Being religious, again again

The leader article in this month’s Third Way (‘that necessity for all thinking Christians with money to waste’, as its reviews editor once put it) is, lo and behold, the beginning of Rowan Williams’ Swansea University lecture.

And nestling at the bottom of the editorial is the footnote that the lecture transcript is now available on archbishopofcanterbury.org, which sure enough, it is, here. So given that you can now actually read what the man said, and given how close I’ve been to becoming a Low Anglican version of BBC Four recently, I faithfully promise this’ll be my last post about all this.

West is (still) best

At best, I’m agnostic when it comes to rugby. Yes, I know that doesn’t fit with me being raised in the Gwendraeth Valley, the secret location of Wales’ national fly-half factory as immortalised by Max Boyce. To the despair of my late father (a life-long Llanelli supporter, a lifetime debenture holder at the old Cardiff Arms Park) I showed neither the inclination, nor particularly the aptitude, to excel at the sport. At school, my father was briefly in the same First XV as Carwyn James, famed Scarlets and British Lions coach. In his teens and twenties, my dad played for Cefneithin RFC, a fearsome and respected local team. It’s fair to say that his rugby-playing genes passed me by. Suffice it to say you’re lucky if I can even catch a ball, ovoid or spherical, and asking me to run with it is really pushing your chances.

But even rugby-ambivalent me can’t escape paying tribute to Ray Gravell, who was buried today. He was more than merely one of the best centres Wales is ever likely to see. He was more than a double Grand Slam winner, or legendary member of that Llanelli side that beat the All Blacks in 1972 (a whole year before my birth, but still something that resonated through my childhood). He was a gentleman in the literal sense of the word, and as fine a broadcaster and communicator as he was a rugby player.

Most people who met Grav have a story to tell, so here’s mine: a long-suffering school friend and myself had taken it on ourselves to create a radio programme for a competition in the Urdd Eisteddfod. As part of that (and I’ll admit, the main reason we wanted to do it) I managed to wangle us a visit to the BBC studios on Alexandra Road in Swansea. It was a Wednesday in a 1991 half-term. We were there to interview Sulwyn Thomas, then a Radio Cymru equivalent to today’s Jeremy Vine. Over weekday lunchtimes, Sulwyn hosted a phone-in show and endured highly opinionated callers. Grav was in the Radio Cymru office, preparing for his next request show, having finished that week’s live broadcast a few hours previously.

It was coming up to the midday news, and Sulwyn had to end his spiel at precisely 11:59 and 54 seconds in order to leave a clear gap between him finishing and the time signal pips starting. His task was not to crash the pips. Crashing the pips, in radio, is regarded as something of a mortal sin. You should at all costs avoid it on live broadcasts but it’s sometimes inevitable (listen to the end of most Today programmes if you want proof). And sure enough, at 11:59 and 55 seconds, Sulwyn crashed the pips.

12:00 and 4 seconds it was, the news was coming from Cardiff, and the imposing presence of Grav had rushed into the control room. Sulwyn’s producer rolled his eyes. We hurriedly switched our microphone on and hit Record on our cassette deck. Grav crescendoed:

“He crashed the pips! Sulwyn crashed the pips! GRAV NEVER CRASHES THE PIPS – GRAV SHATTERS THE PIPS TO SMITHEREENS! HE SAYS – ‘LOOK HERE PIPS, I’LL GIVE YOU PIPS! I’LL PIP YOU TO THE LEFT, I’LL PIP YOU TO THE RIGHT, AND IT’LL BE PIP PIP HOORAY TO THE LOT OF YOU!’

And then, he switched out of broadcast mode, had a genial chat with us both, wished us all the best for the Urdd competition, and was gone to madly career about Sulwyn’s studio for the rest of the 3-minute bulletin.

And that’s how I’ll remember Grav, because that’s what he was to me – receptive to people’s needs, a clown when called for, serious when not. I could go on and say how he lent his name to an accent, or how my mum still swears blind that we’re distantly related – our family were Grevilles from the same area as Grav, so she may well have a point. The rest of Wales may remember him differently, but I’ll remember him as the guy whose stream of time-signal-related consciousness helped us win that competition sixteen years ago, and I’ll appreciate him for that.

