh: two new Welsh-language Bibles were published in 2015, a paraphrase called beibl.net and a Bible handbook called Beibl Canllaw. Together with Welsh magazines and books, these provide valuable help to Welsh-speakers.

The Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920. At that time, there were very few evangelicals in the Church in Wales, a situation that began to change in the 1960s under the guidance of John Stott.

Stott had acquired a holiday cottage in Dale, Pembrokeshire, in 1958, and had a keen interest in the ministries of the few evangelicals in the Church in Wales. He was especially encouraging to a young curate in Aberystwyth, Bertie Lewis, who was to become a pivotal figure in Anglican evangelical life in Wales.

The first of what became known as ‘Dale days’ took place in 1964, with just seven or eight Anglican evangelicals attending. Over the next few years the numbers increased steadily and, in March 1967, prompted by concerns about the far-reaching nature of proposed changes to the liturgy of the Church in Wales, the Evangelical Fellowship in the Church in Wales (EFCW) came into being.

1970s–1990s: organisation

By 1978 there were 27 clergy members of EFCW and just four years later their numbers had reached 54.5 Despite a greater numerical presence, Anglican evangelicals in Wales have not had as significant an impact on their Church as has been the case for Anglican evangelicals in some parts of the Church of England. A liberal Catholicism remains the general ethos of the Church and the evangelical voice is not often heard.

During the 1970s the numbers of churches that withdrew from the old Welsh nonconformist denominations increased. Several of these Independent congregations knew significant conversions, a sense of the presence of the Lord and renewed commitment to prayer and preaching.

The Heath Evangelical Church in Cardiff grew remarkably under the ministry of Vernon Higham. However, the promise of wider renewal and the revival that many longed for, have not materialised.

Churches needed considerable support during these years, and the activities of the EMW grew to meet this need. Some felt that much had been lost, and recognised a need for church affiliations. Congregationalists looked to the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches. But for others the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales formed in 1988, first with 38 churches, but now with 57 congregations across eleven local clusters, provided much needed inter-church fellowship.

These years also saw the establishment of the Evangelical Alliance in Wales. In more recent years the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales has planted or adopted three churches, and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches provides fellowship now for 32 churches.

There are some double affiliations, and there is a growing friendship and fellowship across these church groupings. The advent of the Charismatic Movement in these decades had presented both challenges and opportunities. House churches have proliferated, and many of the Pentecostal denominations have experienced a new lease of life.

Charismatic renewal had also reshaped the life of many churches, even those who do not adopt an explicitly Charismatic theology. For some, the biggest change took place in forms of worship with traditional styles giving way to a more relaxed attitude to church cultures. Sometimes this has resulted in damaging divisions.

21st century: diversity

So today, Welsh evangelicalism is not only different, it is also remarkably diverse. This has become more apparent in the last 17 years.Welsh evangelicals are facing the challenge of reaching their ever-changing communities with the gospel.

Gospel work exists amongst all communities: the business community in Cardiff; students in the Welsh universities; farmers in rural Wales; manufacturing and service workers in former mining valleys; Welsh speakers across Wales, and asylum seekers in the major cities, to name a few. Each calls for a different approach.

Welsh and English are official languages, but dozens of others can be heard all over Wales. Toddler groups and coffee mornings have been present in churches for years, but many churches in Wales have only recently begun to engage effectively with their communities through food banks, CAP debt advice, dementia care and similar bridge-building initiatives, showing the love of Christ and meeting those who will not naturally step into a church building.

However, despite all the organisation and reorganisation, the new initiatives, conferences and strategies, there is still only a trickle of conversions and prayer meetings are poorly attended and lacklustre in spirit.

True Christianity is not organisational; it is relational, as both Old and New Testaments show (2 Chronicles 7:14; John 15:7-8). That relationship is a dependent one. As one Christian leader put it recently, ‘We are not yet at the place of complete dependence and earnestly seeking the Lord which we were given in the 1960s’. Let us pray that soon we will be.

Jeremy Bailey is pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Church, Sandfields, Aberavon 

Footnotes:

1 David Ollerton, A new mission to Wales: seeing churches across Wales prosper in the twenty first century, Cyhoeddiadau’r Gair (2016), p.22.

2 Eryl Davies, ‘If we neglect . . . an interpretation of events within the Presbyterian Church of Wales’ (April 1970).

3 Noel Gibbard, The first fifty years, the history of the Evangelical Movement of Wales 1948–98, Bryntirion Press (2002), p.95.

4 Ibid., p.17.

5 David Ceri Jones, ‘Evangelical resurgence in the Church in Wales in the mid-twentieth century’, in Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden (eds.), Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the twentieth century, Boydell & Brewer (2014), p.241.