Friday, December 30, 2005

Time to think

Weather worries
The past few days have been quiet, not many demands upon me pastorally. The routine of ministerial life is either intensely busy or so quiet you wonder if you've been forgotten. It gives time to recover, to reflect, to catch up on unfinished tasks. The pile of unread documents goes down, either by reading, by consignment to the waste bin, or by filing for reference. There's time to start thinking and planning the months to come, and to wonder what the New Year will bring, and how unexpected events will re-shape attitudes and priorities. 2005 has been overshadowed by huge natural disasters, terrorism, and other kinds of blood-letting. Will the coming year be a case of more of the same? I can't help thinking that environmental change is likely to become more of a pre-occupation. I was thinking recently about how this is already affecting management of our church buildings. Wales may eventually get warmer and drier in summer, colder and wetter in winter, and adaptations will be needed to cope.
Wales has always been a rainy place. These days we get much stronger downpours, and winds gusting in new directions. Apart from wind being able to damage pinnacles, something St John's knows about all too well from recent experience, it can cause a buildup of outflowing water from high up roof gutters, leading to water finding its way up and over the tops of walls instead of down the drainpipes. The result is internal damage, costly redecoration and repairs needed. To prevent this happening, somehow in the not too distant future funds, will have to be raised to modify both roof leading and cast iron water collectors to cope with changed weather. Repairs to the central heating which broke down before Christmas will have cost several thousand pounds more than the cost savings because we didn't have to switch on until late in a mild autumn.

Licensed begging
Making the building more thermally efficient is a responsible but expensive choice. If we were to have much colder winters, we might not be able to afford church heating bills at all, already it's a heavy drain on church resources. We'll need to be imaginative and far sighted to address such practical challenges with so little financial support from ordinary donations. We are forced to rely on applications to large grant making bureaucracies to pay for major renovation work. The competition for funding is intense, and the application process is invariably complex, and demanding to ensure success. It requires administrative skills which are not usually those expected of a pastor, and eats up time remorslessly. I feel more like a curator of buildings than a pastor these days.
When I was younger in ministry, I swore I would never put buildings before people. I'm now in my later years of public ministry, in a society where faith in Christ is no longer common among the population. I realise buildings aren't quite so dispensable to the propagation of the Gospel as I once considered. They represent the city's history and culture, but more importantly they are symbols declaring the presence and purposes of God in a society that seems hell-bent on ignoring or denying the truth and reality of faith.
Many people seem to be allergic to sharing in public worship, yet are still eager to soak in the tranquil atmosphere of a sacred place, and attempt to find their identity and purpose in relation to it. It's one place where Christians still have the right to speak of God and interpret life in a religious way. Everywhere else in the world we have to earn the right to speak of the God we worship, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that we are too easily drowned out by voices promoting alien gods and ideologies competing for people's loyalties and cash.

Social transformation needed
I opened the church briefly just three times this past week for the advertised services. The first day, none of the regulars attended. The second and third times, I had the usual handful of familiar faces with me for the Eucharist. But on all three occasions, having spotted the doors were open, visitors came in, sat quietly, lit candles, looked around, and left without joining in the service. The building means something to them, though not enough for them to want to share responsibility for its future. Sure, some people put a donation in the wall safe, but it's never enough to help us make ends meet. We couldn't sustain the practice of charging a fee for people to visit the building, morally or practically, but without more help the future is far from certain, even for an architectural gem and cultural treasure, at the heart of the capital city. I just keep on praying that visitors will turn into pilgrims, that interest will transform into commitment, that matches that shown by the hard working faithful core membership we still have. After all, the future of the church is not ultimately in my hands but God's.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Keeping the festive season

Fade to blue
On the Thursday and Friday before Christmas the video display system developed a fault which neither Chris not I could remedy. After running the slide sequence for 45 minutes or thereabouts, the computer continued to run but disconnected itself from the projector, leaving a blue screen. The display could easily be re-instated by pressing any key on the computer, as one would to end a screensaving routine. However, even stern instructions to the computer operating system to forego the intervention of a screensaver failed to prevent this happening - probably a mechanical error, something to do with the computer working long hours in unusual conditions. At least that's what it would be if it were a human being overworked. I know that's how I began to feel, after several weeks of tightly focussing on events in and around St John's. A rewarding time, from the experiences of meeting new people, and deepening relationships with church neighbours, but tiring.

Peace at the last
Christmas Eve was, as expected, quieter than usual, due to early termination of bus services and shops shutting early. All the worried over law enforcement road closure precautions were not needed, as there were few drunken pedestrians to control. During the day, however, there were lots of last minute shoppers, relatively few revellers. Over fifty people attended a noon Eucharist with Christmas Carols, a number we now seem confident enough to expect, after four years of advertising. Quite a number of our regular worshipping members came to this service, being unable to come to Midnight Mass or to the 9.30am Eucharist on Christmas Day. People hosting family members, not necessarily churchgoers, for Christmas, seem glad of an opportunity to worship at a time that doesn't challenge or compromise their efforts at hospitality. Single church-goers, invited to go elsewhere for Christmas may find that their hosts are not so keen to make the effort to go to worship, and are glad to be able to keep the feast without any need to embarras their host.

Keeping the Vigil
Our parish Midnight Masses started at 11.00 pm, so that Communion was around Midnight, if anyone was clock-watching for devotional purposes. In reality, there are too few priests and too many services to start any later, since the clergy have to get up and serve others early the next day. It was a bright starry night, and the streets were amazingly quiet! I feel sure and all those who bothered make the effort were rewarded, at least be the beauty of the experience. Of the eighty odd people who turned up I reckon I knew no more than half a dozen. This is the biggest congregation of occasional visitors during the whole year. Many Eucharist attenders spend their Christmas in one of the city centre hotels. I feel we should be there for them, with a Gospel to share. For the record, this is what I said to them, and in various guises to other worshippers on the occasions when I preached during the Feast.

"Up until last night, for the past two weeks every evening there's been a video projector beaming images on to the side of the church tower, Christmas images, images of the birth of Jesus from classical art, Eastern Orthodox icons, and from the work of children at several primary schools in Canton and Cathays. I've been in charge of it, and have spent some time out on the street people-watching, enjoying the responses of children and adults alike as they pass by, look up and recognise there's something going on up there which they can relate to. The familiar image of mother and child surrounded by people and animals looking on causes people to stop, wonder, and comment. Questions get asked, conversations start, across the generations, between peers – what's it all about? It's charming and nice, and comment is favourable. “I'm not a believer, I've never gone to church, or anything like that” a man said to me last night; “but I admire what you're doing - trying to get your message across in a contemporary way.” The image represents a message. As the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe it's a message the man doesn't much want to think about in detail, but, he appreciated that we were bothering to have our say in a new way.
This service began with a visit to the crib for prayer, a three dimensional Nativity image, serving the same purpose as the images on the tower wall, inviting people to think, or to converse with one another about what it all means to us. An image of a story, it invites us to tell and re-tell the story, as we absorb its meaning in deeper ways than ever before.
People were feasting, story-telling in midwinter long before Christians came on the scene, as the year turned from its darkest day toward the light once more. That's why early Christians chose this time of year as the occasion to celebrate the birth of Jesus, to invite the world to see Jesus as the one whose life, teaching and actions shine like a light in the darkest places of our lives, giving us hope and meaning where we might otherwise find this impossible to grasp. That's what Jesus means to his followers in the church.
We began with the nativity image and prayer. We continued then with songs and scripture readings that tell us different aspects of the story. Now it's my turn to explain, interpret and try to connect all these things together, just in case it's not making sense to you.
What do we see in the image of the Nativity? A small family group lodged somewhere that doesn't look much like home. They are surrounded by animals, and their visitors. Many folk don't get the full message but manage to understand Christmas as a family time, a time when children have a celebrated place in our lives. Yet even at the simplest of levels this uncomfortable image of one born in a stable, laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn inspires us. The wonder of birth, the way it can pull people together in admiration and wonder even in the worst of circumstances, is represented here. And we will see it again in news images of disaster, war, refugee camps. A tiny light shining in darkness.
Baby's first Christmas is among the best family memories for parents, siblings, aunties and uncles, neighbours. Gathering to welcome a child into the world reminding us of childhood, and the treasured thought that each one of us is special to someone. If we think about it, this image has a special place in our hearts because we're human, whether or not we're religious and believe in God. That's why it registers with so many who don't really think about coming to worship at Christmas or any other time.
The story behind the image of this birth, of which we have heard in our readings, is more than an inspiring human story. It's not just about what good resourceful kind brave people do in difficult circumstances. It's a story about what God does to share our experience of what it means to be human. Hidden in this unusual domestic scene the infinite unseen author of all existence, beyond our imagination or comprehension, becomes a mortal human being like us, to bridge the gulf between creator and creature, and make self-giving love known as the ultimate power that holds the universe together and gives it meaning. God entrusted to human care and protection. God risking the complete vulnerability and weakness of being a new born child. God saying: 'You are special. No matter what the circumstance, you can do good, you can be good to each other, welcome each other.'
To the heart of anyone who would like to have a real relationship with God, this image, this story is an invitation to begin where you are in the life you know, with all its challenges and marvellous moments, to learn to see and follow God taking you to dimensions you never knew existed, not only here and now in this life, but also when this present life is over. This moment challenges all to consider, are we content to enjoy life just on the surface, or do we want to go deeper? If you do, here's an opportunity to make a new start."

