The Chapel Culture
Going to Chapel has been an integral part of Welsh life for Centuries, and up until the end of the first part of the Twentieth Century, there was still something special about going to Chapel, whatever the denomination.
Throughout Wales, it was customary to have three services on a Sunday –
Morning Service, which – once a month – would have been “Cwrdd Y Plant”.
Sunday School in the afternoon, catering for adults and children and finally, Evening Service from 6 until 7 or 7.30 p.m., depending on how long winded the preacher might be.
In the Welsh Chapels, the younger children’s Sunday School lessons were based on a book called “Rhodd Mam” (Mother’s Gift). It contained Bible stories on the life of Jesus, set out in the same format as the reading primers that were used in school. Thus, what they were taught in Sunday School was an extension of their everyday learning process. There was also a Monthly Magazine, called “Trysorfa’r Plant” (Childrens’ Treasury), which had a suggested text for “Cwrdd Y Plant”. The reading, the hymns and prayer were read by individual children, while the minister gave the sermon. The one minister I remember best at this time, was the Reverend Nantlais Williams of Ammanford.
There were also week-night services.
Monday Night – “Seiet “ (a Fellowship Meeting).
Tuesday – “Cwrdd Gweddi2 (Prayer Meeting), usually
conducted by the Deacons.
Wednesday - “Gyfarfod Y Gwragedd” (the chapel
equivalent of the Mothers’ Union).
Thursday – Bible Class for children who were being
prepared for membership or Scripture
Friday – Band of Hope for the younger children.
In the early years, chapel was a way of life that was accepted by all – you went to chapel because you were a member of a family which traditionally had always gone to chapel. The babies were christened there or children baptised if they were Baptists. You were married there and your funeral would be held there. Chapel was the hub of social life. The highlight of the year being the Sunday school trip to the nearest sea -side resort. Tenby was a popular venue, not commercialised then in the late 1940’s, as all resorts are today. It was always a fine day and we enjoyed our picnic lunches on the beach, returning to the bus late afternoon. Taking with us the memories of an enjoyable day and with sand everywhere. The end of a perfect day was stopping in Cross Hands for chips.
There were special religious festivals also to anticipate during the year. The first was the “Cymanfa Ganu” at Easter, which was taken very seriously and prepared well in advance. A booklet of hymns was produced for each member, wit a selection for “Cymanfa’r Plant”. For weeks before the big day, the Methodists, for example, would hold an “Ysgol Gan” after Sunday School, usually conducted by the “Codwr Canu”. Finally, on Easter Sunday, a full rehearsal was arranged in one of the chapels, attended by all the local Methodist congregations. On the big day – Easter Monday – the Cymanfa would be in full swing, with the ladies and young girls proudly wearing their new outfits, consisting of a skirt and a jacket – known as a costume, also sporting a new straw hat, which completed the ensemble. I remember one rather fashion conscious lady in our chapel, wearing three different outfits to each session. In retrospect, I know feel that she paid more attention to her secular being, than to her spiritual being.
The Cymanfa was always led by guest conductors, who were able to get the best out of the singers. The voices rose in song, the sopranos and tenors vying with one another to reach the top notes, while the baritones and bassers provided the lower pitched harmony that combined, produced a paean of Praise to God. The singing of decades of Cymanfa Ganu choirs are surely encapsulated forever within the walls of the old chapels. Today we see this verve at its best in the Cymanfa Ganu of the National Eisteddfod, in the choirs competing in this event and also in the singing of our National Anthem in the Millennium Stadium at the onset of an international rugby match. It is said that all the Welsh can sing, maybe not all as soloists, but certainly in choirs.
In West Wales there was a special festival at Whitsun – this was known as “Y Pwnc”. Each Chapel would be given a prescribed section of the Bible, which they would learn and discuss, so that they could answer questions on it. On Whit Monday, they would congregate in the largest chapel and the proceedings would begin. The text was chanted in a high-pitched monotone, the more soprano voices the better, and to anyone not brought up in this custom – it sounded hilarious. As a child, I found that a strategic hankie held close to the mouth helped to stifle my giggles.
