Over the years I have done any number of unusual gigs; for example performing in Germany for the US Army on the back of a tank transporter. Then there was the invitation to sing at the Welsh Labour Party’s Christmas Party in 1987 which started an annual pilgrimage. As I look around the odd make up of guests in the Jubilee Room in the Palace of Westminster it still strikes me as slightly odd.
Westminster Cathedral – London Welsh Male Voice Choir 16.02.23
This week I found myself hosting a concert at Westminster Cathedral, a concert of uplifting music raising funds and awareness for a non-political Charity called ‘Friends of the Holy Land’.
Westminster Cathedral is absolutely beautiful but in terms of Cathedrals it is relatively new having been completed in 1903. Compare that to Westminster Abbey, which is just around the corner; the home of Coronations, Kings and Queens which dates back to the Norman Conquest.
Checking my notes before kick off.
The reason a new Cathedral was needed also dates back sometime. Before Henry VIII had a bit of a disagreement with the Pope in 1534 over his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn there was only one Abbey or Cathedral needed in Westminster. The ‘Split with Rome’ led to centuries of arguments and bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics.
By the late 19th Century, with an influx of Catholics especially from Ireland fleeing the famine Cardinal Vaughan decided that a new Cathedral would be built, and it should be built in 10 years. In fact the building was completed in 8 years.
How we could do with someone like Cardinal Vaughan to run the country now!!!
A warm welcome for The Pope from His Eminence, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster
If the venue was stunning, the VIP guest list was also quite exceptional. I started by welcoming the Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, Archbishops and Ambassadors and by explaining that I think there had been some mistake in asking me to be a part of the evening. Obviously when someone mentioned they might be able to get The Pope to be the MC for the evening no one had actually checked which Pope they were talking about. But if it was a mistake I was delighted to be there all the same.
The connection I had with the charity ‘Friends of the Holy Land’ started just before Christmas. I had been asked to stand in for a series of programmes on Premier Radio based in London. Before Covid such opportunities were limited as I would have needed to be at their studios in Pimlico. ‘Working from home’ has meant Radio presenters and in fact whole radio stations can now operate just about anywhere with broadcasters being based in sheds and cupboards right across the country.
Father Fadi Diab broadcasting form St Andrews Church Ramallah.
My guest on 21st December was the Rector of St Andrews Church in Ramallah, Father Fadi Diab. With Christmas just around the corner we wanted to get a flavour of the build-up in a church very close to Bethlehem. In amongst the obvious excitement there was also a deep sadness in the story Father Fadi shared. He told me of a land divided on so many levels, physically, politically and by religion.
From Father Fadi’s point of view one of the big changes in recent years had been the decline in the number of people who shared his faith. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Holy Land counted up to 29% of the population identifying as Christian, now only 2% in Israel and Jordan and less than 1% in the West Bank would make that claim.
We talked about the unemployment, lack of health care and basic amenities like electricity and water. We talked of Gaza, an area approximately the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of just under 2 million who had little prospects and opportunities.
He told me recently he had been summoned to St Andrews to find the church had been broken into by security forces and his offices searched. In many ways the stories he told reminded me of what Bethlehem was probably like at the time of the birth of Jesus when Caesar Augustus was in charge.
One of the strangest things about my chat with Father Fadi was the Swansea – Ramallah connection. Before going live there is always a bit of small talk. I asked where exactly he was, and he told me in his church St Andrews in Ramallah. He explained Bethlehem was surround by hills and mountains. Ramallah meant ‘Ram’ the word for mountain’ and ‘Allah’ was a name for God. He was on God’s Mountain.
I introduced him to Eddie the Radio station engineer who was in London and I said I was in a shed in Mumbles, Swansea, Wales. I usually make some remark that being based in the ‘Mumbles’ is not a good start for a broadcaster, but that I would try to talk clearly. It was then Father Fadi said, Swansea, I know Swansea.
Kit Morgan and Gladys Thomas in Ramallah
Now I know I think Swansea is the centre of the world but a vicar in Ramallah…
Father Fadi went on to explain that in October 1954 ,2 ladies, Kit Morgan and Gladys Thomas from Swansea came to
Ramallah and together with an American named Mary Jeanne Grupp opened a school and home for impoverished and orphaned girls. People still talked of the Swansea ladies fondly and the school was now known as the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in the Diocese of Jerusalem.
That started me on a Google search that brought up pictures of the ladies in Ramallah and back home in the Bible College of Wales in Derwen Fawr.
At the end of an hour long interview I thanked Father Fadi, wished him a Happy Christmas and said if there’s anything I can do please let me know….6 weeks later there I was in Westminster Cathedral hosting a very special concert.
The Priests with The Pope.
The evening featured the London Welsh Male Voice Choir and a wonderful trio of Irish Fathers known as the Priests. It really was a night of uplifting music. I tried my best to keep the programme moving along smoothly and swiftly and I think a lot of people left the Cathedral moved and also with plenty to think about.
The money raised was going towards practical work for the charity which focuses on education, employment creation, family support and Health.
As well as ticket sales there was also a bucket collection as the audience left the building. These days as well as buckets the stewards are armed with credit card machines which really made me smile. No change, no problem…no excuse…Tap and Go for the Friends of the Holy Land.
Just another one of those unusual gigs and another story to tell.