Festive Mission frontiers
Instead of a Midnight Mass this year, St James' had to make do with a simple early evening carol service. At the last moment, David, deputy organist at St John's was free to come and play in the absence of the regular organist. Jenny turned up to share the service with me, much to my surprise, as we hadn't managed to meet and think together baout the busy preceding week. It was so good to be together in this way on Christmas Eve. There were just sixteen other people there, three of them children. Despite our efforts, this church fails so monumentally to communicate with its neighbourhood. But we keep going, hoping to attract someone keen enough to share in a task that is simply beyond a couple of overworked professionals.
On Christmas morning, I had retired Archdeacon David Lee standing in for me at St John's so that I could celebrate Eucharist at St Teilo's and St James'. There were just nine of us at St Teilo's. That's 50% more than the reported communicants at St Paul's Cathedral London in the early seventeenth century, I caught myself thinking. Those in authority over us might ask, was it worth the effort? Among that small congregation one third stragners to me, was an Egyptian Orthodox Christan, glad to find a warm welcome in a cold foreign land, wondering if there was any possibility of an Arabic speaking congregation anywher ein the vicinity - not to my knowledge, but must find out. There was a young man in ripped jeans who took part but sat anonmously far away at the back and slipped out before being greeted at the end. And there was a middle-aged woman, who seemed a bit drained, who said she was spending Christmas with her daughter in a student flat, temporarily homeless in between house moves. She too seemed glad of a welcome, and not being pumped for her story behind the story.
On then to St James' for a Eucharist that would include the baptism of René, the child of Czeck immigrants whose mother had approached me the previous Sunday. His father and one godfather accompanied her and the baby, and the arrived a quarter of an hour late. Ivana, the Czeck interpreter from Tredegarville School with her husband and two young daughters came and joined us for the service, and somehow we managed to make it a participatory cross-cultural celebration, albeit of a modest kind, given that I had received just half an hour's telephone coaching on Czeck pronunciation from Ivana beforehand to ensure I could perform the preparatory interrogation and baptismal action in Czeck. Only 15 members of the regular congregation were present apart from the total of seven Czecks, but they all went away delighted at this unique celebration of Christmas. They couldn't even sit in their regular seats, and didn't think to complain!

Although I managed six hours of a night's sleep Christmas Eve, the exertions of the previous days and weeks left me utterly drained. My family, bless them, are used to this after thirty years of practice, and almost expect me to collapse as soon as Christmas lunch is over, if not before or during. It now takes me two days to recover and start feeling like a normal human being. Mounting an active resistance to the spirit of the age, in a programme that makes keen demands on morale and stamina, giving out far more than we ever get back, is costly, but is nevertheless full of moments that make it worth the effort.
Although many shops were open Boxing Day, yesterday, today Holy Innocents Day, all were open as usual and the streets crowded with sales-goers. St John's customarily stays shut this week. Tea-room and other volunteers take a well deserved rest. As there's nobody to supervise, open or shut the church during a week when there are many idle souls around capable of making mischief in an unattended building, the gates stay shut. Better safe than sorry in these times when trustworthiness seems a thing of the distant past.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Reaching the shortest day

Winding down to Christmas

So far this week we've welcomed the Welsh Assembly government carol service, and a company carol service for Quadrant, organised by an employee who is a non stipendiary priest. He brings Archdeacon Bill Thomas along to preside, so I get an evening off, apart from sorting out the public address system beforehand. Two loyal and hardworking members of the St John's 'home team' were there to liaise and sort out problems, and keep an eye on comings and going during services - drunks, thieves, noisy adolescents larking about, and since we are very much on the tourist map now, visitors wanting to look at the church. They appreciate a friendly face, and being told what goes on and when they can come back. Really, we get very little trouble compared to some churches. If something does happen, it's so rare we're taken aback.

Aromatic world
St John's Tea Room has been very busy welcoming shoppers this past few weeks. A record six hundred pounds was made in six hours on a Saturday recently. There are different teams of volunteers for each day it's open, Tuesday to Saturday, and different specialities of cake, or home made soups on different days. Delightful smells percolate down the stairs into church. It's very homely. Several of the carol services have been followed by servings of mince pies and mulled wine, and this also leaves its distinct aroma. Likewise when it rains before a service, the church fills with the evocative smell of damp clothing. Incense doesn't get used at St John's. I wish it did really, because I love it. However, the various 'homey' smells contribute wonderfully to making it a very welcome place.

The poor at the gate
There was a less pleasant aroma last Tuesday when a couple of local down-and-outs paid the Tea Room workers a rare visit and were so objectionable in behaviour, the police had to be called in to remove them. One of them, a woman urinated where she was standing, all over the church floor. Usually during the colder months, the church is quite busy, and street people don't seem at ease to be where other folks are around, especially if they just want to sleep. Both the South Wales Artists exhibition and the Cards for Good Causes shop finished on Saturday, so somebody spotted that it was quieter than usual. There's nothing wrong with people having a snooze in church, but sadly, for those who are mentally disturbed and self-neglecting it doesn't stop there. They need help but will only accept it on their terms, which are often unacceptable to others.
There's a small hard core of a couple of dozen homeless people whom the hostels cannot take because they are such a problem to other vulnerable residents, usually because of drink or drug taking triggering psychotic behaviour or violence. There are maybe a dozen people who come into the centre to sit on the floor with a dog and beg, sometimes by cashpoint machines. There's one spot just by the south gate in the popularly named 'dead man's alley' through the churchyard, where a variety of people take turns to beg. Passers-by often take them tea or sandwiches from the Market or from the Tea Room, and when they go the mess from their al fresco meal is added to all the other fast food rubbish cast off through the church railings for someone else to gather, a couple of sacks a week.
One day I was putting up a notice on the south gate, adjacent to a man begging. A middle aged couple emerged from the church, they'd been up to the Tea Room I suppose. The man turned to me and made some remarks about the poor man on the floor behind him then said: "Why don't you get rid of him, spoiling the place, tell him to shove off, it's private property." Well, Dead Man's alley has been a public thoroughfare since 1894, looked after by the Council, policed as a public place. I never know what to say at such moments, when someone publicly demonstrates contempt for fellow human beings. I hope my silent astonishment conveys something by way of feedback. The police devote quite a bit of time to moving beggars on, not least because some of them can be menacing, and leave shoppers feeling insecure. Sooner or later he'd get moved on, so why give the guy hassle?
One of our local bobbies had the idea of offering the beggars he arrested an alternative to a night in clink. He wanted to get them to gather outside the church, sing carols and collect money together. This he can't arrest them for. He wanted to do this Tuesday afternoon, and set about organising things in a bit of a hurry on Saturday. However Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of Cardiff as a capital City, and there was an all-day open air 1950's music event in the street on the north side of the church where he was proposing to have his 'beggar's choir'. I haven't seen or heard from him since, so I suppose his brain-child didn't get the desired reception from his clientele. But he wanted to go beyond the call of duty, to do something more than just arrest and punish.
I confess that I don't know what to say to beggars. Those who work with them state clearly that most do it to support a drug habit. They seem turned in on themselves and any use of conversation revolves around them receiving money. I admire those who do work with street people. I think it's the kind of thing that could quickly absorb one's entire life. Each sad wreck of a person represents a story of abuse, betrayal and plain misfortune for which there's no straightforward speedy remedy. We've had a few people worshipping with us occasionally who have recovered from skid row. They recognise how long a process it is to recover their confidence and motivation, how important their own decision is to 'get a life' once more, and their recognition of God's grace working with them. Healing for them is an extra-long journey.

It takes me back to those words of Jesus: "Do you want to be well?"

