Our Holy Ground – John Morgans and Peter Noble 6 December 2016
Gerald of Wales is famous for his medieval accounts of travelling through Wales. As clergyman and royal clerk, he accompanied the then Archbishop of Canterbury in a tour of Wales in 1188 to recruit for the Pope’s Third Crusade. The Wales he described was deeply religious, with countless churches and cathedrals, and congregations for whom worship was a part of daily life.
Today, Wales has the largest number of religiously unaffiliated people in Britain – with 48.5% of people declaring themselves religious “nones” according to the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2014. This however might give the impression Christianity is dead in Wales, which is far from the case. Church groups and Christian congregations are still a visible and sizeable part of Welsh civic life. But the demographics and picture is changing, and religious expressions becoming increasingly diverse.
The story of Welsh Christianity, from its earliest roots to its most recent manifestations, is told in Our Holy Ground by John Morgans and Peter Noble. Both ordained, they are well placed to tell the story, and do so with scholarly inquisitiveness but also an obvious passion for the topic. Our Holy Ground traces Welsh Christianity to its origins – to a time before a “Welsh people” could really be said to have existed, indistinguishable in language, culture, and religion from their cohabitants in other parts of Britain. Through conflicts, conquests and waves of settlement, the book follows the development of a Welsh people through to a Welsh nation, up to the modern era, where Wales with its devolved government, is a step away from a nation state.
The book fascinatingly details early Celtic expressions of Christianity, with the llan and the clas, which in turn gives way to a Latin Roman tradition, which lead to the “The Age of Catholicism” in Wales. Wales is however traditionally seen as a nonconformist nation of chapel Christianity, a story told through several chapters and rich detail. A spark of powerful Christian expression in Wales was the “1904/5 Revival”, in which passionate Christian movements once again came to the fore, with thousands embracing or embracing Christ and faith in churches and chapels. The revival petered out however, and so with a gradual decline rather than any flourish, Christianity took a back-seat to Welsh identity.
The question of Wales’ contemporary absence of religiosity is never directly addressed in the book, but I wondered whether a partial answer could be found in the assertion that during the twentieth century, “socialism was presented as the expression of the Christian way”, “the coming of God’s Kingdom entailed the sharing of the earth’s natural resources”. Did a Christian socialism make the Christian expression redundant?
Our Holy Ground is an engaging work. It’s not a history of Wales strictly, but it nonetheless tells a riveting story of Wales, that due to its specific focus – Christianity – adds a richer dimension to other histories I’ve read. It is a book which has helped me better understand Christianity in Wales today, both in terms of what the contemporary era looks like, but also what Christians in Wales have brought with them for the past, and what they mourn. Perhaps an unexpected value of the work however is that it has brought the Welsh landscape to life. I’m reminded of the rich human history behind chapels and churches of Wales which line Welsh streets and dot the rural landscape.
In the preface to Our Holy Ground, Morgans and Noble write about his journeys through Wales. I was reminded of Gerald of Wales, of clergymen touring Wales, documenting their experiences. What would clergymen in another few centuries see, if they were to repeat the journey? The authors end on the note that they hope it would be an ecumenical Christianity, united across boundaries of denomination and tradition. As a Welsh Muslim, I’d add my hope that it would be a Welsh identity open and embracing of a variety of expressions of religions too, with mosques, temples, and synagogues alongside the chapels and churches that adorn the Welsh landscape.