Christianity is the largest religion in Wales. Until 1920 the established church was the Church of England, but from 1920 the disestablished Church in Wales, still Anglican, was self-governing. Wales also has a strong tradition of nonconformism, including Methodism.
Most adherents to organised religion in Wales follow Catholicism or other Christian denominations such as the Church in Wales, Presbyterian Church of Wales, Baptist and Methodist churches, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Other religions Welsh people may be affiliated with include Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Druidism, with most non-Christian Welsh people found in the large cities of Cardiff and Swansea. Some modern surveys have suggested that most Welsh people do not identify with any religion, and record significantly less religious feeling in Wales than in other parts of the UK.
Reflecting Wales' history of freethinking, nonconformism, and religious pluralism, the devolved parliament and government in Wales are distinctively secular, in contrast with the Westminster parliament.
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Although Christianity arrived in Wales sometime in the Roman occupation, it was initially suppressed. The first Christian martyrs in Wales, Julius and Aaron, were killed around AD 304. The earliest Christian object found in Wales is a vessel with a Chi-Rho symbol found at Caerwent. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. After the Roman legions withdrew in the 5th century Anglo-Saxon invaders gradually conquered eastern and southern Britain but were unable to make inroads into Wales, cutting off Wales from the Celts in Scotland, Cornwall and Cumbria. The writer Gildas drew sharp contrasts between the Christian Welsh at this time and the pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders.
The age of the saints (about AD 500–700) was marked by the establishment of monastic settlements throughout the country, by religious leaders such as Saint David, Illtud and Teilo. This was the period when the Welsh developed a shared national identity, arising from their language and religious beliefs.
The Welsh bishops refused to co-operate with Augustine of Canterbury's mission to the Anglo-Saxons. However, a combination of Celtic Christianity's reconciliation with Rome and English conquest of Wales meant that from the Middle Ages until 1920, the Welsh dioceses were part of the established Church of England in its Province of Canterbury. They were all in communion with Rome until the Reformation made them independent of Rome and under the control of King Henry VIII. The Established Church in Wales was the Church of England until it was disestablished in Wales in 1920. The old Welsh dioceses became the new Church in Wales. It created a new diocese in 1921, the Diocese of Monmouth.
Bishop Richard Davies and dissident Protestant cleric John Penry introduced Calvinist theology to Wales. They used the model of the Synod of Dort of 1618–1619. Calvinism developed through the Puritan period, following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, and within Wales' Methodist movement. However, few copies of Calvin's writings were available in Welsh before the mid 19th century.
Welsh as liturgical language
Some books of the Bible and of the Apocrypha had been translated in the Middle Ages, but the Acts of Union (1536–43) passed under King Henry VIII effectively banned the Welsh language from official use. However, under Queen Elizabeth I the English Parliament passed the An Act for the Translating of the Bible and the Divine Service into the Welsh Tongue 1563. In 1567 William Salesbury, Richard Davies and Thomas Huet completed the first modern translation of the New Testament into Welsh and the first translation of the Book of Common Prayer (Welsh: Y Llyfr Gweddi Gyffredin). Then in 1588 William Morgan completed a translation of the whole Bible. These translations were essential to the survival of the Welsh language and had the effect of conferring status on Welsh as a liturgical language and vehicle for worship. This had a significant role in its continued use as a means of everyday communication and as a literary language down to the present day despite the pressure of English.
Abuses did occur, and in the 18th century some bishops granted benefices in Welsh-speaking areas to English clergy who did not speak Welsh. This contravened Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion of the Church of England: It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people. In 1766 the churchwardens of the parish of St Beuno, Trefdraeth on Anglesey, supported by the Cymmrodorion, began a test case against an English clergyman, Dr Thomas Bowles, who could not conduct services in Welsh and whose attempt to do so had ended in ridicule. In its verdict in 1773 the Court of Arches refused to deprive Dr Bowles of his living, but did lay down the principle that clergy should be examined and found proficient in Welsh in order to be considered for Welsh-speaking parishes.
