The View from the Church in Wales

Alex Glanville


  Stone monuments including a Celtic cross in a Welsh churchyard
Monuments in the churchyard of St Brynach’s, Nevern, Pembrokeshire  

The Church in Wales is a province of the Anglican Communion which was dis-established from the Church of England in 1920. It operates across Wales through 923 parishes grouped into 490 benefices running 1,413 places of worship (including six cathedrals). The organisation of the Church in Wales is similar to the Church of England but with six dioceses, each headed by a bishop. However, the most fundamental difference is that virtually all church buildings are owned by a central trustee body, the Representative Body of the Church in Wales.

The breadth of places of worship operated by the Church in Wales is impressive, from ancient medieval through the great Victorian revival and to the present day. In many ways this is not surprising given the fact that Christianity has existed in Wales, along with other Celtic nations, for considerably longer than in England. The massive flowering of non-conformity especially in Wales during the 19th century has given rise to a popular perception of chapels being the predominant form of place of worship in Wales. The chapel and Wales are synonymous to an extent that many from outside Wales may be unaware that an Anglican church even exists there at all.

The rise of non-conformity was the major catalyst that brought about the dis-establishment of the Church of England in Wales to form the Church in Wales. A major factor within that was the use of burial grounds which were subject to some clearly discriminatory policies by Anglican priests refusing the burial, on spurious technicalities, of non-Anglican parishioners. Certainly, David Lloyd George, the lawyer involved in the famous Llanfrothen case (over burial rights) was instrumental in the Welsh Church Act of 1914 which paved the way for the creation of the Church in Wales in 1920. For a nation with such a strong oral tradition, and with language (whether Welsh or English) being of such central importance to Welsh culture, the choice of Church ‘in’ Wales is highly significant. Nobody would dare claim (in 1920 or now) that the Anglican church is the Church ‘of’ Wales.

The Church in Wales is the largest single denomination in terms of places of worship and regular worshippers but, taken together, the non-conformist denominations would be larger. The challenge the other denominations face is the ability to speak with one voice, so in this media age it tends to be the Church in Wales that provides the voice for Christian denominations in Wales. In writing this article I am acutely aware that I can only give the Church in Wales’ position and that there are other denominations that should also be heard to get a complete picture of Wales and its places of worship. However, I think it is fair to say that most of my comments will be common to all.


The Church in Wales owns 977 listed buildings including 29 per cent of the Grade I listed buildings of Wales. Listing is undertaken by Cadw (pronounced ‘cadoo’ and meaning in Welsh ‘to keep’), a department of the Welsh government. Our church buildings enjoy ‘ecclesiastical exemption’, which means that our faculty system for approving works replaces the need to obtain listed building consent. This faculty system is similar to that in the Church of England whereby diocesan advisory councils (DACs) in each diocese advise a diocesan chancellor (a senior judge or barrister), who on the basis of the evidence presented decides if consent (the ‘faculty’) should be granted. Works to listed buildings are also sent for consultation with Cadw and the various amenity societies so that a broad spectrum of evidence is obtained. DACs consist entirely of volunteers from inside and outside the church although there is a paid secretary in each diocese to manage business and assist parishes.

  St Michael and All Angels with a field of sheep in the foreground
  The Church of St Michael and All Angels at Llanfihangel Rogiet, Monmouthshire, which is mostly medieval, closed in 1973. However, it was saved from permanent closure in 2008 by the charity Friends of Friendless Churches, and it is now cared for by an enthusiastic group of local supporters (below left). (Photo: Welsh Icons, Dom Stocqueler)

Like the Church of England, it is the responsibility of each individual congregation, through its parochial church council, to care for, repair and maintain its church building. This is laid down in the Church in Wales Constitution which acts as the rule book for the organisation of the Church’s affairs. A quinquennial inspection is obtained on a five-yearly basis from a conservation architect or surveyor which helps to guide the parish on its building priorities.

Fundamentally, however, these nationally important buildings (or ‘heritage assets’ as seems to be the phrase) are cared for by local people. Many have commented that this is a great example of the Big Society in action, but for church people it is a natural and timeless commitment. Local volunteers in PCCs take on a significant responsibility which should never be taken for granted. The Church in Wales, through its paid officers, is committed to providing help and support in various ways to those people.

The key issue is, and will always be, money. There are of course, no easy answers to this. The principal sources of grant are the Heritage Lottery Fund and Cadw although in the case of the latter, this is a diminishing source. Over the last few years, Cadw has been able to give around £500,000 per year (but only to ‘outstanding’ buildings), with the Heritage Lottery Fund contributing around £750,000 to Anglican churches. The National Churches Trust assists in Wales (and would like to receive more applications from Wales) and the Church in Wales has its own grant scheme to assist where it can. Overall, there has been about £2 million a year coming to listed churches in Wales.

  Local volunteers clean the interior of St Michael and All Angels
  (Photo: Friends of Friendless Churches, Richard Jones)

However, this level of funding is insufficient to meet longer term requirements. An analysis of quinquennial inspections suggests that about £70 million needs to be found over the next five years. Clearly, the current funding sources (if maintained) will only cover a small proportion of the total potential bill. The rest will need to come from the fundraising efforts of congregations and through the sale of other property assets, such as church halls and closed churches. In 2009, our parishes spent around £3 million maintaining buildings (listed and unlisted), so while parishes are striving to do all that is needed there is still some way to go.

