Doing Theology One Step Behind
I moved to Wales four years ago to become the Vicar of Holy Island on Anglesey. I am now the Vicar and Leader of Bro Eleth (10 parishes on the north side of the Island of Anglesey which is predominantly Welsh speaking (c. 66%). My immediate reflections about moving and changing cultures were summed up in ‘The Oppressor in the Mirror’, which arose out of a short paper presented at the British and Irish Association of Practical Theologians Conference held in Cardiff in 2015).
It has been a journey of unlearning, of discovering that was I had presumed been a shared history of the nations of the British Isles is far from that. Like many educated in England, my history was a British history littered with the names of crowned individuals and tales of daring do of English men and occasionally of English women. I knew hardly anything about Welsh history and culture, and began a discovery that concluded that the much heralded characteristic of English fair play does appear to have been in evidence with how the English or British establishment had dealt with the people of Wales. The fact that overt bias is seemingly a thing of the past does not mean that it does not linger in the collective memory (pp. 142-143).
The focus of this research is twofold. It is embedded in the lives and histories of the Anglesey towns of Amlwch and Llannerch-y-Medd. Amlwch is the most northerly town in Wales and Llannerch-y-Medd one of the historic market towns of the Island. Both are distinctively Welsh in terms of the fact that in both the Welsh language is spoken predominantly in a variety of different arenas. The use of the Welsh language does not determine Welsh identity, although there is both a governmental initiative to promote the use of the language, and often a keenly felt loss in areas where it has disappeared.
This piece of work is secondly ingrained in the context of my own specific ministry. I am a Yorkshire born priest who was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England, serving on an estate on the edge of Gloucester, the coastal town of Maryport in west Cumbria and in Bartley Green a large outer housing estate on the edge of Birmingham. Now as the vicar of Bro Eleth, I live and minister in northern Anglesey covering three specific settlements and their surrounding areas. The area is post-industrial, coastal and rural. All of these contexts have edginess about them, whether because of geography or socio-economic circumstance.
This research therefore is auto-ethnographic. The research question: ‘What does it mean to interpret the Bible from a Welsh Liberation Perspective as an English-speaking Priest in the Church in Wales?’ demands that this is the case.
It became clear that it was necessary to use the Bible in both languages, not because the Church in Wales is a bilingual organisation in a devolved nation that treats both languages equally, but due to the fact that three of my congregations conduct themselves entirely in Welsh, and in the words of one worshipper, ‘I have never worshipped God or read the Bible in a tongue other than my mothers’.
This in itself a challenge as I am very much a Welsh learner. Whilst I am competent enough to lead worship in both English and Welsh, and regularly give a short homily in Welsh, I still tend to think in English. Whilst, I have passed the entry and foundation level exams for using Welsh as a Second Language, I am only in the foothills of the mountainous terrain of the language. I would describe the process of learning Welsh as entering into a different world, as learning a language opens up the possibility of living within another culture, with its own rules, symbols, history and behaviours. I am one step behind not only because of the limitations of my language and understanding of the histories and cultures of Wales, but because I am the beginning of a journey onwards from the discovery that I might be associated with the Oppressor in the Mirror.
Contextual Theology and Ethnography
Contextual Theology is rooted in a specific place and also with the lives of people. Thus, theology rooted in context ‘is primarily a piece of witness, or testimony, based on the practice and experience of individuals’ and communities. Ethnography has commonalities with Contextual Theology. It is as Walton suggests the ‘multi-layered study of cultural forms as they exist in everyday contexts’. Both modes of study then begin by observing experience and engage in listening to context prior to producing analysis and any plans for action. Ethnographic research is sometimes portrayed as passive in a way that Contextual Theology cannot be. Theologies of Context; Black, Feminist, Womanist, LBTQI+ and Liberationist are always invested in the situation or Sitz in Leben, seeking to understand and calling for repentance/action.
Ethnography has been described by Hammersley and Atkinson as a ‘particular set of methods’ that
Involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.
Sarah Pink however argues that a representation of ethnography as ‘just another method or set of methods of data collection wrongly assumes that ethnography entails a simple process of going to another place or culture, staying there for a period of time, collecting pieces of information and knowledge and then taking them away’.
Ethnography cannot be done in a sterilised bubble, and ethnographers are not like archaeologists of old who took precious artefacts from their context to place in another without seemingly any thought to what their removal might do to the original setting. Ethnographic study has the possibility of changing the context and individuals within it, including the ethnographer. It is, or can be, ‘a complicated, messy and humbling endeavour’. Vincent refers to the ‘faithful practice’ of theologies of context. For contextual theologians, particularly those of a liberationist perspective, theology is both part of the process of action and calls us to act. Scripture is not interpreted in context with the expectation that it is solely an academic endeavour, exegeted in and for itself.
