Amid the brutalist architecture of the Barbican Estate sits a forgotten jewel in the crown of London’s religious history. Capel Jewin (Jewin Chapel) was established in around 1774 to serve the burgeoning community of one of London’s oldest ethnic minorities: the Welsh. On a chilly Sunday evening, their modern successors have gathered here for a euphoric Christmas concert.
Like its tower block neighbours, Jewin’s current building dates from the post-war period, after Second World War air-raids destroyed the previous incarnation in 1940. The chapel is no stranger to major challenges, not least the dwindling attendance of recent years. Built to accommodate the hundreds who were still members when it reopened its doors in 1960, the scale of the church dwarfs the modern-day congregations. For this special event, however, the pews are full once again.
The concert combined the old and the new, showcasing world-renowned Welsh opera singers Rebecca Evans and Gwyn Hughes Jones alongside the likes of up-and-coming alt-folk band Plu. With the concert now in its third year, the chapel’s minister, the Reverend Richard Brunt, says that “the London Welsh community has really taken the concert to heart. It was an inspiring evening. Without wanting to single out one artist, Gwyn came faithfully to Jewin when he was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and you can see how much those days meant to him.”
In 2013, Huw Edwards, the BBC newsreader and regular Jewin attendee, and others, led a campaign to raise awareness of the chapel’s plight and attract new members after the “terribly defeatist decision” was taken to close the chapel. “Since then, we have increased our membership to around 65 and our goal is 100,” Edwards says. “It is a very modest goal when you realise that the London Welsh Centre has thousands of members, but membership of a Nonconformist Welsh chapel is not fashionable.”
Edwards believes the chapel’s future is part of a wider dilemma of the London Welsh community’s future identity. “The community’s social gatherings have to be based on more than rugby viewings at the London Welsh Centre. There still needs to be leadership in this area and more work needs to be done to promote a sense of city-wide Welshness.”
Despite the growth in membership, they don’t always attend on Sundays, says long-time secretary Llinos Morris, who moved to London from Aberystwyth in 1961. “For special events like the concert and the carols service, we get very good attendances. They come when the minister is here too, but often not when we’ve got visiting ministers, and that’s when it gets embarrassing for us.”
Brunt shares his ministerial duties between the seven Welsh Presbyterian chapels in Greater London, an example of the collaboration which modern circumstances require. “We work together well as Christian churches in London. One suggestion would be that they all come together as one, but personally, I think that it’s important to have the different Welsh Christian centres across London. They are communities in themselves and they have their own distinct identities.”
The minister is a kindly man, who is, perhaps surprisingly, not Welsh. Originally from Somerset, Brunt was drawn to the Welsh cause when studying at university in Aberystwyth. He conducts his services in a mixture of English and Welsh, which he continues to learn. He often travels across London on Sundays to deliver services in Welsh chapel outposts, such as Ealing, Leytonstone, Cockfosters and Sutton.
Brunt’s enthusiasm is unwavering, but he is realistic about the challenges they face. “As with all the Welsh chapels, in Wales as well as in London, we have a very faithful core who have worked hard through the years, but they’re getting older. There’s been no decline in the dedication of those who work in the chapels. The challenge is that times have changed, and there’s not the same commitment Sunday by Sunday, for various reasons.”
Edwards is clearly frustrated by some elements of the chapel. “It has been a big struggle to get people to accept even the smallest changes and face the reality of what’s needed to turn things around. It’s a very conservative organisation with in-built resistance to change.”
There are some signs of the chapel moving with the times. The advertisement on the door for ‘Hatching Dragons: The UK’s first bilingual Mandarin-English day nursery’, which is based in the vestry, points to the need for Jewin to harness alternative revenue streams. “We’ve never had anything like this before. At the moment, it’s a matter of finding a balance,” Morris says, not sounding convinced just yet. “They’re alright though, I suppose.”
It would be easy to look back to the pre-war heydays when Jewin Chapel was packed out every Sunday and boasted as many as 1,100 members. Brunt is looking forward, though. “We need to build on the connections that are made and strengthen the sense of being a Christian community that people want to be a part of, because people find it a strength and a Christian comfort.”
“Organised religion is dying in the United Kingdom, and the challenge for us is to make Jewin and other Welsh chapels relevant in the 21st century,” says Edwards. “They can continue to provide Welsh-language services but they must also be centres of music and speech and offer facilities for social gatherings. Otherwise they have no future at all. It is a vision worth fighting for.”
Published in December 2016