Christmas paradox
By Tuesday, the crib set had been installed in the Priory Chapel, all except baby Jesus, who by custom is not introduced until Christmas Eve, when the crib is blessed. Even bfore the figures had been placed in the 'stable' a few devout visitors were kneeling in prayer alongside it. When set up was complete, one visitor could be heard to say "Aw, look, someone's nicked baby Jesus, there's awful." Clearly the vast majority of people coming to look, far more than will ever come to a service, are ignorant of church custom, and read the crib imagery differently. I feel sorry for parents who bring little ones in to see baby Jesus and go away disappointed. Philip thoughtfully placed a discreet notice in the straw stating that baby Jesus would be added to the scene on Christmas Eve - at the lunchtime Eucharist for shoppers - I hasten to add. I don't actually agree with this custom, unless the crib is built just before the Eucharist at which the crib is blessed, so that the drama is all of a piece.
More and more people come into church just to light candles, two or three hundred people a week, I guess from the offerings. I've put up a Russian Nativity icon reproduction over the candle stand. It's lovely to see people gaze at it, or to have a chance to talk about it with a child who wonders about all the people in the picture. Now nobody would think of covering up or cutting Jesus out of that icon and sticking him back in on Christmas Eve would they? But it's not easy to get people to think clearly about religiously acquired habits.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas, children and church

Facing changes in demand
The liturgy for the Sunday before Christmas has, over the past few decades of my experience, become the occasion for anticipating the telling of the birth of Christ in child-oriented acts of worship. This Sunday is closest to the end of school term, and soon afterwards, it’s not unusual for regular church congregations to be diminished by an exodus of young families going on holiday or travelling to visit friends or relatives in other parts of the country. So, if there are any children attending church, or a Sunday school group, this Sunday is the occasion to do something special with them in the context of the entire church congregation.
Decades ago, when the city centre was densely populated, St John’s had a large and lively Sunday school plus a neighbourhood church school. Today, no more than eight children attend, usually not all at the same time, and sometimes, not at all. Parents and children have to travel into town, which is difficult given the poverty and arbitary nature of early Sunday bus services, it’s all rather hit or miss.

Tribute to Norma
However, Norma Thomas is always there to welcome whoever arrives. She has befriended and taught the faith to generations of children, in recent decades, almost single handed. Current child protection law requires adults to work in pairs with children, and that has been something of a challenge to the notions of previous generations of parents happy to dump their children at Sunday School without concern for who was caring for them. Extra commitment is required to welcome and care for just a few children, and this can’t happen during a regular morning service unless someone is there to accompany and assist Norma. Ironically, nobody could ever feel unsafe with her, but rules have to be obeyed. She has worked with kids in a creative and imaginative way for much of her long lifetime. She is still a youthful figure, walking everywhere, and spending a morning a week at St Monica’s school listening to children read. A quiet magnificant inspiration to the whole church.
During November and early December, Norma quietly prepares a nativity presentation, making use of whatever children are available, tailoring the material to their gifts and confidence. For some years we had budding young musicians, playing harp and guitar, but they’ve grown up and moved on. This year’s group doing the nativity presentation was only five, and two of them arrived too late to take part, because of the vagaries of public transport. So three children aged between seven and twelve stood up before a congregation of nearly fifty, and confidently re-told the story of Christ’s birth in a way that captured the heart and the admiration of the congregation. Credit to Norma for building their confidence.
I listened to Radio Four’s ‘Sunday’ programme en route to church for the eight o’clock Eucharist. It reported and commented on the decline of the children’s nativity play in schools, and the impact this would have on awareness of Christian faith in society in future. Maybe in time only churches will maintain this tradition in their children’s work. I’m not sure if the transmission of Christian faith has benefitted from having its foundation stories used as an educational commodity to be consumed and tested upon by a secular educational system. Unbelievers with University degrees in Theology, and adolescents with ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in R.E. may never have experienced the rich creative experience of being part of a worshipping community, loved, encouraged and supported by the likes of Norma, discovering what it means to be prayerful, to look beyond the surface meaning for truth that emerges from the heart of the Gospel story. The church will live so long as there are people who can transmit its stories to children in a way that imparts confidence to re-tell them to the church with all the beauty and freshness their young voices contain.

God on Mondays - the follow-up
For Jenny and I the next service of Sunday morning was a kind of test of the effectiveness of the work we’ve done over the previous three weeks in our ‘God on Mondays’ after-school service sessions and St James’ church. Would anyone take up our invitation to attend a late Sunday morning Christingle service, to conclude our Advent series on preparing the way for the coming of Jesus? Well, the usual ten regular members were there, and in addition, fifteen children and another fifteen adults, including two Tredegarville school teachers – forty of us in all. We shared the service and teaching between us, using an icon reproduction, and the church’s set of crib figures to re-tell the story in a catechetical dialogue with the children. We had to go about it this way since there was no possibility of a children’s presentation this year at St James’, as there were no adults to work with the children to achieve this.
Sunday School at St James died in the autumn, with the abandonment of the few remaining children by those who had been teaching them. They just gave up without explanation or apology, perhaps not knowing how to articulate their needs or their frustrations to churchwardens or pastors. In this part of the parish, membership is not drawn from the confident middle classes. A gulf of expectation and communication existed between the few Sunday school teachers and the rest of the church. Nobody had the time or the patience to address the problem, and finally without warning Sunday school sessions in the church hall simply stopped.

Children's faith
The handful of children who turned up regularly just carried on coming, sitting well behaved through the entire Eucharist instead, week after week. Which says something special about the life of faith in children. Their presence challenged my preaching to this remnant of a congregation. Now I take my theme for the day and start speaking to the kids about it, then attempt to draw in the adults. It struck me that in the classroom children don’t get talked down to, so there’s no reason to do so in church either. For me this is experimental preaching, rather than ‘sermons for children’. Both children and adults are responsive, and I come away feeling that I haven’t merely repeated myself at two different venues.

Re-learning how to evangelise
Today’s Christingle venture was well received, and this encourages us to plan further services of this kind in the new year, with the aim of what is, in effect, primary evangelism - re-telling the essential Gospel story as if it’s never been heard before, challenging the hearers to consider where they are in relation to it, hoping, with the response to re-build a church community out of the constituency of families whose children attend Tredegarville church school. The time is now right and it’s something Jenny and I can achieve together.

One of God's surprises
Two young women turned up at the service. I guessed they were mothers of children at the school. One of them approached me after the service and asked if I would baptize her child. Her accent was Slavic, and it turned out that she was one of the latest wave of migrants from the Czeck republic, who are Roma gypsies, escaping marginalisation at home.. There’s a group of families locally, sending its children to Tredegarville church school, which has the distinction of employing a Czeck speaking second language support teacher. I asked when they wanted the ceremony. Would Christmas Day be possible? How could I say: “No, it’s too much to ask after services at Midday and 11.00pm on Christmas Eve, followed by 9.30 before St James at 11.00 on Christmas day”? Such a special occasion to baptize a baby. I couldn’t refuse. And the regular members of the congregation are delighted at the prospect. Do they realise, do they care that we're not Catholic but Anglican? Do they care? What may be the case is that their local church is recognisable to them, and welcomes them. IN the end, what does it matter which Bishop is in charge if Christ is there for them? All in all, it was a rewarding morning.

Carols with and for St John's
After lunch, I joined the local St John Ambulance Division for their annual Carol service at St Paul’s Grangetown. Although I’m a St John Headquarters Chaplain not a Divisional Chaplain, it seemed right that I should attend, since I know a fair number of members from visiting them on duty at public events around the city centre, and the Millennium Stadium. The service these people, of all ages, offer to the public as First Aid volunteers is hugely impressive. I prize highly my association with the troops on the ground, event to the point of adding one more Carol service into my routine.
I went straight from that event to co-preside with Jenny over the St John’s festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The choir acquitted itself well. Memorable among the readers was Bethan, a seven year old who had also been there dressed as Blessed Mary in the morning’s nativity presentation. It’s just amazing how naturally keen some children are, and how much they give back to the community attempting to nurture them.

