Christians Speaking Welsh
Winds of Change: The Roman Catholic Church and Society in Wales 1916-1962
by Preston Jones
Had Wales not converted to Protestantism in general and, by the nineteenth century, to Evangelicalism in particular, it’s unlikely that the country’s ancient tongue would have survived to the extent it has. Welsh is the healthiest of all the Celtic languages: over 20 percent of the inhabitants of Wales speak it.
Most Welsh-speakers know that their mother tongue survived in Sunday schools and nonconformist (i.e., non-Anglican) chapels. This truth pervades Welsh culture the way the story of Paul Revere’s ride pervades American culture: everyone has heard it, few really comprehend it, and its current relevance is difficult for average folk to enunciate. And yet it is profoundly relevant that when it was against the rules to teach or speak Welsh in Britain’s public schools, Bible stories, sermons, hymns and prayers, pronounced in Welsh, filled the gap and thus gave birth to the notion that Welsh was “a language of heaven.” To speak Welsh was not only to resist the anglicization of Wales; it was to be reminded that Welsh identity was intimately associated with biblical religion. In an informative paper recently published in Religion, State & Society titled “Christianity and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Wales,” D. Densil Morgan writes that at the end of the nineteenth century, to be a Welshman was to be a Christian—in particular, a Protestant.
The trouble with Protestantism is that, in time, it can undo itself. Individualistic Bible readers split from one another, with no final interpretive authority to adjudicate between them; and, eventually, individualistic Protestants are transformed into mere individualists. In the past few decades in Wales this common phenomenon has meant the closing of chapels and a search among a now nominally Christian population for things that still give the Welsh a sense of collective purpose.
Not surprisingly, the search has led to some dead ends. At the third annual conference of the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History, held in 1997 (the proceedings were made available in 2000), Caroline Reynolds, “teacher of selfempowerment [sic] and personal development,” illustrated the point rather well. In her paper “Wales—The Resurrection of a Nation” Ms. Reynolds took up the cutting edge and advocated smashing “the taboos and icons of a stagnant past.” Reynolds’s staggeringly original battle cry was soon followed by this stunning announcement: “Wales now has world class rock bands to be proud of.” The fact, moreover, that Sir Anthony Hopkins is a native of Wales served to prove to Reynolds that together the Welsh have sought out “the brightest and best as a source of national inspiration and pride.” No wonder that when, in the spring of 2000, Hopkins exchanged his British citizenship for an American passport he was bitterly denounced in certain Welsh quarters. His betrayal was enough to make some Welshmen lose their faith. (And what were the names of those Welsh rock bands?)
Through the mid-twentieth century Saunders Lewis, a leading Welsh nationalist who had himself converted to Catholicism in the 1920s, suggested that the Welsh should return to the faith of their post-pagan, pre-Reformation ancestors. Lewis believed that in addition to its liturgical beauty (expressed, albeit, in Latin not Welsh), Catholicism could bestow upon the Welsh a sense of unity, a common bond to which they could cling in the face of the societal atomization already wracking the Western world. But as Trystan Owain Hughes shows in his recent and very fine history of Catholicism in twentieth-century Wales, Winds of Change, not many Welsh heeded Lewis’s advice. As was generally true throughout Western Christendom until the early 1960s, Welsh Protestants viewed Catholics as heretics, and the opinion was reciprocated. Not wanting to sign up with the Whore of Babylon and the supposed Romish coddler of European fascists, a large majority of the Welsh never gave Catholicism serious consideration. And by the time most Welsh were willing to “tolerate” Catholics, Wales had become sufficiently secular to render their newfound cordiality irrelevant.
Not that Welsh Protestants (nonconformists and Anglicans) were completely to blame for the relative weakness of Catholicism in Wales. Hughes points out that most Catholics themselves were not Welsh-speakers; often enough they were immigrants from Ireland or other Catholic countries; and they had no particular loyalty to the Welsh nation. And while some Welsh-speaking Catholics strongly advocated teaching Catholic clergy to speak Welsh for reasons evangelistic and prudential, there was little demand for such among most Catholics living in Wales. Thus, Welsh-speakers perceived Catholicism as foreign in both theological and cultural terms. The end result was pretty neither for Christianity in Wales nor for the Welsh language.
The good news, perhaps, is that post-Christian Welsh-speaking Wales is, so to say, even less pretty. Obviously, one doesn’t pine for the days of interdenominational fratricide. But what can be said truthfully about the olden days is that the Christian faith, as expressed in a certain language, bestowed upon Welsh-speakers a sense of meaning and purpose: of the millions of people on the globe, only those noble few (along with a dwindling crew of colonists in Argentina) were able to address their Maker in the notoriously difficult language of Wales. Today, Welsh-speakers still seek meaning. They seek it in rock bands, movie stars, Welsh-language TV, and a plethora of other cultural dead ends. They also seek it in the memories of a time before poetry had been blown to bits by nihilists in tweed and when hymns—Welsh hymns—were more than relics.
Perhaps as the Welsh continue to be necessarily disappointed by their cultural heroes and political leaders (most of whom are, after all, media inventions) those hymns can be dusted off. And maybe now that the Catholics and Evangelicals of Welsh-speaking Wales are able to meet on common ground, they can resist the trivialization of their language and culture that comes with the impulse to hipsterhood. For surely the intelligent among them know that Welsh rock bands won’t save their language. The people of Wales will save the language. But they must have a good reason for doing so. And popular culture isn’t good enough.
Some Welsh writers know that this is true, and the point is made eloquently by D. P. Davies, in his book Against the Tide: Christianity in Wales on the Threshold of a New Millennium (Gomer Press). “At this juncture in our national history and in the history of Christianity in our land,” Davies writes, “what is required of Christians in Wales is the boldness to be truly radical—to go back not only to our roots in the Celtic Church, but to our original roots in the small communities of enthusiastic and committed Christians who first responded to the call of the gospel in countries around the Mediterranean Sea. If we can recover these roots and draw on the strength and inspiration they give we can face the new millennium not with despair, but in hope, the hope that we shall be worthy servants of society in this dear land of Wales.”
International revival has begun in Wales before. Might that happen again? A fynno Duw, a fydd. What God wills will be.
Preston Jones, a contributing editor to Books & Culture and book reviewer for the National Post (Toronto), teaches at Logos Academy in Dallas, Texas. He reads Welsh.
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“Christians Speaking Welsh” first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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