A fresh view of religion and society in the Diocese of St Davids since the Reformation

This is a guest post from Professor William Gibson, Oxford Brookes University, editor of Religion and Society in the Diocese of St Davids 1485–2011

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The post-Reformation diocese of St Davids may not at first sight seem a particularly prepossessing topic for a collection of essays. The city of St Davids, with a population of just 1,600 today, lies over seventy miles west of Swansea in beautiful but remote countryside. The diocese of which it is the capital spread over much of south Wales until it was divided in the 1920s. But however remote and distant from the metropolitan centres of England and Wales it was, the diocese was a religious crucible in the post-Reformation centuries. Despite being the place from which Henry Tudor invaded the country in 1485, and in which some Tudor ancestors were buried, St Davids did not avoid the turbulence of the Reformation. Robert Ferrar, bishop in 1555, was burnt in Carmarthen for his stubborn Protestantism. In the following century the diocese was the home of the translation into Welsh of the Prayerbook, for five years it was part of William Laud’s high church ‘laboratory’ as bishop and the source of Rhys Pritchard’s highly influential hymns, Cannwyll y Cymry.

Perhaps more astonishing is how the diocese became the home for three major religious movements: the Welsh Puritan movement of the seventeenth century, the evangelical ‘revival’ of the eighteenth century which made Wales the stronghold of Calvinistic Methodism for two centuries and (in addition to a string of minor revivals in the nineteenth century), the 1904-5 Evan Roberts revival. The reason why the people of South Wales became so committed to revival is unclear but the enthusiasm for them and the effect they had on the lives of the poor has perhaps been underestimated. Equally underestimated is the interest that ordinary people in Wales took in theology and theological differences. Even today many Welsh villages have three, four or five chapels of different denominations; in the past this meant that tradition, teaching, family and other ties drew the past one chapel to worship at another. It is one of the condescensions of history to assume that, in the past, matters of theology and religious ideas were ‘beyond’ the reach of most people. In fact the diocese was home to a long succession of distinguished theologians (Jeremy Taylor, George Bull, Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris, Connop Thirwall, Rowland Williams ). It also housed a series of significant theological institutions: Trefecca College, the United Theological College at Aberystwyth, the Carmarthen Academy, the Memorial College at Brecon and St David’s College, Lampeter. It probably offered more theological educational opportunities than any area in the rest of Britain.

One of the ways in which Welshmen and women identified with their religious and political traditions was through the celebration of St Davids Day and in the nineteenth century, as mass participation in public events grew, the day and the saint were appropriated by all sorts of religious and political groups keen to demonstrate their popularity and association with Wales through celebration of St Davids Day. So groups of all political, social and religious complexion wrapped themselves in the black and yellow flag of St Davids.

In such an environment, disestablishment of the Anglican Church became a ‘project’ of the Nonconformist churches and the Liberal Party. Like other aspects of Welsh history it has become the source of many myths. One of which is to overlook that, despite other claims, the true architect of the new Church in Wales was Bishop John Owen of St Davids –who even came up with the name ‘Church in Wales.’

Religion and society in St DavidsAll these themes, and more, are the subject of essays in Religion and Society of the Diocese of St Davids 1485-2011, edited by John Morgan-Guy and me. And the story is brought up to date with a final essay on the diocese since 1926, surveying the bishops and the principal changes in the area in the last century.

Professor William Gibson, Oxford Brookes University

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