While I have considerable sympathy with the view that all theology is in a sense ‘contextual’, for indeed scripture, the creedal statements, theological text books were all written in a particular time and space, Contextual Theology has a particular intent or approach. Bevans describes it as a means of doing theology that takes account of four things, namely ‘the spirit and message of the gospel, the tradition of the Christian people; the culture in which one is theologizing; and social change in that culture’.
In terms of my own context, it is the last two of Bevans’ descriptions that appear to be particularly fruitful in developing an auto-ethnographical and liberationist approach. I say this for three reasons. First, the moving from England to Wales is the auto-ethnographic or auto-biographical impetus to this piece of work. I am thus acutely aware of the differences between these different countries and of course also the similarities that exist between the two. These are expressed in terms of language, history – shared and otherwise, culture and economics. Second, with the advent of devolved power from Westminster to Cardiff Bay and the debates that have taken place both and after the Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, conversations have sprung up within Wales about its identity and relationship particularly to England within the UK. Third, the religious make-up of Wales has changed dramatically over the last three decades; where faith was shaped by Chapel going or allegiance to non-conformity this is by and large now not the case. Grace Davie notes, ‘Secularization may have come late to…Wales, but it came fast. Post-industrialization has not been kind to the free churches…. As the communities, of which the chapels were part, have collapsed, so too have the chapels themselves’. The areas in which I live and serve as Anglican vicar are not as pluralist in terms of religious identity as some of the cities in South Wales, but the increasing absence of Sunday church-going from family and community life is a feature shared from Holyhead to Monmouth and Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury.
Auto-ethnography involves a subtle step-change from ethnography, Walton writes, ‘instead of the researcher being a disciplined observer of social processes ‘out there’, the project is brought much closer to home. The focus in auto-ethnography is upon analysis and communication of those experiences that have shaped the researcher. Personal experience becomes a data source’.
Thus in the context of this research the starting point for the research was the move from England to Wales for me and my consequent culture shock of finding myself in a different nation. In a sense it is irrelevant in auto-ethnographic terms that the Wales I have been immersed in is not consonant with other parts of Wales. Indeed in chapter 2 of this thesis, we will explore the fact that Wales is not a monolithic whole and that we need to speak of Welsh identities rather than one identikit picture of what it means to be Welsh. The auto-ethnographer needs to be aware that the data she or he is interpreting is not empirical. The researcher is shaped by and shapes their contexts. This need not question the validity of findings reached, especially if the researcher is appropriately reflective and fashions their conclusions in the light of other data, including the histories, socio-economic settings, location of the place as well as communal stories of the community or communities alongside individuals within it.
When I first moved to Holyhead, I undertook within the first six months of being there to ensure that the main act of worship on Sunday morning at St Cybi’s Church, Holyhead would be bilingual. This started with small steps constrained by my own linguistic abilities but included using Welsh for the opening greetings, the absolution, the peace and blessing. Prior to my arrival the services at St Cybi’s had been conducted wholly in English for a period of 25 years.
This opened up a number of responses. First my action was not isolated but was seen by some as part of the overall story of the church in Holyhead; one that I did not at the time know. St Cybi’s had been the Welsh speaking Anglican Church in town with its sister church St Seiriol’s the English speaking Church. The Church of St Seiriol was demolished in 1992 which led to the merging of both congregations and to St Cybi’s becoming an English speaking congregation apart from a Welsh language service once a month in the evening. Second, the re-introduction of Welsh delighted some Welsh speakers, yet also thirdly, brought hostility, including anonymous letters, presumably from non-Welsh speaking worshippers, whether incomers from England or those born within Wales who had not had the opportunity to learn or chose not to use the language.
‘Using Welsh affirmed who I am’ – Ann
‘I live, socialise and work in English. Welsh does nothing for me. When I hear it in worship, it jars. If the blessing is only offered in Welsh, it is as if it has not been offered at all’ – Buddeg.
Both Ann and Buddeg were born in Holyhead, went to the same school and were from homes where Welsh were spoken at home. Both are proud to be Welsh. There is a level of complexity of identity and language that needs a fair degree of nuancing. This will be undertaken in chapter three of the thesis.
