By The Reverend Gethin Rhys
This article is a translation of the original article which was published in Welsh on Cambria Nostra 09/11/17
On 31 October this year the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation was commemorated; a celebration for some, a cause of pain for others – and of no interest at all to many.
Here, in Wales, the national celebration was held in the Cathedral of the Catholic Church in Cardiff. Whilst sitting there I pondered what the monk, Martin Luther, would have made of that. Processing in at the beginning were the Catholic Archbishop, George Stack; the new Archbishop of the Church in Wales, John Davies; the President of the Free Church Council of Wales, Rheinallt Thomas; the Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance in Wales, Elfed Godding; and the pastor of the German Lutheran Churches in Wales, Albrecht Büurma.
In reality each of these five traditions is indebted to the Protestant Reformation. The latter four would not be in existence were it not for the Reformation. And, as George Stack himself stated, the Catholic Church needed Martin Luther so that it, itself, could reform in the following years and centuries. The singing was joyous and the socialising was warm. The motto of Cytûn (Churches together in Wales) when it was established in 1990 was ‘Nid dieithriaid mwyach, ond pererinion ynghyd’ (No longer strangers, but pilgrims together). And that sentiment was felt – these leaders knew each other, and even those who had stepped into a Catholic Cathedral for the first time felt at ease.
Although most in Wales are not familiar with Lutheranism, its presence in three congregations (Llanelli, Swansea and Cardiff) remind us of the importance of the European continent in our development as a nation. Including German in the service, along with Welsh and English, served as a reminder, at a crucial time, of our European heritage as well as of our Protestant heritage.
Wales remained Catholic for half a century after the coming of the Reformation. The English services of the Church of England were no more intelligible than were the Latin services of the Old Religion. But, in 1567, the New Testament and the Book Of Common Prayer were translated by William Salesbury, and Queen Elizabeth decreed that they should be used throughout Wales. The Protestantism that was strengthening throughout Europe became meaningful in Wales. But Catholicism persisted in remote rural areas. In Breconshire, from 1662 onwards, the Senni Valley was a very unique place, full of Independents (who had built a meeting place there at the necessary distance from the church) and Catholics (who were not held to account by the authorities as the area was so remote). Inevitably there was inter-marriage between the families, but the two religions existed side by side in this Welsh valley for centuries.
In this respect, the Senni Valley gave a foretaste of the Christian fellowship in the Cathedral in 2017. But other things have changed. Welsh is not the main language of the Senni valley, nor of Wales, any more. The amazing variety of denominations and the kinds of Christianity cause confusion to all who are not a part of them, and to many who do belong. And many Welsh people will be totally unaware of the significance of this 500th anniversary.
And yet, today’s Wales would not be in existence without it. Were it not for William Salesbury and Elizabeth I it is very possible that the Welsh language would have suffered the same fate as Cornish, and would have disappeared by 1800. Were it not for Nonconformist Protestantism and its ability to build chapels swiftly, there would not have been pastoral or practical care in the south Wales valleys when hundreds of thousands rushed there in the 19th century to look for work in the new coal mines; and the warm fellowship of those valleys would be entirely different today without that Christian influence. And had it not been for re-legitimising the Catholic religion in 1829 there would have been no Christian welcome for the Irish, the Poles and others who followed them to Wales.
Whatever the religious situation in Wales today – and that would be the subject of another article – the Wales that we know would not be in existence without the history that we celebrated on 31 October. We all, therefore, whatever our faith or belief, are indebted to it.
The Reverend Gethin Rhys is the National Assembly Policy Officer for Cytûn.