16 April 2016

Ethical research policy and
formal proposal procedures

The Hippocratic Oath: a standard for ethics in professional behaviour

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

16 April 2016,

1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., Brown Room


When most of us think of ethics, we think of rules that help us to distinguish between right and wrong.

Can you give me some examples?

1, The Ten Commandments tell us how to treat others: Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not covet your neighbours goods …

2, The Golden Rule tells us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

3, Medical practitioners are bound by the Hippocratic Oath, which says: “First of all, do no harm.”

Quite often, these rules are the most common way of defining ethics. They offer norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Most people acquire a sense of right and wrong as children, so that we grow up thinking many moral standards are simple common sense. But we know, of course, that common sense is not very common.

Most people recognise some common ethical norms but interpret, apply, and balance them in different ways in light of their own values and life experiences.

For example, two people could agree that murder is wrong but disagree about the morality of abortion because we have different understandings of what it is to be a human being.

Because so many of our ethical standards are rule based, we often confused ethics and legality.

It is a common plea from politicians who are caught in corruption scandals: “I did nothing illegal.” Not “I did nothing wrong,” but “I did nothing that broke the law.”

They think less about shame and embarrassment and more about fines, sentences and jail terms.

Ethical norms tend to be much more difficult to define and to implement than laws.

Examples may include:

An action may be legal but unethical or illegal but ethical.

Can you give me some examples?

In the 20th century, many social reformers called on people to disobey laws that were immoral or unjust laws.

1, Mahatma Gandhi in the demand for Indian independence.

2, Martin Luther King and others who struggled against legalised segregation and racism in the United States.

3, Desmond Tutu and other campaigners against apartheid in South Africa.

4, The women at Greenham Common.

Professional ethics:

Many different disciplines, institutions, and professions have standards of behaviour that suit their particular aims and goals. These standards also help members of the discipline to co-ordinate their actions or activities and to establish public trust in the discipline.

For instance, ethical standards govern conduct in medicine, law, architecture, business and the clergy.

What ethical standards apply to priests and clergy?


Examples may include:

1, The ‘seal of confession’

2, Domestic and child abuse at home.

3, Pastoral care or intervention.

4, Sexual boundaries.

5, Political views.

6, Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, talk of suicide.

7, Disclosure to the media … “whistle-blowing” versus breach of confidentiality.

8, Mission and evangelism during the course of research.

Ethics and research

Ethical norms also serve the aims or goals of research and apply to people who conduct scholarly research or other scholarly or creative activities.

There are several reasons why it is important to adhere to ethical norms during the course of your research.

1, Norms promote the aims of research, such as knowledge, truth, and avoidance of error. For example, prohibitions against fabricating, falsifying, or misrepresenting research data promote the truth and minimise error.

2, Since research often involves co-operation and co-ordination between different people in different disciplines and institutions, ethical standards promote values essential to collaborative work, such as trust, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. For example, many ethical norms in research, such as guidelines for authorship, copyright, data sharing policies and confidentiality rules, are designed to protect intellectual property interests and to encourage collaboration. Most researchers want to receive credit for their contributions and do not want to have their ideas stolen or disclosed prematurely.

3, Many of the ethical norms help to ensure that researchers are accountable.

4, Ethical norms in research help to build public support for research. People are more likely to co-operate with a research project if they can trust the quality and integrity of research.

5, Many of the norms of research promote a variety of other important moral and social values. Ethical lapses in research can significantly harm the subjects, students, and the public.

Ethical questions to discuss:

One of the questions you are likely to be asked by your external examiner is about the ethical questions raised by and during your research. Apart from the ethical questions raised by your dissertation topic, you may also consider these issues:

1, Confidentiality: identifying someone you have interviewed

2, Confidentiality: using material collected during pastoral visits.

3, Protect confidential communications, such as papers you read, personal and personnel records you have access to, professional secrets.

4, What about anecdotal information?

5, Honesty: How do you deal with opinions you do not agree with?

6, Honesty: how do you handle material or findings that go against your expectations.

7, Fabricating data, including hiding data collected.
8, Data protection: how to record interviews, how to label it, where to store it.

9, Keeping records: dating, storing, access.

10, Deception.

11, Plagiarism: respect Intellectual Property; honour patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property; do not use unpublished data, methods, or results without permission; give proper acknowledgement or credit for all contributions to research. Never plagiarise.