Within this mix was me, having moved to Wales and acutely conscience of my Englishness who took the decision to introduce Welsh into the common life of principal Anglican place of worship in Holyhead, which is Wales’ busiest and the United Kingdom’s second busiest port expecting it would make a positive statement about firstly my intent to embrace the language and culture, secondly that I understood that the Welsh society and church were working hard at being bilingual and that thirdly, I grasped to a limited extent that Welsh was part of; but not all of, the identity of Wales. I had not yet appreciated that a positive statement could be interpreted in negative ways.
The auto-ethnography of moving from England to Wales
‘Auto-ethnography’ writes Chang, ‘is becoming a particularly useful and powerful tool for researchers and practitioners who deal with human relations in multicultural settings, such as educators, social workers, medical professionals, clergy and counselors’.
Chang goes on to suggest three areas in which auto-ethnography is particularly beneficial. Firstly, it is research method friendly to both readers and researchers, eschewing often the writing conventions of the scholarly guild. This can lead as Chang notes to the researcher becoming swept up in the power of story rather than employing rigorous analysis and interpretation to the auto-ethnographical text. Two stories from my own context illustrate how easy it is to get caught up in moment of the story, assuming an unnecessary universality.
The first involved a conversation between me, as vicar, and the head of a secondary school. The head teacher explained in concise, yet forthright terms, that in every conversation he had with an English professional he carried with him the memories passed down by his parents of punishment being meted out to them for using Welsh rather than English in school. There can be no doubt of the power of this story and how it has been passed down the generations. Yet, it would be a mistake to draw from this that there was a universal attempt in the 1960s to stamp out the speaking of Welsh in Anglesey and Gwynedd without some documentary evidence which at this stage does not seem to be available.
Yet at the same time the absence of data does not diminish the power of the story, buttressed as it is by a common lament from people of the Headteacher parents generation that they were encouraged to live in English rather than Welsh to get on. Leanne Wood AM, the Plaid Cymru politician has spoken of her anger of her own lack of opportunities to learn Welsh as a child, and that her grandfather was discouraged from learning the language as it was deemed to be backward.
The second following my public conduct of the two minute silence on 11 November 2017, when a young mother expressed delight that a Welsh learner was using the language publicly. This took place in the village of Penysarn. It is a commemoration that is largely for the local school, parents and staff. The village is overwhelmingly Welsh speaking, and yet this service has usually been offered in English. It would have been tempting to think that previous Anglican clergy had not offered to take this act of Remembrance in Welsh. However, the absence of any record in the service registers of the parish churches and lack of memory of the event from church wardens raised questions as to whether clergy had previously been involved. This was confirmed by the head teacher who explained that he had led the service previously, and whilst being a first language Welsh speaker was more comfortable using English on more formal questions. Stories may speak powerfully, but as far as possible the whole story needs to be known before it can be interpreted.
Chang’s second point is that auto-ethnography ‘can enhance cultural understanding of self and others’. Yet, she rightly cautions that there is a danger of ‘excessive focus on the self in isolation from others’. To others, I would add community. The community has a story to tell as much as individuals.
The fact that I find myself immersed in a different culture opens up as Chang suggests the opportunity for ‘self-reflection and self-examination’. There needs to be two caveats here. First, that, as we shall see, different parts of Wales have distinct ideas so it is perfectly possible that my reflections on moving may have been different had I moved from Birmingham to an estate in post-industrial Swansea. Even on Anglesey, there are different cultures, some of which revolve around language. In Amlwch, the Queen’s Head and the King’s Head are almost opposite each other. In the King’s, Welsh is spoken and in the Queen’s, English is spoken. Amlwch, as we will see, is not a magnet for English retirees or tourists. Regulars at both are proudly Welsh, their Welshness is simply expressed in a different way. Similarly, if we were to look in the service register at St Eleth, Amlwch, the neatly entered act of worship will be recorded in either Welsh or English depending upon whether Isabel or Pat are recording the service. Both Wardens are Welsh, yet one is comfortable operating in one language, and their colleague in the other. Second I enter into this ethnographic task as an Anglican vicar and occupy a leadership position. As much as I want to call myself a ‘fellow pilgrim’, that is not how most of those who attend the churches I minister to see me; the level of deference to clergy in my experience is greater in Wales than it is over the border.
The third benefit Chang sees in auto-ethnography is that ‘sharing and reading autoethnography can also help transform researcher and readers (listeners)’. It is in this area that I need to be particularly careful.