I have heard it said that churches are probably in as good condition as they have ever been. This is a dangerous assumption as it implies that there is little to be done. The picture is, of course, very mixed and one of extremes where the good are excellent and the poor are extremely so. There is a valiant struggle underway by many parishes to keep their buildings in good order and that is why the current round of spending cuts is so concerning.

A unique scheme developed by Cadw in recent years has been a Maintenance Matters grant which gives a flat £500 to churches to assist with basic maintenance tasks. Payment (on a first come, first served basis) is simply on the production of an invoice. While this scheme does not solve the bigger problems for listed churches, it has encouraged maintenance and given a morale boost to churches. However, because the fund for this scheme has been limited and there has been a tendency for the efficient parishes to apply, struggling parishes have been left behind. At the time of writing we do not know the level of grant funding that will be made available through Cadw in 2011/12 for the maintenance scheme or repair grants. It is certain the budget will be nowhere near the figures of the last few years. Cadw grants, in effect, provided the matched funding for larger schemes so it is clear that work to churches is likely to be smaller in scale and strictly prioritised in the years ahead.


Congregations are now tending to focus much more on how they can better use their assets and the concept of the ‘multi-purpose’ church is gaining ground. Developing churches as assets for wider community activity also unlocks new sources of potential support, particularly the Welsh Government’s Community Facilities and Activities Programme, and the Big Lottery. A number of exciting projects have been achieved both re-ordering existing buildings and developing new buildings such as at St Teilo’s in Llandeilo, St Mary’s in Menai Bridge, St John’s in Canton, Cardiff, Dewi Sant in Abergele and St Peter’s in Holywell. These schemes are reinventing churches to serve the whole community and become landmark places once more. Use leads to income which, in turn, ensures repairs can be better afforded in the future.

  Modern timber-framed walkway at St David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire  
  The new cloister walks at St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire: designed by Caroe and Partners as part of a programme to improve the cathedral’s facilities in 2007, the new walkways were built on the exposed foundations of the original 14th century cloisters and to the same height. (Photo: Castle Photography)  
  Choral concert at the Church of St John in Canton, Cardiff  
  A concert by the Canton Chorus helps to extend the use of the Church of St John in Canton, Cardiff and enhances the relevance of its architecture in this inner city area of Cardiff. (Photo: GoWalesChurches)  

Using churches for wider purposes does seem to be a way forward. However, these schemes require enormous hard work and dedication encompassing project management, marketing and community engagement skills. People are often the more critical resource than finance. To help, the Church in Wales is developing a range of training and conference opportunities through a Cadw/HLF funded project called ‘Taking Forward Our Church Heritage.’ This involves a specialist officer developing training and guidance on a range of key topics such as care and maintenance, grants and finance, environmental issues, engaging communities, etc. A key part of this is spreading information about good examples and successful schemes. The project is all about building confidence in those who care for churches so that a new future can be found for many of our buildings with careful thought, planning and consultation.

This approach, which could be termed the ‘regeneration’ of our churches, presents new and interesting challenges for us all, not least the proper conservation of our important heritage buildings. The concept of regeneration is also not a quick fix for all parishes, some of which are reaching a point where they are simply not viable. Developing ideas, assessing feasibility and consulting others is a long process. We have developed very effective arrangements for making sure work to churches is appropriate and we are investing in professional input to such work. We need to invest also in skills and support for the activities that take place within those buildings and this is an area we are currently investigating. I do believe skills and enthusiasm exist within the organisation and if they can be focussed and harnessed many churches will be able to re-think their future.

That said, the redundancy of churches will continue if for no other reason than that we have a large number of churches often serving small communities. However, many of these buildings are found new viable uses and any funds raised from sale are ploughed back into the churches that remain. Seeing a church close is never a happy experience but we strive to ensure that some benefit for the ministry and mission of the church comes out of it. We work closely with the Friends of Friendless Churches, which now cares for 21 former churches in Wales of the highest heritage value. We provide an annual grant along with Cadw to repair these buildings and hope others can be added in the years ahead.

The Church in Wales is fortunate to have a rich legacy of church buildings and their care is taken very seriously by all. More importantly, we are incredibly lucky to have volunteers willing to devote so much time and effort to the care of these places. The fall in congregation numbers over the last two decades is well documented and this makes this effort all the more remarkable. Many assume there will be nobody in the future to continue this effort although I am not convinced. Call me an optimist, but our buildings evoke a strong reaction in so many that people will come forward to help. The Church needs to be ready to accept help and accept that new people may have new ideas. The churches that survive and prosper will be those which are rooted in their communities and are seen not as a ‘sect’ but as a true cross-section of the community they serve.



Further Information


Historic Churches, 2011


ALEX GLANVILLE BSc(Hons) FRICS joined the Church in Wales in 2004 and is now head of poperty services for the Representative Body of the Church in Wales. He trained as a land agent at the Royal Agricultural College and is a chartered surveyor with over 20 years' experience in managing property of all types for charities and private landowners.

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