Centenary of the Church in Wales

Centenary of the Church in Wales

In 1920, the Church in Wales was disestablished, becoming independent after centuries of being part of the Church of England.

The Archbishop and Bishops of the Church in Wales, 1920 (MS 4701 p. 11
The Archbishop and Bishops of the Church in Wales, 1920 (MS 4701 p. 11

The religious census of 1851 had revealed that almost 80% of worshippers in Wales attended Nonconformist chapels, with fewer than 20% attending Church of England services, whether held in Welsh or English. And it was from the Nonconformists that pressure came to disestablish the Church in Wales, especially after the disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1871. That pressure came to a head in what became known as a ‘tithe war’ from 1888-1890. Traditionally, tithes were an annual payment of a proportion of the yearly produce of the land by parishioners to support the parish church. Originally they were paid in kind on three types of produce: everything that grew, everything that was nourished by the land and the profits of labour and industry. They were also divided into two other categories, great (rectorial) and small (vicarial). The great tithe consisted of corn, other grains, hay and wood and was paid to the rector of the parish. If the rector did not live in the parish and had appointed a vicar to look after it in his absence, the vicar then received the small tithe. After the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836, a money payment, fixed in denomination but variable in value, known as the Tithe Rent Charge or Corn Rent Charge, was substituted for payment in kind. It was based on the average price over seven years of wheat, barley and oats, so it fluctuated with the rise and fall of the cereal market worldwide. From 1873 cereal prices fell steadily year on year; that meant a fall in the tithe rent charge (and clergy income) but also a fall in the farmer’s profits overall. And the obligation to pay tithes bore heavily on tenant farmers. Why, if they went to Chapel, should they pay for the Church? So, they refused to pay – and all over Wales there were demonstrations, scuffles and the Reading of the Riot Act. The situation was only eased by the Tithe Act of 1891, initiated in Parliament by A.G. Edwards, Bishop of St. Asaph, who was keen to relieve the real financial hardship faced by many of the clergy. There are two substantial volumes of correspondence about the Tithe Act in Archbishop Benson’s papers, which shows how heavily he was involved – as well as another three volumes relating to disestablishment in general. Welsh disestablishment might have happened in 1895 – a Bill had passed its second reading, but came to nothing with the fall of the Liberal government of Lord Rosebery that June. Disestablishment, and consequent disendowment, was bitterly opposed by the Church and the Conservative Party – but it happened all the same.

A really pivotal figure in the story is Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury. His private papers and memoranda, and seven volumes of official papers specifically about Wales, record all the twists and turns of negotiations for the Welsh Church Bill and beyond, from 1906 right up to 1925. The first document in those seven volumes is headed ‘Most Private & Confidential’ and it records a conversation which he had on February 21st 1906 with the Bishop of St. Asaph. He wrote: “Mr. Lloyd George had been in private communication with the Bishop, and had asked him whether if the Government were to introduce a very mild and kindly Welsh Disestablishment Bill, the Welsh Church would modify its opposition and practically allow the matter to go forward even if outwardly opposing. Mr. Lloyd George promised, at a later date, to show the Bishop in black and white what he would himself suggest, but, roughly, it amounted to something like an arrangement that the church should retain everything – buildings, houses, glebes, etc. – but not the tithes. These terms are of course very much more favourable than Mr. Asquith’s former Bill, and the Bishop believes that Lloyd George would rather like to get Disestablishment carried with a minimum of friction, knowing as he does that many of his own supporters would feel afraid of a Bill which irritated Churchmen and might affect business relationships – custom to tradesmen, etc. The Bishop had said he would think over what Mr. Lloyd George had told him but did not encourage him to think that the Church was likely to withdraw opposition.” The following day, February 22nd, Davidson, Edwards and Lloyd George had a conversation in the Bishops’ Robing Room of the House of Lords: “Lloyd George told us that he had been discussing with the Prime Minister [Henry Campbell-Bannerman], who approved of the suggestion, a plan of now appointing a Royal Commission of (say) six persons, besides a Chairman, to consider the origin, the history, the character and the value of the provision for spiritual needs in Wales, showing what has been done or is now being done in each parish, both by the Church and by Nonconformists. And he wanted to know whether we as Churchmen would make difficulties as to co-operating in any such enquiry…”   So the Royal Commission to look into the Church of England and Other Religious Bodies in Wales and Monmouthshire was set up that year and reported in great detail in 1910: the Minutes of evidence are four inches thick, and the Report itself, dealing with every aspect of religious life, has a profusion of statistical appendices. The Welsh Church Bill finally received Royal Assent on 18 September 1914 – but by that time Britain was at war and the date of disestablishment postponed. It wasn’t until July 1919, while Lloyd George was occupied with the Paris Peace Conference, that a Welsh Church Amending Bill was hastily drafted and passed. Davidson confided in his journal of 31st July 1919: “I hope and believe that I have done rightly. Had I refused it seems that I might have wrecked a really helpful settlement, and in my own view almost anything is better than keeping the sore open.” Davidson released the Welsh Bishops from their obedience to Canterbury on 31st March 1920 and a new, independent, Province – the Church in Wales – came into being with Bishop Edwards of St. Asaph as the first Archbishop of Wales.

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