12, How do you demonstrate accountability: to the Church, your placement parish, your sponsoring bishop, your fellow students, staff at CITI?

13, How do I avoid discrimination on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, social class or background, or other factors not related to competence and integrity?

Working methods:

1, Respect people: minimise harms and risks and maximise benefits; respect human dignity, privacy, and autonomy; take special precautions with vulnerable people; strive to distribute the benefits and burdens of research fairly.

2, Strive to avoid bias in experimental design, data analysis, data interpretation, peer review, personnel decisions, expert testimony, and other aspects of research where objectivity is expected or required.

3, Avoid or be aware of bias or self-deception.

4, Disclose personal or financial interests that may affect your research.

5, Avoid careless errors and negligence.

6, Carefully and critically examine your own work and the work of your peers.

7, Keep good records of research activities, such as data collection, research design, and correspondence with agencies or journals.

8, Be open: share data, results, ideas, tools, resources.

9, Be open: to criticism and new ideas.

10, Maintain and improve your own professional competence and expertise through a commitment to lifelong education and learning.

11, Ethics and the law: know and obey the relevant laws.

Some advice:

1, Honestly report data, results, methods and procedures, and publication status.

2, Do not fabricate, falsify, or misrepresent data.

3, Do not deceive colleagues, staff, or the public.

4, Keep your promises and agreements.

5, Act with sincerity.

6, Strive for consistency of thought and action.

Some guiding principles:

1, Voluntary participation.

2, Informed consent.

3, Avoiding risk of harm.

4, Respect confidentiality and privacy.

5, Be aware, including legal limits.

Further reading:

A Shamoo and D Resnik, Responsible Conduct of Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed, 2015).

The Hippocratic Oath on a wall in the Hermitage Medical Clinic, Lucan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Appendix 1: The Hippocratic Oath:

I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a seminar on writing and research skills with Year IV part-time MTh students on 16 April 2016.

Rubicon 2016: ‘1916–2016: Before, Between
and Beyond … Ireland: 100 Years On’

The GPO in O’Connell Street, Dublin … neither Sinn Féin nor the IRA was involved in organising the Easter Rising in 1916 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Rubicon 5th national gathering,

Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines,

11 a.m., 16 April 2016.

This year Easter has been dominated, some would say hijacked, by events marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. The programme has dominated the life of Church and State, dominated the news on television and newspapers. It is as though there is no pressing political problem on our doorstep, such as the refusal of elected politicians to form a government, the threat to our economic stability by a Brexit vote later this summer, or the problems of homelessness on our city’s street, the failures in our health service, or the continuing problems of a younger generation finding access to housing, healthcare, higher education and meaningful employment.

This political, social and cultural obsession has obscured, even mocked, the fact that Easter is the most important Christian festival. The Easter Rising in 1916 did not begin on a Sunday, did not begin in March; in fact, it began on Monday 24 April 1916. But the churches allowed Sunday 29 March 2016 to be hijacked. The bank holiday weekend was supposed to mark the weekend that is central to the Christian faith. The state could quite conveniently have created another holiday weekend centred on Monday 25 April 2016.

Imagine the uproar in Tunisia or Turkey had major military parades marking a key state anniversary had forced mosques to close during Ramadan or at the height of the Eid celebrations. Or imagine the international outcry if Churches and Christian centres of worship in Cairo or Baghdad had been forced by the state to close this Easter. We should have insisted our churches and cathedrals were going to be open, not as normal, but as Easter celebrations that Sunday. Now, how can we object when we are asked to close our churches and cathedrals for a Saint Patrick's Day parade, an All-Ireland Sunday, the Dublin City Marathon?

As a 14-year-old in 1966, I remember the 50th anniversary commemorations with distaste. They excluded any questioning, any alternative views, and I have no doubt that the way they were organised was a contributing factor in rekindling the IRA and the eventual emergence of the Provisional IRA in December 1969. Their first public statement on 28 December 1969 began: ‘We declare our allegiance to the 32 county Irish republic, proclaimed at Easter 1916 ...’

Fifty years later, some of the commemorations have been more tasteful and more inclusive. If you have not been to see them yet, I draw your attention to the Surgeons and Insurgents exhibition in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the exhibition ‘Tales from the Other Side’ in Marsh’s Library, and the monument in Glasnevin Cemetery that lists the names of all 488 dead people in the 1916 Rising.

