Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Auspicious times

Thirty five years ago yesterday, I was ordained priest by Archbishop Glyn Simon in Llandaff Cathedral. It remains in my memory as a moment of awesome holiness, despite my deep lack of confidence, and my strong desire to challenge the institutional church and its thinking, as a young 'moderniser'. In those days, wanted to be a worker priest in secular employment. I never made it. Twenty one years ago I trained as a teacher, but didn't fancy schooling (too regimented), so ended up in development education, working with adults, and went back to full time pastoring after seven years of that.

I always fancied getting a steady job and being a priest in my spare time, having boundaries between work and vocation. As it happens, the world of work has been stood on its head. People work less and less in the same thing for a whole career, employment has become a market commodity to be traded, and people retrain several times in a lifetime. And the strange thing is, I've just realised, that pattern is not too dissimilar from being a career parson, with the exception that I have been 'employed' by the CofE, the Church in Wales, and USPG, a church based mission agency, all of which were quite similar in their values and way of organising themselves. I'm now in my eighth job in 35 years of ministry.

In each one I've had to re-learn, re-train myself to requirements of new circumstance, as well as draw on my previous experience and expertise. The world of work has become more like the world of my working it, it seems. For me, it's been adaptation all the way. Never boring, sometimes anxiety making, and I've been luckier than many. Never made redundant, forced out of just one job. Resigned to move on to new work from all the others. I've never been without work or income. And that's a blessing in an age like ours. Yes, it's a privilege in many ways. But with so many people abandoning the church, and no longer seeming to need what it offers, it's easy to feel just a little forsaken from time to time, even though there always seems plenty to do, and not really enough time for the kind of leisurely life of prayer that makes for a good listening caring pastor.

Still feeling inadequate to the task after all these years!

And on this auspicious day? One funeral, in St Teilo's church of a man who died suddenly at 64 of undetected heart disease. A huge crowd there, work and pub mates, extended family. Apparently, he had been a Matt Munro fan, and played a CD of his music whenever his wife was out (she's a Queen fan). Requested to be played during the service was one of his favourites 'Softly as I leave you'. A quiet man, who quietly slipped away in the bathroom early on September 11th. An eerie legacy. All the family howled. The pub extraverts were dumb-struck.
In Cathays cemetery, overlooking the Rhymney Valley railway line cutting, at the grave-side there was a long silence after the casting of earth and final blessing, eventually broken by the widow, who came up to me and asked "What do we do now?" Fighting hard not to read huge chunks of metaphysical significance into the question, I told her "You can go home now, and come back later when the grave's filled in." She'd forgotten what burial custom was. So many deaths end in smoothly managed cremations these days. She had probably never been chief mourner before either.

My chauffeur to and fro was a cheery young man in his twenties, new to the job, from the Heads of the Valleys, now renting a room in the half-empty St Michael's Theological College, to avoid a hundred mile commute each day. He told me he had trained as a teacher, but that it wasn't for him - he already had set his heart on a place in this caring profession. It's got to be a vocation to deal with people's grief in an era when death itself is quarantined away from ordinary life until the time comes for it to force its way into normal routine. Fear, shock predominate. People are bewildered, ignorant and vulnerable. Funeral arranging is a task involving great trust today.

The day ended with an interview with a middle aged couple wanting to get married at St James next year - both with an assortment of broken liaisons and offspring behind them, but both still wanting to make a go of a permanent stable relationship with real commitment to it. People do learn sometimes from their experience of failure in relationships, how to do better next time.
The church doesn't want to compromise on the ideal of lifelong marriage to one partner, but it's so important to encourage everyone who can to make permanent lasting relationships, and if they fail, not to give up trying to get it right. God doesn't divorce us because we aren't successful as disciples. We keep trying because his forgiveness is the last word.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

