Friday, 29 February 2008

A Saint David's Day Sermon - Given at Trinity College Carmarthen Today

“For Today's Wales”

By The Reverend Aled Edwards

At the point when the pain of the insecurity of Jesus' own future becomes revealed on the mount of transfiguration he gathers the familiar around him: Peter, James and John. For a time, Jesus moves away from the sound of the crowd so that transformation may occur.

The process takes on a mood. As we discern a shift from the active to the passive - Jesus is increasingly done to from this point on - God the Father provides the security of the law giver and the envisioning prophet and the comfort of his own affirming words to God the Son. This enables a difficult moving on into the hands of others.

Being confronted by the deadening hand of the passive is very much a feature of the lives of those who have claimed sanctuary in modern Wales. It goes hand in hand, it appears, with weakness.

Jesus was familiar with the weakness and fears of a small nation. He belonged to a people who had a memory of being strangers in another land – thus we recall Moses: they also had a recollection of having conflicts with strangers in their own land – thus we recall Elijah. From this point on, Jesus would undertake a process by which he would increasingly be put in the hands of others – especially foreigners. This Jew, following the noise of the crowd, would ultimately be given over by his own people to the foreign Romans.

Understandably, moving on into the hands of others is difficult for Jesus. It appears to be even more difficult, at this stage, for those within Jesus' own world. Notably, Peter wishes to 'pickle the moment' of what seems to be a national event by building a tent. From generation to generation - when confronted by the insecurity of the future - the desire to contain a moment with echoes of the past becomes all too real.

Thus, I ask a question around Wales' national day: is this event a stirring that enables us to confront the challenges of different futures or is it an attempt to 'contain' the perceived securities of a discerned cultural and religious past?

If we took Wales to a modern mountain top, what would we really see? Not too long ago, Dai Smith opened the first chapter of his Wales! Wales? (1985) by defining Wales as a: ‘singular noun but a plural experience.’ His discernment has now, I would suggest, moved on in one significant way in our century. This plural experience is no longer to be seen primarily as a reality between communities in well defined and safe places but as an internal complexity within the individuals that now form the modern, diverse and sophisticated experience that is Wales.

Let me illustrate the point. The demography of the Welsh language has changed dramatically in my lifetime as a Welsh speaking Christian. It has undertaken a significant journey.

My Welsh speaking world as a child was predominantly ageing, rural and declining. The modern Welsh speaking world of my adulthood is young, urban and growing. The Welsh speaking world used to be a mainly 'first language' and Christian experience, it is now a 'second language' experience and mainly non-Christian in adherence.

The modern Welsh speaker increasingly buys into a multiplicity of identities. Only some of those identities are Welsh speaking but all are experienced through the eyes of those who can now, with increasing frequency, understand Welsh and speak it - albeit with a new and younger accent with all its mispronunciations. That part of my identity that is Welsh speaking has always been familiar with weakness and the demands of change.

In truth, Wales has always been vulnerable to redefinition as it has had to move on repeatedly to a different place. The Welsh, from generation to generation, have been compelled either to redefine themselves or to perish into assimilation. Today, as ever, we are confronted by the false securities offered by the policies offered so easily by fear or perhaps more significantly, by nostalgia: we are also offered quietly the risky and vulnerable hope offered by aspiration – or indeed, by the scandalous good news of the Gospel that offers light in darkness - bright light that enables a moving on.

Increasing, Wales is not alone. We now live in a world where one in every thirty five of us on the globe lives in a country in which we were not born in. Everywhere in Western Europe, the dark fear of the difference of moving on is to be seen not only in the eyes of the visitor but also in the eyes of those who are hosts. Increasingly, it is seen in the eyes of the host.

The more reasoned response to the recent comments of Archbishop Rowan concerning the apparent unavoidability of the introduction of Sharia law cast light on a difficult and complicated issue: the sheer ferocity and verbal violence of much of the response came from a dark place within our very modern fear of difference and having to engage with a society that is unavoidably moving on.

Jesus knew that the truth of his moving on could not be easily told either. Indeed such was his concern, he forbad the telling of it. Fear is not only blinding: it is also deafening. He would later weep at his journeying through the cheering crowd.

Driven towards aspiration and hope rather than fear, Wales, at its very best, can sometimes whisper affirmations that show signs of hope and enable a moving on. I attempt to offer a very selective counter narrative – a whisper somewhere within all the shouting.

When the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) recorded in 2005 that the people of Cardiff were the least likely of all the UK cities questioned to fear that asylum seekers would threaten their identity, the Cardiff’s experience of multiculturalism was highlighted as a possible factor of importance. IPPR’s report didn’t fully explore how rich a vein of human experience it was tapping into and how a people come to a place where they have a given capacity to contend with change by redefining themselves from generation to generation. It merely spoke of the political lead taken by a fledgling Assembly, the independence of the Welsh media and the city’s own unique history of welcoming different peoples who had moved on to be there.

From the very origins of the Welsh as a flickering but distinct people, Wales has offered its own insight and response to the migration, forced exile and displacement of peoples as they have moved on. The complicated interplay between migration, war, political persuasion and popular perception has been observed over many centuries. The same may also be said of a nation’s capacity to welcome incomers set alongside, within each generation, insecurities over the preservation of a sense of identity when encountering new and different people.

The Welsh historian Gwyn Alf Williams elaborates on a process of recreation and redefinition in his When Was Wales? (1985) by conjuring up memories of one of the mythological characters of the Welsh Mabinogion stories and states vividly that: ‘the presiding spirit of Welsh history has been the shape-shifter Gwydion the Magician, who always changed his shape and always stayed the same.’ (p.6)

The Welsh have, from the very earliest of times, been defined and filtered through mispronunciation.