Sinn Fein and others have been energetic in projecting images of the signatories of the 1916 proclamation as Green, Gaelic and Catholic working class heroes. But these are such false and manipulative images. Pearse was the son a Birmingham Unitarian, two of the seven signatories were not born in Ireland, one was the son of an Englishman, one had served in the British army, one was the son of an RIC officer, one was born in a British army barracks, one was a titled aristocrat who went to an English public school, and at least three married women who were born into the Church of Ireland.

Sinn Fein and the IRA were not involved in the events in Easter Week 1916. Sinn Fein was bankrupt financially, struggling to pay rent on its premises in Harcourt Street, and under its leader Arthur Griffith it was a monarchist party, supporting the concept of a dual monarchy modelled on the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ireland would be a kingdom, and Britain would have remained an empire, both under the same monarch.

The IRA did not come into existence until long after the Rising. It is not mentioned in Proclamation, where the three organisations named are the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army. The IRA was formed after the 1916 Rising.

Both Sinn Fein and the IRA would not be happy today to be told they were not on the streets in 1916. But, as Patsy McGarry pointed out in an opinion column The Irish Times recently, to challenge the received myths of 1916 is in some way to challenge our images of Ireland today, to leave those who question open to the accusation that we are not fully Irish. When we also happen to be members of the Church of Ireland, then to contribute in this way to the debate runs the danger of continuing and perpetuating the divisions that equate Catholic with Nationalist and Protestant with Loyalist.

The grave in Whitechurch of the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We should not forget the involvement of members of the Church of Ireland in 1916: the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, Professor of Divinity in Trinity College Dublin, used his rooms in TCD for the meeting at which the Irish Citizen Army adopted its name in 1913.

The main participants in the Howth gunrunning were active members of the Church of Ireland, including the historian Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929), Sir Roger Casement, Bobby and Molly Childers, and the first cousins Conor O’Brien and Mary Spring-Rice (1880-1924). Waiting for them on the pier were Countess Markievicz, Douglas Hyde, Harry Nicholls and Darrell Figgis. The Kilcoole gunrunning was planned by Sir Thomas Myles, who would later become an honorary surgeon to King George V in World War I.

The key figures in the Rising itself included Countess Markievicz, who was Constance Goore-Booth, the trade unionist Harry Nicolls, and Dr Kathleen Lynn, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Rathmines all her life. The historian Martin Maguire of Dundalk Institute of Technology has counted at least 45 Protestants – 21 women and 24 men – who were active in the Republican movement between 1916 and 1921.

The cultural climate that laid the foundations for a new nationalism in Ireland was created by the literary movement, with poets and playwrights like WB Yeats and Sean O’Casey, the Abbey Theatre, with Lady Gregory and AE George Russell, and the revival of the Irish language, encouraged by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector – all of them members of the Church of Ireland.

The Children of Lir … part of the monument to the 1916 leaders in Parnell Square. But what about the Children of the Rising? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A popular rant in political debate in Ireland is embodied in question: “Is this what the men of 1916 died for?” The controversy over Moore Street projects the idea that Sinn Fein and the IRA were to the vanguard of the Rising and that they alone showed courage and heroism. In fact more children, more civilians and more soldiers and policemen in what were – and we must remember this – what were our army and our police forces, died in the Rising than the number of rebels. The majority of the dead in Easter 1916 (268) were civilians, 119 were soldiers, many of them Irish. Almost one in five of those killed was under the age of 19. The RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy tells the story of the 40 children killed in the Rising in his book, Children of the Rising. Indeed, the Glasnevin monument shows us that those involved in the rebellion account for a fraction of the deaths in 1916, 16 per cent (58).

But what did those 58 die for? What they died for is a mixed bag. The 1916 Proclamation is sexist when it refers to Ireland in the feminine and the Irish people in the masculine, and hails “her manhood.”

The reference to “gallant allies in Europe” is cringing in the cold light of day when we realise that these “gallant allies” are not the Irish soldiers in the trenches in Flanders and the Somme or being mowed down at Gallipoli and in Suvla Bay, but Germans plundering Belgium, the Austrians treating the Balkans as colonies and the Turks who had recently engaged in the genocide of the Armenians. How could Roger Casement, who condemned slave labour in Belgian Congo ally himself with the Germans who had carried out the genocide the Herrero people in South-West Africa (Namibia)?

