I am pleased and honoured to be invited to conduct this Welsh Sunday service, if a trifled puzzled. Let me tell you why.
My father was born in Belfast, the family moving to Oban, in Scotland when he was a few weeks old. A few years later, they were to settle in Bradford, from whence, as a young man, father went to London where he married my mother.
Mother’s family lived in Birkenhead, where mother was born. When she was what would now be described as a teenager, her father and mother took a shop in London. She moved with them, and it was in London that my parents met.
Though I was born in London, from the age of two I have lived, first in the Manchester area on one side of the Pennines, and then, for the last forty five years in Sheffield, on the east of that range of hills. My wife, our children and grandchildren are Sheffield born and bred.
So, though I might claim some connection with three of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, I am unable to establish any Welsh connection, other than some holidays spent in the Principality. So to be invited to give the address on this day bespeaks a touching mark of trust, not to say of tolerance.
The question of seeking identity and membership of a group is important for us. It is deeply ingrained in our make-up. The initial group membership of which we become aware is the family. The parents, the brothers and sisters, perhaps grand-parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are the society in which we first find comfort, security and a sense of belonging.
As time passes we extend and vary our group membership. Our school and college, clubs and societies, work-places, supporters’ groups, neighbourhood gatherings, churches or chapels, and a multitude of other social collectives, extend, and maybe partly replace, the family as the set in which we identify ourselves as members.
This group identity is an important part of existence. It is in the group that we meet fellow beings with whom we share our interests, develop our understandings, treasure our history, preserve the skills, literature and folk-lore created by our ancestors, and explore ideas which become in their time the wisdom of future generations.
Though we voluntarily identify with many groups, we early become aware that through birth or residence, we are classified into tribal, regional or national sets. We are Cockneys, Glaswegians, Dubliners or claim Swansea as our birth-place; we are Celts, Scots, Irish, Cornish or Cumbrians; we are Welsh and proud of it; we are British, and, less certainly and more reservedly, Europeans.
And what does membership of the group mean? What does it entail?
For the insider, the membership bestows pride and privilege. To the outsider, so often unwarranted exclusiveness. To be born a Yorkshireman means, given the requisite skills, entitlement to play cricket for the County. Similarly for the Welshman, it is perhaps to don the red vest and play Rugby Union for country at Cardiff Arms Park.
One or two of my friends Welsh friends describe themselves describe themselves as Rugby fanatics. They tell me that in South Wales, at least, Rugby is akin to a religion. (Story of St. David).
But deeper and more seriously than that, and embracing all ages and sexes, to identify with a nationality or place of birth is to have an affinity with, and a conceit in, what is, in abstract terms, referred to as a culture. In the case of Wales, it is an ancient language of which its guardians are rightly jealous; a love of poetry and music, with a particular well-merited reputation for choral singing; a history of defiance to the invader allied to a fierce determination not to allow national identity to be submerged.
It is to be part of a nation who has produced some magical orators – Aneurin Bevan, Lloyd George, Michael Foot amongst many others. Welsh actors, play-wrights, poets, musicians, teachers, and preachers have and do excite and inspire. All is a part of the heritage of Wales.
I forget who coined the phrase, and of whom he was speaking, but it applies aptly to the Welsh – “.. they sing like angels, they fight like devils”. As a nation they have absorbed their tragedies, not least those connected with coal mining and the spoil heaps above Aberfan. They have experienced and endured hardship. Yes, to be Welsh is to inherit all this and much more, and the non-Welshman cannot be expected to comprehend the extent of it.
This, and in similar ways, is how the insider, the member of any society sees it. As part of the collective, any collective, be it a tribal, national or religious group, one has a perspective, no doubt the true perspective. But then the outsider so often has a meaner, prejudiced view.
The Jew loves his religious heritage, and points to the achievements of his race in religion and the arts; but the anti-semitic outside speaks of Jews as untrustworthy, unscrupulous money-lenders, or avaricious wealth grabbers; the Afro-Caribbean, the Pakistani, the Indian have in their varying cultures and national characteristics, a treasure house which enriches us all. Yet to the ignorant, racist, non-member they are perceived as an alien threat, responsible for most crime, a barely civilised subservient people.
There is a dichotomy here. The strength of the national, tribal if you like, groupings is that they seek to preserve the cultural wealth of the past, adding to it by current experience.
This preserving, creative force is truly civilising. Whatever we mean by God and religion, and we will have individual convictions or beliefs, surely in common is the theme that God encompasses creativity, beauty, art and literature. So preservation and cultivation of a living cultural heritage is surely a religious undertaking.
National pride is in itself admirable in as much as it sets itself to honour the achievements of the past, to enrich the present by preserving the best of that tradition, and so to live that future generations will recall with gratitude our contributions and our stewardship.
Yet those very national groupings themselves create enmities, jealousies and strife. As we admire our own cultures and, through ignorance, fear or failure to live up to the precepts we profess, we so frequently denigrate the members of communities other than our own. There is a trap into which we so often fall, that by glorying in our own culture we devalue that of others.
The most widely known, most frequently quoted, of all the parables of Jesus, is the parable of the good Samaritan. The parable, you recall, was told in order to illustrate graphically the answer to a question, “Who is my neighbour?” Remember, the story was told in Judea, not Samaria. The hearers, not of the tribal grouping of the Samaritans, no doubt felt some enmity towards this alien tribe. Hence the added impact to the vivid tale. Many hearers, in rejoicing in their own faith and culture had no doubt scorned that of the Samaritans.
Jesus, the Jew, was proud of his heritage. But the preservation of his culture was not exclusive of love of all humanity. Exactly the reverse was true. The human story is enlightened by the amalgamation of cultures. The story becomes a tragedy if and when we, in our anxiety to safeguard our own culture, seek to denigrate, or even destroy, the heritage of others.
National rivalries are often the result of being so blinded by the sparkling of our own jewels, that we fail to recognise the treasures others hold. Or even worse, seek to destroy those other riches in the mistaken belief that thereby our own wealth will be enhanced.
It is good that we from time to time have what are essentially nationalistic occasions – our Welsh Sundays and the like. We should remember our roots, our national heroes, the achievements secured, the countless unsung men and women who have in their time contributed to a Welsh character that knows warmth, resilience, generosity, christian integrity, not to mention a love of language and its delivery in accents akin to music.
The non-conformist traditions and the glorious hymn tunes which stir the souls of more than welsh men and women should and must be preserved.
But just as nations are composed of families, so the whole kingdom of God embraces all peoples and nations. We rejoice today in acknowledgement of what one section has contributed to the society of mankind as a whole. In doing so, we are mindful that many peoples, of different colours, creeds and nationalities make valued contributions in the house of the Lord. He values them all from the widow’s mite to the king’s ransom.
It is not for us value one contribution, whether that of the individual or of the nation, more than the other. All are welcome in the Kingdom of God.
Our final hymn, set to a fine Welsh hymn tune, reminds us that humanity is as one in the love of God. Pride in our heritage bestows upon us the responsibility to glory in and preserve the wider inheritance of mankind as a whole.
We glory in not merely our own cultural treasure, but in the treasures held by all. For all are the treasures of the Kingdom.
Chesterfield 24 February 1991