Without descending into soggy untheological cliché, here’s hoping that Grav is now somewhere where no-one ever crashes any pips. If they do, though, I’m sure he’ll be on hand for the entertainment.

Between

When people meet me and realise I’m Welsh and that I speak Welsh, then once we’re past the jibes about rain, sheep, dirt and druids, they almost always say one of a set range of phrases.

1. “Oh. I thought Welsh was a dead language.”
Not much I can do about people thinking that, really. I’m not sure how those people would answer the question: if there’s a Welsh speaker standing in front of you, does that make the Welsh language a) dead, or b) alive? Please tick one box only.
Apart from that, and depending on who’s saying it, I might argue from census figures, from the existence of S4C, from the growth in Welsh-medium education, or the flourishing Welsh-language hip-hop scene. But unsurprisingly, I’m not sure any of that has persuaded the other person.

2. “Oh yes. I was on holiday in Snowdonia once, and I walked into a sandwich shop in Bangor, and everyone there was speaking Welsh!”
Yeah, I know. We were all speaking English before you walked in. We do it just for the tourists. Try the savoury cheese rolls next time, by the way – they’re very good.

3. “Welsh hasn’t got any swearwords has it? Apart from the ones it takes from English.”
Look, mate, you try broadcasting Dafydd ap Gwilym’s ruder stuff on S4C. Doubt it’d get past Compliance unless it was way after 10pm with dire warnings about bad language. And that was six centuries ago: fancy having a look at the Welsh Profanisaurus?

4. “Oh! So you speak two languages! Are you better at Welsh or English?”
No, not really. Or rather, yes, but I can’t tell you which, because it depends on the hour, the day, the people I’m talking to, what exactly I’m doing and the state of my brain.

I suspect that what most people want to hear in response to the last question is that I always think, dream, play and work in Welsh or in English. But the problem is, I don’t. I’m not aware that my brain has to go through any sort of mental gear change to switch from one language to the other. Most people who are fluent in more than one language don’t do that sort of thing. We switch frequently, often in mid-sentence, from one language to the other, and a lot of people do find this amusing. Or fascinating: the technical term for that is ‘code-switching’, and hundreds of academics around the world build careers around researching why and how it happens.

So what goes on inside the language bits of a multilingual brain? No one’s entirely sure, of course. I’ve been looking for years for something visual that explains it well, even to some degree. And the closest I’ve found is this, a gorgeous promo for the more technical side of what S4C does. Click here to see what the inside of my brain actually looks like.

Provided it’s not raining, of course.

Good pronounciation?

Very occasionally I stumble across a blog that’s so long-established, and yet so essential, I wonder how on earth the Internet managed without it. The current example: the blog of Professor John Wells. John Wells is one of the UK’s most well-known phoneticians – a person that studies the sounds of speech. He also happens to be a Welsh speaker, and happens to be a thoroughly learned, thoroughly helpful, thoroughly decent man.

His weblog is certainly not for everyone (if you didn’t do a double-take at this post’s title, you may not appreciate his writings). But it’s difficult not to like a blog that’s discussed phantom ‘r’s, Gordon Brown’s hypercorrect public speaking, Bangor linguistic beards and Charles Wesley’s hymn of ‘in-fine-ight’ grace – all during the past fortnight. And it’s a warm read, too: true that his blog lacks comments, permalinks, and all the normal trappings of modern-day web diaries, but somehow it’s also escaped the incestuous reciprocal linking, the loudness and the sheer noisiness of Blogs These Days.

/Its/ /@/ /gUd/ /blQg/.

Being religious, again

“I’m very narrow”, said the slim woman as she squeezed past me. As the bloke next to me pointed out, you have to be careful saying things like that at a Rowan Williams gig.

It wasn’t even standing room only at the Archbishop’s lecture this afternoon. The provocative title of How to Misunderstand Religion delivered a packed-out lecture theatre, plus at least one overflow room with a video link. This turnout wasn’t exactly a surprise for a man on his home turf, but by the skin of our teeth, Nessa and myself made it to the main auditorium.