They claimed that Ireland’s rights had been usurped by “a foreign people and government” and “an alien Government.” Was Grattan’s Parliament “a foreign … government” or “an alien government”? Were Irish-born Prime Ministers like Lansdowne and Wellington foreign or alien? Were men like my grandfather to be denigrated as alien and foreign along with their fellow comrades in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Gallipoli and in the trenches?

On a positive note, the proclamation states that the Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally. Would that all governments, in all countries, cherished these ideals.

They are revolutionary when they promise a government representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.

But I am unhappy that violent revolution defines to this day how we see the foundations were laid for the identity of this state. The proclamation describes this recourse to violence as a “fundamental right.” I am deeply uncomfortable with the blasphemy in the proclamation that invoked the blessing “of the Most High God” “upon our arms” and that speaks of the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves.

The Easter Rising enshrined Patrick Pearse’s almost pathological obsession with blood sacrifice in part of the Irish psyche. It was a political appropriation of a theological concept that I am often uncomfortable with, but that has continued to be invoked by suicide bombers, those who have attacked civilian targets include pubs, hotels and restaurants, that has inspired the collective suicide of the hunger strike in 1981, all for what has been called a “fight for freedom.”

Of course, neither side in the conflict observed the Geneva Convention or the principles of a just war enshrined in international law. They made no distinction between between military and civilians targets, or between combatants and non-combatants. Firing into the Shelbourne Hotel or bombarding O’Connell Street are not gallant acts of heroism, they were war crimes. Imagine our horror today if Isis were to take over the equivalent in Damascus or Baghdad of a major food supplier such as Boland’s Mills, or, worse still, the College of Surgeons.

No wonder Yeats could write:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Home Rule had already been achieved in 1914. If anything was achieved in 1916, if there is one lasting legacy, then it is this: the 1916 Rising guaranteed the partition of this island.

The state we live in today owes origins less to the “men of 1916” and more to the real revolution began after World War when democratically elected MPs from Ireland decided to sit in the first Dail rather than in Westminster. From then on, all revolutionary action was subject to democratic decisions. Democracy trumped violence, did during the debate on the 1921 Treaty, and still does to this day.

Unfortunately, all the children of the nation were not treated with equality. Very soon WB Yeats was speaking in the new Senate about legislation that he thought was not respecting Protestant sensibilities. He declared: “We … are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country.”

Despite its many failures, the Irish Free State demonstrated its commitment to democracy. This democracy was secured at the next stages with Eamon de Valera’s decision to take most of his Sinn Fein supporters into the Dail as Fianna Fail in 1926, and then with the democratic handover when de Valera won the election in 1932, and there was a smooth handover, with Cosgrave going into opposition, and the courts, the civil service, the army and the gardai accepting this democratic transition.

Democracy was enshrined in the 1937 Constitution, which is perhaps the greatest testimony to de Valera. It enshrined the rights of religious minorities, and the major decisions were to be made by the people in referendums. Despite the presence of Blueshirts, we did not see the rise of popular Fascism in Ireland in the 1930s, at a time when it was sweeping across Europe in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Spain and Portugal. The Blueshirts were even more a damp squib that Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts in Britain, the latent fascism that is a hidden poison in all nationalisms posed no formidable threat to democracy in this state.

Douglas Hyde (centre), with Eamon de Valera and Oscar Traynor at the Ireland v Poland match at Dalymount Park in 1938

Of course, there was still the sort of nationalism that remained Green, Gaelic and Catholic, accepting the false mythology created by Pearse. Douglas Hyde, a member of the Church of Ireland and the principal figure in the revival of the Irish language, became President of Ireland in 1937 under the new constitution. But a year later he was dismissed as a patron of the GAA because he attended an Ireland v Poland soccer match at Dalymount Park. The Irish Times said in its editorial: “The belief that the national soul is injured by the presence of the Head of State at a game of this kind is cant of the worst kind.” Eamon de Valera and Oscar Traynor were also present at that match; indeed, de Valera had played rugby for Blackrock College and Traynor had played soccer for Belfast Celtic, but they were both Catholics and continued to be welcome at GAA matches.

Despite some incidents such as the Mayo Library Case, the Tilson judgment and the Fethard on Sea boycott, de Valera stood against sectarianism, was a personal friend of Archbishop Gregg of Dublin, and condemned the Fethard on Sea boycott in the Dail.