Williams (1985) noted how a Greek geographer, Pytheas of Massilia, made a journey along the western sea-rout and described the islands he saw as Pretanic. This word survives to this day in the Welsh name Prydain, used by Welsh speakers to describe their own British island. Williams points out that it is a genuinely Celtic name and derives from a form of speech which became Brittonic, once the language of Britain. Mischievously, he also suggests that the Romans may have mispronounced it; in Latin, they called the island Britannia and its people Britanni. The very birth of Britain flows from the capacity of a people to translate and transform as identities are relayed between peoples. Even through mispronunciation.

Julius Caesar apparently heard reports that the Britanni were a wild people, growing no corn, living on milk and flesh, clothing themselves in skins and believing themselves to have grown out of the ground because they were the oldest people on the island. The blind misrepresentation of peoples by those who hold the reigns of power over the politics of perception is very much a modern phenomenon as well as an ancient experience. We predominantly still hear the mutterings of our own crowds.

We also hear our own shouting. Centuries after Julius Caesar received his reports about the Britanni, AA Gill famously wrote in the Sunday Times (1997) that the modern inhabitants of the same territories, the Welsh, are: ‘loquacious dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’[i]. Stereotyping has a historic function in the interplay between the powerful and the powerless or different. The powerful may deliberately blind themselves to the effects of false perceptions on the powerless. Speaking well of nations as well as peoples now, as ever, demands courage.

But, victims also have to look to their own blindness and deafness to the narrative that enables a moving on. Ironically, in 1282, Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, Llewelyn the Last, made an eloquent plea to the Archbishop of Canterbury complaining of the way in which Edward I was oppressing the people of Wales. Writing from his court at Garth Celyn some two months before his own death in an ambush at Cilmeri near Builth Wells, Llewelyn complained that the Welsh were being treated like the ‘Saracens and the Jews’. It was a plea that a Christian nation should not be treated in the same manner as infidels. I presume that Llewelyn had no real issue with the Sarecans and the Jews being treated badly: he just didn’t like being treated like they were being treated.

The law makers and prophets can also be compromised. Let me recollect a conveniently hidden past. Conquering Wales commanded a heavy price of the English realm and led in 1290 to the first systematic expulsion of the Jews from any country in Christian Europe - a forced moving on. The cost of maintaining Edward’s empire stood at a staggering third of a million pounds. Encouraged by the Church and popular opinion, Edward had already deprived England’s Jews of a traditional means of income by abolishing usury. He had also compelled them to wear yellow badges of recognition. Having agreed to the expulsion, Edward was granted an enormous grant of taxes. Conquering Wales indirectly created some three thousand Jewish refugees.

Even in more modern times, the moving on and the receiving of peoples has had a mixed history in Wales. Grahame Davies highlights how by 1914 Jewish communities of a maximum of some 5,000 persons were found in Cardiff, Swansea, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontypridd, Brynmawr and Tredegar. These communities integrated well and many picked up the Welsh language particularly in the western Valleys. It was also in the Valleys that they encountered the shameful anti-Jewish Gwent riots of 1911.

Jesus, the Jew, moved on from the mount of transfiguration. Ultimately his telling of truth would clash with the power and the populous of his own land. Politics and the shouting of the crowd are never that far away from each other.

At his trial, Jesus looked Pilate in the eye and dared to raise questions about the nature and origins of his use of power. He implied that if Pilate had used his power in a way that was consistent with its God-given nature, his actions would be of a different moral order – he would have done more than listen to the crowd. Pilate’s power could have been transformed so that it took truth seriously. His cynical response “What is truth?” made him incapable of the transformation or metanoia which Jesus offers as a real possibility.

For the Christian community, Christ’s resurrection and the Pentecost experience proclaim a transformation. The Resurrection proclaims that the rulers of the world are judged; and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost proclaims the infinite resources for transformation for those who seek the Kingdom of God. The same theme is developed by Paul’s writing on the proclamation of the Cross: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1: 23-25).

This week, a Welsh transformation occurred in Splott. The story began for me some three or four years ago in total vulnerability when I was supposed to go to the Lightship in Cardiff Bay one morning but felt strangely moved not to go. I prayed hard that morning and gradually walked over in the direction of Butetown.

There I stayed a while and prayed some more. The unfamiliar, a young fifteen year old girl from Iran tapped me nervously on the shoulder. She and her mother, like a latter day Ruth and Naomi, wanted help to find a solicitor that would take their asylum application. They needed the help of the law and the encouragement of the prophetic.

On taking them to the offices of a local charity that could help them I noticed two things. The mother and daughter shared a glass of water. They also began to cry. I asked why they were crying. The young girl explained that they were crying for joy. Just before I had walked down the alleyway into that part of Butetown, they as good Muslims, had prayed for an angel. They had no objection to that angel being a Christian – under the circumstances any sort of angel would do!

This week, on hearing the news that she and her family had, at long last, been given permission to stay in Wales as refugees we recalled the events of the day when it became apparent that coincidences can be God’s way of keeping angels anonymous. I noticed her glass of water: she noticed my accent and felt the courage to say “good morning, or is it good night?” in her best Welsh before concluding in English “I can’t remember what good afternoon is in Welsh, but it isn’t a good afternoon anyway.”

I have moved on since then and so has she. Because of her academic ability she has been offered a place to study law in Cardiff University and she has also been made a special youth ambassador by the UN. This week, both of us reflected on what would have happened if either of us had gone to where we intended to go rather than to where we were meant to be.

Let me assure you of my deepest conviction that there is no safer place to be than where God wishes you to be. This is true of individuals, cultures and nations. I pray today that Wales’ churches will have the courage and the conviction to take this ever changing small nation of ours to those places that God would have it go to and that we may all have the grace and courage to move on – whatever the cost.

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