I could write (and in five words’ time, I will) that was a pie-hot lecture, but what surprise is that? The entire Anglican communion knows that its head has a sizable brain between his two shoulders, despite their disagreements on what comes out of that head. Rowan Williams has an ability not to baffle his audience with obscure terminology, which is scandalously rare in academic theological circles. He knows what to say, and he knows how to use language clearly and accurately while he’s saying it. His talk was Crystal Mark material.

The ideas expressed themselves needed concentration, but rewarded it. Where many, if not most, of Richard Dawkins’ religious opponents have been as shrill as Dawkins himself in their opposition to him, Rowan Williams’ response was simple, measured, and graceful. He eloquently questioned whether the concept of a meme was valid when talking about religion itself, this being for the past 30 years a central plank of Dawkins’ argument against religious belief. He argued that atheists, rather than trying to drive out bad religion with no religion (an impossible project, in his view) should rather try to argue against the bad bits of religion, and try to turn it into good.

True, you can argue against those arguments, and Richard Dawkins would certainly have a good stab at them. But you can’t argue against their expression, or – for this afternoon anyway – the way in which they were expressed.

But the most memorable bit for me came right at the end, as a quaking questioner asked the Archbishop, what he made of the Guardian’s insistence that the biggest belief group in the UK are ‘Christian but not religious’.

His answer, with gross paraphrasing and some editorialising? “Well, being Christian seems to be a historical position for Britain, and for many it’s nothing more than something to rely on in times of crisis, rather like the National Health Service.” The audience murmured. “Maybe the National Health Service was a bad example.” The audience laughed. “But what worries me is that an anti-Muslim backlash in Britain means that people are increasingly defining themselves as Christian in the sense of ‘non-Muslim’. In other words, what they mean when they call themselves Christian is ‘whatever those Muslims believe and do, it’s nothing to do with me’. So I think we need tolerance and compassion in understanding those of other faiths, which will help those with little faith of their own.”

The audience applauded, and so did the questioner. It seemed to all of us, including me, to be a point well worth making.

Being religious

Today of all days, what are we to make of the Guardian’s insistence that the biggest belief group in the UK are ‘Christian but not religious’?

If you’re nodding in agreement with that label, here’s some bad news for you: I’m afraid you are in fact probably quite religious. Based on a figure I just made up of over 80% of this blog’s readers believing in at least one god, that makes a whopping four-fifths of you very religious indeed. Sorry about that. It can’t be helped.

It’s easy, though, to see why many should describe themselves as Christian-but-not-religious. Religion, after all, hasn’t had the best press during the past few millennia. On an international level, Wars have been fought, individuals have been killed, massacres undertaken, bombs planted, and destruction done in the name of religion. On an interpersonal level, too, being religious isn’t the trendiest of occupations. Fairly or not, those who are ‘religious’ have the stereotype of being dour, stern individuals, swift to judge and slow to bless, who seldom smile and who seem to live their lives in anticipation of something worse to come. Christians, on the other hand, are seen as dour, stern individuals, who… well, maybe that’s a poor comparison. But there are many people who, slightly confusingly, seem to see ‘being religious’ as a step up from being Christian, as if attending church services on a semi-regular basis somehow demanded more commitment from an individual than adherence to a bloke who told some of his followers to give up everything they owned and follow Him. It’s an attitude that brings to mind Keith Donnelly’s quip about being a Jehovah’s Bystander – they wanted him to be a witness, but he didn’t want to get that involved.

It’s not just the waverers who would rather not be religious, of course. If you’ve ever uttered, in the course of a heated religious debate, ‘Oh, I’m not religious. I’m a Christian’ (which, I’m guessing, probably makes you an evangelical of some sort), then hang your head in shame. Sorry, people, you are religious. And how. Baffling your audience with utterances like that doesn’t alter the fact that, if you’re trying to argue someone into a religious belief, you might just have to shrug your shoulders and admit to the r-word yourself.

So what do we do? Maybe we shouldn’t hide from religion any more. Maybe, in the same way that the likes of Joel Edwards and Jim Wallis want to reclaim the word ‘evangelical’, we should try the same with ‘religious’. Maybe we should poke our heads above the parapet and occasionally admit not just to our faith, but to our religion, to our regular belief practices and devotions. There are many shining examples of good, of comfort, of reassurance and of truth in this world, and many of those carry a religious label with them. The 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, coming up next year, may just be a time to rescue the r-word from waverers and swindlers.

