Disestablishment, Disendowment and Dismemberment

by Philip Jones

From the early 12th century until 31st March 1920, a period of about 800 years, the Church in Wales comprised four dioceses (Llandaff, St. Davids, Bangor and St. Asaph) of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England.

The Welsh Church Act 1914 had a twofold purpose:

(1) disestablishment of the Church in Wales and

(2) disendowment of some of its property in favour of secular local authorities and University of Wales.

Opponents of the Welsh Church Act argued that it had a third consequence for the Church in Wales 

(3) dismemberment, the enforced constitutional separation of the four Welsh dioceses from the rest of the Province of Canterbury, and hence from the Church of England.

The Welsh Church Act was substantially modelled on the Irish Church Act 1869, which disestablished the Anglican Church of Ireland.  However, the Church of Ireland, unlike the Church in Wales, had never been an integral part of either of the two English Provinces.  Ireland always had its own ecclesiastical Provinces.  So although the Church of Ireland had been disestablished, it had not been dismembered.

There is no provision of the 1914 Act that in terms requires the constitutional separation of the English and Welsh Churches, or that the Church in Wales be reconstituted as a separate ecclesiastical province.  S.13(1) of the Act enabled the members of the Church in Wales to make rules for its constitutional self-government but this freedom per se did not require them to leave the Church of England.  At most, it only permitted them to do so.  

The 1914 Act actually envisaged a continuing constitutional link between the Welsh dioceses and the Church of England.  S.3(3) provided that

‘The … constitution … of the Church in Wales may … if the Archbishop of Canterbury consents, [provide] for appeals from [Welsh ecclesiastical courts] being heard and determined by the provincial court of the Archbishop [i.e the Court of the Arches] …’.

However, another provision of the Act, s.3(5), did intervene directly in the constitutional relationship between the Welsh and English Churches.  It provided that

‘As from the date of disestablishment the bishops and clergy of the Church in Wales shall cease to be members of or be represented in the Houses of Convocation of the Province of Canterbury’.

This provision was very controversial in 1914.  Opponents of Disestablishment suggested that it was unprecedented, and that Parliament had never before intervened directly in the membership and procedure of the Convocations, even at the Reformation.  (See the first report of the select committee of the House of Lords on matters affecting the Church in Wales.)

The justification offered for s.3(5) was that it was ‘impossible … to allow the Welsh dioceses to retain their present position in the Convocation of Canterbury because this would create a ‘free’ Church governed and ruled by an Established Church … the remaining English portion of the Province of Canterbury …’ (House of Commons Official Record 1914, volume 61, columns 1805-6).  If the Church in Wales was to become self-governing on the same terms as the Methodist or Baptist Churches, it could not continue to be subject to the legislative acts of the Canterbury Convocation.  Without s.3(5) the primary purpose of the 1914 Act, Disestablishment, would be frustrated.

The 1914 Act was, of course, passed before the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919.  At that time, the National Assembly and the various ‘conferences’ of the Church of England still existed on a voluntary basis only.  Supporters of Disestablishment argued that any difficulty caused by s.3(5) could be resolved if the English and Welsh bishops and clergy and any lay representatives simply met and deliberated in such a voluntary assembly:

‘After this Bill is passed the Archbishop [of Canterbury] may summon the identical persons to … the identical meeting and … transact identically the same business … They [the Welsh and English bishops and clergy] may do all the business which is now done in Convocation but it will not be Convocation.  That is the sole difference.’ (column 1908).

This suggestion anticipated the settlement created by the 1919 Act, under which the Church Assembly and the Convocations transacted ecclesiastical business, as it were, side by side.  This power-sharing arrangement proved administratively complex and confusing and was brought to an end by the Synodical Government Measure 1969.  Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury continues to ‘summon’ (or rather, invite) the bishops of the Church in Wales to the Lambeth Conference, another assembly that exists only on a voluntary basis.

However, after the Welsh Church Act became law, the Welsh bishops and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, evidently concluded that the practical difficulties of the disestablished Welsh dioceses remaining within the Province of Canterbury were too great.  It was therefore reluctantly agreed that they would have to leave and form a separate ecclesiastical province.

This decision was recorded in a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘To all Christian people pertaining to the Church in Wales’ dated 1st April 1920, the day after Disestablishment (also April Fool’s Day).  1st April was the date of Dismemberment but the proceedings necessary to effect Dismemberment were taken before Disestablishment.

The Welsh bishops were bound to the Archbishop by their oath of canonical obedience to him.  It was the submission of the Welsh bishops to the primatial jurisdiction of Canterbury, and their oath of obedience to the Archbishop, that had originally effected the incorporation of the Welsh Church into the Canterbury Province in the early 12th century.  Therefore in January 1920 the Bishop of St. Asaph (the senior Welsh bishop at the time), acting in accordance with a resolution of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, formally requested the Archbishop ‘to take such steps as may be necessary to constitute the four Dioceses of Wales into an ecclesiastical province’.

The Archbishop responded by sending letters to the four diocesan bishops in which he stated that he regarded them as being ‘released from any obligation under which you lie by reason of the Oath of due obedience to the See of Canterbury …’ after Disestablishment.  Then on 10th February 1920 the Archbishop declared, in Convocation, that the Welsh dioceses should be ‘separate from the Province of Canterbury and (they so desiring) a distinct ecclesiastical Province’.

Thus it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, who created the ecclesiastical Province of Wales.  The Province was not created either by the Welsh Church Act, or by any other Act of Parliament, or by the constitution of the Church in Wales.  There is no provision in the constitution stating that ‘There shall be a Province of Wales’, or that ‘There shall be an Archbishop of Wales’.  The Archbishop of Canterbury’s declaration creating the new Province may have been the last act of English ecclesiastical law to bind the Church in Wales.

The Bishop of St. Asaph, Alfred George Edwards, became the first Archbishop of Wales (though he remained Bishop of St. Asaph as well).  He was not chosen by the Archbishop of Canterbury but elected by the Governing Body (apparently ‘by acclamation’).  However, Randall Davidson presided at the subsequent enthronement ceremony.  Not only that, he also kindly donated a wooden replica of St. Augustine’s Chair for the new Archbishop to be enthroned on.  The replica is always kept in the diocesan cathedral of the incumbent Archbishop (currently Llandaff Cathedral).  It is a visible reminder that the Archbishop of Canterbury created the Province of Wales.