Celebrate advent and cavort for the full moon
Wednesday 17 December 1997
It is the night of the Yuletide full moon, and in celebration a circle dance is in full rotation in the church hall of the mid-Wales village of Pennal. The Reverend Geraint ap Iorwerth, the local rector, is an enthusiastic participant - despite the fact that the inspiration for this ritual is entirely pagan.
The day had been still and raw, the ribbons of smoke from the small cottage chimneys barely lifting off the valley floor. Just before the dance began the moon made an appearance, veiled by high cloud, but undeniable. Stepping out with the best of them, ap Iorwerth was pleased to celebrate her splendour, the cycle of the seasons and the power of nature in a series of dances which drew on pre-Christian, Hindu and Jewish traditions.
"I believe in and celebrate all the festivals of the Anglican calendar," says ap Iorwerth. But his wider philosophy is to encourage any decent- hearted spirituality, whatever its wellsprings, and especially if it includes an element of what his forthcoming book Honest to Goddess will call the "divine feminine", in worship. And by this he means to emphasise intuition, intimacy, feeling and the wisdom present in all religions and spiritual paths.
In her brief introduction to the dance, Claire Jenkins speaks of the unity of creation, the healing power of love and the energy that through us can link the earth and the heavens. Clearly, none of these ideas is alien to the Anglican Church. But the context in which they are expressed would not be easily recognised.
The 25 circle dancers are drawn from a range of faiths and none. There are Buddhists, elders from the Quaker movement, adherents of a New Age meditation group, Christians and those of a pagan persuasion who would never set foot in the church, but for whom this church hall is neutral ground. What has brought them together is a shared need for celebration and community, and a broad-mindedness which ap Iorwerth has done much to encourage.
The eclectic spirituality of the place is evident as you drive down the Dyfi valley from Machynlleth. Entering Pennal, visitors are greeted by the large circled cross of Celtic Christianity in the Rectory garden. Next to it is an informal chapel in a Russian style which contains a memorial altar screen to Bulgakov, who was a prominent though some would say heretical theologian of the Orthodox faith. On each wall of the rectory itself is a Green Man representing the fecundity of vegetation. And the village Church of St Peter ad Vincula, which has seen the celebration of a Shinto wedding with a Buddha placed on the altar, gives space to the sacred texts of all the major world religions.
Pennal is a small community where south and north Wales meet, and that is a faultline which, historically, has been almost as quake-prone as any border between the English and Welsh. But it was also a site of reconciliation when Owain Glyndwr brought together the splintered factions of his homeland and was declared Prince of a free Wales in the 1400s.
It is bringing together which Geraint ap Iorwerth is keen to foster. Aided by the spirit of the place, he seems to be succeeding. As Bernard Condron, once a mechanical engineer in Berkshire, says: You do change when you come to the valley. You lose your cynicism and contact people in a way that is deeper and more open. It is not the same as in Wokingham."
Liz Butler, a teacher from Machynlleth, at a circle dance for the first time, was broadly approving of the efforts to find common ground between very different approaches to spirituality. "All religions have a way to God. For us, Christianity is the one. But as far as possible, we should worship together," she says.
Yet not everyone is content with the way the Pennal church has developed in ap Iorwerth's 17 years as rector. The Oxford-based Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, who loaned him the Bulgakov screen and several icons, have sent a sniffy letter saying they want their property back because they do not like to be associated with the "unorthodox presentation of Christianity" encountered on a visit.
There are Christians in the valley who feel something similar and have chosen to worship in other churches nearby. "They say 'I've got my Jesus and am happy with Him'. And that is fair enough," ap Iorwerth commences. "From the other side there are probably also Mother Goddess fundamentalists who object to her being christianised." And no one knows what the Anglican hierarchy will make of the publication of Honest to Goddess, which has a title chosen to evoke memories of Bishop Robinson's Honest to God which rocked the C of E when it appeared in the Sixties. But, ap Iorwerth believes, there is no alternative to building bridges.
The question of whether the conventional Anglican church is dying evokes a wry smile. "It is already dead,". he says. "With only 2 per cent of the population regular communicants, it is on the verge of meeting the American definition of a cult.
"But the decline of conventional religion does not mean there is no spirituality. Somewhere in the Universe is a source which transmutes suffering and pain, and the mystery of what it is to be human can never be adequately explained by reason alone. We need a symbolic way of perceiving ourselves and our world. The soul needs images to breathe and grow, and it is that need which drives all the faiths."
Ap Iorwerth's hope is that the church hierarchy will support ecumenical work in Pennal - even if that work extends interdenominational co-operation into more general support for a contemplative lifestyle and all aspects of spiritual quest. And why not? A Centre of Alternative Spirituality would nicely complement the Centre for Alternative Technology five miles up the road which, for those seeking new approaches to old problems, has already put this part of Wales on the map.
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