Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Looking over the fence - part 3

RTE: Wonderful. Can we go back some centuries and talk about how Wales, as we know it now, came into being?

Fr. Deiniol: The process was complicated. We first had the Celtic-speaking native British, who were pushed west as the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes gained ascendancy. In some places the original population of Britons probably mixed with them, in other places not. In Strathclyde, now in Scotland, for example, the Welsh language was spoken until the twelfth century, and the first Welsh poetry is found in Catterick in northern Yorkshire in England. Even to this day, when we speak in Welsh of the “old North,” we mean the area around Strathclyde.

At a certain point, various of these invading tribes developed kingdoms, such as in Mercia, where a wall was built separating the Brythonic-speaking Britons who had gone west, from the conquering tribes. In about the 7th century, the word “Welsh” began to be used by the English Anglo-Saxons, meaning “foreigners,” and the Welsh called themselves Cymry, which means “the brethren” or “compatriots.” We cannot speak of a separate England, Wales, and Scotland until that point.

So, the original Brythonic-speaking people in the old North, in Devon, Cornwall, and Wales, were now physically separated from one another. The Welsh language was eventually lost from the “old North,” and so it is no longer possible to identify the descendants of the ancient Britons who lived there. The Scots are not their descendants, but descendants of Irish migrants who settled there. That is why Scottish and Irish Gaelic are almost the same language. The Cornish language died in the 18th century. The only descendants of the ancient Britons who can still be identified are the people of Wales, and this is because we have preserved our ancient language. What we now call “the Welsh” is the identifiable remnant of the original people of the British Isles.

RTE: We tend to think of centers of early Romano-British Christianity as being near such places as York. When the Romans pulled out in the fifth century, did Wales also have a fully-established hierarchical church?

Fr. Deiniol: of course. They say that Bangor-in-Arfon in North West Wales was a diocese in the sense that we use the word now, as a territorial area from the sixth century. Bede talks about a monastery in Bangor-on-Dee (another Bangor) with 2,000 monks. Certainly, there were Celtic bishops as well.

Of course, we can’t speak about “The Celtic Church,” as if it was an organized entity that incorporated what we now call Brittany, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland into an identifiable independent body. It was part of the worldwide Church. It was catholic—but not in the contemporary sense of “Roman Catholic”—in faith and doctrine. There was coming and going, and there was much interest on the Continent about what was happening in Britain. Many writers speak of early Christianity here, and early fathers of the Church mention it as well—origen, Lactantius, Tertullian, Eusebius.

They knew of the Christian Church in Britain, and monks used to travel to the East from the Celtic-speaking lands on pilgrimage. There was evangelization along the trade routes, and our monks certainly went to see monastic life in Egypt, the Holy Land, Rome, and Constantinople. Monasticism here seemed to resemble more the Lavra system than the classical coenobitic monasteries that evolved in the West. There is also a tradition that the Celtic bishops St. David, St. Teilo, and St. Padarn were all consecrated by the patriarch of Jerusalem. According to tradition, one was given a sakkos, the bishop’s vestment, another, a portable altar, and the third, a bishop’s staff.

So there were connections with the East, but we don’t have to show a connection with the East to prove that this church of the Celts was Catholic and Orthodox in faith and doctrine. Yes, they had their local customs, such as shaving their head in a certain way for the monastic tonsure, as we find local customs today in various local Orthodox churches. And, as within Orthodoxy today, they had different calendars. After the Synod of Whitby, when the Church of the Celtic peoples adapted its local customs to conform to those of Rome, it came under Canterbury and thereby under Rome. So when the Great Schism came about, it was part of the patriarchate of the West, and went with the western Churches. Canterbury remained the primatial see of Britain.

RTE: How did the 11th-century Norman invasion affect Christian Wales?

Fr. Deiniol: In Wales, the Normans established many monasteries. In fact, all the big abbeys were established by them. The most significant thing about this was that, while previously the monasteries had followed the Orthodox tradition of being independent and generally self-ruling, now each monas­tery had to belong to one of the Western religious orders. The Welsh often chose the Augustinians, as being perhaps the nearest to the way of life they were accustomed to. There were also many Cistercian foundations in Wales, such as the monastery in Strata Florida. This is where the history of Wales, called “The Chronicles of the Princes,” in Welsh, Brut-y-Tywysogion, was written. The history of Wales begins with the death of St. Cadwaladr, the last Briton—i.e. Celt, to be king of Britain before the Saxons obtained the crown. He is the patron saint of The Wales Orthodox Mission. He was known for his compassion, otherworldliness, and generosity—giving away his possessions to those who had lost theirs and caring for the multitudes who were afflicted by a terrible plague which visited the land in those days.

RTE: With such a rich heritage, what allowed the Welsh and Scots to make such a radical change from traditional Catholicism and a Reformation-imposed Anglicanism, to Calvinism?

Fr. Deiniol: By the 18th century, the Anglican Church in Wales was pretty moribund. It was led by English, non-Welsh-speaking absentee Anglican bishops. Many of the clergy were also absentee and did not speak the language of the people (by no means everyone in Wales could speak English in those days).

When the Methodist Revival broke out in the U.K. and spread to Wales, John Wesley and Whitfield, his colleague, came to an agreement that Wesley would have England as missionary territory and Whitfield would take Wales. Methodism spread in Wales through the efforts of great “revivalists” like Howell Harris, Daniel Rowlands, and especially the magnificent hymnographer, William Williams of Pantycelyn, whose hymns are, by any measure, classics comparable to the great hymnographers of any Christian tradition, East or West. Thus, the people of Wales were offered a vibrant and rich religious life, in their own language.

