Why I am passionate about my identity

Menna Machreth exlains what it is about Wales that turns her on

You may have heard the Ryder Cup golfing tournament was held in Wales just a few weeks ago. Our rain and miserable weather hit international headlines and the golf had to be postponed until the rain had cleared. You may have also heard of Wales through the fascinating story of Mary Jones. In 1800, when she was 16, after saving money for years, she walked 25 miles from her village to buy a Welsh bible from Thomas Charles in a town called Bala. When she arrived Thomas Charles told her he had sold all his Bibles, but after seeing her distress he gave her a Bible he had been keeping for somebody else. It was telling Mary’s story that led to the formation of the British Bible Society in 1804 – marking the beginning of a world-wide movement that continues to provide Bibles to millions in many languages.

I grew up in a village in west Wales called Llanddarog and Welsh was my first language. During this time I noticed that English was the language of anything that was seen as official: business, administration, or career. Welsh was a language to speak at home, with family, in school and in the village. The other children at school also noticed this and English was regarded as the ‘cool’ language, the language of the American TV they loved and the language the shops in town used. When I was 17, the school took us on a trip to north Wales to visit some of the famous locations in Welsh literature. As we travelled through Welsh language communities I realized Welsh language communities and culture were under threat. The economy, policies and the whole system was working against the language and its communities.

I knew this was unjust and the Welsh language, as the native language of Wales, was in danger of perishing and with it our identity would suffer irreparable loss. Uniformity, the hegemony of the English language, was slowly suffocating the rich diversity the Creator had intended. For a while, I was very angry with this situation and became very contemptuous of the English language.

When I went to university I joined in with demonstrations and protests demanding respect for the Welsh language in her own country. While campaigning I met and developed friendships with Christians who felt as passionate as I did for the Welsh language, but they also had passion for Jesus Christ. I have attended church ever since I was born, but my Christian friends blatantly had a conviction I had not managed to achieve by being religious. They encouraged me to attend an Alpha course, conducted through the medium of Welsh, and I came to know Jesus Christ as my Saviour and accepted his forgiveness.

After becoming a Christian, I didn’t stop protesting, but gradually I came to understand how my campaigning couldn’t be a self-centered or self-righteous act. Christ has redeemed me on the Cross, but He doesn’t want to stop there – he wants His justice to go throughout the world. My national identity was a gift from the Creator, so I didn’t forget it when I found my identity in Christ. Rather, my identity in Christ reinforced the identity God has given me on Earth, as part of a group of people. God has redeemed me in my Welshness. My salvation has made me value even more the glorious diversity within the unity in Jesus Christ.

I believe Wales is a nation because we as Welsh people have our own history, our own culture and our own language. Throughout its history, Wales has struggled in the shadow of its powerful neighbor, England. I believe Wales to be the first colony of England and will probably be the last. Although Wales has not experienced horrendous violence other colonised countries have suffered, and has during in its history played a part in upholding the British Empire, Wales is clearly a colonised country. The psychological effect of imperialism in particular is evident in my fellow country men and women who have inherited a view that the Welsh language is subordinate to English.

England conquered Wales in 1282, and in 1536 a law was passed by the English Parliament declaring Wales a part of England and making English the language of both countries. The law actually says that Welsh should be eliminated! In 1846, a report on education in Wales concluded that the Welsh were immoral and that the Welsh language was a barrier against ‘progress’. At the time, 90 per cent of the population of Wales could speak Welsh, but it soon declined as people perceived the English language as the key to ‘getting on in the world’. Industrialisation in Wales meant a massive in-migration and gradually the culture was Anglicised. However, throughout the 20th Century the campaign for a measure of self-government in Wales grew considerably and in 1997 a referendum was narrowly won to establish a National Assembly for Wales – a devolved assembly with law making powers.

Next year, a further referendum will be held to decide if further powers will be devolved to the Welsh Assembly. This has a huge significance for people who want to see the Welsh nation being able to make her own decisions. On the other hand, while the Welsh Assembly promotes the Welsh language and finally our own people are governing and making decisions, we are still waiting for them to deliver a vision for regenerating the Welsh language and its communities. 20.8 per cent of the population of Wales speak Welsh, over six hundred thousand people which is a slight rise. At the same time there is a worrying decline in the number of Welsh-speaking communities: between 1991 and 2001 the number of communities where Welsh is spoken by more than 70 per cent of the population halved (from 92 to 54).

Looking at the history of Christianity in Wales, it becomes clear that God has blessed Wales and the Welsh language. As one of the Celtic nations Wales was profoundly impacted by the Christian faith in the age of the Celtic saints. Celtic missionaries travelled across Wales, Ireland and Cornwall spreading the gospel. Thousands of villages in Wales have been named after Celtic Saints.