Archbishop JAF Gregg with Eamon de Valera

The society that has emerged values a free press and respects civil rights, in principle if not always in practice. At an international level, Ireland tried to save the League of Nations before World War II, and after World War II was singularly responsible for promoting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Our contribution to UN peacekeeping around the world is our singular and most distinguished expression of Irish foreign policy. As a pacifist, I am still proud and deeply moved by the recent role of our navy helping refugees in the Mediterranean.

Many people may not agree with the result, but the very fact that the people could make the choice about equal marriage, not the state and not the church, shows an admirable maturity in this society. This is a European society, and we are confident of our place in European culture, politics and society. Our pro-European culture is in sharp contrast to our neighbours who are debating Brexit. We, and they, should be thankful that Europe has guaranteed and enshrined women’s rights, children’s rights and workers’ rights.

We live in a society where there are no far-right parties, and although I am aware of currents of racism in Ireland today, Irish society generally finds this unacceptable, although we have yet to take our share of Syrian refugees.

Have I worries? Of course. They are many, and they include bankers, builders and speculators. I am worried about the high figures for homelessness, the high numbers on hospital waiting lists, and I am worried that we not cherishing all the children of the nation equally. There is a hidden class system in Ireland that means access to education, housing, the professions and politics is available not to those who would benefit from and contribute the best to our society because of this access. I am worried too that there is a growing desire for a secular society on the models of France, where religion is relegated to the realm of private expression and personal views.

In 100 years’ time, in 2116, will we be remembering the men of 1916? I hope we shall find more to celebrate and to be positive about. And if we do remember them, then I hope we remember them with a more critical approach, and that we remember all the men, all the women, all the children who make Ireland what we are on that day.

(Revd Canon Professor) is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. He was speaking at the 2016 Rubicon conference, ‘1916–2016: Before, Between and Beyond,’ in the Church of Ireland College of Education, on 16 April 2016.

Anglican spirituality and poetry:
(5): RS Thomas (1913-2000)

Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff, where RS Thomas trained as an ordinand (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group, we are looking at poets who have had an interesting influence on Anglican piety, prayer, theology and self-understanding. In November, we looked at TS Eliot. In December, we looked at John Betjeman. In January, we looked at the poet John Milton (1608-1674), who once considered ordination as an Anglican priest and later became a leading Puritan. In March, we were introduced to George Herbert (1593-1633), a Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest.

This morning, our selected poet in the Revd Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000), who published as RS Thomas. He was a Welsh poet and an Anglican priest and was known for his nationalism, spirituality and deep dislike of the Anglicisation of Wales.

RS Thomas was one of the major English language and European poets of the 20th century.” He has left us with a body of work that is slowly being recognised as among the best and most important religious poetry of the 20th century. Archbishop Richard Clarke has described him as “a rather terrifying Welsh Anglican clergyman who evidently scared the living daylights out of his parishioners but who was also, and unquestionably, one of the greatest poets in the English language over the past century.”

Other Welsh Anglican poets must include, of course, George Herbert (1593-1633), Henry Vaughan (1621-1697) and Archbishop Rowan Williams. The great Welsh poets of the 20th century also include Dylan Thomas.

RS Thomas was a man of contradictions: he was a passionate advocate of Welsh nationalism yet wrote in English and sent his son to boarding school in England; he was an undemonstrative man, but composed the most tender elegies for his wife; he had a devout faith, yet throughout his life experienced the elusiveness of God; he was a poet who hardly ever left north Wales, yet at his death was hailed as a major European poet.

His first collection of poetry with a major publisher, Song at the Year’s Turning, was published in 1955. John Betjeman, in his introduction to this collection, predicted that Thomas would be remembered long after he himself was forgotten.

Ronald Stuart Thomas was born on 29 March 1913 in Cardiff, the only child of Thomas Hubert (‘Huw’) Thomas, a captain in the merchant navy, and Margaret (née Davies). The family moved to Holyhead in 1918 because of his father’s work in the merchant navy. The forbidding initials came from rugby team lists in a school where Thomas was a popular surname.

In 1932, he was awarded a bursary to study at the University College of North Wales, in Bangor, where he read Classics. He was an ordinand at Saint Michael’s College, Llandaff, His training at Saint Michael’s placed him within the Tractarian tradition of Anglicanism. He was ordained a deacon in the Church in Wales in 1936 and was ordained priest in 1937.

From 1936 to 1940, he was the curate of Chirk, a mining village in Denbighshire, where he met his future wife, Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge, an English artist. Although he had written poetry in school, it was only after meeting Elsi that he began to write seriously. And so he began to write poetry about the Welsh countryside and its people, influenced by the writings of Edward Thomas, Fiona Macleod and William Butler Yeats.