What a wonderful day!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The weekend arrives

Party time
After the Friday lunchtime Eucharist, a quick bike ride up to the University Catholic Chaplaincy, in response to an invitation from the ecumenical chaplaincy team to attend a Christmas drinks party, good opportunity to touch base with a number of colleagues. Then home for a couple of hours to catch up on office work before returning to town to start up the computer and projector, before popping around the corner to Café Jazz for the City Centre Retail Partnership’s Christmas party, bring together arcade and store managers, the city centre management staff, Inspector Tony Bishop from the police and myself. The place was full of office groups eating together and drinking. As well as being a good and gentle policeman, Tony is a bit of an anthropologist, I suspect. He observed the clientele were well groomed and some were in party clothes. “Next week” he said you’ll see the difference, when all the manual workers come in for their Christmas parties, straight from work, and dressed accordingly.” Now, that’s something I wouldn’t have noticed.
I left after an hour, and made for home through streets crowded with noisy partygoers. Quite a number were out in fancy dress, guys dressed as nuns, girls in sexy Santa outfits, with the shortest of skirts revealing acres of bare thigh. The sight astonishes me, not because I haven’t seen it all before many times, but because the temperature is just above zero. I am equally astonished by the guys, not in fancy dress, wandering around in shirtsleeves without top coat or jacket. How do they all succeed in avoiding hypothermia? I’m sure I wore more clothes when I was their age – and this is the generation raised on universal central heating! Je ne comprend pas.

Salute the Beeb
No appointments or engagements on Saturday, apart from going in to switch the computer and video display on and off, and make sure it was working properly, no energy to get out and go somewhere different for a break, no energy for shopping, but good to have a day when there aren’t any serious demands on energy and creativity. For a change, a Saturday without sermon preparation, followed by a Sunday without having to preach. Time to mooch, time to catch up on writing this record. No pressure, and to make every moment a pleasure, BBC Radio Three is broadcasting the entire canon of the works of J.S.Bach in the ten days leading up to Christmas. Music, commentary, historical documentary, there can be nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Marvellous! Sometimes it's hard to go to bed as the music is so captivating. The BBC license fee has been raised by another £5.50 this year to £126.50. It’s impossible to resent this, given the extraordinary quality and diversity of broadcasting and internet services provided by the Beeb. The Web news feeds and Radio Three alone are worth the cost.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Times of extraordinary routine

Switch-on routine

Over the past fortnight my daily ritual has brought me to O'Neill's Irish pub in Trinity Street, to switch on the equipment that produces the Christmas image display on the south face of the church tower. It's not an arduous task, unless one is in a hurry, which is when things don't go routinely of course, but it is a bit fiddly, needs attention, to check that each item of the switch on routine is done in the right order. The Linux driven laptop is running two programs at the same time. One monitors the mobile phone for text messages, then inserts them into the slideshow routine, if it's running. It runs and runs tirelessly without glitches unless there is some anomaly with the phone, and then a little tinkering is required.

New pictures
During a couple of visits to St Monica's and Tredegarville church schools on Wednesday, I took photos of Christmas art work, converted them into the correct format and sent them to Chris Evans for incoporating into the slideshow, a task he performed in situ that evening. An additional fifteen images now make the whole routine 27 minutes long. It's great to see people stop and look up and comment with delight, especially when children recognise that it's mostly children's art that's being displayed.

On Friday there was an office party in the room where the equipment is housed. I met them the man organising it, on behalf of Chamber of Commerce colleagues, and he as tickled with the idea of putting up a welcome message for colleages on the church tower. At the appointed hour, he texted this to me and it was displayed throughout the party. Paul the pub manager told me later that the partygoers seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time staring out of the window fascinated by the display.

Stranger in a familiar place
The staff of O'Neill's are helpful and welcoming whenever I go in there. Drinkers often look a bit surprised. Clearly they think I'm out of place there. They don't expect to see a parson in a pub. I don't really think that this is any longer a cultural legacy of the era of puritan non-conformity, when drink and drinkers were the subject of almost ritual denunciation. All that stuff is long forgotten. Clergy are nowadays less visible in the public realm, except perhaps in small communities. Well, I guess the city centre is my small community in its way, athough I'm still much of a stranger to most who pass through.

Service or concert?
Thursday night St John's hosted a St John Ambulance Priory fundraising event for the Order's Eye Hospital in Eye Jerusalem ( With the musicians (a Welsh regiment band, and the choir of St David's Cathedral in Pembrokeshire), there were 250 people in church. Last year this event was a traditional carol service. This year it was more of a hybrid, a carol concert with prayers and some fine singing by Welsh operatic celebrity Dennis O'Neill and two friends. There was one token scripture and a variety of non-biblical readings, some of which were of doubtful relevance to the occasion. The sort of choice that would leave regular carol service attenders just a bit bemused.
Archbishop Barry was with us, as a Senior Prelate of the Order in Wales, and we grumbled together with Gethin Abrahams-Williams, the General Secretary of the Welsh ecumenical organisation CYTUN (a fellow Priory Chaplain) about the diet of inappropriate readings chosen by organisations wanting the church to host their special celebrations. It's a pet hate of mine (see my post of Dec 4).
Trouble is, clergy and pastors don't have enough time to give to help people plan their special events, to bring their liturgical expertise and critical common sense on the creative ideas of others who are not used to thinking in a disciplined way about giving full meaning to their act of celebration. So events that are not a credit to the good intentions of their organisers slip under the radar of those who are supposed to be there to help things go as well as they can. We're all far too much stretched by administration, fundraising and caretaking. There are too few of us for the demands made on us to be met properly. If only we could learn to to focus better on what we're good at!

The blessing of teamwork
With all these extra events over the past few weeks, I've been blessed by a small team of church lay-folk who have worked hard at the caretaking, cleaning and co-ordinating side of these extra events, which bring extra demands on the building. No matter how good the incoming organisation may be at clearing up its own mess, there are always things that get forgotten at the end of a long tiring evening, which somebody else has to pick up on in order to leave the building servicable for the next set of users, usually coming into church within twelve hours. It means that the 'home team' are shutting shop more than an hour after the last visitors leave on any evening there's a big event on.
We could do with a full-time caretaker, but the administration and cost of a full-time church employee is beyond reach of addordability. The fact that a team of four or five people working together can cover one person's caretaking job says something about the great value of such a post. On the other hand, that kind of teamwork helps to re-create church community in the service of the wider community in a way which can't be valued high enough. Would we had more volunteers willing to join the team. How much more could be achieved!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Faith and the city

Tale of two buildings
After our usual Sunday services, St John's welcomed members of the South Wales Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement for their fifth annual Carol service. For the past five years their regular and special meetings in Cardiff have been held in the Quaker Meeting House in Charles Street. This building, which currently hosts the fledgling Cardiff Steiner School my wife Clare has been involved in setting up, was until the late 1930s the second known Vicarage of the parish, replacing the Georgian edifice next to St John's church, demolished when the building was expanded. The Charles Street Vicarage is huge, and was evidently too huge even for an earlier 20th century clerical household, still with servants, and was used as a church community centre for decades before being sold to the Quakers, who continue to put it to varied good uses.
I'd love to have a building of that kind to work with in the city centre today, though I'd not like to find its annual running costs. Anyway, after four years of Christmas celebrations there with 80 people packing into what was once the Vicarage main lounge, I was approached with a request to host their service at St John's.

The difference commitment makes
Knowing how many Lesbian and Gay people have had unhappy experiences with the church, I guess we all wondered what the turn-out would be at St John's. Everyone was pleased. There were altogether 140 people present, and some of the heartiest enthusiastic singing heard at St John's for years. Assistant Bishop David Yeoman came and presided over the affair, and seemed to enjoy meeting and greeting people. I hope they'll decide to come back again next year.
Many of our Carol services are club social events, formalities that bond people together in their organisation, and it's apparent that not all who attend are used to worship or comfortable in a church. They come because others, to whom the service does matter, are keen and invite them along, and they come for the 'do' afterwards, or a few hours off work. That doesn't mean that such events have no value. Even the most formal of social rituals can be subverted by the Spirit, when people are listening quietly to the scriptures being read aloud with sincerity and intelligence.
The LGCM crowd felt like a group bonded together by the faith they celebrated, and that felt quite different. As did Tuesday's lunchtime Carol Service organised by an evangelical Christian group within the Welsh Development Agency. Unusually they invited a preacher to give a message at the end. There were only thirty of them, and they sang as if they meant it too.

God on Mondays, OK
Monday afternoon, Jenny and I led the third of our after-school family services at St James', and again welcomed 25 adults and thirty children. The consistency of attendance is hearteneing. We're wondering how many will respond to the invitation to come to the fourth event - a Sunday morning Christingle service next weekend. Nothing can be predicted, we're working in the dark when it comes motivating young parents and children in today's secular environment where so many other attractions compete for their time. We rely so much more on their free response, rather than any promotional afforts we may make.

