Thursday, November 09, 2006

Last Gasps: Welsh Disestablishment 8

After the Conservatives beat the Liberal Party in 1895, Disestablishment retreated into the realm of controversy. With the landslide Liberal victory of 1906, which saw the defeat of every Conservative candidate in Wales, Disestablishment came back on the agenda. By this time, however, Lloyd George (pictured), once the most vocal Parliamentary advocate of Disestablishment, and one who had resigned the Liberal whip in 1894 in protest at the lack of Government action of Disestablishment, was far more interested in Old Age Pensions. Mass protest meeting were held when it became clear that the Government was in no hurry to introduce a Disestablishment Bill, and in 1906, Lloyd George had to mollify a very rowdy gathering at (the now vanished) Wood Street Congregational Church, the largest place of worship in Cardiff, telling them that the time was not yet ripe. It was not until 1910, when the Liberals fought two elections on the platform of abolishing the power of the House of Lords to block legislation Until this was done, Disestablishment stood no chance of passing.

And the rhetoric of the Bishops became even more extreme. Bishop Owen of St. David's (pictured), in two addresses given during the election year, came close to accusing the promoters of Disestablishment of promoting a plan for national apostasy. Since these men were Godly nonconformists almost to a man, such a charge was patently absurd, and could only hurt the Church in Wales.

Worse, such rhetoric covered up a very good point that the Bishop made. Speaking at Newport, Owen declared:

"There have been great changes in Wales during the past forty years [of the Disestablishment controversy]. Neither Church nor Chapel nor yet indifference stands now where it stood. The main religious issue in Wales for many years to come is whether the Christian faith as hitherto understood from the first beginning, can hold its own against new theologies, but thinly divided from what used to be called Unitarianism. [...] It is my conviction that if the truth of the Gospel is to retain its power over the next generation in Wales, those who believe in it, Churchmen and Nonconformists alike, will have to stand, shoulder to shoulder, against our common enemy."

And Owen was not wrong. By 1910, the fight over Disestablishment was a luxury that neither church nor chapel could afford. Made from a partisan platform at election time, however, this call was bound to be ignored, while the rhetoric surrounding the point seemed to suggest that Owen was simply trying to make trouble.

And it was not only the Church in Wales that mixed partisan politics with the word of God. The insistence of nonconformists that the Church in Wales should be deprived of many of its endowments seemed to a number of English Nonconformists, most notably J. Fovargue Bradley, to be little short of a thirst for robbery, while the comments of Lord St. Davids that a disendowed Church would be more effective because it would be closer to apostolic poverty seemed to be arrant humbug, given the peer's immense wealth.

When Disestablishment was achieved in 1920, it was to widepread indifference. The First World War had shaken Welsh Nonconformity to its very foundations, and Welsh society was secularising, the war having dealt a death-blow to old Welsh-language culture. Indeed, had a Disestablishment Bill not been introduced in 1912, it is probable that Disestablishment in Wales would have gone the same way as Scottish Disestablishment.

What were the effects of the controversy? The first was that the chapels were weakened spiritually, as a great deal of energy was spent in political campaigning on an issue which had nothing to do with the Gospel. The Chapels gave themselves over to the Liberal Party as unofficial committee rooms. With the rise of Labour, the Chapels found themselves in danger of becoming politically outmoded, and the experience of sectarian infighting prepared the way for Socialist or even communist preachers, more concerned with the interests of one class over the other than the welfare of souls..

The Church in Wales was pulled the other way, into becoming a campaigning arm of the Conservative Party. Alfred George Edwards of St. Asaph proved a man able to navigate those shoals better than the Nonconformists, but a bitter taste was left in the mouth of the Church. More, a church which had been largely evangelical at the commencement of the controversy was left more Anglo-Catholic, as men were appointed for their ability to -take the fight to the Nonconformists' than their ability to reach out to Nonconformity. The way of Bishop Edwards was not the way of his wise elder brother. Nor, I fear, was it the way of the Lord.

The Church in Wales cleaned its stables before the Disestablishment controversy. The abuses of non-residence and pluralism were dealt with, while churches were rebuilt. The endowments that the Disestablishmentarians wanted confiscated were not being misappropriated, and only a few on the fringes alleged this. Looking in, I must end this rather disjointed series on Welsh Disestablishment with a comment on Scottish Disestablishment:

"In the proposal to disestablish the Church of Scotland I see nothing but an ignoble sectarian temper." (Donald Fraser, D.D)
The chief effect of Disestablishment on the Church of Jesus Christ was to create hatred between brothers and an unhealthy reliance upon political means, rather than spiritual means. The people of God trusted in the Chariots and Horsemen of Egypt, and were rewarded accordingly.



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