So here’s my confession this Christmas: I’m Rhys, and I’m religious. And chances are, if you’ve sung a carol and meant it, if you’ve prayed and felt the words lifting higher than the ceiling, if you’ve listened to the story about a revolutionary child being born over two thousand years ago and thought it something more than words, then you, my friend, are religious too.

It’s futile to fight it, so you might as well accept it.

Happy Christmas.

Mr Jones, put a wiggle in your stride

The meme that’s going round the blogs asks how many people in the US have your name. The answer, for me personally, is fairly obvious – very few if you just take my first name, but bucketloads if you just take my surname.

Yes, I’m a Jones, and so I probably should have had some coherent thoughts on the surname-based record-breaking that went on in Cardiff Bay about a fortnight ago now. The problem is, I find it very difficult to get excited about it. It wasn’t as big as the original (abandoned) grandiose scheme, after all. And as this stat-filled Guardian article pointed out, it means very little really: the record of 1,224 Joneses in a single location at a single time is probably easily beaten every time Wales play a rugby match in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. And yes, Grace Jones did visit Wales for the first time as a result, but I know that nothing can beat Slave to the Rhythm done by an orchestra of ukuleles.

So instead, I go to my favourite dictionary, well aware that knowing what ‘my favourite dictionary’ is already makes me the most exciting Jones in history. What Joneses has it highlighted, I wonder? The answer’s mildly reassuring. The Jimmy of Jonestown is mercifully absent. The Vinny of thuggery is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we have a golfer (Bobby), an architect (Inigo), an admiral (John Paul), a geneticist (Steve), a singer (Tom), and most wonderfully of all, a phonetician (Daniel).

I overlook John and Tom not actually being born with my surname, and I reassure myself that since the Tomster rescued Earth from Martian invasion a while back, he should probably be an honorary Jones after all. I glance at the reference to ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ on the next page, assured that very few other surnames can even come close. And then, I read this:

Jones (verb, no obj.) (jones on/for) have a fixation on; be addicted to: Palmer was jonesing for some coke again.
— origin 1960s: Said to come from Jones Alley, in Manhattan, associated with drug addicts.

Gloss over the original connotation, which seems to have softened by now anyway. Just look at the part of speech. To jones is a verb. This may be old news to every Jones in America, but it was very new news for me. I can conjugate my surname. My world just changed. I knew I’d been jonesing for something for a while, but I’d no idea that this is what I’d jonesed for. Do you jones as much as I do?

So there you are – 1,224 Joneses in Cardiff Bay? Impressive, yes, but not as impressive as their surnames being a proper noun, a common noun and a verb all at the same time. Such versatility is the sort of thing us Joneses are known for, of course. World-beating versatility, you might say.

As long as you don’t mention Vinny, of course. And I’m jonesing for you not to mention Jimmy.

That’s the beauty of…

Two days ago, a computer somewhere ticked over, and our house became slightly greener. Adding to our already quite high smugness quotient, we’ve decided to take the plunge, pay the few extra pounds, and switch over to wind power. Not quite in the sense of putting a turbine on our house, though maybe in a few years who knows? But for now, we’re with Ecotricity. That company’s New Energy tariff allows you to buy about 30% of your electricity from their windfarms, and crucially the profits from the tariff are ploughed back into new windfarms, creating a sound environmental feedback loop which in time should turn the 30% into 100%.

So the electricity’s sorted. Now, how about the gas?

Granted, gas isn’t the most ecologically sound fuel in the world in the first place, being derived from fossils and all that. But using it directly to heat your house does at least make more efficient use of the thing than burning it in a power station, turning the generators to create electricity, and transmitting it across wires… and then using the electricity to heat your house.

So what is the least worst option for gas supply in the UK, short of actually ditching our one-year-old condensing combi boiler and putting solar panels on our roof instead? There are plenty of supply companies in the UK that trumpet their green energy credentials, but unless I’ve missed something, those talk about the green-ness of their electricity rather than their gas. We’re on the lookout for gas suppliers that aren’t quite as ecologically and ethically dubious as the average, whatever that average might be. Those that plough money into biofuels, those that encourage you to reduce your energy use year-on-year, or as a last resort those that are just plain indefinably nice. Any suggestions?