Safer business
Wednesday morning I had an invitation to attend a ceremony at City Hall at 9.00am. The car was due in for repair at 8.30 over in Splott, an urban village a couple of miles from the centre, so I had to take the car with my bike in the back to the garage, then ride back into town. Thankfully there was no rain, and I arrived on time. The mayor was receiving an award on behalf of the City, from the Home Office for meeting the strategic criteria for creating a low-crime environment for businesses and traders. This is due to the the enterprise of the City Centre Management team working in collaboration with the police to keep track of persistent offenders, who steal from shops, or rob individuals usually to fund their drug habits. Sometimes the local papers seem to contain nothing but crime reports, and it can give a very grim impression of city life. Crime statistics aren't all that easy to interpret, or are they very newsworthy, but the fact is, crime is going down and detection rates are up, and this reduces business communtiy losses considerably.
Attendees at this ceremony were ushered in to a committe room, then fed coffee and mince pies while waiting the start. We were promised to be out in half an hour. Chief Inspector Bob Evans of Central division came along and made a speech. Local community beat police officers, fire and rescue service personnel were there, plus a few local government officers and councillors, plus the City centre management team. Why was I there? Well, I see it as part of my job to know and be known by people whose life and work is in the city centre, to understand all the things they value as important, and accompany them wherever that leads. The church often seems so obsessed with its own internal debates, that it has little real interest in ordinary life concerns. Yet our common enterprise as citizens relies heavily on a Christian understanding of human values, and how these are applied in ordinary life. The church that prays for the welfare of the city has also to take a practical interest in all that makes for peace and good living for all.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Crowded days

"Your busiest time, Vicar ..."
As they say about December. Having Christmas on a Sunday this year, with schools and colleges finishing term six days beforehand certainly has shaped December diary planning. Annual Carol services, concerts and social events all take place earlier, so the first full week of the month added three charity concerts for hosting at St John's, a 'Christmas' lunch, a publicity reception and one local government association Carol service to routine worship services, meetings. It all brings many hundreds of additional people into church, on top of those who come to look at the art exhibition, or to buy Christmas cards.
Altogether, ten special Advent events to prepare for, thankfully, not alone, as a small team of regulars has this year come together to work on organising and welcoming special events. The number of carols services is half what it was five years ago. Several institutions that used to have their own special carol services no longer do. I guess there are fewer volunteers keen enough to take on the organisational task. Nevertheless, the growth of charity fundraising events is an interesting and pleasing sign, four in December, and eight across the whole year.
In addition there were two funerals, one of them of Gordon my last surviving uncle, who lived in Cardiff. Of my parents' generation of my godmother is still alive. This sad occasion brought together the extended family from far and wide for a burial service and shared meal. I was relieved just to be able to join his mourners, and not to have to take an active part in conducting the service. It's not easy to officiate at someone's funeral when you yourself are mourning the loss of that person. When my two aunts died some years ago their offspring insisted I officiate, as their mothers had requested. The women in the family were supportive and proud of my priestly vocation, and said they prayed for me, so I felt obliged. The men in the family, by way of contrast, were respectful but ambivalent about having a parson in the family, following Grandpa's lead. They'd have been happier to see me as a scientist or, even better, an engineer.
The other funeral this week was unusual, in that the widower didn't want any music or hymns for the short crematorium service. He was from the North East of England. Under twenty people attended, so it was a low key affair. Without the usual 'backing track' of hymns or music, I found I had to focus much more carefully than usual on the spoken text. Maybe that's how they did it back at home. The chief mourners declared themselves satisfied and went away, chatting among themselves, effecting their reunions with neighbours and relatives, just as I had done a few days earlier.

Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?
One wet evening, when the midweek choir practice was going on, I noticed that two small plaques warning of a tow-away zone had been affixed in an unaesthetic way to the spikes atop the church railings. As these railings have a Grade two conservation listing, this was a bit of a surprise, as the church council is responsible for their maintenance and answerable to CADW, the Welsh conservation quango for any transgression of its strict regulations.
Also affixed to the railing with string was a laminated A4 sheet of paper containing a statutory legal notice of road closure orders, from eight in the evening till four in the morning, Fridays and Satrudays relating to the street in which I was standing, plus the two side streets from which it could be accessed from the main thoroughfare St Mary Street. All very strange, since a quick enquiry revealed that none of the restuaranteurs or landlords in our sector seemed to have been informed, let alone us at St John's church. If anything, the operation of pubs and eating houses could be more affected by this than the church - getting employees in and out at night, or rushing in extra supplies in busy periods, not to mention clients who need to come in by car because they cannot walk. Think about this I realised it would ban access for any Saturday concert, and this year for Midnight Mass. This year for the first time in five years, we'd taken a decision to move Midnight Mass in from St James' back to St John's, for the sake of hotel visitors, and hoping that Christmas eve would be quieter with early closing and curtailed bus services, so that revellers would not disrupt the service, as had been the case formerly. With three weeks to go, discovering that vehicle access to church would be barred was a bit of a shock.

For the next 48 hours I found myself additionally busy with finding out what had gone wrong, why there had been no direct consultation, why the legal procedures had not been followed, why someone had exceeded their powers by defacing our railings with their tow-away signs. I discovered that the city-centre management team knew as much about this as I did, and were not pleased to learn that another city government department had acted in their area of responsibility without seeking their advice and support. Friday night the ninth was meant to be the first night of enforcement, but passed without incident. Still no public notices out on the streets of these closures, making it contentious to implement. Likewise Saturday night, when we had a singalong fundraising Messiah in church (raised nearly a thousand quid). The unauthorised tow-away signs also quietly disappeared, thanks to a member of the city centre management team who knows the rules and keeps to them! We still don't know who got them put up.
There had been a notice among the classified ads in the local paper, relating to periodic closures of St Mary Street as a safety measure on nights when tens of thousands roam from bar to bar rowdily and often drunkenly, making everyone else's life unpleasant, and risky. But if our few streets were mentioned, the print was pretty small. I took down the notice, copied it and took it round to some of the neighbours, none of whom had seen it. Naturally, they are worried about loss of trade. Normally I get sent paper or electronic copies of every temporary road closure notice, and of loud one-off events near the church. I created uproar about the lack of information and consultation when I first arrived, as nobody seemed to know when anything was happening, and often church events got disrupted by road closures, or noisy music roadshows set up in the street next to the church's east end. The local government officers once told of our need to know have been diligent ever since about keeping us in touch. Except on this occasion.

All on the web somewhere
I have learned that it is possible to challenge apparent impositions, because the regulations governing the running of a city do allow for proper consulation and feedback. They are pretty complex and don't always get followed to the letter. Implementation of any policies and decisions is flawed, and thus always open to challenge if they threaten to impose something nobody who has to live with the consequences really wants. The regular habit is acquiese to the impositions of local government bureaucracy, and maybe write to 'The Echo' a letter of protest, rather than analysing what's been done badly and raising the necesary critique with people higher up the chain of command. Local government hierachies are always dauntingly complex to the outsider, but there is a real concern for good service and accountability among elected officers and politicians, which translates into a City government website that delivers all the information one could possibly need about people responsible for things, as long as you have patience and time to learn the necessary navigational skills, since 'services' not infrequently change their names, and the names of officers don't always get updated as rapidly as they should. The virtual city is as complex as the real city.
In the end it was possible to secure an acknowledgement of the problem of getting cars in without penalty for concerts and services - it can all be done by prior arrangement, so long as you know whom to ask. So we're OK for Midnight Mass - which starts at 11.00pm, if you're thinking of coming along.

