An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To explain and reflect on one of David’s central ideas, showing how ancient ideas continue to be relevant.
Preparation and materials
- You will need at least one leader and two volunteers, although you may wish to share the leadership between two people to ensure that the presentation is varied.
- Have available a paper aeroplane that has been made slightly askew so that it will not fly straight and a wastepaper basket or similar container.
- Have available a recording of a Welsh choir singing the hymn ‘Amazing grace’ and the means to play it at the beginning of the assembly. An example (2.43 minutes long) is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtR2YRM05D0
Play the recording of a Welsh choir singing the hymn ‘Amazing grace’.
Leader 1: Out of the 1,700 saints in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, David is one of the better known. He is the patron saint of Wales and his feast day is 1 March. A cathedral city is named after him in the far west of Pembrokeshire in South Wales and he also gives his name to one of the finest concert halls in the world: St David’s Hall in Cardiff. When it comes to finding any stories about his life, however, it is rather more difficult.
There is at least one famous story told about each of the patron saints of the other countries of Great Britain and Ireland.
- St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is said to have cleared all the snakes out of Ireland. He also used a shamrock leaf to illustrate the nature of God as three persons in one.
- St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples and is mentioned several times in the New Testament. According to later tradition, he died for his faith by being crucified on an X-shaped cross.
- St George, the patron saint of England, is traditionally known for slaying a dragon.
Leader 2 (if using): No such well-known stories are attached to St David. We do, however, have some bits and pieces of tradition that relate to his life and character.
David was a sixth-century monk and bishop who seems to have preached and taught mainly in south-west Wales, although he also had links with Glastonbury, Cornwall and Brittany. Some traditions maintain that he was also made a bishop in Jerusalem.
He seems to have been very strict in his religious practices. Apparently, he was nicknamed Aquaticus because the group of monks he led drank neither beer nor wine, only water. The monks also followed a strict regime of heavy manual labour and study, and ate mainly bread and vegetables.
In addition to performing many acts of mercy and compassion, David is also said to have immersed himself totally in water from time to time as part of his spiritual discipline.
He played an important part in two synods, which are councils of the Church to discuss what the Church should believe and its practices. One synod was at Brefi, in about 550, and the other was at Caerleon, in about 569. Both synods discussed how to suppress something called ‘Pelagianism’.
Leader 1: Now, I think it’s fairly likely that you don’t know what Pelagianism is. The spellchecker on my computer certainly doesn’t. If you look up the word ‘Pelagianism’ in The Oxford English Dictionary, it defines it as ‘The doctrine of Pelagius and his followers, in particular the denial of the doctrines of original sin and predestination, and the defence of innate human goodness and free will’.
Got that? No? OK. Well, here’s a simpler version of that definition. Pelagianism is the belief that human beings can be good if they really want to be. All that’s needed is enough willpower.
Does Pelagianism sound as if it’s a rather ancient, obscure and possibly irrelevant idea to be thinking about at this time in the morning? Well, it’s actually raising a very important and relevant question if you think about it. Let me show you what I mean.
Ask your two volunteers to come up to the front. Ask them to fly the paper aeroplane so that it lands in the bin, which should be positioned a suitable distance away. Each volunteer may have two attempts, and can adjust parts of the plane before a second attempt.
Discuss why the plane does not fly straight. You should conclude that it won’t fly straight because there is a basic warp or twist in the way it is made. If you want it to fly straight, it will need to be completely remade.
Leader 2: Now let’s apply that to human nature. Pelagius reckoned that, although people could be affected by their upbringing, including bad influences and bad habits, human nature was not inevitably bad. He thought that human nature could - with determination, discipline and willpower - be controlled and possibly even perfected. In the case of our plane, Pelagius would say that it could be made to land in the place we want it to, if we work at it.
The Church - including David, it is believed - decided that Pelagius was wrong. The Church said that human nature needed to be completely remade. The basic ‘warp’ in human nature (caused, they said, not by God, but by the sin of Adam and Eve) needed to be straightened out. Christians believe that this is where the power and grace of God come into it.
This way of thinking doesn’t mean that there is no point in bothering to struggle to do what is right - after all, remember David’s own lifestyle. However, it does mean that we have to be humble enough to accept that we will never succeed unaided. The plane needs to be remade.
What do you think?
There isn’t time to debate this idea here and now, but it is a fundamental one that is worth reflecting on. Perhaps the best way we can remember David is for each of us to try to work out for ourselves what we think about it.
Time for reflection
Following the challenge to think about these ideas, there could be a short period of silent reflection. The original paper plane and a fresh piece of blank paper placed on a table would provide a suitable focus.
A recording of a Welsh choir singing the hymn ‘Amazing grace’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtR2YRM05D0
- Organize a debate about human nature. Is it essentially bad or good? What evidence is there for either viewpoint? More particularly, discuss the biblical story of ‘the fall’. What does it mean? Look at ways in which ideas about human nature have been explored in literature, such as in Lord of the Flies.
- Do further work on the topic of saints. Find out about some well-known and less well-known ones, including any who are local to your area (there are many fascinating stories about Celtic saints in particular). Who were these saints and why are they remembered?