The above announcement was made early in April this year (1999) and as a result several hundred people, Catholic and non-Catholic, English and Welsh-speaking (and other nationalities – at least two Peruvians and one person from France were present!) gathered together for an evening service of prayer and praise. "He who sings prays twice" is an old commendation of the church but in the case of this particular Cymanfa Ganu, like the wise thrush in Robert Browning's poem, 'O to be in England now that April's here', the congregation sang "twice over" by using the two languages of Wales. Moreover, they were also privileged to hear the schoolboys of Newport ('COLLEGIUM CANTORUM' – Ed.) sing some beautiful pieces in Latin, the traditional language of what used to called 'Western Christendom'..
How did it come about that a congregation whose language is English and whose folk memories (especially in the case of those of Irish descent) still lead many to cherish a resentful attitude towards all things Welsh were prepared to go to their parish church on a Friday evening to share in a form of worship essentially associated with the Welsh language Nonconformist tradition?
John Goode, born in Bath, is a Catholic who has lived in Cardiff for many years. He is regularly in demand as a consultant in the building, installation and refurbishment of church organs.
In 1986 he became involved with St. Alban-on-the-Moors Catholic church in Splott, Cardiff. The organ there, dating from 1926, was nearing the end of its life and his advice was sought. Originally installed with the help of a grant from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust the old organ had just 9 stops. It had a beautiful tone but sounded rather like a choir without tenor or treble sections.
There was no money about in 1986 for the purchase of a new instrument so John advised that it would be best to buy an old pipe organ from somewhere and to combine the two using solid state technology.
By a happy chance the dwindling congregation at Bethlehem, a Welsh language Nonconformist church in Ayer Street, also in Splott, were at this time preparing for the closure of their place of worship. The organ there was a very fine instrument with a particularly lovely reed/trumpet stop.
John Goode was able to persuade St. Alban's to buy the old beauty at a reasonable price. It was then dismantled and transported using rather low-tech DIY methods. The pipes and bits were stored all over the place back at St. Alban's. Fundraising, under a succession of parish priests, went on until 1994 when the rebuild was completed by the Deane organ Company of Taunton.
There was a grand opening recital on 30 September 1994 with James O'Donnell, then Organist of Westminster Cathedral who was recently (June, 1999) appointed Organist at Westminster Abbey, the first Catholic to hold such a post since the Reformation. This event attracted people from as far away as the West Country.
By then, of course, the old Welsh church in Ayer Street had been closed for some time and its congregation had joined that of the famous Minny Street Welsh church in Cathays. Gone, but certainly not forgotten, and on the 9th of June, 1995 they were invited to join the Catholic people of St. Alban's for a combined ecumenical Cymanfa Ganu. This form of religious service in which prayer is supported by congregational singing is a classic expression of Welsh Nonconformity which dates from the 1830s. Whether the emphasis is on the prayer or on the singing tends to depend on the conductor rather than on the presiding minister whose role nowadays is generally confined to an opening prayer and a final blessing.0
The event was organised by John Goode with the support of Paul O'Brien the Organist at St. Alban's. However, for that event the organ was played by John Howells, Organist at the Welsh Baptist church of Bethany, Rhiwbina, Cardiff. The Conductor was Alun Guy, Head of Music at one of Cardiff's two Welsh-medium secondary schools, and one of the best-known choir conductors in Wales.
Almost a year later, on the 17th of May 1996, a similar Cymanfa Ganu, again organised by John Goode, was held at St. Alban's in aid of the George Thomas Hospice.
By this time John Goode had begun his association with St. Mary of the Angels through his friendship with the late Denis MacCarthy who had been Organist there for 50 years. Tentative plans to replace the pipe organ with an electric one came to his notice. He went to the Parish Priest, Cavan man Fr. (now Canon) John Maguire and offered his services as a consultant free of charge. The result was a plan to repair and refurbish rather than to replace.
Earlier this year Fr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, a one-time Welsh Nonconformist minister, suggested a Cymanfa Ganu to mark the Millennium. Following discussion it was decided to arrange it early in the year in order to expose English-speaking Catholics and other denominations to the idea of a Welsh Christian culture and at the same time to use it as a fundraising event for the George Thomas Hospice.
In the event, despite extensive advertising in both English and Welsh, the attendance was a disappointing 200 rather than the hoped-for 500. However, £500 was collected for the hospice. Moreover, a lady member of Eglwys y Crwys Welsh church in Richmond Road, Cardiff was so impressed that she asked her family and friends to give cash rather than gifts for her approaching golden wedding anniversary. In this way a further £500-00 was collected for the same good cause.
One of the great gifts of the Second Vatican Council was the formal recognition that the Church of Christ consists of all those who have been baptised into whatever denomination or culture. One result of this has been a great easing of tensions, an increase in mutual respect and friendship and the freedom given to Catholics to attend services in non-Catholic churches.
Another benefit has been the new teaching of 'inculturation', that is, a commitment to incorporate local languages, music and traditions in the public worship of the Church. This has been less successful in its application in Wales than elsewhere because of the tendency of Welsh Catholics – largely of immigrant origin – to favour English at the expense of the old indigenous Welsh language and its associated traditions.
For this reason we commend the exceptional efforts of Englishman John Goode and trust that his efforts, which have been supported by both priests and congregations, will lead to a more positive approach to 'inculturation' than we have seen to date.
Perhaps it may be fitting to close with two quotations.
The first is from another open-minded Englishman. Canon A. M. Allchin is an Anglican priest, whose book on the Christian and Celtic elements in Welsh poetry, 'Praise above all; discovering the Welsh tradition', was published by the University of Wales Press in 1991. This is what he has to say :
And if, as we have argued, a positive evaluation of the diversity of this world and human society within it, is an integral part of a Christian vision of things, then surely it is the duty of the churches in Britain and Ireland to take a more active role than they usually do in the affirmation and development of the linguistic and cultural diversity which characterises these islands. That is a diversity which is in part very ancient, the diversity of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. (p. 138)
And finally, the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (born 1918) whose address on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972 included the following passage :
The disappearance of nations would impoverish us, not less than if all men were to become alike, with one personality and one face. Nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalised personalities; the least among them has its own unique colouration and harbours within itself a unique facet of God's design. (op. cit., p. 137)
©: Barry Tobin, 1999.
Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999