18th century conditions
The condition of religion in Wales was bleak from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century. The established Church of England recovered slowly from the widespread damage brought about by the English Civil War, and the Puritan Commonwealth of Cromwell, in the mid-17th century. Poverty was widespread in the overwhelmingly rural country. The clergy were impoverished and subsisted on their own farm work on their glebes. Facilities from personages to graveyards to churches to cathedrals were commonly in physical disrepair. Membership and participation was falling.
Nonconformity, membership and revivals
Nonconformity grew rapidly and came to dominate the religious life of Wales from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. The Welsh Methodist revival of the 18th century was one of the most significant religious and social movements in the history of Wales. The revival began within the Church of England in Wales and at the beginning remained as a group within it, but the Welsh revival differed from the Methodist revival in England in that its theology was Calvinist rather than Arminian. Welsh Methodists gradually built up their own networks, structures, and even meeting houses (or chapels), which led eventually to the secession of 1811 and the formal establishment of the Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian church of Wales in 1823. Emotionalism had free rein; in contrast to Scotland with its four universities, good schools, and a strong theological tradition, Wales had no universities and widespread illiteracy.
The Welsh Methodist revival also had an influence on the older nonconformist churches, or dissenters – the Baptists and the Congregationalists – who in turn also experienced growth and renewal. As a result, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Wales was predominantly a nonconformist country.
Statistics of membership between 1680 and 1840 demonstrate that the established Church of England lost one-fifth of its membership. In addition, an ever-increasing number of nominal Anglicans also ceasing to practise. Nonconformity more than quadrupled, mainly from 1760 and especially after 1800. In 1800 there were twice as many Anglican churches as Nonconformist chapels; in 1850, chapels outnumbered churches by a ratio of 5 to 2. Roman Catholicism kept pace with demographic growth, but, even reinforced by Irish immigration, remained a limited force in 1840. Judaism and overt irreligion were both rare.
In 1910, the nonconformist bodies numbered 550,000 members, as against 193,000 in the established Church of England. Nonconformists, led by Liberal David Lloyd George, increasingly controlled the politics of Wales, although the elite sectors were still dominated by the Anglicans.
The 1904-1905 Welsh Revival was the largest full scale Christian Revival of Wales of the 20th century. At least 100,000 people became Christians during the 1904–1905 revival. Even so, it did not put a stop to the gradual decline of Christianity in Wales, only holding it back slightly. Despite this, by 2011 South Wales (and especially settlements in the former coalfield area) showed the highest proportions of no religion anywhere in the country, rising in places to over 50%. The reasons for this are unclear.
Disestablishment - creation of the Church in Wales
In reaction to the rise of nonconformity, some Anglicans came to recognise the weaknesses of the established church and its failure to counteract the popular aspects of nonconformity. The rigidity of the parish system and the distance between churches were quoted as examples of the failure of the church to adapt.
The Welsh Church Act 1914 provided for the separation of the four dioceses of the Church of England located in Wales (known collectively as the Church in Wales) from the rest of the Church, and for the simultaneous disestablishment of the Church. The Act came into operation in 1920. Since then there has been no established church in Wales. Between 1996 and 2016 the number of signed-up Church in Wales members dropped from 91,247 to 45,759  or 1,5% out of a total population of 3,113,150  The number of signed-up Church in Wales members dropped further to 42,441 by 2018  or 1,4% out of the total Welsh population of 3,187,203
Present-day Roman Catholicism
Catholics are served by the Ecclesiastical Province of Cardiff, which exists out of the Archdiocese of Cardiff, the Diocese of Menevia and the Diocese of Wrexham. The bishops of these dioceses are part of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. In total, the three dioceses counted 209,451 Catholics on a population of 3,112,451 inhabitants, equalling to a percentage of 6,7% Catholics. The three dioceses have 172 priests and 34 permanent deacons, 75 male religious and 267 female religious, and a total of 154 parishes as of 2016 (2017 for the diocese of Wrexham). However, the province is not completely equal to Wales, as the Archdiocese of Cardiff also covers Herefordshire, in England.