As I have alluded to learning a new language has seemingly opened new doors for me. Indeed I would go as far as saying that the act of moving to Wales has been transformative. In July 2018, I spoke at the first Coda Festival on the ‘Oppressor in the Mirror’ and then subsequently had a question and answer session with the Revd Canon Dr Manon James. One of the questions put to me by Dr James was whether I now ‘considered myself to be English or Welsh’?
There is no doubt that I see myself differently as a result of living in and experiencing Welsh Culture. This is close to the launching point to how John Vincent begins his theology: ‘Where you are is what you are’. However the temptation like all converts is for me to see Welshness in its entirety as I have experienced it and in doing becoming again the Oppressor in the Mirror, even if I might see the red dragon draped around my shoulders. Our research, reflection and writing needs to balance auto-ethnography’s aim to ‘provoke a response’ as it unsettles, criticizes and challenges with Pink’s observation ethnographers need to ‘be self-conscious about we represent ourselves to our research participants and to consider how our identities are constructed and understood by the people with whom we work’.
Autoethnography and Granular Ethnography
Auto-ethnography offers a particularly innovative way into this research. Its ultimate goal is ‘cultural understanding’ reflecting on the experiences of communities and individuals. Walton believes that three of the main currents of auto ethnography ‘have particular relevance to the reflective theological researcher’, namely story-telling and the gathering of the same, analytic ethnography and performance ethnography. I will set out in chapter one how this will work in particular to our research question and research goals. However, at this stage I propose to work with Atkinson’s granular ethnography.
I want to urge the conduct of ethnographic research that is based on granular analysis. That is, it traces the grain of everyday life. The grain that is given by the naturally occurring forms of social order and cultural forms. The ethnography is therefore faithful to the multiple ways in which every day life is ordered and enacted.
‘Tracing the grain of everyday life’ is particularly appealing to a Vicar. I am involved in and observe life at its messiness, both at its beginning and the end. I am at one and the same time at the heart and periphery of the communities that make up my Ministry Area. Atkinson has not yet set out how granular ethnography is done. It seems to be that ‘tracing’ can be done only by faithfully recording, reflecting and revising the stories of those involved in the lives of my worshipping communities, whether in the middle or on the periphery.
Interpreting the Bible in a Liberationist Way
The rise of Liberation Theology and the appropriateness of its approach for Wales will be discussed in chapter 4. For now I note that a liberationist approach to interpreting the Bible begins with experience. Vincent notes that this is an ‘experience of a particular kind – experience, especially of oppression’.
Liberation theology is being worked out in shanty towns, land struggles, oppressed and humiliated groups, as well as areas of urban deprivation in the Northern hemisphere, wherever the rebuilding of shattered lives takes place.
Liberation theology has had an incredible effect on the guild of biblical studies, as Sugirtharajah notes the ‘hermeneutic spiral’ and ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ are now firmly part of the ‘lexicon’ of biblical studies.
Beginning with looking is at the heart of liberation theology, and indeed one might argue the starting point for all practical theology.
Many liberation theologians…spend a significant part of each week working with grass roots communities….As part of their pastoral work they listen and help the process of reflection on the Bible which is going on (within) the grassroots communities.
The Urban Theology Union (formerly Unit) has been at the forefront of developing a contextually rooted exegesis, refining the See, Judge, Act cycle, pioneered initially by Joseph Cardijn, and the subsequent shaping and re-shaping the many configurations of the pastoral cycle.
Throughout my experience as an ordained person, I have endeavoured to relate the Bible to experience, leading and being led by those whom I am working with. One example will suffice for now.
In September 2002, when discussing with members of the congregation what we might do during Advent, the Apocalypse of John was mentioned (hereafter the Revelation) by two or three people, until the idea was adopted, albeit slightly reluctantly by myself.
It was decided that the group would meet 4 times, and that the first meeting as well as offering a brief introduction to the biblical text would involve a discussion that might shape the rest of the course.
My own particular methodology within the group was to attempt to make relationships between the biblical text and local context. Thus the opening statements made about the text were designed to ask a question about the experiences of the group. This pattern was repeated at each session, and in the last two sessions done so explicitly.
This is not too dissimilar to the approach developed by UNLOCK! (formerly the Evangelical Urban Training Project) which seeks to relate text to context, starting with experience.
Liberation theologians did not come from the context in which they undertook to read the Bible. The earliest practitioners in Latin America were priests and scholars who were drawn to work with communities on the edge. I too am not part of the community in which I work. Whilst, I am in many ways a participant observer, I need to remember that I am an outsider who needs to listen, hear and reflect before I speak.
Having hopefully established some of the merits of doing theology one step behind, it is to research goals and further discussion of the methodologies involved that we must turn momentarily before we set out the context of Wales, and in particular of Amlwch and Llannerch-y-Medd.