Later, he was the curate-in-charge of Tallarn Green, Flintshire. As the curate of Hanmer, he was the assistant to the Revd Thomas Meredith-Morris, grandfather of writer Lorna Sage. Later, Byron Rogers described this as a “crossing of paths of two of Wales’s strangest clergymen.” However, Thomas never wrote much about his times as a curate.

Elsi and RS Thomas in 1940

RS Thomas and Elsi Eldridge were married in 1940 and they remained together until her death in 1991. Their son, Gwydion, was born on 29 August 1945. The Thomas family lived on a tiny income and lacked the comforts of modern life, largely through their own choice. One of the few household amenities the family ever owned, a vacuum cleaner, was rejected because Thomas decided it was too noisy.

For 12 years, from 1942 to 1954, he was the Rector of Saint Michael’s Church, Manafon, near Welshpool, a rural parish in Montgomeryshire. There he began to study Welsh, although he said that learning Welsh at the age 30 was too late in life to write poetry in it. There too he published his first three volumes of poetry, The Stones of the Field (1946), An Acre of Land (1952) and The Minister (1953).

His poetry achieved a breakthrough in 1955 with the publication of his fourth book, Song at the Year’s Turning. This collected edition of his first three volumes was introduced by Sir John Betjeman. It was critically very well received and won him the Royal Society of Literature’s Heinemann Award.

Song at the Year’s Turning by RS Thomas

Shelley dreamed it. Now the dream decays.
The props crumble; the familiar ways
Are stale with tears trodden underfoot.
The heart’s flower withers at the root.
Bury it then, in history’s sterile dust.
The slow years shall tame your tawny lust.

Love deceived him; what is there to say
The mind brought you by a better way
To this despair? Lost in the world’s wood
You cannot stanch the bright menstrual blood.
The earth sickens; under naked boughs
The frost comes to barb your broken vows.

Is there blessing? Light’s peculiar grace
In cold splendour robes this tortured place
For strange marriage. Voices in the wind
Weave a garland where a mortal sinned.
Winter rots you; who is there to blame?
The new grass shall purge you in its flame.

‘Lost in the world’s wood / ... under naked boughs / The frost comes to barb your broken vows’ – RS Thomas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 1960s, he worked in a predominantly Welsh-speaking community and he later wrote two prose works in Welsh, Neb (Nobody), a revealing autobiography written in the third person, and Blwyddyn yn Llŷn (A Year in Llŷn). In 1964 he won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

From 1967 to 1978, he was the Vicar of Saint Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. He retired from ministry in 1978 and he and his wife moved to Y Rhiw. There they lived in “a tiny, unheated cottage in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales, where, however, the temperature sometimes dipped below freezing.”

RS Thomas is recognised as one of the leading poets of modern Wales. He wrote about the people of Wales in a style that some critics have compared to the country’s harsh and rugged terrain.

He was the poet who wrote that country clergymen were:

Toppled into the same graves
With oafs and yokels

But he was a country clergyman himself, and the oafs and yokels the ancestors of his own parishioners. “I suppose that did shock the bourgeoisie,” he said.

A poem started:

Men of the hills, wantoners, men of Wales
With your sheep and your pigs and your ponies, your sweaty females
How I have hated you ...

There is no comfort in any of these poems:

Too far for you to see
The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones.
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone.

There is no comfort in the religious poetry either, and no answers. One poem, ‘Earth,’ begins:

What made us think
It was yours? Because it was signed
With your blood, God of battles?

In retirement, he become politically active. He became a strong advocate of Welsh nationalism, although he never supported Plaid Cymru, claiming the party did not go far enough in its opposition to England.

He was an ardent supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and described himself as a pacifist. But he also supported the fire-bombings of English-owned holiday cottages in rural Wales. He could tolerate neither the English who bought up Wales and, in his view, stripped it of its wild and essential nature, nor the Welsh whom he saw as all too eager to kow-tow to English money and influence. He was also active in wildlife preservation.

RS Thomas was nominated for the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. Instead the winner was Wislawa Szymborska; the winner the previous year was Seamus Heaney.