The Sabbatarian temperance movement was strong among the Welsh in the Victorian period and the early twentieth century, the sale of alcohol being prohibited on Sundays in Wales by the Sunday Closing Act of 1881 – the first legislation specifically issued for Wales since the Middle Ages. From the early 1960s, local council areas were permitted to hold referendums every seven years to determine whether they should be wet or dry on Sundays: most of the industrialised areas in the east and south went wet immediately, and by the 1980s, Dwyfor in the northwest as the last of the dry regions went wet after a local referendum in 1982; however, in the next referendum it returned to a dry region on Sundays from 1989 to 1996. In early 1996 reconstruction of Gwynedd resulted in Dwyfor district being abolished and Dwyfor area is now covered by an area committee of the Gwynedd Council and there have been no further "Wet - Dry" referendums.
Wales is particularly noted for naming places after either local or well-known saints – many or perhaps most places beginning in Llan e.g. Llanbedr – St Peter (Pedr); Llanfair – St Mary (Mair); Llanfihangel – St Michael (Mihangel); Llandecwyn – Saint Tecwyn. Because of the relatively small number of saints' names used, places names are often suffixed by their locality e.g. Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr, Llanfihangel y Creuddyn, Llanfihangel-y-Pennant.
The largest non-Christian faith in Wales is Islam, with about 46,000 adherents in 2011. Most Muslims live in Cardiff (23,656 in 2011, 6.8% of the population), but there are also significant numbers in Newport (6,859 in 2011) and Swansea (5,415 in 2011).
Judaism has quite a long history in Wales, with a Jewish community recorded in Swansea from about 1730. In August 1911, in a period of public disorder and industrial disputes, Jewish shops across the South Wales coalfield were damaged by mobs. Since that time the Jewish population of that area, which reached a peak of 4,000–5,000 in 1913, has declined. In 2011 there were a total of 2,064 Jewish adherents in Wales, including 802 in Cardiff.
Hinduism and Buddhism each have about 10,000 adherents in Wales, with the rural county of Ceredigion being the centre of Welsh Buddhism. Govinda's temple & restaurant, run by the Hare Krishnas in Swansea, is a focal point for many Welsh Hindus. There are about 3,000 Sikhs in Wales, with the first purpose-built gurdwara opened in the Riverside area of Cardiff in 1989. In 2011 some 13,000 people classified themselves as following Other religion including a reconstructed form of Druidism, which was the pre-Abrahamic religion of Wales (not to be confused with the Druids of the Gorsedd at the National Eisteddfod of Wales).
In the United Kingdom census, which asks the question "What is your religion?", 32.1% of people in Wales declared no religion in 2011, compared with 18.5% in 2001. Other surveys which ask the question "Do you have a religion, and if so what is it?" have by contrast found that an outright majority of people in Wales do not have a religion. The 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey, an annual state-funded poll, found that 58% of Welsh adults did not identify with a religion, making Wales the most irreligious part of the UK.
Notable places of worship
- Bangor Cathedral – Church in Wales
- Brecon Cathedral – Church in Wales
- Cardiff Cathedral – Roman Catholic Church
- Llandaff Cathedral – Church in Wales
- Newport Cathedral – Church in Wales
- Sikh Gurdwara Cardiff – Sikh Gurdwara Cardiff
- St Asaph Cathedral – Church in Wales
- St David's Cathedral – Church in Wales
- St. Joseph's Cathedral, Swansea – Roman Catholic Church
- Tabernacle Chapel, Morriston, Swansea – Congregational church
- Wrexham Cathedral – Roman Catholic Church
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