A timely debate in the Welsh Assembly on the problems faced on building maintenance and support
On 7 October 2015, the day’s business at the National Assembly for Wales concluded with a short debate on “The Future of Chapel Buildings in Wales“, introduced by Mike Hedges AM, (Lab, Swansea East). After declaring his interest as member of Capel Seion Newydd—Eglwys y Bedyddwyr, Treforys, he indicated his intention to concentrate on nonconformist chapels as opposed to the Church in Wales, due solely to the time constraints.
He observed that in recent decades, there has been a gradual and continual decline in “the two great traditions of nineteenth and early twentieth century Welsh society” – attendance of the local chapel and the local public house. It was only in the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century that the large and ornate nonconformist chapels were being built on a regular basis to cater for the ever-growing demands of congregations and local communities.
Chapels were built because the old chapels were not quite big enough. However, Wales currently has a large excess of chapels for its current religious needs and their upkeep has fallen on the remaining members of the congregation, most of whom vary from the elderly to the very elderly. The response to this excess of buildings has been the closure of many in an attempt to not only save money, but also to save some of the really magnificent buildings of the same denomination. According to Blwyddiadur Undeb yr Annibynnwyr, [Yearbook of the Union of Independents], there are 668 independent chapels in Wales and four Welsh independent chapels in England.
There has been substantial financial assistance given to chapels from Government-sponsored schemes—the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme and, more specifically, the community facilities and activities programme. In addition, Cadw and other organisations like the Big Lottery and Heritage Lottery Fund have provided funding. However, the level of demand for financial assistance, in addition to stringent eligibility criteria, has meant that not all chapels have been successful with their applications for these inevitably limited public funds.
Mike Hedges compared the position in Wales with that in Scotland, commenting:
“Scotland’s had the same problem, [but see Frank’s comments, ] and the Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland has provided advice to Scottish Ministers. They’ve produced lots of advice, as, obviously, you get, as the Minister knows, when you ask people to come along with advice. They came up with a lot of things that I think are really important”.
The source of this advice, not stated in the debate, was the snappily-titled Report with recommendations on the long-term conservation of the ecclesiastical heritage in a time of demographic change prepared by the Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland, (HEACS); the report was presented to Michael Russell MSP, Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, in September 2009, to provided Scottish Ministers with strategic advice on issues affecting the historic environment, He highlighted a number of the report’s findings:
“There is a need for more formal guidance on the processes of conversion to multiple and/or secular use”
“There may always be a small number of outstanding places of worship which cannot be retained in ecclesiastical use, but which are of such heritage importance that they should not be altered and converted for any alternative use.”
“In such cases, to prevent places of worship of outstanding architectural or historic interest falling into a ruinous condition, the state should be ready to intervene until a solution can be found…Local authorities should accord greater priority to their historic graveyards,”
and made the following points:
“What we have is unmanaged reduction at the moment, which falls on congregations deciding whether they close or not, often when they need large-scale repair.”
“Cadw need to be less resistant to change, because their resistance to change just means the building falls down”.
“These chapels were built and paid for by the pennies of the workers of Wales. They weren’t imposed on us, yet it seems much easier to get money to restore something of an alien culture that came and invaded us than it is to support our own chapels”.
Other contributors made similar points, identifying issues within their constituencies.
In responding to the debate, Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy, Science and Transport stated “Cadw has been working with the sector to develop and influence a strategic action plan that will help our historic places of worship continue to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits for Welsh communities. This action plan will address the recommendation of the (long-defunct) Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland.” The main themes of this plan were:
- focussing on the improvement of information sources and the development of a toolkit to support the identification of the value and significance, since “even people in communities don’t realise their significance”;
- conservation, which will support caring for religious buildings and managing change to give them a future;
- public engagement: raising awareness of their value and encouraging people to think about their care and their future use is very good; activity focused on “faith tourism”;
A further consultation on the plan is to be launched this autumn. In addition, she emphasized the role of the Historic Environment (Wales), which aims to introduce heritage partnership agreements that will allow groups responsible for listed chapels to develop long-term management plans.
The current problems faced by chapels in Wales have many similarities with those experienced by other denominations in Wales, England and Scotland, and a range programmes is being developed to address the situation – the Church in Wales initiated a programme of action in 2012 with its report Church in Wales Review: Arolwg yr Eglwys yng Nghymru and this week the Church of England launched a major new report and consultation on how it might manage its 16,000 church buildings. More generally, the problems of maintaining church and chapel buildings was the topic of The Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, in his Boydell Lecture “Church Buildings: Blessing or Burden?“, delivered in Inner Temple Hall on 20 May this year, and reproduced in the current Ecclesiastical Law Journal.
There are many similarities between the situation currently faced by these building in England, Scotland and Wales, although the circumstances giving rise to present-day problems are quite different, as are the approached being taken. Nevertheless, as the Minister indicated, the experiences gained can be of potential benefit elsewhere, and we will report on the various developments as the churches tackle this demanding issue.
 The situation in Scotland has arisen primarily from the schisms from the nineteenth century onwards, rather than from expansion: there are still many very small communities in the Highlands and Islands that contain both a Church of Scotland parish church and chapels of the Free Church of Scotland and of the Free Presbyterian Church — and sometimes of the United Free Church as well. Many of the redundant churches have closed and some have been converted for other uses; but many simply lie empty, crumbling away.
 Established by sections 15 and 16 Public Appointments & Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Act 2003, the HEACS was subsequently abolished under section 7 Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 and its function &c transferred to the Scottish Ministers. New provisions are being instituted under the Historic Environment Scotland Act 2014.
 (2015) 17 Ecc LJ 321-347.
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Sorry to seem to be a Philistine but I live in Wales and many, if not most, of these chapels are dreary and formulaic in their architecture. They are expensive to maintain and to heat because they were built a long time ago with limited funds. Demolition and the land they stand on donated to the community for redevelopment (for either social or social housing use) would, I suspect, be the best option in most cases. This would be better by far than they be left to decay or turned into carpet warehouses or similar.
Thanks Alan – there seem to be echoes of Giles Fraser’s piece in The Guardian We must do to our churches what Beeching did to the railways. Another common feature of England and Wales, but I’m sure that not all will agree with you;there appears to be plenty of national bodies with interests in these buildings: Addoldai Cymru (Welsh Religious Buildings Trust); Cadw; Capel, the Chapels Heritage Society in Wales; and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) with its data base on the current status, condition and other information of the nation’s 6,600 chapels.
They are presumably the property of the sect that constructed them and the decision for their future rests with them. I fail to see why the tax-payer (even via quango) should accept any responsibility for the financial burden of maintaining them. The Welsh National History Museum at St. Fagans may already have an example for future generation to view – if not, then just one Noddfa or Bethel would do the job. In Lampeter where I live there are eight places of worship for a population of about 2000. None of these places of worship has a congregation which fills more than a couple of rows of pews. Despite all being Christian they stubbornly refuse to merge and share accommodation. I see no reason for the tax-payer to encourage and subsidise this narrow minded behaviour.
In addition to St Teilo’s Church, St Fagans has the Pen-rhiw Chapel, originally at Dre-fach Felindre, Carmarthenshire, which was acquired in 1777 by the Unitarians for use as a meeting house or chapel, i.e. from the early period of chapel building, before the changes in chapel planning from 1840, when congregations sought buildings which could house more people more easily.
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