‘Did R.S. Thomas believe in God?’ Review of Laboratories of the Spirit. Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea, 1st November 2013. In New Welsh Review 102 (Winter, 2013-2014) online.
Did RS Thomas believe in God? The question was put by M Wynn Thomas, a professor of literature at Swansea University, to Barry Morgan, the current Archbishop of Wales, and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, at a public discussion of faith in RS Thomas’ work at Swansea last month. The prompt was a video clip in which John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry.
R.S. Thomas’s comment was perhaps deliberately evasive, and ignores the other meaning of Osmond’s question, whether the time he spent as a poet kept him from fulfilling his duties to his parish. Rowan Williams especially seemed anxious to defend his record as a priest. Young people remembered him fondly, and his sermons were clear and accessible. He would spend whole nights at the bedsides of the dying, or drive parishioners to see their relatives in hospital at Bangor from his parish on the Llŷn Peninsula, a round trip of eighty miles. His remark, argued Barry Morgan, is less alarming than it sounds, for RS Thomas does not state that religion is merely metaphor. He is not a systematic theologian, and does not pretend to an unambiguous faith, yet his work shows a deep conviction of the centrality of Jesus, of the centrality of his death and resurrection, and of the human-centred hope expressed in God’s future kingship.