The future for places of worship
For those of us who care about the future of Wales’s places of worship, the suggestion that they could soon be open again ‘for private prayer and contemplation’ is very good news. It would be better still if every church and chapel were to hang a big banner outside saying ‘We are open; come on in!’. Let us use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of these community buildings at a time of national reflection about the past and the future.
Some places of worship have made admirable efforts to be part of this conversation, with online services, webinars and general information about their buildings and communities to help their congregations and others feel involved and supported (see, for example, the Gellionnen Chapel website https://gellionnen.com/ and Churches Llandaff @ChurchcareL on Twitter). Even so, the opportunity to visit real buildings for private prayer and contemplation has been sorely missed.
The challenge now is to make sure that closure does not become the new normal. It has been predicted that Wales could lose up to 70 per cent of its places of worship in the next 20 years. That is a worst-case scenario, but it is based on projections from some solid facts about the rate at which attendance at religious services is in decline, along with a fall in the number of people training for the Ministry.
The places of worship that are most likely to close are the small independent chapels, mainly built in the 20th century, many of them with small, elderly congregations struggling to maintain the buildings. Many of them will not reopen after lockdown. Congregations are merging and the chapel trustees often console themselves when forced to sell with the thought that the proceeds can be used for good causes.
You don’t have to be a religious person to be concerned about this. When places of worship close, we lose not only the building, we lose a focus of community life, the place that serves for rites of passage – baptism, marriage, funerals and memorial services – and for national commemorations – Armistice, VE Day, Remembrance Day. You also lose those syncretic festivals that may have pagan as well as Christian roots – Christmas and Easter, All Souls, Plough Sunday and Harvest Festival. You lose bells, flower festivals, choirs and musical recitals, a meeting space and a social place which guarantees some friendly company once a week.
When places of worship are sold, you often lose the archives, furnishings and artefacts, many of which end up on a bonfire or in a skip when the developers move in and start converting the building to a residence. Paper records, photographs and books are the first to go, along with all manner of textiles. Pews, galleries and staircases are next, along with organ and organ loft, sedd faw (sêt faw)r, pulpit, reading desks, plaques, boards and memorials, , doors and panelling – many of them good examples of local craftsmanship.
The public no longer has access to the art historical and architectural features of the building, nor to the social history inherent in the memorials, nor to the churchyard with its inscribed headstones and wildlife. Without access to churches, you will no longer be able to study the best collections of woodwork, sculpture, and stained glass to survive outside a museum. These buildings are, by any definition of heritage, the most significant in our communities, the embodiment of architectural, historical, evidential, associative and community values.
And don’t imagine that a comprehensive record exists to remind us of what we have lost. The Ancient Monument Society estimates that fewer than 50 per cent of listed places of worship have a comprehensive record. As for nonconformist and dissenting places of worship, if we don’t make a detailed record of these, future historians will be left with an archive that is biased in favour of the best (for which read medieval Anglican) church buildings and that gives little account of the humbler places of worship that make up the majority in Wales and that have been the backdrop to the lives of so many people for more than 200 years.
What can be done about this? First and foremost, we must increase the number of people in the community who care about their local church or chapel and who will work to keep the building in community use. That means flinging open the doors and inviting people in to learn about the building. Visit Wales has published a toolkit to help with this and the Tourism Team at the National Churches Trust is offering four free bitesize training sessions based on the toolkit, to take place in June via Zoom. These will explain how to make visitors welcome, how to interpret the building, how to publicise your work and how to raise income from visitors (https://www.explorechurches.org/wales-volunteer-training2).
Cadw published an Action Plan for Places of Worship in Wales in 2015, and this established a body called the Historic Places of Worship Forum, bringing together the property managers from various faiths and denominations to share best practice. This continues to do very good work, especially in showcasing the ways in which places of worship can be used for community enterprises.
Research carried out by the Plunkett Foundation shows that ideas for additional uses for places of worship rarely come from the church or chapel congregation itself and almost always come from the wider community. This inward looking attitude needs to change and the Plunkett Foundation will launch a publicity campaign later this year to encourage people responsible for looking after places of worship to be inspired by the ways in which others have enabled shops and post offices, nursery schools, yoga classes, cafes, meeting spaces, after-school clubs, business start-up units and small business premises to be located within places of worship without detriment to their religious function.
Many places of worship have the potential to earn revenue from tourism, and there is no shortage of initiatives in Wales for encouraging this, from pilgrimage routes to camping barns, guided tours to music, art and craft exhibitions and even beer, wine and gin festivals. Faith tourism is worth £14 billion globally and the potential for growth in Wales is huge. A major symposium, planned for April and now postponed until September, will consider how everyone involved in faith tourism in wales can work better together to co-ordinate and publicise their activities. Meanwhile the symposium organisers have set up a blog to help promote faith heritage and tourism projects in Wales (https://faithtourismwales.wordpress.com/) and the Explore Churches website (https://www.explorechurches.org/), managed by the National Churches Trust, is a mine of information on places of worship worth including in your journey plans – preferable on foot, by bike or horseback: the annual Ride + Stride event in September last year raised £1.5m for churches, chapels and meeting houses throughout Britain (https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/how-we-help/ridestride).
Finally, what about the Royal Commission? We have numerous plans and photographs of chapels and churches in our archive and on Coflein (https://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/). Working in partnership with Addoldai Cymru (The Welsh Religious Buildings Trust) [http://www.welshchapels.org/] we have created a ‘virtual museum’ telling the story of Welsh chapels in terms of religion, architecture, culture and society. Called Digital Dissent: The Story of Welsh Chapels (https://rcahmw.gov.uk/discover/chapels/), and funded by Visit Wales as part of the Digital Tourism Framework Programme, the project builds on the long-running work of the Commission in highlighting the importance of chapels as a distinctive and iconic building type in Wales that contributes significantly to both our urban and rural landscapes. The full content of the Commission’s Chapels Database – a total of 6,430 sites – has been made available online through the project website and virtual access to chapels owned by Addoldai Cymru has been created via Gigapixel photographic tours and laser scanned fly-throughs carried out by the Commission, thus allowing the buildings to be explored remotely by people all over the world.
The website will continue to grow and develop as we and others carry out more fieldwork to these buildings, which are such an important component in the character and heritage of Wales. Our aim is to record these buildings for posterity as they are before they are stripped of their contents and conversion to other uses – but an archival record is no substitute for a real building, and a better future by far is to keep places of worship in continued religious and community use.
Christopher Catling, Secretary of the Royal Commission