The Union of Welsh Independents (UWI) is a voluntary Union of over 400 churches mainly located in Wales within the United Kingdom. Though the overwhelming majority worship and communicate through the medium of Welsh, there are also some in Wales which are English-speaking, and some in and around London, England, which are Welsh-speaking.
Established in 1871 during a period of astonishing growth and expansion among the Welsh Congregational churches, the Union has over the years, in addition to proclaiming the Gospel and bearing witness to the greatness and glory of Jesus Christ as Saviour, adopted a radical stance on a wide variety of spiritual, moral and social subjects. Moreover, it has made a significant contribution in the context of Welsh and international affairs.
The first Congregational church was established in Wales in 1639 and despite strong opposition and cruel persecution at times, the tradition not only survived but also developed deep and strong roots. Its emphasis on the sovereignty of the local congregation under the hand of God served it well, as did its belief in the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the whole congregation alongside and in addition to its guidance to individuals.
As the years went by the tradition gained strength and matured, and alongside the Presbyterian and Baptist traditions, committed itself to outreach and evangelism. The result was a vibrant and robust Christian culture which impinged on every aspect of life in Wales. Such was the confidence enjoyed during the nineteenth century that the congregations embarked on a nationwide programme of chapel building to accommodate not only themselves but also future church members that God would, in time, call to be his own.
It was, therefore, with optimism in its heart and a confidence in its future that the newly established Union entered the twentieth century, but as it did so there were dark clouds on the horizon that would soon obscure the bright light and warmth of God’s bountiful blessing.
Liberal theology, rising individualism, emerging secularism, vibrant socialism and two world wars during the first half of the twentieth century were to have a devastating effect on the Welsh Christian culture. The years of decline began with every denomination, including the Congregationalists, feeling the cold winds of a spiritual winter that is yet to come to an end. That said, it is good to be able to add that at the time of writing there are some faint indications to be seen here and there of the possibility of an approaching spiritual spring, which would indeed be most welcome among the remnant of God’s people in Wales.
It is at this juncture in history that the Union of Welsh Independents now stands, resolute, as ever, in its efforts to continue its Christian witness and determined to support the churches in their outreach to their communities. Though congregations continue to dwindle, due to their age profile rather than as a result of desertion, many are now adopting the view that there is a need to regroup, re-imagine the church and to educate and train their members in order to be able to engage in much-needed mission work. These are therefore exciting times, and we bless God that we have not lost heart, that He has been faithful to us and shown great patience towards us during the fallow years we have recently endured. We still praise Him with enthusiasm and with joyful hearts.
CWM has done much over the years to support us in our efforts and has enabled us to do much that would otherwise have been impossible. From funding youth workers to sponsoring mission programmes, from providing opportunities for people to be part of discussions and workshops around the world to allowing us to try out various ideas and possibilities, CWM has been our constant companion along the way. For that we are grateful. Its staff have always been helpful and supportive and its officers genial and understanding, and to be able to engage with the other 31 members of the CWM family has always been a source of inspiration and joy to us, from the days of the Revd Ieuan S. Jones and the Revd Ioan Wyn Gruffydd, our past Mission Secretaries, to today.
Being a mainly Welsh speaking Union, it is only natural that we cooperate closely with the other two mainly Welsh speaking denominations in Wales, namely the Presbyterian Church of Wales and the Baptist Union of Wales. Though the Baptist Union is not a member of CWM, the latter has never discouraged UWI’s involvement with it and this has done much to bolster the good relations that exist between the three denominations. Being Congregational and Independent does not, to our mind, mean being insular or blinkered; independent churches and Unions should always be in fellowship with other churches and part of the wider and world-wide Christian family.
For many years, we as Welsh Independents have been trying to find our way through the wilderness in which we have found ourselves. In such a situation, it is not always easy to know in which direction to travel or which path to take. Since 2009 we have been encouraging the churches, through our Development Programme, to take stock of their situation, to draw up a development plan of their own, to continue to be missional within their communities, and to attempt to identify within their own congregations, in a period of declining numbers of ordained ministers, men and women who would be able to provide a measure of leadership and pastoral care for the future. Not only did many churches adopt this strategy in general, several commissioned lay-leaders only to find that those undertaking the Christian leadership roles were so richly blessed by God that they went on, having received ministerial training, to be ordained into the full-time ministry. For that, we rejoice with the congregations and praise God again!
Building on the foundation laid through the Development Programme, UWI has now moved on to a new project known as Y Ffordd (The Way), a four-year video-based course designed and intended to nurture faith and confidence within congregations to enable them to engage in a meaningful way in outreach, and become missional congregations once again.
With resources provided by CWM, UWI’s London based churches and UWI itself, and a course outline provided by the Revd Dr Noel A. Davies in consultation with the General Secretary, filming of the first year’s four videos began in the spring of 2016. At the same time, a small audio and video studio was constructed at UWI’s office building for future use.
Dealing with the Bible and the way the Welsh Independents use and understand it, the first video was launched and introduced to the churches in September 2016. The response was as dramatic as it was unexpected; churches and congregations began using it with enthusiasm, thrilled by the high standard of the video, the excellent quality of the material it contained and the usefulness of the accompanying literature which was prepared by UWI’s two field officers. The second, third and fourth instalments were distributed between November 2016 and June 2017, and the filming of the four instalments for 2017-18 is by now well under way.
It is believed that close to half the UWI churches are by now making use of The Way, while it is known that it is also being used by many churches and groups in other denominations. Because of the interest shown in the project, UWI’s Executive decided in April 2017 that the whole series of 16 videos should be subtitled in English and made available on YouTube. The first two are currently available for downloading at http://www.annibynwyr.org/y-ffordd-english/ and videos 3 and 4 are due to appear shortly.
As it seems that The Way has struck a chord within the Welsh Independent churches, UWI is now eager to develop its use of technology as a means of educating and training individuals and congregations in order that they may have the knowledge and confidence to participate in outreach work in their locality. Sharing testimony, stories and experiences within a congregation or church group may be both valuable and interesting, but it is essential that they be shared outside church circles also in order that the world may hear of the wonderful things that God has done, and is still doing. Much of our failure to communicate the Good News of the Gospel may be attributed to lack of confidence and knowledge; people are ill-prepared to act as witnesses for Christ.
It is this that UWI and its churches are now addressing, and we are making progress. We therefore ask that our brothers and sisters around the world remember us in their prayers. We also thank them in advance for doing so.
- that God would bless the UWI programme, The Way, to the glory of His name
- that people’s hearts in Wales be opened to the Gospel
- that God’s people may become confident and bold in their witnessing
- that young people, in particular, be blessed
- that the Holy Spirit’s guidance be given to congregations that they may be truly missional communities