Brexit of its time?
2020 marks 100 years since the disestablishment and disendowment of the Anglican Church in Wales. Frances Ward, a historian from Meifod, draws on contemporary newspaper accounts to shed light on a bitter fight that split Wales in two (this article first appeared in Teulu Asaph magazine).
The story before 1914...
Separating church from state – so that there is no state religion, and no church gets financial support from the state – was a live issue from the end of the 18th century. The American Constitution (1787) allowed all religions equal status, while during the French revolution (1789-1794) churches were closed down.
In Britain, by the mid-19th century the newly formed ‘Liberation Society’ was calling for the Church of England to be disestablished and disendowed. The movement was driven by English nonconformists, who supported their own ministers, chapels and work from their own pockets, and saw no reason for the Church to be funded differently. The idea took firmer root in Wales, where the majority of protestants were nonconformists, and the Church of England was traditionally seen as an alien, non-Welsh power, which took Welsh tithe money to swell its coffers, and whose bishops were English, spoke no Welsh, and never came to Wales.
The Tithe War of the 1880s added fuel to the argument. Tithes were payments which entitled the Church to a tenth of everybody’s annual income, and nonconformist parishioners resented supporting a church they didn’t belong to. By the 1880s refusal to pay resulted in violent confrontations in many parts of Wales.
The Anglican Church resisted the threat in Wales, recognising the hardship that would be caused by loss of income, and seeing ‘dismemberment’ – the loss of a limb of the Church – as a threat to the whole. Wales was split between the two sides at every level of society: the ‘leave/remain’ rift of its time.
By 1891 the fight for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales had become politicised, with the Liberals supporting, and the Conservatives opposing it. Bills for disestablishment and disendowment were put forward by the Liberal government in 1894 and 1895, and proposed that Church income (mainly from tithes) should be diverted to the county councils, the University of Wales, and the National Library of Wales. Both Bills failed.
A bitter fight
By the time the Liberals were back in power in 1906, attitudes towards the Church were softening. Bishops like AG Edwards in St Asaph were Welsh-speaking Welshmen, and the Church offered pastoral care to all parishioners, church and chapel alike. However the nonconformist pro-disestablishment position was entrenched, David Lloyd George campaigned eloquently for it, and the country was still fiercely divided. The Welsh Church Bill of 1914 brought the controversy to a head.
Rallies for and against were held in all parts of Wales. In January 1914 the speech of the ‘fighting Bishop’ of St David’s, John Owen, in the Market Hall at Aberdare, received a ‘rousing reception’ from 4,000 people opposed to the Bill, while the Campaign of Welsh Free Churches organised pro-disestablishment demonstrations in north and south Wales.
The Liberal claim that all nonconformists wanted the Church to be disendowed was dealt a sharp blow when a petition was delivered to Mr Asquith, the prime minister, signed by over 15,000 nonconformists in the diocese of St Asaph, saying that while they agreed with disestablishing the Church in Wales, they could not in all conscience agree to its disendowment. The vicar of Meifod, in Montgomeryshire, recorded that 77 chapel members from his parish had signed the petition. Similar petitions were speedily organised for south and west Wales, and stories abounded of chapel members being threatened with reprisals if they signed. But the Western Mail’s headline of ‘Disestablishers in a Panic’ was not prophetic, as Asquith chose to ignore the petitions. The Welsh Church Bill passed, and was given Royal Assent in September 1914. Its implementation was deferred, initially for six months, because of the war (which, after all, would be over by Christmas). In 1919 a further amendment delayed implementation for another year, and the break of the Anglican Church in Wales from the Church of England happened on 1 April 1920.
Despite the agreed delay in implementing the Act, both sides immediately began preparing for it in 1914. Three Welsh Commissioners were appointed under the Act to deal with all the issues raised. In January 2015 they carried out a ‘census of opinion’ in the 19 parishes that straddled the Welsh/English border, asking all residents of the parish (men and women over 21, church and chapel) whether they wanted to stay in the Church of England, or join the Church in Wales. Seventeen parishes opted by big majorities to stay in the Church of England, but in Rhydycroesau and Llansilin – two villages near Oswestry – the results were very close, and there were issues such as voting papers coming back too late to be counted. After a second ballot in March 1916 for these two parishes only Llansilin (pictured left) chose to join the Church in Wales. The results of this referendum prompted the Western Mail to suggest in January 1916 that a similar national survey would give a more accurate view of what the Welsh actually wanted (‘a people’s vote’) than the Liberal rhetoric claiming to represent ‘the will of the people’.
The Commissioners sent all incumbents an extremely lengthy form asking for full details of their church’s property, endowments and tithes, requiring them to be returned by November 1915. Very few were back by then – partly because dealing with the war was at the forefront of life, and partly because the four Welsh bishops had asked for the completed forms to go first to them, so that they could ensure ‘accuracy and uniformity’.
