Why The Archbishop Is Embracing Pagan
July 19, 2002
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
THE man expected to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be inducted as a druid in a 200-year-old ceremony with pagan roots in Wales next month.
As the sun rises over a circle of Pembrokeshire bluestones, the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Rev Dr Rowan Williams, will don a long white cloak while druids chant a prayer to the ancient god and goddess of the land.
After a trumpet fanfare and the thrice partial sheathing and unsheathing of a 6ft6in sword, a citation will be read. Dr Williams will close his hands in prayer while the archdruid, wearing a crown and shield over his bardic robes, will enfold them in his own and utter words of welcome.
That will be the moment that Dr Williams, who will adopt a new, bardic name, is accepted into the white druidic order, the highest of three orders of the Gorsedd of Bards, the Welsh body of poets, musicians, writers and artists. The Mistress of the Robes, Sian Aman, will then clothe him in a druidic white headdress, and a steward will lead him to join the other assembled druids inside a sacred circle.
The ceremony will take place “in the face of the sun, in the eye of the light” at the start of the Welsh National Eisteddfod at St David’s, Pembrokeshire, in early August.
Although organisers insist the Gorsedd’s pagan roots are long behind it, contributors to discussion forums on the Church in Wales website have already suggested it is “nearer to Shintoism than Christianity”. Evangelical leaders in the Church of England described it as “unbelievable”. The Rev David Banting, chairman of Reform, the conservative evangelical group, said: “We are concerned that Christian leaders should concentrate on the celebration and promotion of the Christian faith in all its wonder and power rather than dabbling in other things.”
Dr Williams will not be the only church leader admitted as an honorary druid to the Gorsedd. The Right Rev Daniel Mullins, retired Roman Catholic bishop of Menevia, South Wales, is a member. He insisted: “It has no link at all with ancient druidism.” A former Archbishop of Wales, the Right Rev George Noakes, is also a member.
Dr Williams is a prolific author and poet. His book of poems, Remembering Jerusalem, is currently high on the religious bestsellers list.
The Gorsedd of Bards takes its name from the high seat, which in prehistoric times referred to the mounds on which the sacred kings were wedded to the female spirit of the land. It was invented in the 18th century by the Welsh scholar Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), a Welsh cultural icon suspected of sympathies with French revolutionaries and American rebels. On June 21, 1792, he laid out a circle of stones on the grass and proclaimed a Gorsedd of Bards — not in Wales but on Primrose Hill in Camden, North London.
Morganwg, who claimed to have found an ancient Welsh manuscript with the ceremony but in fact wrote it himself, pronounced his first Welsh Gorsedd at the Eisteddfod in Caermarthen, Wales, in 1819. The Gorsedd of Bards has been closely associated with the National Eisteddfod since it was founded in 1860 and the three ceremonies — the crowning of the best free verse poet and the awards for prose and strict metre poetry — attract thousands with their pageantry and Celtic lore.
The Archdruid, Dr Robyn Lewis, a retired lawyer and deputy circuit judge, defended the archbishop’s right to be inducted into the Gorsedd. Only fluent Welsh speakers are allowed in. He said: “The Gorsedd is an organisation which concerns itself with literature, poetry, music and art of all sorts including architecture. We meet in a circle of stones, a mini Stonehenge, that we erect in the towns where the Eisteddfod takes place.”
The three orders of the Gorsedd, white for druid, blue for bards and green for ovates, are the closest thing in Wales to an honours system. The Queen is an ovate, but the Prince of Wales has never been invited to join. The actor Richard Burton was also a member, as was Lloyd George.
Dr Lewis said: “We are not like the English druids. The Stonehenge druids are a pot-smoking crowd. Ours is a very respectable society. The ceremony is not pagan. It is just a ceremony. It is quite innocent, there is no serious paganism about it at all. It is a society for the furtherance of the arts in Wales, nothing more. We are not theistic, atheistic, pantheistic, agnostic or anything.” He added: “All sorts of people have been members. The Queen was given a green robe although not all of us want her and she never turns up.”
He was saddened by the prospect of Dr Williams’s promotion. “Quite frankly, we do not want him to go to Canterbury. We feel he deserves it, but we feel we need him here. He is a fluent Welsh speaker for a start, and that will be wasted in Canterbury, wasted on the desert air.”
The archbishop’s chaplain, the Rev Gregory Cameron, defended Dr Williams. Speaking in Welsh on BBC Wales, he said: “The Gorsedd is not full-blooded paganism, it is an institution making an appeal to the natural universe, to what Wordsworth described as the power of nature.”