RS Thomas died on 25 September 2000, aged 87, at his home in Pentrefelin, near Criccieth. He was survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Vernon. An event celebrating his life and poetry took place in Westminster Abbey with readings by Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Gillian Clarke and John Burnside. His ashes are buried close to the door of Saint John’s Church, Porthmadog, Gwynedd.

Thomas wrote over 1,500 poems in his life and although there were developments in subject and style – from the early poems rooted in the physical realities of place to the more abstract and metaphysical investigations of his later work – his poetry was consistent in its seriousness of purpose. His final works commonly sold 20,000 copies in Britain alone.

Most of Thomas’s work is about the Welsh landscape and the Welsh people, and his view of the Welsh people as a conquered people is never far below the surface.

In ‘The Ancients of the World,’ his haunting litany of the beasts of Welsh mythology looks back to bardic tradition, but the language he uses suggests a cold and deathly legacy. ‘A Welsh Testament’ sees Thomas on more overtly political form speaking in contemptuous tones to those English tourists who want to turn his country into a “museum.”

However, he is also resentful of the limitations of a life lived with

the absurd label
of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders.

His earlier works focus on the personal stories of his parishioners, the farm labourers and working men and their wives, challenging the cosy view of the traditional pastoral poem with harsh and vivid descriptions of rural lives. The beauty of the landscape never becomes a compensation for the low pay or monotonous conditions of farm work. His direct view of “country life” challenges many English writers on similar subjects and challenges the more pastoral works of contemporary poets such as Dylan Thomas.

In RS Thomas’s eyes, the modern world with its technological conveniences was a dangerous distraction from our spiritual existence. Sometimes this aversion to the 20th century could take on Luddite-like proportions – his son recalled sermons in which he railed against fridges and washing machines. But he also practised what he preached, living an extremely ascetic life.

Thomas’s later works, such as Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), were more metaphysical, more experimental and focused more overtly on his spirituality.

“A lot of people seem to be worried about how I combine my work as a poet and my work as a priest,” he once told the BBC. “This is something that never worried me at all.”

He went on to insist, echoing Matthew Arnold, that “in any case, poetry is religion, religion is poetry” and “Christ was a poet, the New Testament is a metaphor, the resurrection is a metaphor” – explaining metaphor as “an attempt to convey an experience of a kind of new life, an eruption of the deity into ordinary life, a lifting up of ordinary life into a higher level.”

At other times, Thomas acknowledged, “I’m obviously not orthodox, I don’t know how many real poets have been orthodox … I find it very difficult to be a kind of orthodox believer in Jesus as my Saviour and that sort of thing.”

As a priest, Thomas imbued his poetry with a consistently religious theme, often speaking of “the lonely and often barren predicament of the priest, who is as isolated in his parish as Prytherch is on the bare hillside.” as Meir writes. He is not a poet of the transfiguration, of the resurrection, of human holiness. Instead, he is a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness, and his theology of Christ, in particular, seems strange against any known traditional norm.

Yet throughout his career, Thomas showed no desire to leave the priesthood and continued his priestly functions administering the sacraments, preaching the word, including, at one church, delivering a sermon in Welsh once a month.

A cluster of recurring images, symbols, and metaphors mark Thomas’s religious poems: silence, prayer, kneeling, waiting, watching, empty churches, a wound, the pierced side of Jesus-God-the natural world, a bare tree – and the cross, repeatedly described by Thomas as empty or “untenanted.”

RS Thomas seemed to cultivate a reputation for being not always charitable and for being awkward and taciturn. Some critics have interpreted photographs of him as indicating he was “formidable, bad-tempered, and apparently humourless.”

Although at times he may have taken some of his ideas to extreme lengths, Theodore Dalrymple said he “was raising a deep and unanswered question: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, and divert ourselves with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry? What will this do to our souls?”

His influence as a poet has had a considerable impact on spirituality. At the centenary of his birth, the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, who knew him as a poet and a priest, paid tribute to him:

“RS Thomas continues to articulate through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith - the poet has been there before us.”

Although a fervent Welsh Nationalist, he appears to have preferred the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, even in its Welsh translation, over the 1966 prayer book of the Church in Wales, which came into use during his final year at Eglwys Fach.

In retirement he found that he could no longer bring himself to go to Holy Communion on account of liturgical changes in Wales. However, one of his successors at Aberdaron indicates that Thomas always retained the bishop’s permission to officiate and occasionally did so at Llanfaelrhys when no one else could be found.

