Blessing in Adversity
The previous chapter documents the struggles of the late 1960s, but it only tells half the story. Often in the Christian life, we find that it is in our periods of greatest difficulty that God is most at work — and so it was at Trinity during the late 1960s.
In December 1965, whilst D. Leslie Jones was ministering in Trinity, Brian Nott was converted. Brian was brought up in Clydach, and then became an art teacher in Clydach Comprehensive School. He therefore knew most of the children in the area well.
Soon he was involved in the Young People’s (YP) group at Trinity, and also with a Christian Union in the school. Those involved at the time consider these days to be remarkable days of blessing, with a very real sense of the presence of God.
Rev. John Davies would often come to preach at the Christian Union, to children of all ages who wanted to hear the gospel. They outgrew Brian’s art room, and had to move into the larger science classroom. Two girls who were particularly touched by the gospel in the school were Judith Minshull and Gwyneth Rees (who would later become Gwyneth Bowden).
The work continued in Trinity. The YP would meet in the vestry at 7pm on a Friday evening, but many would come an hour earlier in order to pray for their unconverted friends. At times there could be up to 50 children and young people in Trinity with John, with a further 30 outside with Brian. On a Saturday night, those who wanted to hear even more would then go to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Swansea, and to Trinity on Sunday.
On one memorable occasion a youth rally was held in Fitzclarence, Port Talbot. Transport would be needed to get the youngsters there. Such was the expectation that it they did not hire a minibus, nor even a coach, but a double-decker bus! The bus was duly filled.
The blessing did not abate following secession, and if anything it increased throughout the next few years. In the summers, under the leadership of Pastor and Mrs. Davies, the young people would spend a week’s holiday on the farm of John and Mari Jones in Llanymawddwy, near Bala, providing further opportunity for fellowship, teaching and prayer (pictured). One particularly memorable year was 1975. The theme chosen was ‘Knowing God’, and from the first meeting the presence of the Holy Spirit was evident. Eight young people professed faith that week or immediately afterwards, and the impact was felt by the whole church. The concerns and prayers of the late 1960s were beginning to be answered in a remarkable way. As an indication of the importance that the elders placed on the work of the Spirit, a report of the spiritual impact of the camp is by far the longest minute in all the surviving records of the elders. In part it records:
The whole church gave much praise to the Lord for His goodness and grace. The first communion service attended by these young people was a memorable occasion. The Minister… was unable to continue the reading of the Word at the table, and the presence of the Lord was most pressing with all affected. Many tears of joy were shed…
It was a time of great spiritual earnestness. Many times the YP leaders were asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Certainly not everyone who asked about salvation was converted — but many were. From the mid-60s to the mid-70s, dozens of young people were converted, including Andrew Bowden, Alison and Helen Davies, Gareth and Joy Davies, Steward Davies, Pearl House, Debbie James, Ian Jenkins, David Llewellyn, Judith Minshull, Gwyneth Rees, Ellis Williams, Dawn and Michelle Wooldridge, and many more. Almost all would move away from Clydach to marry, find work, or go to college and so the ripples of what the Lord was doing in Clydach would spread throughout the UK.
The conversions were not only amongst the young people, either. Colin and Jean Wooldridge saw the change in their daughters and were themselves converted. Will Thomas, a notorious figure in the village, was wonderfully saved. Lynn Edwards (now Brandrick), a neighbour of John and Joan Davies also found forgiveness. Colin Wooldridge was converted at a watchnight service. There were many others.
There can be no greater joy in the life of the church than seeing sinners come to repentance, but almost as encouraging is seeing young men being called into the ministry. In March 1969, Brian Nott was called. He was sent to Barry Bible College, and then went on to serve as Rev. Leith Samuel’s assistant in Above Bar, Southampton, before ministering at Central Baptist Church, Tredegar and Noddfa, Abersychan. Since 1985 he’s been the minister of Calvary, Ogmore Vale.
