POST TIME: 18 October, 2015 07:16:12 PM
Spectre at the rugby feast and why the Welsh sing hymns
Independent Online Desk

Spectre at the rugby feast and why the Welsh sing hymns

This weekend, Twickenham and pubs and rugby clubs all over Wales will once again be ringing with rousing renditions of Calon Lan and Cwm Rhondda (Bread of Heaven) as Wales take on South Africa in the Rugby World Cup.

The Welsh are known for singing hymns, but these days it is often fuelled more by alcohol than the typically Welsh fire and brimstone sermons of the strictly sober chapels that first introduced them.

Welsh chapels - once the backbone of the entire nation - are closing at the rate of one a week. A country, once as famous for its puritan non-conformity as its love of rugby and singing, is now bent on more secular activities.

Chapel attendances may be declining, but it would be a mistake to underestimate how much it is branded into Welsh culture. And never more so than during a game of rugby.

So what does the demise of the Welsh chapel say about modern-day Wales? Has the nation cast aside a keystone in the survival of its language and cultural wealth or is it simply evolving with the times?

And does the legacy of the old Welsh chapel reach further than Bread of Heaven on international days?

As a flock of grey clouds circle ominously over the Gwili Valley below, Charlie Williams opens the doors of Cwmdyfran Calvinistic Methodist Chapel and sets about arranging numbers on the hymn board.

It is Sunday morning and the service is set to start in 15 minutes. However, Mr Williams, the chapel's affable custodian, does not appear to be in any sort of hurry.

The days when places such as Cwmdyfran Chapel - situated in rural Carmarthenshire - were standing room only are long gone."We'll be lucky if we get into double figures," explained Mr Williams, now allotting bibles across the first two rows of pews.

His forecast turns out to be a little optimistic. When the service does begin, I count the register to be eight, including myself.

And, having never visited Cwmdyfran before, my presence has not gone unnoticed.

"Pwy yw hwn? (Who is he?) I hear someone whisper behind me.

As our minister, Tudur Dylan, preaches from his pulpit in flawless Welsh and hymns are sung with a gusto that momentarily belies the nominal congregation, it is hard to believe that at one point, at the end of the 19th Century, this small grey-rendered building attracted worshippers in their hundreds.

How times have changed. Once a focal point of nearly every Welsh community, chapels are now being lost at a rate of one a week, unable to justify keeping the lights on due to waning attendance figures.

The sight of a derelict chapel, left to go to wrack and ruin, is not uncommon in any town, village or city. Some are derelict, others have been converted into community spaces or homes."It's a pretty dire situation," said Methodist minister Rev Dr Leslie Griffiths, a regular guest on Chris Evans's Radio 2 breakfast show's Pause for Thought.

"Why is it happening? Well, I think organised Christian religion in western Europe has been on this trend. To quote Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach 'The sea of faith is running out'.

"I would add that some of the chapels were built in almost inaccessible places to serve tiny groups of people - for another age."

But, he said, that does not get to the heart of the problem. Rev Griffiths pinpoints the traditional ways of communicating the faith no longer resonate with people.Any suggestion that Wales was a nation of tipplers on the quiet, so to speak, has always been curiously at odds with the temperance movement associated with non-conformity.

Some chapel-goers were even encouraged to take a pledge to completely abstain from alcohol, including my own grandfather. I can say with good knowledge that this oath was upheld loosely.

Still, the general consensus would suggest these places of worship are outmoded in the 21st Century; relics of the past, undeserving of preservation.BBC