 Practical Theology 9 (2016): 142-144.
 This is one of the conclusions of Evans, Daniel John. Post Devolution Welsh Identity in Porthcawl: an ethnographic analysis of class, place and every day nationhood in ‘British Wales’. Unpublished PhD, Bangor University. 2014. pp. 85, 110=118
 See Ellis, Kevin. ‘Working Class Dreams, Working Class God’ Expository Times 121 (2010), 437-446.
 Vincent, John. ‘Developing Contextual Theologies’ in Duffield, Ian K, Jones, Christine, Vincent, John (eds.) Crucibles: Creating Theology at UTU. Sheffield: Urban Theology Unit, 2000, p. 24.
 Walton, Heather. Writing Methods in Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press, 2013, p. 3.
 Hammersley, Martin and Atkinson, Paul. Ethnography: Principles in Practice. 2nd edn London: Routledge, p. 1
 Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography. 3rd edn. London: Sage, 2013, p. 34.
 Moschella, Mary Clark. Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008, p. 32.
 Vincent, ‘Contextual Theologies’, p. 31. Cf. Green, Laurie. Let’s do theology: Resources for Contextual Theology. London: Mowbray, 2009, pp. 107-113.
 Vincent, ‘Contextual Theologies’, p. 28. Cf. Bevans, Stephen, ‘Models of Contextual Theology’, Missiology: An International Review Volume 13 (1985), pp. 4-12. Bevans writes, ‘there is a strong conviction among most theologians that… theology which is not contextual theology – an expression of faith in terms of contemporary society, history and culture – is a false theology’ (p. 4).
 Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992, p. 1.
 Davie, Grace, ‘Foreword’, Chambers, Paul. Religion, Secularization and Social Change in Wales: Congregational Studies in a Post-Christian Society. Cardiff: University of Wales, 2005, p. 1. See also Morgan, D Densil, The Span of the Cross: Christian Religion and Society in Wales 1914-2000 2nd edn Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011.
 Walton, Heather, Writing Methods, p. 3.
 Chang, Heewon. Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2008, p. 52.
 Chang, Autoethnography, p. 52.
 Chang, Autoethnography, p. 55. Kim Etherington notes that without sufficient critical analysis autoethnography can be ‘self-indulgent, solipsistic and narcissistic’, Becoming a Reflexive Researcher. Using Our Selves in Research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004, p. 141.
 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-45120184 (accessed 15 August 2018)
 Chang, Autoethnography, p. 54.
 Chang, Autoethnography, p. 57.
 On the nuances of the religious leader being ethnographer within her or his community, see Moschella, Ethnography as Pastoral Practice, pp. 90-93.
 Chang, Autoethnography, p. 59.
 Vincent, John. ‘Liberation Theology in Britain, 1970-1995’ in Rowland, Christopher and Vincent, John (eds) Liberation Theology UK. Sheffield: Urban Theology Unit, 1995, p. 18.
 Walton, Writing Methods, p. 9.
 Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, p. 37
 Chang, Autoethnography, p. 49.
 Walton, Writing Methods, p. 4, pp. 4-9.
 Atkinson Paul, Thinking Ethnographically London: Sage, 2017, p.11
 Vincent, ‘Liberation Theology in Britain’, p. 17.
 Rowland. ‘Introduction: the theology of liberation’ in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. Cambridge: University Press, 1999, p. 3.
 Sugirtharajah, R S. Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: University Press, 2002, p. 106.
 Rowland, Christopher, Rees, Bridget, Weston, Ruth. ‘Practical Exegesis in Context’ Rowland and Vincent, John (eds.) Bible and Practice: British Liberation Theology 4. Sheffield: Urban Theology Unit, 2001, pp. 12-14.
 Rowland, Rees and Weston, ‘Practical Exegesis’, p. 13.
 Latvus, Kari. ‘The Bible in British Urban Theology: An Analysis by a Finnish Companion’, West, Gerald O. Reading Other-Wise: Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with their Local Communities. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007, pp. 127-138. See also Lawrence, Louise J. The Word in Place: Reading the New Testament in Contemporary Contexts. London: SPCK, 2009, p. 22.
 Ellis, Kevin. ‘The Priest as Theologian’, Journal of Adult Theological Education. Volume 1.2 (2004), p. 123
 Richardson, Jenny. ‘You can keep your hat on!’ Rowland and Vincent (eds). Bible and Practice. Sheffield: Urban Theology Unit, 2001, pp. 27-34.