The priest was sitting in a small summer house in the church garden. In front of him was a glass bowl full of coffee with a small flame burning beneath it. He stood up when he saw us.
“Ah, just in the nick of time, my friends. The brew is just coming up to the boil.”
He set out three cups, and poured coffee into them with a long wooden ladle.
“Brown sugar and cream, my friends, as much as you want. Oh, this is good. Only Welshmen and Christians can truly enjoy the Creator’s cunning art. But there we are, I’m being prejudiced now. Well, Mr. Powell – have you had cream?”
“Well, I’m sure you have many questions to ask, more than I have to ask you. You go first, then. I’ll do my best to answer. Although, remember, not even a priest in the United Church of Wales is omniscient. Eh, Llywarch?”
“Some are,” said Llywarch.
“Ah, these deacons can be hard work,” said the priest. “Now then, Powell my man, fire away.”
“There’s only one question I can ask, really” I said. “What exactly is this United Church?”
“Well,” said the priest, “you’re aware, I’m sure, that there was a fairly strong movement underway in your own age in favour of church unity…”
“There was something like that.”
“Naturally, it grew stronger still, and carried on doing so until, in the final quarter of your century, it was strong enough to force the leaders of the various denominations to put their heads together to see if any sort of unity was possible – without sacrificing denominational pride, of course. The denominations in other parts of the world – Canada, Southern India, Northern India, and a lot of the ‘young churches’ in the mission fields – had already come together. And negotiations were heating up between denominations in countries closer to home. The churches in England were a good example of that, fair play to them. I may as well admit that it was the churches of England that showed the way to us in Wales.”
“You’re becoming more and more tolerant, Rector,” said Llywarch.
“Take no notice of remarks like that,” said the priest to me. “To continue with the story. As the discussions were proceeding apace, the Great Awakening broke out across the country – and across much of the world, to tell the truth. And “the Unity of the Body of Christ” was as much a raison d’être to that Awakening as “the Priesthood of all Believers” had been to the Protestant Reformation. In the heat of the Awakening the denominations in the villages and in some of the towns melded together into one congregation, and it was soon realised that it was almost impossible to keep the machinery of the individual denominations running. To cut a long story short, in the Synod of Llandrindod the United Church of Wales was formed, and thanks be to God.”
Llywarch passed his cup forward for more coffee.
“The Union wasn’t a complete success, of course,” he said.
“Don’t take the words out of my mouth, Llywarch,” said the priest jokingly, as he poured his coffee. “More coffee, Powell?”
“Well, as this knowledgeable deacon here said, the Union, unfortunately, wasn’t 100% successful. It was a success as far as it went, but not every sheep was successfully brought into the fold, so to speak. Some of the Baptists and Independents stayed outside, for understandable reasons, although the majority of them joined the United Church. The parishes that had ‘high church’ priests stayed outside. The Christadelphians and the Pentecostals and various other -ists and -ians stayed out (and it’s a shame to see them today, dying on their feet like the traditional denominations were before the Awakening). And the Roman Catholics stayed out altogether, obviously. But the United Church started out with a membership of about half a million, and it’s been growing steadily ever since.”
“There were many people opposed to unity in my day,” I said. “And I must say I was one of them, saying that each denomination’s traditions would be a hindrance to any Union succeeding. For example, a Calvinistic Methodist could never agree with an Independent, and Anglicans and Baptists can’t possibly worship and take communion together…”
“Well, what a strange argument,” said the priest, amazed. “According to our church history books, plenty of people were acting like turncoats in your day. Girls from other denominations were marrying Baptists and accepting baptism by immersion without any fuss, men and their wives were turning to the Church in Wales and being baptised by a bishop. Independents were becoming Presbyterians and Presbyterians were becoming Methodists… there was a lot of traffic between the denominations. I must admit that marriage was the most effective proselyter, not conviction. And convenience was the other thing. No, no, denominational ‘tradition’ was no more of an impediment to the denominations marrying than it would have been to a Baptist and an Anglican getting married in your day. Of course, the Holy Spirit in his divine wisdom made sure that the new church met everyone’s needs.”
“If Dr. Llywarch has finished his coffee, I’ll take you into the church to show you what I mean.”
The priest took me along the avenue to the church, showing me the flower bed here that was planted by the Sunday School children, and the tree over there that was planted by the lads in one of the discussion groups. Once we’d entered the church, he asked,
“Powell, do you see anything different about this building now?”
I looked around.
“Well yes, there is,” I said. “When we were in the morning service, there were little carvings of saints on columns along both sides of the church… and there was an altar…”
“Right, right,” said the priest. “Indeed, the building had everything that a parish church would have had in your day. But after the second morning prayer service, the caretaker comes in and presses a button in the back of the building. The columns turn around and hide the carvings and retreat into the walls. The partitions come down and hide the chancel, and the pulpit moves from the side to the centre. And here you are – in a nonconformist chapel – ready for the sermon tonight.”
