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Vigil in church counters rally by far-right group

31 March 2023

DIOCESE OF LLANDAFF

The vigil in St Illtud’s, Llantwit Major, last Friday

The vigil in St Illtud’s, Llantwit Major, last Friday

AN OVERNIGHT vigil in St Illtud’s, Llantwit Major, in South Wales, last Friday, was the response to a threatened rally by the far-right group Patriotic Alternative. The group had protested against plans to house Ukrainian refugees temporarily on an unused school site in the town.

The group has been accused of “muscling in” on discussions about the long-term use of the site, of which the six-month plan for refugee housing is only a part. The site has been vacant since two schools amalgamated seven years ago, and people in the community have differing ideas about the best use of the site.

The Team Rector in the Llantwit Major Rectorial Benefice, Canon Edwin Counsell, described the town as a genuinely welcoming community, which, in 1914, had taken in Belgians en masse who found refuge here after fleeing Europe. “We heard that Patriotic Alternative was coming; so we asked ourselves how, as a community, we should respond, and what we could do distinctively as a church,” he said on Tuesday.

“We decided on an all-night vigil as a counter-demonstration about what it means to be together in kindness. We told everyone the church would be open all night for people of all faiths and none to come in, pray with us, and keep vigil.”

The vigil, live-streamed every hour from 11.30 p.m. on Friday to 7 a.m. on Saturday, developed an hourly theme around readings, reflections, and music. It included Taizé chants, reflection on the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr, rosaries, and a “Punk Hour”, with videos and music remembering the Rock Against Racism campaign of the 1970s.

Canon Counsell, who describes himself as an “unreformed punk rocker”, said that he found that particular aspect very nostalgic. “I had thought those lines in the sand were drawn,” he said.

“But the tide comes in, and you find lines in the sand are not as well defined as you thought they were. That same music that spoke into those situations speaks into it now. Hearing those songs sung again, and speaking into another context, seems quite important.”

Forty people joined the vigil at the start, and many remained throughout the night or watched the live-stream at home. Numbers declined to “eight awake and two asleep” at the lowest point, 4.30 a.m., and participants were of all faiths and none.

Patriotic Alternative arrived in the town for its rally at noon on Saturday, to be surrounded by police. There had been some skirmishes and a couple of arrests, Canon Counsell said, but it had all been contained. Had the protesters confronted any members of the community, the instruction had been to offer them a freshly griddled Welsh cake as a sign of the town’s welcoming spirit. Someone also wore a Welsh cake costume.

Canon Counsell himself found that the vigil succeeded in moving him from “downright anger” to a sense of well-being. “It’s put a very different marker down,” he said. “You can wave banners until you’re blue in the face, but this was very powerful in its non-judgemental witness and its message, and I found a lot of peace coming out of it.

“I have never belonged to a political party in my life, but the gospel is at the heart of our politics, and I go back to the spiritual narrative of Jesus at the well, where a simple act of generous kindness came in a powerfully politicised situation.

“There’s a huge amount of work to be done here, in the sense of local democracy, but this was a gathering for good. So often we ‘do church’ and don’t leave room for God to work.”

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