Penclawdd is a village of 3,500 people located on the Gower peninsula in south Wales. Its bountiful coal, tin and copper mines saw it prosper during the Industrial Revolution, which boomed alongside an equally formidable religious revival.
Churches and chapels were built and extended to house the ever-growing congregations, becoming bedrocks of local life and sources of great community spirit. But was it really religion that brought and bound these people together? What was the true role of “The Church” in all if this?
Gone for Good? is a secular exploration of what’s left of these “temples of togetherness”. It provides no answers, but begs the perennial question, as so many have before: What is wisdom?
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I grew up in Penclawdd, but left some 20 years ago. As a child, it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about the high volume of religious buildings in the village. I am not religious or from a religious family, although I do remember our school nativity plays being held in the various churches, and visiting Welsh singing festivals called gymanfa ganus.
What is interesting to me, apart from their abundance, is that they are all in various states of repair. Some are still functioning, running weekly Sunday services, while others are abandoned, up for sale, being converted into houses or commercial units. There is an impending sense of slow decay, the first whiff of milk gone sour still fresh in the air.
I didn’t necessarily have a fixed agenda or notion of what I wanted to say about the religious buildings, but instead set upon the work with an open mind and the goal of sharing whatever it was that I would find as a result of imposing a rigid conceptual rule on myself – ”to photograph all of the religious buildings in my village”.
What I hoped was that, by focussing on my own little village, using it as a model, my discoveries would say something about the state of religion across the UK, or at least the state of religious buildings. Objectivity, I decided, was vital.
The main influence on this project was actually a book I read called Religion for Atheists by writer and philosopher Alain De Botton. A non-believer himself, De Botton suggests that modern society has a lot to learn and gain from adopting ideas of the church. He explains that religion, or at least aspects of it, could help us to:
– build a sense of community
– make our relationships last
– overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
– escape the twenty-four hour media
– go travelling
– get more out of art, architecture and music
– and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs
De Botton is not, I hasten to add, suggesting that we all start buying into the supernaturalistic ideas of religion or start “believing”, but simply that the organisation of religion, the structure it provides, is something we lack in contemporary society. This is an idea I feel is difficult to argue with.
I didn’t set out to “prove” this in any way with Gone for Good?, but I suppose it did give me a level of sympathy or empathy that made me feel more comfortable broaching the topic of religion as a non-believer myself. I knew my intentions were pure, my motives morally banal.
If I were to lean in any direction it would be in support of my local religious community and not against them. This made it easier to create the work in the first place, although it quickly became apparent that the results were somewhat biased, that I was siding with the local religious community.
This could be interpreted as hypocritical, as, fundamentally, I am not religious, but having read De Botton’s book, I realised that I was not alone in believing that, perhaps, there may be ways to benefit from religion as a community without having to commit ourselves to blind faith. Or as De Botton puts it, perhaps there is such a thing as “wisdom without doctrine”.
“I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content – a way, to put it in more abstract terms, to think about Fathers without upsetting my respectful memory of my own father. I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths.” (De Botton 2012)
Broadly speaking, I wondered if the overarching benefits, or function, of belonging to a religious community may in fact have more to do with community aspects than the religious aspects.
“So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.” (De Botton 2012: 111)
While searching for other photography projects on the topic of religion and community I discovered Sunday Service by Chloe Dewe Mathews.
This project is an exploration of African Christianity in London. Housed in abandoned commercial spaces – industrial estates, former office blocks and bingo halls, on busy high streets – there are said to be some 240 African churches in the borough of Southwark in south London alone. Research carried out by Roehampton University considers this to be the highest concentration of African Christianity anywhere outside of Africa.
I was obviously very interested in this project, not only as it talks of religion in contemporary Britain, but also because it shows how communities are reimagining architectural spaces and their environments to suit their needs. After all, what is the most important element of a church? Its spires and stained-glass windows? Its religious effigies? Or is it simply the space itself – a safe environment in which to gather? It’s not the grandiosity of the venue that is important, but the community it houses. And it’s community that I feel has been lost as a result of religion’s dwindling attendees.