In 1588 – as a result of the Protestant Reformation – the whole Bible was published in the Welsh language and it was used in most parish churches. Just over a century later Griffith Jones, an Anglican cleric, realized that people needed to read the Bible themselves and started a schools movement which taught people in communities all over Wales to read the Bible in Welsh. This work was continued after Griffith Jones’ death by ‘The Sunday School’ under the leadership of another Anglican cleric, Thomas Charles – one of the leaders of the Methodist Movement in Wales. Thomas Charles was a second generation leader of Methodism or the Great Awakening in Wales that had begun under the leadership of Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland. The Great Awakening had such a profound impact on Welsh speaking Wales that there can be little doubt that helped to keep the Welsh language alive.

During the 20th Century, the story of Christianity in Wales is one of decline. It’s sad to see old church buildings close but even sadder to see that many Welsh speaking people’s perception of Christianity is of dry religion and traditionalism.

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) is a campaign group for the Welsh language established in 1962, heavily influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States. Protesting, rallying, petitioning and civil disobedience have been part of the society’s urge to bring justice to the Welsh language. The movement has been responsible for inspiring a renewed confidence in the Welsh language. It has played a major part in bringing status to the Welsh language, particularly legislation which guarantees Welsh language services. A Welsh language television channel was set up as a result of an immense campaign so that Welsh speakers can see themselves represented in the media. Parents have campaigned relentlessly for Welsh medium education for their children in areas where the Welsh language was nearly dead, and now there is a huge call for Welsh medium education.

But this change has not arrived without a huge sacrifice on behalf of the campaigners. Many of the Welsh Language Society’s members have suffered imprisonment as a result of their non-violent direct action. The Welsh Language Society is still campaigning for justice for the Welsh language and there is a long way to go.

I have been the chair of the Welsh Language Society for the last two years. Some Christians have asked me how I rationalise my faith on one hand and protesting on the other? The society is perceived as a highly political unit and portrayed in the media as extremists. The Welsh Language Society as a movement has been heavily influenced by some of its members who are Christians who have played a major part in securing the non-violent approach to campaigning as the main principle of the movement. I believe it is one of the blessings of our Christian and ‘Methodist’ heritage in Wales that we as a nation have not turned to violence to progress our cause – like so many other nations, our close neighbour Ireland being a good example.

Non-violent direct action means acting in a way which respects life without hurting or abusing anybody. This means accepting full responsibility for all actions and being ready to face the consequences and punishment. Within the Welsh Language Society, the ideal is no fist violence, no verbal violence, and no heart violence. It is emphasized to all members that we should not act out of reactionary feelings and should avoid contempt towards individuals within the authorities. Instead, the non-violent principle urges members to act out of a desire for change, a desire for justice in a reasoned and calculated manner. As Christians within the movement, we must act out of love at all times and must remember to love all the people we’re involved with. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ clears the temple but there is no suggestion of violence against people but towards the tables and throwing the animals out as a symbolic act. The life and teachings of Jesus Christ is the foundation of non-violent direct action for me; loving your enemies combined with a stance over truth and what is right.

Government and institutions are violent through their law and policies towards the Welsh, their language and identity. Using violence against this injustice will not solve anything. But we can choose not to conform to violence. I consider apathy towards injustice as co-operation with that injustice. In that sense, we are all guilty for our lack of action whether it is towards identity, world poverty or damaging the environment for example.

Although Wales is a secular country, it has been encouraging to me that Christians have felt responsible to be involved in political issues of identity. We can’t just ignore who we are. We can’t ignore the issues that have hurt us. Christians have wisdom from God and are well equipped to deal with such an inflammable issue as identity. On the other hand it’s disappointing when evangelical Christians see the language as just a means to reach people for conversion rather than an essential part of their identity in Christ.

I have a great opportunity to share the gospel when they ask me why I campaign for the Welsh language. Before speaking at an event or going into a meeting with politicians, I pray for wisdom, strength and to be a witness to Him and God has been faithful and has blessed me in these situations as a campaigner.

As chair of the Welsh language Society, I can talk and talk about justice for our identity but it will be futile unless the people of Wales bow to Jesus Christ. I pray God will use me to point to His ultimate justice, Jesus Christ crucified on the Cross. Only in Him will we as a nation find salvation and become the nation God intended so that we will be able to bring our contributions before the King of Kings when the Kingdom is revealed: “They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations’” (Revelation 22:26).

This article recently appeared on the evangelical Christian website associated with Billy Graham, the Lausanne Movement www.lausanne.org

Menna Machreth is Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith.

One thought on “Why I am passionate about my identity

  1. What with the S4C crisis, I suppose you’ll soon have plenty of opportunity to put theory into practice!

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