In other areas the Whitsun March and high tea to follow was a memorable occasion. All the chapels took part, marching through the streets, with their banners held high, and all old rivalries forgotten. The tea was held in the chapel vestries, the ladies providing the cakes and sandwiches while the men were in charge of boiling water. There was always great competition between the ladies as to who had the most elegant cake-stands
Each chapel had its Deacons or Elders who sat in the “Set Fawr” facing the congregation during the hymn singing, and who gave out the communion bread and wine and took the collection. They were elected by the congregation and were upheld as pillars of the community, even through the years, some of them were the most blatant hypocrites. “Being called in front of the Deacons” was a punishment dreaded by any young girl who had the misfortune to become pregnant before marriage. They would rant and rave at her for her sinful ways until she would be reduced to sobs of shame. It was a vicious and soul-destroying custom, showing the more unforgiving side of a harsh religion.
The drinking of alcohol was considered a sin and many members including the Deacons were “Dirwestwyr” (Teatotallers). However, some of them were not adverse to taking whisky for ‘medicinal’ purposes or, as was often implied, of sneaking in through the back door of public houses.
The Ministers of the Chapels would be chosen by the congregation and the Deacons. When there was a vacancy, a promising minister would be said to have had “A call”, and he would preach at the chapel – a kind of interview in a way. In the early years, if he were skilled in the art of the “hwyl” he would be well accepted. This meant that he had the art of oratory, during which his voice rose and fell with a passionate intensity. It was a somewhat ecstatic state and many of the congregation would be so transported by his zeal that they would fervently cry out as he reached the high points of his sermon.
The minister would have to take all his duties seriously and visiting his members all in turn was considered an important part of his calling. I know that some country ministers seemed to arrive at a particularly welcoming household at lunch-time, or tea-time, thus saving a meal at home. With visiting ministers, the lady members took it in turns to cater for them, sometimes having to provide “Full Board” facilities. At certain times of the year, each chapel would hold “Cyrddau Mawr” which was a preaching festival – Saturday night, Sunday Morning and evening, when one of the Giants of the pulpit would be invited to take the Services. Many of the Ministers were good pastors, honest and sincere and well-deserving of the respect of their flocks. Others were domineering, and wont to put themselves above their members. One in particular, whom I remember, ranted at his congregation from the pulpit, implying that he was without sin – it was never we but you. I always felt that a good text for this minister should have been “Let him who is without sin….”
As the congregations multiplied, magnificently imposing chapels were built in all the large Welsh towns. The interior of each was basically similar. Entrance into the chapel from the lobby, via two side doors, opening onto the aisle, leading down either side of the central block of pews, with a similar block of pews to right and left. The most interesting feature of these chapels was the gallery, which could hold about 150 to 200 people in the larger chapels. Facing the congregation was the pulpit, lovingly created of the finest woods and cherished in turn by succeeding caretakers with the best wax polish. In front of the pulpit was the “Set Fawr” and behind it the organ loft. It must have been an inspiration to the ministers when they were faced by the 300 or so worshippers in the early years when going to the chapel was the highlight of each member’s week.
Sadly, with the decline in members, many of these buildings are no more. With the advent of television in the fifties and the refusal of many of the chapel dignitaries to change the old ways in order to attract the younger generation, the death-knell of the chapels was inevitable. They have fallen into disuse, some having been demolished, others converted into warehouses, houses and flats and, invidiously, clubs and cinemas. By today, many of us have far more important things to do on Sunday than go to chapel, we must mow our lawns, clean our cars, paint our bathrooms and more recently, do our shopping. Our education makes us question the faith of our fore-fathers and we have a more materialistic outlook on life. Our spiritual needs, if we have them are taken care of by hymn singing programmes and the cynically titled “God Spot” that we might watch or listen to on the television or radio. The chapels that remain, do so mainly by the hard work and diligence of the few members who will not accede defeat. We might wonder how long these buildings will survive as chapels.