Two nice things to close the week
Firstly, Lauren Turner, reporter of 'The Echo' did our Christmas greeting video project proud, with a page long report, including a couple of pictures and an article largely, thankfully, based on our press release, so factually correct. One of the pictures has me looking like a trimmed down Father Christmas - no I'm not that fat, and my goatee beard is trimmed short. She also reported the street closure threat to Midnight Mass and its positive outcome. Good publicity!
Secondly, I was driving in before the pedestrian zone closes at 11.00 to deliver some robes to church, on a Saturday morning. Stopped at the lights with a bus in front of me, I saw through the back window of the bus a beautiful young girl, chatting excitedly to a companion I could not see in the corner of the back seat. She was chatting in sign language, and her lip movements were visible at 25 yards. This little urban cameo, radiated enthusiasm for life. Also the sun was shining and for once I didn't complain at having to wait for the lights to change.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Why story-telling counts

The Old Testament reading assigned for Sunday Evensong was the story of Micaiah ben Imlah the prophet confronting Kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab with a truth that neither of them wanted to hear, about the impending disaster of their joint expedition against the King of Syria. It was a long reading, 28 verses in all, but even so, it stopped short of the tale's ending with the death of King Jehoshaphat, a dozen verses later on. The reading was curtailed as it was employed to make a point about the real prophets being those who know God's will and tell the truth even if it hurts, but I just had to keep going to the rather unpleasant end, so as not to impeach the integrity of the story told.
Reflecting on this later in the evening, it occurred to me how much the propagation of Christian faith relies on the energy and commitment believers put into telling and re-telling all the stories that shape the Christian world-view, making those stories live in the imaginations of those who hear them. Which is not quite the same as the Church passing on its interpretations of its stories or the inferences believers draw from them.
The way one tells a story is of itself a kind of interpretation, but it's possible to tell stories in a way that is open and descriptive rather than closed and prescriptive. I think if you look carefully at the storytelling of Jesus in the Gospels you can identify material that reflects his open and descriptive approach, but also those elements that reflect the closed and prescriptive approach of those who followed him without grasping his revolutionary perception of life to the full.
Jesus, it seems to me, encouraged us to think with creative and responsible imagination applied to life, rather than systematising and abstracting the truth in an effort to manage it as a commodity. He told stories to get people thinking without wanting to second-guess the outcome. To do that was an immense act of faith in the work of the Spirit in the human heart and mind, a delighting in the risk entailed in every honest creative process.
As Anglicans, we read the whole Bible in public worship systematically throughout the year, if you attend Eucharist Matins and Evensong daily. If you just attend the Sunday Eucharist you'll hear all the Bible's most significant passages read once if not more often during a three year cycle of scripture readings, regardless of the ritual and ceremonial that clothes the act of reading.
Spiritual renewal movements and churches that identify with them can be very strong on prayer and devotional songs and contemporary relevance, but will dwell in depth upon small scripture portions in public worship, leaving systematic reading and study to individuals or groups in their own time. This is perhaps more popular currently than the traditional way of just reading and re-reading, with simple explanation of context though introductory comments or a basic homily that gives listeners time to digest, letting them loose on their own train of thought, stimulated by hearing the Word read aloud. I like to think this is compatible with the approach of Jesus to telling stories, but at the same time I'm, not always too sure that it is. We speak of reading a lesson in church, as if its sole purpose is didactic, as if it is the text for a lecture.
Standards of reading vary enormously. They may reflect an understanding of the subject matter or not. Some readers have a natural feel for words and the general meaning of the text, whilst others struggle. Good liturgy requires clear intelligible and confident scripture reading, but a reader may fulfil all these demands and remain dull and uninspiring. Why? Because they have not understood their text as story to be told, containing movement, drama, emotional content, wisdom, insight that needs conveying to an audience. Ask theatre people to read at a carol service and they'll demand to know well in advance what their text is, and they'll rehearse it like any other script, to get the best out of it, to stimulate the imagination of their hearers.
I get requests for Church carol services in which it's proposed that scripture readings are replaced by 'meaningful' poems and secular christmassy readings, which make a service more like a seasonal concert. I've no objection to the latter, but why have them in church when a church is the place that was built around reading scripture and telling God's story in as unadorned a fashion as possible. To use substitutes for scripture however imaginative and charming to hear, is an act of distrust in the ability of listeners to let the story conjure its meanings in their hearts. Why have we lost confidence in such a simple 'given' of Christian tradition?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Living with phones

Our follow-up to the Cardiff festival of technology and the creative arts for the run up to Christmas is almost ready to roll. Paul, the manager of the Irish pub in Trinity Street opposite the church has agreed to the installation in the pub's upstairs function room of a computer and video projector linked up to a mobile phone. The computer will run a slide presentation of Christmas images, from classical iconography and from children in a local infants school, and these will be projected on to the south wall of the church tower opposite. The public will be invited to text to a mobile phone number their Christmas greetings, either to individuals, or to the city, and these will be displayed in between showings of the slide sequence, all thanks to the technical expertise of Chris Evans, who mounted the adventure game project as part of the festival.
The messages unfortunately need monitoring, to filter out abusive and obscene input. This involves having an advertised mobile number for texting which isn't the number of the phone hooked up to the computer, plus a human intermediary to edit and forward messages. Fine, but I'm not a great fan of mobile phones, especially when used, it seems as excessively as alcohol by many sections of the population. I was given my Nokia four years ago by a lady from Llangollen who was a member of my congregation in Monaco when I was working there. I think her hubby bought her an upgrade, even though, as she'd say, there was nothing wrong with the one she had. I accepted it graciously, and have used it sparingly since.
It's a standing joke in the family that Dad never has his phone switched on and rarely gives out his number. I use it mainly for texting, finding people I'm meeting, and real emergencies – all of which are fairly rare in my quiet life. When I worked in Geneva, a member of the church council proposed that the Chaplain should have a mobile phone for people to contact him in an emergency. I could hardly think of anything really serious that happened in our widespread and diverse constituency that I failed to hear about quickly for lack of a mobile phone over a seven year period. The idea of being on call around the clock every day, except when on leave, filled me with horror. Already people would ring the land-line and open with; “I know it's your day off, but ...” And rarely was there anything which couldn't wait 24 hours. Instant communication, phone and email is a great asset in many situations. However, it does lead to the temptation to react without thinking, and in its turn this makes life more stressful all round. I need times of solitude to digest what's happening in life. Times when I am unreachable. Times to prepare inwardly how to respond to people and not just react to them. So, I rarely leave my phone switched on just in case someone might ring. As a result, my 1999 phone has its original battery and it still holds a charge for more than 24 hours.
I feel rather smug about this.
For the sake of this project I went out and bought a new entry level phone with SIM card to give me a new number for public use. I went to the phone shop that corresponded to my service providor, and waited there for more than ten minutes without getting more than a passing smile from the apparently ever so busy staff. Having failed to get attention, I slipped down to my local high street electronic gadget retailer, and was served immediately. I was out in the rain with a newly activated phone in less than the time I had waited in the phone shop. That's business, I suppose.

I was amazed to find that my new phone cost forty percent of the price I paid for a similar one for Clare three years ago. It's only the second time I have gone into a phone shop in buying mode. My new Nokia has a colour screen, it's lighter has a week's battery life on standby. Otherwise it has a few features I can do without, if I can ever get around to working out what they are and what the phone menus mean. It's a totally foreign culture to me, despite being computer literate for over 20 years. These multi-functional devices, which carry all your addresses and allow you to surf the net and email are amazing applications of new technology, until they get stolen or dropped down the loo. It's hugely convenient to have so much essential info in one small device, unless you are fumble fingered, or find the display screen to small to read. It gets worse as you get older.

Finally, after more than a week of waiting for spare parts to arrive, St John's church boiler has been repaired, and the slow climb back up from eight to eighteen degrees inside the building has begun. Once more I feel I can look people in the face and not have to apologise for the weather inside the building!

Friday, December 02, 2005

God on Mondays

It's several months since my colleague Jenny and I started thinking about how we could engage with the parents and children of Tredegarville school, adjacent to St James. We've had to accept the theft of Sundays as a special family day for worship and companionship by the new pattern of work and leisure which the modern economy imposes on us, and church and society acquiesce. Everyone wants things easier and cheaper, and that has generated the illusion that a seven day week, and people obliged to work all hours and across holiday periods, will achieve this objective. So would it work if we were to invited families to come into church immediately after school, for refreshments and a short act of worship and Christian teaching. We shared the proposition with the Head and her staff, and found they were keen to give it a go. So this week on Monday we had the first of three Monday services under the title 'Countdown to Christmas'. To our delight, thirty children and twenty adults turned up, and three members of staff. Jenny gave a talk and used a large print of an icon of the prophet Isaiah as a focal point. I got to play the guitar and lead the singing, a great pleasure, as I haven't done that with children or adults for years. Everyone was very pleased with what we did. The test will be whether or not they return for number two next week.
It must be forty years ago since my late mentor, Alun Davies, Vicar of my home parish of Ystrad Mynach, and one time Dean of Llandaff wrote in his monthly Vicar's letter, envisaging the time (which has now arrived) when Sunday would just be another day in the week, and people whose work patterns were so varied would have to choose a day for worship which would be 'their Sunday'. He lived to see it. We live to experiment with it in our efforts to transmit all that we treasure to a new generation.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Advent arrives