In 1972 Andrew Bowden (who had likewise been converted at Trinity) also felt the call to the ministry. He too studied at Barry, and went on to minister at Ackhill Baptist Church, Dolley Green, Presteigne; Aenon Baptist Church, Morriston; Bethany, West Cross; Emmanuel Baptist Church, Cardiff; and New Hedges near Tenby.
In 1975, Nigel Clifford was similarly called. He had been converted from a hippy lifestyle in 1973, and caused quite a stir when he turned up in Bethel a few weeks later still looking very much like a hippy and a potential troublemaker! He was given opportunities to preach, and was sent by the church to the brand new London Theological Seminary, in 1977. He later ministered at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Cardiff, preceding Andrew Bowden. Nigel is now back in Bethel, serving as an elder.
Such gospel blessing was obviously an enormous encouragement. Leaving the denomination was a massive step of faith for a relatively small church. Trinity’s membership was less than a quarter of what the denomination deemed necessary to support a full-time pastor. When they seceded, John Davies lost the manse in Port Tennant, and the congregation lost the church building on Sybil Street. Everything that belonged to Trinity — even the name — had to be left behind. They had a minister, but no manse; a congregation, but no church building. How would the new church survive without a building, organ, hymnbooks, a manse, and a savings account, in a year of national strikes, and inflation running at above 9%? Several onlookers predicted the new church would close in a matter of months.
That it didn’t close was a tribute to the sacrifices and generosity of church members, and of course, to the grace of God. When the congregation were preparing for secession, many put money aside to be ready when it was needed. Money collected in Trinity’s building would belong to Trinity after secession, so two offerings were taken each Sunday — one in the building, for Trinity; the other on the road outside for the as yet unnamed ‘independent evangelical church’. One of the first gifts received in this way was for £500 — four months wages in 1971.
The most pressing concern for the church was to find a home for John Davies and his family. Two elders, Hubert Davies and Dick Field took responsibility. (Hubert and Dick are the longest serving elders in the church’s history. Dick served for nearly 40 years until his 80th birthday, and remains a faithful member. Hubert has served for more than 50 years and is still counting!) Eventually they persuaded the council that he was a ‘key worker’ and should be given a council flat as a priority. He was offered 23 Tyle Teg, Graigfelen, and gladly accepted. It was not really big enough for a family of five, but it was home.
In all, around 35 regular attenders of Trinity came to form the independent church, less than 10 felt unable to join them. The first meeting was scheduled for 1st April 1971, in rented rooms at the Red Cross Hall on St. John’s Road. Mid-week meetings were held at the home of Georgina Lloyd or the old manse. (The Red Cross Hall has since been demolished, but stood opposite Down Street.) The weekly offering that first Sunday was just over £50. It was far more than would be expected on a ‘normal’ Sunday, and enough for the elders to tell Rev. Davies that he did not need to look for part-time secular work to supplement his income.
There was still much to do following secession. Other evangelicals offered support in different ways. Rev. J. Elwyn Davies and the Evangelical Movement of Wales gave advice and practical help. To encourage the church, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones came to preach in Bethel on 17th February 1974. He asked that his presence at the Sunday service was not announced in advance to ensure that the church was not swamped with visitors from other churches!
A permanent home for the church was needed, as was a manse. Equally important was the establishing of the new rules for the church (how members would be admitted, elders appointed, baptisms performed, and so on).
The first prayers to be answered was for a manse. Because Rev. Davies would being losing his home on the date they left the denomination, a house called ‘The Elms’ at 13 High Street, near to St. Mary’s Church had been identified prior to secession. Purchase was finally completed in November 1971, though it needed a substantial amount of renovation, so couldn’t be lived in immediately, and it wasn’t until early 1974 that the Davies family could move in. Church members threw themselves into the renovation project, and also lent the church money on an interest-free basis. When it came time for repayment, many loans were generously converted into gifts.