“Amazing” I said.
“And the service tonight will be as unadorned as the building is now, and Mr. Rhys the minister will preach for half an hour. And everyone will be singing.”
The priest was smiling broadly.
“Now, come with me.”
We went with him into the back of the chapel, where there was a beautiful white font.
“You know what this is,” he said. “I use this to baptise babies. But underneath there’s a wide and deep baptistry that I use to baptise adults by immersion. The parents can choose, whether to bring their babies to the font, or to let them grow into lads and lasses and come to the baptistry themselves. Strangely, most of them choose baptism by immersion. It leaves more of an impression on young minds, they say.”
“But why do you need a minister here as well as a priest?” I asked.
“We have bishops in the United Church, and the bishops ordain priests, ministers, itinerant preachers, and pastors. But every church chooses its own order and governs itself. To that extent, we’re Independents. Every church or group of churches throughout Wales is self-sustaining. This church decided some years ago that it needed a priest and a minister, and that’s why Rhys and I are here.”
“What do you do?”
“I hold services. Two Communions on Sunday morning, two Morning Prayer services, and an Evening Prayer at five. Communion every morning of the week at eight, and Evening Prayer every day at seven. In addition to that I prepare the children for confirmation or baptism, take the Sacrament to the sick – and that’s an everyday job in a church with eighteen hundred members – and I run three discussion groups on Church History and Theology. It’s me as well that does the burying, baptising and marrying.”
Llywarch nodded and said,
“I’ll say to the Rector’s face what I’ve said a hundred times behind his back. He works hard.”
“So there’s nothing left for the minister to do,” I said.
“Oh yes there is, indeed,” said the priest, “Rhys works harder than I do. He preaches here twice every Sunday – except for the Sundays when an itinerant preacher is here – and each Wednesday evening. He keeps a seiat every night of the week except Wednesday, and he visits in turn all the prayer meetings which are held in the elders’ houses. Every lunchtime he visits one of the workplaces in the area, addressing the workers and talking to them. He holds a surgery in his vestry for an hour each morning and each evening to discuss any problems that members come to him with. He holds various discussion groups. And he organises all of the visitation ministry.”
“And stays fit and healthy through all of it?” I asked.
“Of course,” said the priest. “Lest I give you the wrong impression, I should explain to you that we have a decent number of lay workers. We have four lay pastors, two men and two women, who regularly visit all the church members, having been trained for that and receiving compensation and time off from their day-jobs to do it. They arrange for any member who is in difficulty to see the minister in his surgery, and they arrange for me and the minister to visit any member who is seriously ill – Rhys today to pray with them and me tomorrow to administer the sacrament to them. The children’s work is almost all done by laymen, every elder has a prayer meeting in his house for a number of members to attend, and the deacons look after all the church business and social life.”
“One more question,” I said. “Forgive me that it’s such a personal question. Do you and Mr. Rhys get a decent salary?”
The priest laughed.
“A very 20th century question, isn’t it? Well, fortunately, there’s no need to worry about that. The Welsh Government has graded the salaries of all public and professional workers according to their status, education and experience. A doctor, a minister, a school headmaster or a town clerk with the same qualifications and same amount of experience will get the same salary. Salaries no longer depend on the whims of individuals or groups. And if you’re a church member today, you can choose one of two ways to contribute to your church. Either give voluntarily, and claim an allowance against your income tax according to the size of your contribution, or allow the tax office to allocate a certain proportion of your tax to the church directly. The income tax and capital gains tax rules allow everyone to make one contribution to a church, one to a political party, and three others towards any cultural movements or other good causes.”
“An increase in philanthropy, definitely,” I said.
“Well, Powell,” said Llywarch, haven’t you interrogated the Rector enough for today? It’s time for us to go.”
“No trouble at all, dear Mr. Powell,” said the Rector. “Indeed, it was my pleasure. A good afternoon to you.”
And he extended his hand to me.
“Remember, Llywarch,” said the priest as he shook his hand, “Deacons’ meeting tomorrow night at 6.”
“I’ll be sure to remember” said Llywarch.
The priest raised his hand in a
gesture of benediction upon us. I looked back when I reached the gate, and he
was still there, a dignified black figure standing by the church door, his face
shining like a gold sovereign in the sunlight.
 Seiat is a Welsh word for which there isn’t really an English equivalent. It is essentially a type of highly interactive church meeting where people share their experiences while the leader of the meeting, and others, seek to comment on these in the light of the Bible, yet all done with a certain amount of order and formality. It is sometimes rendered ‘experience meeting’ (following William Williams Pantycelyn’s strange hybrid expression ‘Society Profiad’), but this implies something a great deal more airy-fairy than a seiat, at its best, actually is.