The ceremony in the Welsh cathedral city of St. David's made Rowan Williams, currently archbishop of Wales, an honorary white druid in the highest of the three orders of the Gorsedd of Bards, a 1,300-strong society of Welsh-speaking poets, writers and musicians.
Sniping from within the Anglican Church, of which Williams has been chosen the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, was quick in coming. "This ceremony certainly looks pagan," the Rev. Angus Macleay, a leading member of the church's evangelical wing, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Williams swiftly struck back, insisting it was "deeply offensive" to label either himself or the Celtic Gorsedd of Bards as pagan. "Some people have reached the wrong conclusion about the ceremony," he said.
He described the druidic award as "one of the greatest honors which Wales can bestow upon her citizens." Supporters pointed out that the Welsh cleric was in good company, since the late actor Richard Burton and Queen Elizabeth II's late mother also were white druids. The Gorsedd actually started in London in 1792 as a society dedicated to promoting Welsh descendants who have made a distinguished contribution to Wales.
It was the nature of the hour-long ceremony itself, at the National Eisteddfod celebration of Welsh culture, that appeared to rile some of the Anglican Church's conservative evangelicals. As the sun dawned over St. David's, Rowan Williams--clad in a long, white cloak with no headdress--arrived at the circle of stones to a fanfare of trumpets and the sheathing and unsheathing of a 6-foot 6-inch sword.
As hymns were sung and poetry recited in Welsh, Williams took the Bardic name of ap Aneuri, after a 6th century Welsh poet and a modern politician, Aneurin Bevin, the architect of Britain's National Health Service more than a half-century ago.
Angus Macleay, a member of the Anglican Church's Evangelical Reform Group, said Williams, who will succeed to the archbishopric when George Carey steps down in October, "needs to consider what will other people, non-Welsh members of the Anglican communion, think he is doing."
"How will it help African bishops and pastors seeking to draw people away from paganism to follow Christ, when they see him involved in this sort of activity?" Macleay asked.
Williams insisted the ceremony had no links with the "pot-smoking layabout" pagans and druids who meet regularly at Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument of monoliths on England's Salisbury Plain. He said the suggestion "that the Gorsedd is even remotely associated with paganism is deeply offensive--not just in the suggestion that I would wish to associate myself in any way with paganism, but also to those people of goodwill in Wales who appreciate the Gorsedd and Eisteddford for the color and culture which they bring to Wales's national life."
"The word 'druid'," Williams explained, "is used because when the Gorsedd was founded ... (founder) Iolo Morganwg had a fantasy that ancient Britain, prior to the Romans, Saxons and the English, was a country where druids had supremacy."
"Not in the religious sense," he added, "but as leaders of their communities."