In June 1972, the labour exchange on Heol Y Nant closed and came up for sale. The building was known locally as the ‘Pegging Office’, as unemployed men would collect their dole from pegs inside. But the building had a previous life. Although it was currently owned by the Church in Wales, it had once belonged to the Welsh Wesleyan Methodists: and so with the building came a name for the church — for on the stone work above the door was the name of the congregation that once met inside: ‘Bethel’.
The asking price was £4,000. The church offered £2,000 (which at the time they didn’t have!) and eventually got it for £2,700. The elders’ minutes note that no-one in the church asked where the money was going to come from: ‘We all realise that we must wait on the Lord for our supply and His guidance and leading.’ By the time the vendors were ready to exchange contracts, enough money have been given or loaned on an interest-free basis to complete the purchase.
Bethel too needed lots of work, and again much of it was carried out by members. Whilst the building had been empty, the toilets had been set on fire. The floor collapsed and had to be completely replaced with a concrete structure. The whole building needed painting and decorating — though the damp meant no-one could actually get the wallpaper to stick to the walls! Various items were purchased second-hand or donated. Two members purchased an organ from Port Tennant. A communion set was donated by Libanus Church, Morriston. Pews came from a church in Ystalyfera. The first service was held in the new building on 9th September 1973. The building (subsequently extended) is pictured on the back cover.
Finally, it was possible to think through the biblical teaching on all aspects of church life. The scriptures were searched, other evangelical churches consulted, and over time a constitution emerged. On gospel matters Bethel continued as Trinity had always done, but on other matters there was an opportunity to think afresh. The Calvinistic Methodists had been content to be part of an episcopalian church, but as soon as they seceded they adopted a Presbyterian form of church government — they had long been Presbyterians at heart. And so it was with Trinity and Bethel. They had been content to worship as part of a paedobaptist church, but many in the church had long been baptistic at heart. The new constitution reflected that. Of most importance was the statement of faith — the declaration of what the church believed and would preach. It included the Scriptures, “both infallible and authoritative… our sole authority in all matters of faith and practice”. On salvation, it affirms, “We believe that through faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose death was a perfect oblation and satisfaction for our sins, the sinner is freely justified by God who, instead of reckoning to us our sins, reckons Christ’s righteousness to our account. Salvation is therefore by grace and not by human merit.” Written into the constitution, and forming part of the confession of faith, is the simple phrase, “The Church accepts the 1823 Confession of Faith of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists”. Bethel is no longer part of any denomination, but at heart it is still a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church.
In less than five years, the church had moved from having no manse, no building, and no funds, to being a healthy, vibrant witness to God in the community of Clydach, with all the facilities it needed.
In the eyes of the law, Bethel was an entirely new church when it was established in 1971. But in the eyes of God, it was not new at all. By 1975 Trinity/Bethel had met in five buildings, under seven minsters. It’s gone from being part of the Forward Movement, then part of the Presbyterian Church, and it’s now independent. It’s had a new name, and a new constitution. Is it really the same church?
New churches are not created by a change of building, or a change of minister. That had happened several times in the life of Trinity, and Trinity never stopped being Trinity. Neither does a change of name create a new church. Important though all those matters are, they’re secondary.
The essentials in church life are the people and their faith. That is what really matters. And by and large Trinity people stuck together to become Bethel people. As they did so they created a new constitution and statement of faith, which was certainly different in places from that of the Presbyterian church they left. But in all the essentials, Bethel’s beliefs were not new at all. Trinity had always been an evangelical church. The beliefs of Bethel were the beliefs of the Calvinistic Methodist fathers, of the Forward Movement pioneers, and of the founders of Trinity.
So Bethel is not a new church — it is an old church rediscovered. The same people. The same faith. The same commitment to the gospel. The same dependence on God. And in that sense 2011 does not mark Bethel’s 40th anniversary, but its 95th.