Sunday morning was gloriously fine, like a Sunday morning ought to be. When I woke for breakfast, Mair and Dr. Llywarch had already been to the Communion service at eight o’clock. After breakfast, Dr. Llywarch led us in a lengthy devotion. And shortly after half past nine, the four of us were ready to depart for the ten o’clock service.
“You’re a Churchman, then” I said to Llywarch.
“You’re an Anglican – you belong to the Church in Wales.”
“Oh, I see what you mean. No, we belong to the United Church of Wales – like the great majority of the country. This is new to you, of course.”
“Indeed it is.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. The two of us will have lunch in the Church refectory, and perhaps I can arrange for you to have a word with Mr. Bowen the priest or Mr. Rhys the minister. They’ll be able to explain the new church to you much better than I could.”
The church was light and plain from the outside, built, I would say, in the style of the second half of the twentieth century. It stood in the centre of an area of parkland, and all around it there were flower beds and shrubs. On one side of the park there was a cluster of low buildings. Llywarch explained to me that these were church buildings: the refectory, the library, the hall and the committee rooms. People were flocking from all directions, men and women, and on going in I was astonished to see that the church was full.
“Don’t the women stay home to cook Sunday dinner?” I said to Llywarch.
“The Sunday dinner cooks itself,” came the answer.
The inside of the church was lovely to sit in. Everything in it created a sense of light: the glass-like floor, the slender columns along each side and the wide windows between them, the bowed ceiling and the strips of blue sky that could be seen through the glass in it. Venetian blinds had been pulled over the windows on the side where the sun was, and that flowed in, in golden shafts, between their slats. The congregation rose as one man when the priest entered the chancel.
This service was Morning Prayer, in the old style of the Church in Wales, with the Welsh Book of Common Prayer in our hands. The priest read through the whole service, in a Welsh which was a delight to the ear. He read clearly, like a parson would, but thoughtfully, like a Nonconformist. Just one thing disappointed me: hardly anyone in the huge congregation sang. The singing was left to the small choir that stood either side of the priest, and that choir, and the organ, were a feast for the hearing.
When we came out at quarter to eleven, more people were coming in through the gates.
“That’s the second sitting,” said Llywarch. “Rather than enlarging the church as much as necessary, as was the custom 150 years ago, we arrange two Communion services in the morning – one at eight and the other at half past – two Morning Prayer services, and two preaching meetings in the evening: one at six and the other at half past seven. Every church member lets the priest know which services he plans to attend, to make sure that there’ll be space for everyone. Of course, the priest has to put people’s noses out of joint occasionally, such as asking Mrs. Bifan to come to the eleven o’clock service to make sure there’s room for Mrs. Prydderch in the ten o’clock. But by and large, people behave sensibly. We’ve learnt something from the inevitable ebb and flow of religion: a building that’s too small is psychologically better than one which is too big.”
“I’d agree with that.”
“Will you come to Sunday School with me?”
“No, now. No church holds services in the afternoon. We try to remember that Sunday is a day to rest as well as worship. I take a class of men your age. You’ll be in your element.”
“I’ll come, for sure.”
We went along the church walkway, between the shrubs and the flower beds, towards the cluster of handsome buildings at the edge of the park. We went in, and along a corridor, and I found myself in a big room with a number of people of all ages, conversing animatedly. An electric bell rang, and everyone sat down on chairs that had been arranged in circles around the room. The superintendent called a young girl to the stage. She read a portion of Scripture in a modern Welsh translation, and suggested a hymn. The hymn was sung with great enthusiasm, and then the girl read a few short prayers, and the devotion was palpable.
The girl had barely stepped down from the stage when partition after partition slipped across the room, closing each class in by itself. Llywarch and I were in a small room with a dozen or so young men between 20 and 25 years old. I listened out for the sound of the other classes, but I couldn’t hear anything. The partition around us kept out all noise.
I looked at the lads’ faces. Every one of them was cheerful, with a mischievous glint in the eyes of some of them. One of them made a joke about Rhys Rhymney, and the others laughed. But when Llywarch opened his Bible, they all went quiet.
“We’ll leave aside the syllabus for today,” said Llywarch, “and turn to chapter 6 of the Good News according to Mark. The Lord walking on the sea.”
“Someone’s just done that on the Mediterranean,” said one of the lads, the one who made the joke about Rhys Rhymney.
“That’s why I chose this chapter,” said Llywarch. “Two thousand years ago – almost exactly two thousand – Jesus did a miracle. Walking along the crests of the waves on the Sea of Galilee. Last week, an Arab called Ibrahim did the same thing in broad daylight in sight of the town of Algiers. Has the Lord’s miracle ceased to be a miracle?”
“Ibrahim was a fakir,” said one of the lads. “A magician; for him, walking across the water was just a trick…”
“But he walked across the water, Siôn, trick or no.”
“Yes, but through some deception, like all these fakirs do when they lie on a bed of nails or thrust a sword through their bodies…”
“That’s not a trick, or deception, but knowledge.”
“Yes, knowledge of what part of the body can be wounded without harming the constitution. And perhaps that it was knowledge that Ibrahim had; knowledge of some law that had been a mystery to everyone else except Jesus Christ.”
“Well, if there’s a natural law that makes walking on the sea possible, Dr. Llywarch should know about it. Do you know, Doctor?”
“Yes I do.”
The lads stared.
“That is,” said Llywarch, “it’s been proven that a human body can stand on water or even in the air under certain conditions that can be set up – just as Mr. Powell could travel through time, and that, of course, is no surprise to any of us these days. The problem is that this chap Ibrahim stood and walked on the water, not as part of a scientific experiment, but by himself and of his own volition.”
“But the difference between his aims and motivations, and Jesus Christ’s aims and motivations in doing the same thing…”
“There, you’ve hit the nail on the head, Geraint…”
The church refectory was a cafeteria, with everyone helping themselves to lunch. I asked Llywarch why so many people stayed here for lunch instead of going home.
“Well, for two reasons,” said Llywarch. “For one, as you can see, it’s a chance to continue the Sunday School discussions. The other reason is that it’s a chance to have a word with the priest. That’s a very popular thing nowadays. There’ll be supper here tonight after the second sermon, and quite a few will stay back to have a chat with the minister.”
The tables where we were sitting formed a long and sunny cluster, and everyone rose to their feet as the priest came in. The priest asked a blessing upon the food, and everyone sat down once again. Llywarch and I were on a long table, with various lads from the class with us around it. The lads laid into the subject of Ibrahim once again.
A shadow fell upon the table before us.
“Good morning, all,” said the priest.
“Good morning, Rector,” said the others.
The priest was still wearing his long cassock, and he had kindly blue eyes. Llywarch introduced me to him, and his eyes widened.
“Well, I’ve heard a lot about you already, Mr. Powell, and I’m very pleased to meet you. I’d be delighted if you and Dr. Llywarch would take coffee with me in the garden after lunch. Will you?”
I accepted the invitation, and the priest went on to speak with the occupants of the next table. The lads returned again to Ibrahim. We had Ibrahim with the soup, Ibrahim with the main course and Ibrahim with the pudding. I was delighted to see the enthusiasm of the lads. But, to be completely honest, I was getting a bit fed up with Ibrahim.