Presidential Address – Governing Body September 2013

This year is the centenary of the birth of two important people in the history of the Church in Wales.  Most of you will know that it is R S Thomas’ centenary because events have been held in his honour throughout the principality, but the late Archbishop G O Williams, Bishop of Bangor for 25 years from 1957 – 1982, and Archbishop of Wales for 11 of those years, was also born in 1913.  It is worth noting, that both of them were born before disestablishment but spent their working lives in a disestablished Church.

G O, of course, was RS Thomas’ bishop when the latter was parish priest of Aberdaron and sadly they did not get on.  I say that, because the bishop took R S Thomas to a Diocesan Court for his failure to have written confirmation that banns had been called in a neighbouring parish for the bridegroom living there, who was marrying a girl from Aberdaron, and that in spite of the fact that RS had ascertained from the groom’s friends and relatives that the banns had in fact been called.  Rifts between bishops and clergy are always sad and do not leave either party unaffected but there is a special sadness when there is a falling out between a bishop, who had an Oxford double first in English and Theology and one of the most remarkable 20th Century poets who happened to be serving in his diocese.  That is not to say that R S was an easy person to have as a cleric, since he would have regarded bishops as necessary evils at best and at worst, well, who knows.  He is on record as saying that “if someone wanted to be a bishop he needed his head examined”.

G O Williams was born in Penisarwaun in the Diocese of Bangor and was a Presbyterian until he went to Oxford as a student.  After a year at St Stephen’s House, he served in turn as Curate of Denbigh, lecturer at St David’s College Lampeter, Warden of the Church Hostel at Bangor, Headmaster of Llandovery and became Bishop of Bangor at the age of 44.  R S by contrast, was born in Cardiff, spent his childhood in Holyhead and spent most of his life, after a curacy at Chirk, in country parishes in Manafon, Eglwysfach and Aberdaron in the Dioceses of St Asaph, St Davids and Bangor respectively.

In R S’s case, of course, it gave him the chance to write poetry but it gives pause to wonder what clergy who didn’t write poetry did, in those days, being responsible for tiny parishes.  It is a question worth bearing in mind when we sometimes bemoan the grouping of such parishes.

G O of course, was prominent in the national life of Wales.  Partly as a result of his alliance with Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, he persuaded the then Home Secretary William Whitelaw that Wales needed an independent broadcasting channel, S4C.  He was a doughty fighter for the rights of the Welsh language in a bilingual church.  He led from the front and was ahead of his diocese in its thinking and introduced new ideas about ministry and mission so that Bangor became a pioneering diocese in many ways.  He was also ahead of his time as far as the province was concerned too.  It was he who commissioned the Harris report into the boundaries and structures of the Church in Wales.  He believed that Wales needed an Archiepiscopal See and he was a great protagonist for ecumenism of the Covenant for unity with certain nonconformist churches.  Like archbishops before, and since, he saw all these proposals turned down.

So here was a man who certainly left his imprint on the Church in Wales.  He chaired the commission responsible for translating the Bible into modern Welsh and was for a time chairman of the Council of Churches for Wales.

R S Thomas too left his imprint on his parishes – many testify to the fact that he sat with the dying and took relatives to Bangor Hospital from Aberdaron because they had no other means of getting there.  All that is the antidote to the rather grumpy, curmudgeonly image he sometimes projected.  However, his poetry has had a worldwide impact – translated into many languages, narrowly missing the Nobel Prize for Literature.  There is no doubt that he has helped thousands of people in their quest for a faith that can stand the rigour of intellectual scrutiny and it is about some of those aspects of faith raised in his poetry by him that I want to speak.  They are very relevant for our present discussions as a Governing Body, as we wrestle with various issues, whatever our views on these issues.  We all have a tendency to think that when we speak, God is bound to be on our side of the argument and approves of our particular viewpoint.  Some of his poetry and his writings are a powerful antidote to that.  “Poetry” he wrote “is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart”.[1]

Now, I am not going to give a lecture on the poetry of R S Thomas but I do want to single out one or two things that I think might help us.

First, his thoughts about God.  For him, defining God was not possible and the major themes of his poetry are about the hiddenness of God, the illusiveness of God, the mystery of God, the silence of God, the darkness of God, even the absence of God.  We forget sometimes that the Christian tradition, the Bible, the great Christian mystics have all maintained that God is ultimately unknowable as He is in Himself – a mystery to which our human words can only point by analogy.  Only something that can be fully defined can be proved and so since it is impossible to prove the existence of God in the abstract, God remains a concept, an idea about the way things are.

Thomas reminds us that God is not an object among other objects to be explored, but a mystery in whose presence one can ultimately only rest in faith, hope and prayerful silence.  Since God is beyond anything, which we can conceive or understand, it is only through using images, metaphors and analogies that we can begin to find a language for Him, and whatever language we do use about Him, it is always provisional, incomplete, inadequate.

One often has to resort to saying what God is not, rather than what He is.  It was the prophet Isaiah who wrote ‘To whom can God be compared?  His thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways are not our ways’.[2]

As R S Thomas himself says, ‘it’s the attempt to define him – that’s when the trouble begins – perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to define him, because if the creature can comprehend his creator, his creator is no longer a creator.’ [3]

So he writes:

         ‘My equations fail

         As my words do.’[4] (The Absence)

 

         ‘Genes and molecules

         have no more power to call

him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars.’[5] (The Absence)

 

Modern technological man has no more ability to reach God than his less sophisticated predecessors because God is awesome and beyond our reach.