In a sense, Sunday Service shows the inverse of what I have seen in my own project, i.e. the conversion of old commercial spaces into religious buildings, rather than the conversion of religious buildings into commercial spaces and dwellings. Somehow I feel this supports my suspicion that the religious spaces in my project/village are, or at least were, community centres as much as places of worship.
What is lost with the closure or sale of each church/chapel? Perhaps it’s not so much religious faith, but community spirit. And what is sacred if not this?
I must confess that it didn’t take long for me to feel saddened by what I discovered. These religious spaces are not, as I imagined, primarily about religion, but about community. They are temples of togetherness, places to pray, yes, but also places in which people of the village could connect and share their lives. I wanted to emphasise this fact, which is why I decided to include the archival images I found during my research.
Going through old archival images, I was amazed to see the size of the gatherings. Whether it was a Whitsun walk or an Easter service, people always came together, there was a sense of community that is all but gone entirely today.
While photographing each building, I met many local people who were happy to talk. Many, from what I could tell, were primarily upset about the closure of certain buildings because they would be converted to housing, which would be a nuisance to them as neighbours. Others had more sentimental connections, such as Dr. Edward-Rhys Harry, who I interviewed as part of the project.
Essentially it became obvious to me that what was most interesting was not the buildings themselves but the people who once inhabited them. The archive images I included show large groups of people and I felt it was important to try and talk to them. Edward is one of these people, a local who grew up attending Bethel Chapel and later became a deacon there. He is now a renowned musical composer and conductor, putting the skills he learnt in Bethel to good use.
I also discovered that almost every building is now used for something other than what was originally intended:
Saint Gwynour’s Church still runs services, but seems to be better utilised by the children who live in the nearby housing estate. One girl who I bumped into every time I visited to take photos explained that, because there’s not much to do in the area, she goes to the church to read her manga comics and play with her friends.
Capel Isaac is now a large “architect-built” show home, which I remember being converted decades ago – currently for sale for over £500k.
Saint Gwynour’s Church Hall, which I remember being a gym and martial arts studio, is currently being converted into an art gallery.
Penuel Calvinistic Methodist Chapel is now a very large and beautiful family home.
Bethel Chapel has been vacant for many years (due to unaffordable maintenance costs) with the congregation now using the much smaller Sunday School building to the rear of the property. The chapel itself has, I learned from various neighbours, been sold to a construction firm based in Bristol that specialises in the conversion of religious properties into residential dwellings. It will be turned into either six or ten dwellings, depending on who you speak to, one of which will have the huge organ in their living rooms, due to the planning and building restraints imposed on listed buildings.
The herculean Tabernacle church, which is something of an icon of Penclawdd, is still used as a place of worship from time to time, although the congregation also uses the smaller Sunday School building to the rear of the property more often than not. I can’t help but feel, from seeing what is happening to Bethel Chapel, that the Tabernacle will end up in the hands of a development firm.
The Old Manse, which sits just behind Tabernacle, has been a family home (to the lovely Brown family) for many years and is now also a popular B&B. The other two old manse houses in the village are also now family homes.
In the end, I think it’s clear that Gone for Good? is not an objective project, that I am saddened by what I have learned and, despite my lack of faith, see the loss of these spaces as a cultural loss to my village and local community.
I hope this project will inspire people (particularly atheists) to reconsider the role that religious spaces play in their local communities, and also to consider the value of religion in contemporary society. I’m not suggesting that we need some kind of religious revival, but I am suggesting, like Alan De Botton, that the demise of these community-centric spaces has left a hole that only deepens as society and technology “advances”.
What is wisdom? I’m still not sure, but I don’t think it’s this.
What do you think? Is it a good thing that these temples of togetherness are fading away? What else could/should we do with them? Leave a comment below to have your say.
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Photos taken with the Nikon D750. Filmed with the Fujifilm XT3 (18-55mm) and DJI Mavic Mini 2.