Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Looking over the fence - part 1

When I used to live with my parents we had a house with a long back garden and running along the left hand  side a six foot hedge and along the right hand side a five foot brick wall. We used to know our neighbours on the right very well and my mother would often pop round for a chat and a cup of tea, or she would lean over the wall whilst gardening to talk about the weather or share gardening tips. Sadly the same could not be said of our neighbours on the left. This was in part to do with the fact that the hedge was so high, but also partly because the person next door didn't come into the garden ofetn and even when they did, all we seemed to hear was them complaining about the noise on our side (made, it has to be said, by me and my friends messing around).

But how different would things have been if the hedge were lower, and we could see and speak to the anonymous person the other side. Perhaps we could have struck up a friendship, or at least a greater understanding of one another. After we lived in the same street, shared a common hedge and were, after all, neighbours.

I use this as an introduction to the following 'conversation' which took place between two people, both Eastern Orthodox Christians.The one being interviewed is Hieromonk Deiniol, the sole native Welsh Orthodox priest, the founder of the Wales Orthodox Mission, and pastor of the Church of All Saints in the North Wales mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. He travelled with Road to Emmaus magazine in 2009 to ancient and little-known pre-schism shrines of the Welsh countryside. Along the way he talked with the interviewer of early Welsh Christianity, the effects of post-Reformation Calvinism, and the state of the Welsh Church today. It's an interesting insight into Christianity in Wales from an Orthodox perspective, as well as an opportunity to 'talk over the fence' with one of our brothers in Christ and get to know them a bit better.

RTE: father, how did a native Welshman end up as an Orthodox priest in Blaenau Ffestiniog?

Fr. Deiniol: I originate from Anglesey, an island off the coast of North Wales, and I became Orthodox at the age of twenty, when I was living and studying in London. I became a monk in 1977, and was ordained a priest in 1979 by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourouzh, who gave me the task of opening an Orthodox church in North Wales. At that time, the nearest church was in Liverpool, which was very far for people from north-west Wales. After ordination I moved a few miles from where I was living to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where I’ve been for twenty-six years.

RTE: And what can you tell us about this remote and beautiful town?

Fr. Deiniol: The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog is a depressed post-industrial town in the middle of the mountains. It was a very busy town while the slate industry flourished, one of three or four such areas in north Wales, and in the 19th century, it employed many thousands of people. Unlike the other slate-mining areas in north Wales, extraction of the slate in Blaenau Ffestiniog took place underground. In other locations it was above ground, or at least in open pits, but here the slate was mined beneath the earth, and the conditions were terrible. Mines were often full of dust from blasting the slate, and smoke from the explosives.

The men worked in the dark with candles on their helmets. They were answerable to the mine’s steward and if they arrived at work a minute late they were sent home. They worked chained. A chain was fastened around their upper leg, and they were suspended from this chain, which was attached to a rod hammered into the slate face. In other countries, these working conditions are considered penal conditions, for example, in the old salt mines in Siberia. In the winter, the slate miners wouldn’t see the light of day. They started work before dawn and finished after dark.

Nevertheless, there was a sort of vibrant cultural life in those mining towns, partly due to the fact that these miners didn’t want bright young men to have to work in the same conditions. They would save money, for example, and gather pennies and subscriptions to send bright youngsters to the university. Many young men from that time owe a lot to their mining families and friends, who made sure that they didn’t have to go into the mines. In fact, those miners paid to set up the University of Wales.

In just such a way they built their nonconformist chapels, of which at one time there were forty-two in our town which, at its height, had a population of 12,000. Having all of these sectarian chapels was characteristic of Welsh society at the time.

That was the formative period for Blaenau Ffestiniog, but we have to realize that because the town is located very high up in the mountains at the end of a valley, in the normal course of events, no one would have thought of building a town there. It came into being only because of the slate mining industry, and is built in the shape of an inverted horseshoe—so you can be on one side of the town and look across the valley to the other side.

In addition to valuing culture, many people, of course, also valued their religious heritage, but as in most other places in North Wales, this was a very Calvinistic form of Protestantism. In the South Wales valleys, where coal mining was the dominant industry, Calvinism didn’t dominate in the same way. This is something we should return to when we analyze the logistics of what Orthodox mission involves in a post-Calvinist society.

RTE: When did the slate mining stop?

Fr. Deiniol: It hasn’t stopped; it continues, but on a much-reduced scale. People sometimes compare the North Wales slate-mining areas with the South Wales coal-mining valleys. If you go to a place called Tylotrstown in the Small Rhondda Valley, you wonder where does Tylotrstown end and where does the next town, Ferndale, begin?

These villages run into each other in a row, whereas in North Wales slate-mining towns were quite separate communities, particularly Blaenau Ffestiniog, and there is a certain air of isolation here. Also, of course, after the decline of the industry, it became a post-industrial town, which means that this town, which produced an income of millions of pounds from which the local people never benefited, then became a place of unemployment.

We have all the characteristics of the postindustrial communities of north-east England that are one hundred times our size, and the Pennsylvania coal-mining areas in the States: high degrees of social exclusion, substance abuse, family breakup, the break-down of social cohesion.

So this is the town I live in, a very poor town, high levels of unemployment and many people with a sense of hopelessness. Nevertheless, they wouldn’t think of turning to church, because the Calvinist legacy is a very negative one. I’m not saying that everything was bad about the chapels; the Nonconformist tradition produced a genuine Christian spirituality with a real love of Scripture, a real love of God, and very fine hymnography, but it had a shadow side, and this shadow side was Calvinism and its censoriousness, being very judgmental and placing people in categories. It wasn’t known for its compassion for the frail and vulnerable, or for those whose lives took a negative turn.

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