In his most recent volume “Uncollected Poems” published only this year, he has a poem entitled “The Computer is Unable to Find God – no code number, no address”.

“Silence”, says R S Thomas, “is God’s chosen medium of communication”.[6]  The silent God evokes our silence in turn in His presence, but the paradox is that in and through that silence, an encounter sometimes occurs.

“It is when one is not looking,

         that it comes”.[7] (Sea-watching)

He also addresses the issue posed by some scientists that there is no need for God in an evolutionary world – it has all happened by chance.  Thomas writes:

“Promising myself before bedtime

To contend more urgently

With the problem.  From nothing

Nothing comes.  Behind everything –

Something, somebody?” [8]  (The Promise)

But for Thomas, this God has revealed Himself supremely in the person of Jesus and for him, in spite of what he said about the elusiveness of God, the heart of the Gospel was about God’s love for His world, made manifest in Jesus Christ.

‘He kneeled long,

         and saw love in a dark crown

         Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree

         Golden with fruit of a man’s body.’[9] (In a Country Church)

In and through the crucifixion of Jesus, the love of God shines through.  That vision is depicted here by golden fruit, gold being the traditional colour of divinity.  A tree which might look very dead in winter, is in fact full both of golden fruit and blazing thorns.

Another poem has the same theme of this new life coming through the Cross of Jesus:

‘Not the empty tomb

         but the uninhabited

         cross.  Look long enough

         and you will see the arms

         put on leaves.  Not a crown

         of thorns, but a crown of flowers

         haloing it, with a bird singing

         as though perched on paradise’s threshold.’[10] (Counterpoint)

In and through Jesus, God is revealed as a suffering God, identifying with His world.  Jesus reveals God’s true nature.

So although it is impossible, as he says, to fully understand and comprehend God, yet this God is not some kind of remote, inaccessible, impassable God, unaffected by what happens to His world.  In Jesus, God draws near to His world, suffers with His world, and his nature is that of outflowing love towards that world.  That is God’s response to the evil and tragedy of His world – becoming involved in it.  It goes to the heart of what St Paul means when he writes that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. 

The Cross is:

a mystery

         terrifying enough to be named Love.’[11] (Laboratories of the Spirit)

How that is so, is for us to work at and work out.  There are no trite, simplistic answers just a conviction that God’s nature is love – which is, of course, what the New Testament says about God and his revelation in Jesus.

Jesus is God’s explosive word.

“What word so explosive

As that one Palestinian

Word with the endlessness of its fall out?”[12]   (Nuclear)

God’s word is far more explosive than any atom or bomb and he sums up his theology of the word becoming flesh and of God, saving the world through Jesus, in a poem entitled “The Coming”.

“And God held in his hand

A small globe.  Look, he said.

The son looked.  Far off,

As through water, he saw

A scorched land of fierce

Colour.  The light burned

There; crusted buildings

Cast their shadows; a bright

Serpent, a river

Uncoiled itself, radiant

With slime.

         On a bare

Hill a bare tree saddened

The sky.  Many people

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs.  The son watched

Them.  Let me go there, he said.”[13] (The Coming)

Thomas  was not always terribly polite about the Church.  He writes:

“We have over-furnished

our faith.  Our churches

are limousines in the procession

towards heaven”. [14] (Counterpoint)

 

“… History showed us

He was too big to be nailed to the wall

Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him

Between the boards of a black book”.[15]  (A Welsh Testament) 

This God is such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive”.[16]  (Pilgrimages)

Now, I am in danger of getting carried away but I just want to say three very brief things by way of conclusion.

In a poem entitled “The Other” he says something very profound about prayer.

“There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl
calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and
falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without
light
and companionless. And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.” 
(The Other)

We have had a great deal to say about vocation in recent years.  This is what RS has to say about priestly vocation.

‘Crippled Soul’, do you say? Looking at him

From the mind’s height; ‘limping through life

On his prayers.  There are other people

In the world, sitting at table,

Contented, through the broken body

And the shed blood are not on the menu”.

‘Let it be so’ I say.  ‘Amen and Amen’[17]  (The Priest)

Thomas is also, to my mind, a poet of hope.  We, as a church, can sometimes be obsessed with statistics and attendance figures and worried that our influence is not as it once was.  He reminds us for how long and how deeply the Christian faith has influenced this country’s life.  We should not be discouraged he says, and it is fitting that he should have the last word.

‘… These very seas

are baptised.   The parish

has a saint’s name time cannot

unfrock …

… people

are becoming pilgrims

again, if not to this place,

then to the recreation of it

in their own spirits.  You must remain

kneeling”.[18]  (The Moon in Lleyn)

We must indeed.



[1] Residues, Bloodaxe Books, Northumberland, 2002

[2] Isaiah 40 v18; 55 v8

[3] Anglo-Welsh Review 74 (1983), R S Thomas talks to J B Lethbridge

[4] The Absence, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990, p361

[5] The Absence, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990, p361

[6] The New Mariner, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990, p388

[7] Sea-watching, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990, p306

[8] The Promise – Uncollected Poems

[9] In a Country Church, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990

[10] Counterpoint, Bloodaxe Books, 1990, p37

[11] Laboratories of the Spirit, Macmillan, London, 1975

[12] Nuclear, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990

[13] The Coming, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990

[14] Counterpoint, Bloodaxe Books, 1990, p.37

[15] A Welsh Testament, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990,  p.117

[16] Pilgrimages, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990

[17] The Priest, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990

[18] The Moon in Lleyn, Collected Poems 1945 – 1990, Phoenix, London, 1990, p.282