Methodism became a popular movement—unlike the highly Anglicized Anglican Church in Wales which was essentially the Church of the landowners and to which the ordinary Welsh people may never have been very attached since the Reformation. The ordinary, poor Welsh people now had a form of Christianity of their own which flourished and produced some good fruit.

However, Whitfield was a Calvinist and so the form of Methodism that spread in Wales was Calvinistic Methodisim. When a Welsh person speaks of Methodism, he or she generally means this Calvinistic variety also known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales (the title they prefer these days). Methodism in England followed Wesley’s theology which was based on the teaching of Jacobus Arminius,which emphasizes free will as opposed to Calvin’s predestination.

Later on, Wesleyan Methodism also came to Wales, but it was a minority denomination here and strong only in certain specific areas. However, the Calvinists maintain (and I have heard this point being made by a Calvinist minister in my house a few years ago) that the ‘Wesleyans’ have no right to be in Wales owing to the agreement between Whitfield and Wesley.

I must say that the ethos of each of the two forms of Methodism was very different. They had very different cultures from each other. There was even a ditty about the Calvinists: ‘Nasty, cruel Methodists (i.e. Calvinists) who go to chapel without any grace….’

RTE: Have the Catholic and Anglican Churches returned in any force since?

Fr. Deiniol: The Roman Catholic Church, which was illegal for hundreds of years, only returned in the 19th century, although a few “recusant” families who could afford to pay the fines, remained Catholic. Accordingly, most Roman Catholics in Wales are not Welsh, but are usually partly of Polish or Irish extraction. There are some Welsh Roman Catholics but they aren’t numerous.

After the rise of Protestant Calvinism, the Anglican Church became a minority church compared to the Non-conformist denominations such as Baptists, Congregationalists, and Calvinists. only a small proportion of Welsh-speaking or culturally Welsh people belonged to it. This may still be true to some degree. It was only in the 20th century that the Anglican Church in Wales gained its independence from Canterbury and became disestablished.

So, we can say that this is a good time for Orthodoxy as a continuation of the Undivided Church, to be in Wales. None of the other churches dominate Welsh religious and cultural life, and people are not so sectarian in their mentality—it doesn’t mean as much to them now that they are Baptists or Calvinists. There is a very friendly atmosphere. Also, the prejudices against saints and their veneration (customs such as praying at shrines and holy wells, which reflect the sacramental understanding of life) are now more acceptable. At least we aren’t in the position of confrontation, and that is helpful.

RTE: Are people becoming more interested as they see your attempts to recover their heritage?

Fr. Deiniol: No, I don’t think so. The awareness of the saints is too lost. They are mostly remembered in place-names—for example, a majority of places in Wales begin with the prefix “Llan.” This can mean the church building, but it also means a Christian settlement, usually founded by a Christian saint. In many cases we are talking about the period of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, when the original Celtic-speaking British peoples began moving west. A saint might land on a coastal area, as did St. David, the patron saint of Wales, who went to a place called Vallis Rosina, “Valley of the Roses,” to live as a monk. The pagan tribes are at first hostile to him but eventually people are attracted by the holiness of his life and become Christian; a community forms, and around the community, a village. This is almost identical to what St. Sergei of Radonezh did in Russia, founding new hermitages and monasteries as he moved deeper into the forest.

These new communities that came into being because people were attracted by the saint who lived there, are called Llan, and very often in Welsh place-names, the name that follows Llan is the name of a saint: Llandanwg—the Christian settlement and Church of St. Tanwg, or Llandudno—the Church of St. Tudno.

What is this country that we now call Wales? It is the sum total of the Llans, these places created by saints, communities that didn’t exist before they came. As we travel these roads we go through one Llan after another, and each one is a saint’s name. This is why I use the expression, “Wales is a nation created by saints.”

But, even with such a rich history, we need more to awaken us than an understanding of place names. The young people in Russia, for example, still have a link with their spiritual past after the collapse of Soviet atheism—their grandmothers were still Orthodox Christians—but what we’ve had here was a much longer break. of course, after the Great Schism, I’m sure that very little changed, and much in Roman Catholic practice would have been indistinguishable from Orthodoxy for a very long time afterwards.

Even that break, however, goes back a thousand years, and the Reformation, which was largely destructive of tradition, goes back 400 years.

When we acquired our church, the Metropolitan suggested that we dedicate it to “All the Saints of Wales.” The idea is that when the church is finished with icons and frescoes, a person from any part of Wales will be able to come here and find his saint. This is part of our task, recreating this link with history, and this is done by things like the service to mark the opening of the Welsh Assembly, and the opportunity to give talks and welcome visitors to the church. our mission exists on various levels and different fronts.

RTE: And the interest will not only be local. We come across many interesting accounts of the strong appeal that the Celtic culture has, especially for young people, in many parts of the world.

Fr. Deiniol: of course, wonderful things have survived, such as The Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The art and imagery are amazing. The Christian Celts had developed a profound and deeply Christian culture. It’s not surprising that this should be of interest to people in other countries.

Orthodox youth in former Soviet countries or the emigration often think of their ancestral churches as something rather ethnic or old-fashioned. other things appear more interesting to them. But it’s a little bit like the Trojan Horse isn’t it? If they become interested in Celtic history and culture, they will soon find that inside, at the very core, is their own Christian faith.

The question for us is how we can encourage our own young people to be remotely interested in anything Christian whatsoever. As an old colleague of mine, Archimandrite Barnabas—the first Welsh Orthodox priest—used to say, the cultural legacy of Calvinistic teaching seems to have provided an immunization against all religious search and questions.

RTE: May God give the blessing.

From: Road to Emmaus, Winter 2009, No. 36.


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