In a chapel in the heart of the South Wales valleys a coffee morning is in full flow. A handful of retired men are in attendance. Like most weeks numbers are relatively low. But for the minister who has organised it, the Revd Robert Stivey, it is still something of a triumph.
Just over a year ago, the Calfaria Calvinistic Methodist Chapel in Porth was shut and was awaiting demolition. However, Stivey stepped in, purchased it for under £40,000 of his own money, and then re-opened the vestry once more.
For the Lord
Over the past decade, Stivey has bought twelve chapels across the valleys, spending roughly £200,000 of his own savings. His aim is to re-open them all, or at least keep them in safe hands until the congregations return.
‘I am intent on attracting new fellowships,’ Stivey said. ‘Spreading the gospel and using these chapels not as museum pieces, but centres of worship. This project is not about me or even the chapels. This is about the Lord.’
Stivey frequently attended Sunday school until his personal faith was cemented at the age of 16. He then married and had five children. One of his children died and another who was involved in a traffic accident was left quadriplegic, with just the use of his right limb.
‘We thought he would die,’ Stivey said. ‘But there was a lot of praying by his bedside and he survived. Now he comes down from London in his wheelchair and helps me run the chapels.’
In his 60s Stivey left his career as a chartered surveyor, and began working as an ordained minister in Islington. At the same time, he began spending time in South Wales. It was during this time that he saw the opportunity to save the dilapidated church buildings.
In its heyday, the valleys boasted roughly 2,000 chapels. The number was high because there were so many different non-conformist denominations. But by the 1920s and 30s, a steady decline was under way.
Dr Gethin Matthews, senior history lecturer at Swansea University, said: ‘After the 1905 revival, there came a general decline in organised religion. The valleys were hard hit. Not only was there depopulation (as mines shut) but many of those who came back from World War One became disillusioned with the chapel message that it was a “just” war.’
Who will go?
The Porth church has a weekly service, free coffee mornings, a ladies’ group and a children’s club. The number of people attending these events, however, is rarely out of single figures and they all take place in the vestry, or hall, with the chapel itself lying empty and abandoned upstairs.
The purchased Siloam Welsh Baptist Chapel, in the village of Penderyn, closed after worshippers fell to single figures. But the church building is in near-perfect condition. ‘This one could be opened tomorrow,’ said Stivey.
This all leads to an inevitable question: will he ever be able to accomplish his mission – to reignite the congregations and spread God’s Word? Locals are ambivalent – there is certainly support for the minister but also a hard view of practical realities.
Norma Seldon’s view at the chip shop is typical: ‘We all went to chapel on a Sunday and it’s sad they are closing. No-one wants to see them turned into flats, but I’m not sure who will go?’
‘Some people don’t think you need a chapel in every town anymore,’ Stivey says, ‘but we need to provide for the local community a place where the Bible can live. I am never daunted by the scale of the project. The Lord will provide.’
Editor’s Note: Evidently, there needs to be men who are willing to minister in such areas. Could one of the many church planters become a church revitaliser?