The Church’s response
The Bishop of St Asaph, Dr AG Edwards, recognising that there was some hostility on the part of the Commissioners, saw that the Church needed to prepare and organise itself for its new future immediately. Under his guidance a constitution for the Church in Wales was drawn up by lawyer and judge John Sankey, and a Representative Body to deal with the Church’s property, and a Governing Body to deal with its policy and doctrine were established. The Governing Body met for the first time in January 1918, and went on to draw up procedures for the new Church, including that bishops – and the archbishop – would be elected, not given their positions by royal appointment.
Another item high on the agenda was ensuring that it was clear that communications inside and outside the church were in Welsh and English. In March 1920 the existing Church newspaper, Y Llan, was re-launched as Y Llan and Church News.
The prospect of disendowment hung over everything. Without sufficient money it would be impossible to ensure adequate stipends for clergy, or to provide support in parishes. In January 1920 the Bishop of St Asaph launched an appeal for £1,000,000 (around £50m today) as a capital sum that could yield enough to replace the money that the Church in Wales would lose. Welsh churches and churchmen gave generously, and churches throughout England were asked to make a special collection on Palm Sunday, 28th March, ‘to assist the Church in Wales in her hour of need’. By 1923 over £709,000 (nearly £36m today) had been given to the ‘Million Pound Fund’.
The Governing Body also agreed that ‘a total annual levy of £45,000’ (nearly £3m today) to be used for the whole Church in Wales, should be raised by contributions from all parishes. Some churches in Wales also raised money to replace the income they had individually lost. In April 1920 St Mary’s in Welshpool gave £1,000 to the national appeal, and also had ‘raised over half the £6,000’ they needed to invest for their own church.
A new beginning
In February 1920 the four Welsh bishops formally left the Church of England, to create a Welsh Province of the Anglican Communion, with its own Archbishop. In doing this they could no longer sit in the House of Lords, their places being taken by English bishops. It was reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘bade adieu solemnly, affectionately and hopefully to the Welsh bishops.’
In April, in the little church of Llandduw, Llandrindod, Dr Edwards, Bishop of St Asaph, was elected unanimously by his fellow Welsh bishops as the first Archbishop of Wales. On 1st June he was enthroned with great ceremony in the Cathedral of St Asaph, in the presence of royalty, politicians, churchmen and nonconformists.
A brave new world
The Easter vestries of 1920 followed shortly after disestablishment, and bishops and clergy were at pains to explain exactly what the new world order meant for the people in the pews – the Bishop of Swansea, for example, giving ‘an optimistic address’ in Brecon.
The vicar of Llanidloes reassured his congregation that ‘services would remain unchanged in all essentials’. He hoped that his flock would contribute to the Million Pound Fund, perhaps giving towards it money that otherwise might have been spent on ‘dancing, whist drives and other luxuries’. And, he added, they might also consider leaving bequests in their wills.
In the new Church in Wales there was to be greater involvement of lay members in the running of churches, especially including women. And new skills would need to be learnt. Particularly important would be the new Parochial Church Councils, which would replace the old Finance Boards, and had to include both women and men. In Brecon, the church of St John chose its first ‘lady churchwarden’. In Welshpool, the newly elected PCC had twenty men and ten women, and the vicar hoped that a sense of the honour of being elected would bring them regularly to meetings.
Finance was very much foremost in people’s minds, and there was anxiety about the Governing Body’s proposal of an annual contribution from each church. Rumour had spread that every parishioner had to give 8/- (about £20 today), but it was explained that this actually meant the equivalent of 8/- per person, and the money could be raised as people wished – by ‘free will offerings’ or from jumble sales or suchlike.
Using the money at their disposal the Governing Body made an effort to improve the lot of the clergy. They reduced the incomes of the bishops, and tried to ensure that stipends for clergy were at least £250 a year (a sum still below that of the stipends of English clergy).
'An example and an inspiration'
There were those who had hoped that disestablishment and disendowment would be the downfall of the Church in Wales, and believed that the Church’s wealth would be re-directed to the nonconformist chapels – not from a message on the side a bus, perhaps, but rather from nationalist rhetoric. Neither happened.
In April 1920 T Charles Williams, of Menai Bridge, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Calvinistic Methodists, published in the Western Mail ‘A Weighty Message of Goodwill’ to the Welsh Church. He congratulated the Archbishop, and spoke of the beginning of a new era: ‘We are already one in aim, and one in doctrine, why not be one Church?’ He recognised, however, that ‘the present generation will not, I fear, see any great changes.’ And indeed, many of his colleagues were shocked by his sentiments.
In 1920 the new Church in Wales was widely praised for the dignity and courage with which it had dealt with disestablishment. Dr Edwards had been key to this: ‘he accepted defeat, and threw himself into the work of reconstruction’ – and he found the right men for the work. In 1924 he admitted that the experience of disestablishment had not been as bad as he had feared. And in the 1930s, when the Church of England ran into difficulties, the disestablished Church in Wales was cited as an example and an inspiration.