His primary objection was to the priest facing the people, arguing he should be leading the people towards God from the eastward-facing position: “It is to God that the mystery belongs.”

Over time he appears to have had some sympathy with the theological explorations of Bishop John Robinson in his 1963 book Honest to God, on one occasion going as far as to describe the Resurrection as a “metaphor.”

However, in a letter to a theological student in 1993 he denied he held similar views to the non-realist Cambridge theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt: “I believe in revelation, and therefore one cannot describe all one’s insights as entirely human.”

His main influence appears to have been the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and his “leap of faith.” But he also appears to have been concerned with the limitations of religious language in an era that was becoming post-Christian in the face of science and philosophy.

His sermons and practice as a priest do not seem to have been in any way heterodox, even if in retirement he was to write to his long-term friend the poet Raymond Garlick to give him “the address of a retired Christian.”

He himself said there is a “lack of love for human beings” in his poetry. But for all his much-vaunted crabbiness, he was well regarded by parishioners, was a listener and counsellor, and was a devoted visitor to the sick.

Thomas is mostly interested in God’s silence or absence, the deus absconditus or hidden God, and what that means for forging an identity in the modern world. What language might be used to address such a God in a meaningful way? As Archbishop Rowan Williams has written, RS Thomas was – like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegaard – a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”

The Revd Ronald Stuart Thomas: born 29 March 1913, Cardiff; deacon, 1936, priest, 1937; curate of Chirk, Denbighshire, 1936-1940; curate-in-charge, Tallarn Green, Hanmer, Flintshire, 1940-1942; rector of Manafon, Montgomeryshire, 1942-1954; Vicar of Saint Michael’s, Eglwysfach, Cardiganshire, 1954-1967; Vicar of Saint Hywyn, Aberdaron, Gwynedd, with Saint Mary, Bodferin, 1967-1978; Rector of Rhiw with Llanfaelrhys, 1972-1978. Died 25 September 2000 aged 87 in Pentrefelin, near Criccieth.

Select bibliography:

The Stones of the Field (1946)
An Acre of Land (1952)
The Minister (1953)
Song at the Year’s Turning: Poems, 1942-1954 (1955)
Pieta (1966)

Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
Mass for Hard Times (1992)
No Truce with the Furies (1995)
Collected Poems, 1945-1990 (1993)
Collected Later Poems (2004, posthumous)

The beauty of the landscape is ever-present in the poems of RS Thomas, marked by spiritual questioning and cultural scepticism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘In a Country Church’ (Song at the Year’s Turning, 1955):

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.

‘In Church’ (Pieta, 1966):

Often I try
To analyze the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

In this poem. Thomas confronts the paradox of presence and absence, faith and doubt. DZ Phillips, in RS Thomas: Poet of the Hidden God, reads the last lines as a realisation that the poet-priest “has to die to his old questions. It is only by dying to the old questions that wonder can come in at the right place.”

“... and throw/ on its illumined walls the shadow/ of someone greater than I can understand?” – RS Thomas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘The Empty Church (1978):

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

He wrote his is on the death of his wife:

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed
love’s moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
“Come,” said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.

‘The Coming’ alludes to the Good Friday story:

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

‘The tall Cross / Sombre, untenanted, / Aches for the Body / That is back in the cradle / of a maid’s arms’ ... A float in the Good Friday procession in Barcelona last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In the poem ‘Pieta,’ he writes:

Always the same hills
Crown the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene
And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
of a maid’s arms.

Sometimes the failure belongs to God, as in the poem ‘Nuclear’:

It’s not that he can’t speak;
who created languages
but God? Nor that he won’t;
to say that is to imply
malice. It is just that
he doesn’t, or does so at times
when we are not listening, in
ways we have yet to recognize
as speech

The absence of God also means Thomas at times rejects any easy sacramental sense of God’s presence in the natural world, as he writes in ‘Threshold’:

I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.

I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on

this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?

In one of his best known and loved poems, ‘Kneeling,’ we find RS Thomas possessed by a great calm, waiting in a stone church before the wooden altar, bathed, haloed, in a summer light, thronged by the spirits waiting, like him, for the message.

But because there is a mystery in God which no finite being can fully comprehend, the message even though it comes from God, will lose something in its transmission. So, although RS Thomas knows, as we all do, that words must be found in the end to convey the message, the poet wants to remain for a while in that waiting time, meaning soaking into him in the calm which pervades the stone church:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial group with MTh students on 16 April 2016.