Winter at last
The mild weather finally gave way to persistent cold. We woke up to 25mm of snow on Friday morning. A guaranteed instant return to childhood. I emailed my Swiss Pastor friend Valdo deep in the rural heartland of Canton of Vaud to tell him. “We had 25cm last night”, came back the reply. And apparently their roads were just as paralysed as ours, as snow was unexpected after the unseasonable mildness. During this week, however, St John’s central heating has refused to be coaxed into life, and the residual warmth in the stone has slowly ebbed away, leaving a flesh-numbing chill for the volunteers running the Card of Good Causes Shop and the Art Exhibition. The engineers came to fix the gas boiler equivalent of a spark plug failure, but to no avail. Rushed off their feet by call-outs due to the cold spell, they did not have the spare parts, which had to be ordered. We wait and shiver. Advent Sunday was a chilly nightmare.
Evening service was an Advent Carol celebration - well, for me that meant two Carol services. One at St John’s, then another at St Teilo’s. Mercifully, the choral music was different at each service, also some of the readings. Both were full of tranquil beauty and lots of candles lit in darkened churches. God in the darkness of waiting. That sums up a lot of life for me these days. Saturday evening, Gordon, my last uncle died aged 84, after living bravely with cancer for several years. That makes me the oldest male in our branch of the family to bear the Kimber surname. An uncertain honour and dignity.
Anyway, the whole evening was a fine pleasure, rather than a lengthy chore. Moreover, St Teilo’s heating is working, and I just about managed to thaw out before I got home.

Another 'tradition' re-assessed
The beginning of the new Christian year was given an unexpected fillip by an email from my colleague at the City United Reformed Church, Dr Tom Arthur. He was trying out on me a booklet of study material on the nature of prophecy, revisited in the light of contemporary New Testament Scholarship. It was aimed at some of the thinkers in his lively congregation, and made stimulating reading.
He started with an examination of Christmas liturgy of the Nine Lessons and Carols, made famous by King’s College Cambridge, reflecting how its presentation of scriptural lessons promoted one particular interpretation of the saving work of Jesus Christ, prevalent in the nineteenth century, which is but one of several interpretations which carry equal weight in ancient Christian tradition. He challenged his readers to look again at how the prophets understood God’s work in their own time, and how this related to the prophetic ministry of Jesus and his declaration of the kingdom of God.
His essay suggested to me that a good piece of practical work would be to propose a new set of readings for the Nine Lessons and Carols, to reflect a broader understanding of Christ’s work. So, I proposed this to him and he incorporated the idea into the version of the essay he published on his church’s website. It’s worth a read.
See:- <>

Friday, November 25, 2005

Journey of a lifetime

I should say something about me and Tai Chi’. I go to regular classes in a church hall in the neighbouring district, with a teacher I discovered almost by accident (as if there was such a thing) when we returned to the UK three and a half years ago. But the the story goes back a long way. This is a biographical piece I wrote for a class newsletter last year.

When I was fifteen, I bought ‘Teach Yourself Yoga’ to feed my growing fascination with things outside the conventional perspective of life in a mining valley town (this was 1960, may I add!). I learned the value of meditation as a student during the heyday of the Beatles, and the Maharishi, although my path of discovery was derived from Western monastic rather the Eastern tradition. A few years later I was initiated into the world of contemporary dance, and discovered that how we use our bodies is as fundamental an aspect of good meditation, as the practice of silence and stillness.

Another fifteen years on from discovering Yoga, Zen and Tai Chi publications caught my attention. Despite my resolution to find a class and learn Tai Chi in the flesh, rather than imitating postures in a book, another twenty seven years elapsed before I stepped in to my first live session in the old St John’s church hall in Canton. It was like a homecoming.

“What do you want out this class?” Our teacher Christie asked us.

“I want to learn to meditate standing up” I replied, realising how stupid smart-assed that might sound. But for me it was true. As a priest of Anglican persuasion. I spend lots of standing, leading others in prayer. If doing this is going to nourish me, as well as others, and not just be an acted-out automatic ritual, it must have the quality of meditation about it. ‘Performing’ in public can be physically stressful. How to do the job and be refreshed, not drained by it? A real issue, as the demands have increased and I have grown older.

Zen has been described simply as learning how to sit. Stillness, silence, receptivity – a kind of active passivity. Standing is a form of movement. You’re never totally still because your whole organism is balancing itself in the field of gravity, extended between earth and heaven, forwards and backwards, left and right, inside and outside. Stillness dwells at the heart of all this subtle movement. To enter into it completely it’s necessary to be fully conscious of the body in relation to its environment.

All the movement played out in the form passes through or revolves around the still centre. The quality of movement reflects the quality of our relationship with the stillness at the core of our being.

Who am I? What am I? Wouldn’t we like to know. Am I just a body? Do I have a body? Or does my body have me? – Am I just trapped inside it? How does my body determine what I am, who I am? The self, and our sense of self is utterly mysterious – un-nervingly so sometimes – but life is sweet as we learn how best to discover and become our true selves in relation to the still centre, and in the choice of habits and attitudes, which flow from there.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Lighting up time

Missing the turf
A new Visitor Centre is being built inside the walls of Cardiff Castle. As it’s sited on a main traffic route through the cenre of town, it’s a logistic nightmare for those supplying the construction workers on the inside. Normally between the pavement and the walls is 20feet of south facing greensward, used for sunbathing, eating fast food alfresco, or swigging alcohol before a Big Match or a concert in the Millennium Stadium, just around the corner. This year, the turf’s been replaced with ballast, and the strip boarded in with a 3 metre high security hoarding, to provide a service area for the building site. It looks drab, and this is compounded by the shrouding of the ornate clock tower faces at the south west corner with protective netting, as part of its restoration programme.

Penny plain and tuppence coloured
It’s been something of an eyesore, in contrast with the usual vista of elegant grey limestone walls, and it seems as if it’s been like this for ages. However, all is not lost, for now the hoarding hosts the city centre Christmas illuminations that normally adorn the Castle walls. They are, for the most part, garish and colourful. To my mind they look better adorning a wooden hoarding than they do on the walls, where the beauty of the stone betrays their essential tackiness. Many of the trees in the pedestrian zones and in the gardens in front of City Hall now sport simple white (low energy) lights. I dream of Cardiff entirely lit in this tasteful minimalist way, but this year won’t cringe at all the colourful bright and flashing stuff because it’s doing a fine job distracting attention from a vital building site. And there’s a huge tree in its usual spot outside the Castle main gate. What I’m still hunting for is the Three Kings, usually to be found on the wall to the left of the Castle gate. The first time I saw them, bearing their gifts in square boxes, they made me think of late shoppers tiredly hunting for the car park on their way home.

Winter Wonderland in Cardiff
Doctor Who – now a Cardiff regular since the filming of so much of the new series in and around the centre – switched on the Christmas lights, together with his glamorous assistant, on an icily cold evening. It was the same evening as Rose’s funeral, and I didn't feel like writing about it then. A large festival event stage was erected in the road between the Central Police station, and City Hall, traffic. Parking was banished for several days of preparation. (I wonder where all those displaced vehicles go? Cycling though the site was a bit of an obstacle course.) There were bands and compères, and loads of hoo-ha around the switching hour. The garden in front of City Hall is taken up with Winter Wonderland, a temporary skating rink, food 'n drink and souvenir stalls and a few rides, including a big brightly lit Ferris Wheel. Much cheer here, and a great attractions for winter visitors and shoppers right though into early January. Lots of school parties come by day and then by night the party-tribe descends, before during or after their clubbing exploits, I'm not sure. Serious fun at all hours, though you can't yet skate 24 hours, as you can now get legless 24 hours. Just as well. I wasn’t even tempted to go and watch the switch-on. It was my evening for Tai Chi’. But when the daughters come down for Christmas, surely we'll manage at least one good session on the ice together. It's like being in the Alps (apart from when it rains ....)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Meetings and meetings


Apart from the funerals, it was a week of meetings. A wedding interview on a Monday morning, then an evening getting to know Andrew, a quiet young man asking for confirmation, who's been on a pilgrimage of faith for many years. He knows Orthodoxy well, but is finding in St John's a place where he can feel at home.
Another evening meeting Wednesday with a Geoffrey, a young French Law student who wants to be baptized. He's been visiting me regularly now for two months and worships with St Teilo's congregation on Sundays, and at the Chaplaincy on Wednesdays. He brought a girl friend with him this week, who is also seeking baptism. Whatever next!
Andrew is deeply thoughtful, artistic. In a way he has done his investigation and is ready to make a commitment. Geoffrey wants to make a commitment, but feels he has much to learn having come from a secular background. He is passionately enthusiastic, and inquisitive. He wants to be a lawyer who fights evil on a Christian moral and spiritual basis. Influenced by the spiritual tradition of French Pentecostalism, he still has a lot of questions about how to read and understand scripture, so our sessions are lively.
Although they are so different, they have one thing in common. Both have discovered the English Book of Common Prayer, and treasure it as a source that can shape their devotion. Neither of them would be regarded conservative, but they look at this spiritual and literary unencumbered by decades of debate about liturgical reform and theological discussion between catholic and protestant influences on Anglicanism. Fascinating.

Economic auguries
The City Centre Retail Partnership board met on Tuesday in the training room at Marks and Spencers. Everything is geared up for Christmas. One of M&S shop floor workers, Frank, a lad from the Valleys, comes to St John's Sunday Evensong, when work permits. He was promoting Port and mince pies, with his usual engaging flair when I greeted him. Getting to know the retail work force would be a full-time job in itself. The meeting received a complex statistical presentation from a company which monitors economic data. Sobering stuff.
With there being so many retail developments in South Wales and the West competition for market share is already having an impact on Cardiff - but managers felt that before they saw the statistics. The Saint David's II development will increase the cente's retail outlet capacity by a third, but it's being predicted this will not improve Cardiff's standing in the national league table of trading centres.
Currently 13th, not long ago re-development was promoted as a way that Cardiff could improve its trading position up to fifth in the country. Rhetoric and statistics don't match. Already in everyone's bones is the chill wind of economic recession, with fall in numbers shopping in Cardiff and a fall in the total spend. It looks fine on the surface, but traders are getting the shivers. Everyone is agreed that the only way Cardiff can improve its trading position is to improve road access and parking drastically. Successive city regimes have been in denial over the urgency of this. It's not so attractive to funding, but its vital. Sports attractions in Cardiff are bringing many more visitors, blocking roads, and relatively few of them come for shopping. Pubs and fast food outlets benefit, but city centres don't thrive just on selling food 'n drink.
In the afternoon, a small meeting of the Churches Tourism Network Wales local group, just to report back on outcomes of a promotional leaflet produced on the five Beacon Churches of South East Wales (of which St John's is one). It was good to hear about tourism initiatives around the region's churches and to start considering how next we might expand our interest in visitors.

Cultural divergence at work again
A meeting with our architect and Paul Rees of the R.B. on Wednesday morning, trying to sort out exactly what needs doing at St James', to improve access to the church car park, since a permanent right of way through next door's drive has been negotiated. What I thought was a simply issue of demolishing a wall proves a lot more complex and daunting. But, yet again I didn't get hold of the complete picture. There are real communication problems, because people with technical expertise assume everyone follows the inferences in their explanations. And sometimes information doesn't get shared. The developers next door to St James sought permission to erect scaffolding. A deal was negotiated, dates were announced for this to be done, blocking the car park. I duly relayed this information to car park users, to alert them to the need to find an alternative parking for three days. However, the lawyers failed to sign the deal, permission was withheld for work to begin, and I wasn't informed in time to cancel the alert. All of which means that our parking clients are put out un-necessarily, and we have to compensate them for someone else's inability to stay on top of their job in the chain of events. There's such a gulf between the technicians who maintain the 'barque of Peter' and its sailors and passengers, and sometimes that worrying and frustrating.

Church travellers filmed?
Later in the day I had a meeting with a young art student called Dafydd who wanted to interview me as part of his art installation project. He has been filming interviews with people whose life journeys taken them through particular places for some reason or another, and then showing the interviews in the place in question. Last year he did interviews with train travellers and showed them in the vestible of Cardiff Central station. This year, St John's is where he will show his interviews of people in relation to the church. It'll be shown all day on 30th November in the Herbert Chapel, and assessed by his supervisors. A quiet shy young man, bit at sea in relating to people outside his peer group, I suspect. But, he seems to know what he's doing. His show will be interesting to see.

More art to end the week
It was good to escape to London for 24 hours with Clare on Friday afternoon, overnighting in Rachel's partner's apartment in Chelsea Harbour with its atmospheric Thames view. The pretext was the last day of a friend's art exhibition in a small Notting Hall Gallery. Greg Tricker's kids were in the Bristol Steiner school at the same time as ours, so we got to know him and his prodigious output of paintings. Only recently have we discovered that he is also a notable sculptor as well.
For a brief introduction visit , although the work in the exhibition we went to see is his most recent, a project on the life of St Francis of Assisi. Sixty five of his paintings and sculptures were on show at Piano Nobile gallery, and last month an exquisite coffee-table book of photographs of the exhibition and narratives was published. We bought two - one to keep and one to give away. The book was reviewed in 'Resurgence'. Look at to get the measure of the man.
The sun shone upon us from cold blue skies. After Cardiff, London is overwhelming, with noise and crowds. Everyone looks miserable and nobody talks to you. Somehow many people manage to be polite nevertheless. Leaving Victoria coach station it takes three quarters of an hour to get out and into free flowing motorway traffic, an hour to begin to see non-built-up areas in the landscape. From the centre of Cardiff, it's fifteen minutes to the sea, and to a hilltop view of the bay, the river Severn and the Valleys. If I didn't have a specific reason for visiting London, I don't think I'd ever go for sight-seeing or shopping. Give me a small city any time.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Unknown yet sometimes recognised

No respecter of persons

This week, I had the funeral which was postponed from last week. One unexpected feature was the arrival of one of the mourning family handcuffed to a prison guard. A reminder of how death intervenes without concern for anything else that's going on in human affairs. One of the crematorium superintendents told me while we awaited the arrival of the cortège of the occasion when he had been obliged to call the police, as soon as the funeral was over because rival factions within a family started fighting just outside the chapel, their hatred for each other overwhelming their grief. Not on this occasion however. Close relations of the chained man took the opportunity to hug him warmly. He evidently appreciated the attention and smiled like a celebrity and his guards were content to indulge him for five minutes or so before returning him from whence he came. I didn't find out what he was in for, or for how long. As is often the case, nodbody was interested to converse with me after the perfunctory handshakes.

The invited stranger
The priest is often a stranger to the bereaved 90% of the time nowadays, as that proportion of the population don't go to church and aren't interested in socialising with clergy. People are generally content to go along with the convention of having an officiating minister, as proposed by the funeral directors. It's a service provided which works, which makes no demand, but is there if anyone wishes to make use of it. Families are often widely scattered and may meet up together with decreasing regularity, so a funeral is one of those times for catching up with relatives, friends and acquaintances. The pastor has to settle for being a stranger who looks on, available if needed. Nothing is gained by being intrusive. I imagine it's quite different in a rural area or a village community where the local parson is still a more visible figure in the locality. So many people live and pass daily though any urban area that it's easy even for quite prominent people to go about unrecognised. Anonymity is part of the way of life, and community doesn't grow out of living familiarly side by side in the heart of the city. So in a way, the urban priest of today has to learn to live with being an unfamiliar, obscure person, even when recognisable by uniform. If anyone want to talk, it's a gift and a privilege to be available for them. Clergy no longer have 'rights' by virtue of their office, as seemed to be the case in times past.

Goodbye Rose
Later in the week, a second funeral at St John's. Rose, the sister of one of our small team of organists. She was 69, and had suffered from ill health for a year or so. She died in hospital at the very moment a week last Saturday when the Remembrance Garden blessing cermony was coming to an end. I was asked to go quickly to the hospital by a member of the congregation working in the tea room, who had received a phone call during the church service. It took me an hour to get to Llandough hospital - through the crowds of cars coming in for the international rugby match, where I found Marje and Vanessa quietly waiting for me in the coffee room. Vanessa said : "When we knew the end was coming, we felt we should say a prayer, and so we said :

'O Lord support us all the day long of the troublous life
till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over
and our work is done.Then, Lord in your mercy,
grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen' "

I was moved by their response. I couldn't have chosen better myself. It's encouraging to see how the priestly instinct is shared by all God's people. We went together and gathered around Rose's bed. She was no longer wired up to monitors and drip feeds, and still had some colour in her cheeks, resting quietly after her ordeal. I used some familiar prayers and Psalm 23, and we entrused her soul again to God before going our separate ways as sunset drew near across a chilly autumn car park.
It was such a privilege to be there, known and welcomed by friends to share a parting moment. Rose came regularly every Friday to church to help her arrange flowers. Everyone knew and loved her. A tall, gentle woman, always smiling, pleased to be among friends. Although not a regular worshipper, she was at home in St John's, with St John's people, and many of them turned out to say farewell, along with people from her home village of St Fagans.