All kinds of Services, never a dull moment

Cardiff buses, so the saying goes while waiting on the street, always come in twos, when you've been waiting far too long. The same goes for weddings it seems. This weekend is the second in the past couple of years when I've had two weddings on the same day. This was unremarkable 15 years ago, in Halesowen Parish, when four or five weddings was the norm during the marrying season. But now we have so few - three altogether at St John's during 2005 with two on the same Saturday, then that's the lot in a parish with three other churches!
The first was of an older couple, with some nicely chosen music sung by a local choral group 'Oriana', and quite a small congregation. The second was of a couple of London based yuppies with family in Cardiff. There were about 250 toffed up guests - three coach loads, being taken to a castle in the Vale for a romantic reception afterwards. They sang with enthusiasm, which was unusual. The bridge and groom talked throughout the ceremony except when making their vows, and when a friend of theirs played pieces from the first Bach suite for unaccompanied 'cello. That single musical voice was clearly audible in every corner of the church - a beautifully human tone to it - quite spellbinding. More solo 'cello next Friday when we have a full length recital by a 'Cellist from Switzerland, plying baroque music on a period instrument - one Ludwig Frankmar, from Basel.
After the weddings, we had the AGM of the Friends of St John's, bringing together thirty odd well wishers and supporters of the church for Evensong and a meeting. Afterwards, four members of the congregation between them gave expository talks on aspects of the stained glass, church silver, sculptured reredos (by W Goscombe John), and 'Willis' organ. It was an display of expertise which impressed and encouraged the gathering to realise that the church's artistic and cultural heritage is cherished and handed on by many pairs of keen hands. Which is more than I can say for the other churches. There's lots of work to do just encouraging members of different congregations (small as they are) to take an interest in what belongs to them and not just maintaining it or hiding it all away.
In addition to the three Sunday services, we had another 'extra', to welcome members of the United Services Mess to worship. The Mess is a unique Cardiff institution. It's a club for people who are either members or ex-members of the armed services, which has a bars and serves meals and does military banquets with great style and efficiency. An office I inherited from my predecessor is that of Mess Chaplain - it goes alongside being Branch Chaplain of the Vale of Glamorgan branch of the British Legion. Every autumn members come to St John's for a service of their own and then have lunch together afterwards. Despite being up late composing two sermons, one for the Parish Eucharist and one for the Mess members, for once I found I had enough to say to keep myself energised for a long morning, followed by socialising. I slept for most of the afternoon when I got back after lunch.
As we were about to go into the Parish Eucharist at 09h30, a very tall bearded young man, casually attired, turned up and declared that he has never been to church before on a Sunday morning, and would it be OK if he were to join us. He duly entered, and opted to sit, not in the pews with the rest of the congregation, but sprawled on a chair in the north aisle. He followed the service, sometimes with his own quiet but audible comments, and seemed to taking notes on a pad (and sometimes on a service book). He seemed to disappear a the end, rather than join us for a cup of tea, but when the Mess congregation arrived, he reappeared, and a caught glimpses of him doing yoga during the service, which must have been a bit puzzling for those within sign of him. He made favourable comments about the sermon, during the service, as before, then disappeared at the end without saying a word. What with him and our 'Oriental enigma', it's never a dull moment during services. As for our Chinese lad, he's made himself scarce recently, since Alex, the restauranteur from opposite, spoke to him in Chinese, and attempted to follow him, to find out more about him.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

On my doorstep - a national conference

No sooner than I had arrived back in Cardiff, three years ago, I was invited to join a small team of city centre colleagues aiming to organise a gathering of people working in city centre churches from all over Britain, to compare notes, and share ideas about the way forward for the mission of the church at the heart of our rapidly changing cities. The initiative was taken by Prof Paul Ballard, now retired from the chair of Practical Theology in Cardiff, and Dr Noel Davies, former secretary of CYTUN, (the Welsh ecumenical umbrella oganisation), now lecturer in Trinity College Carmarthen, both of whom I have known for a very long time. Paul initiaited me into a socio-anthropological way of looking at the world, as a prelude to thinking theologically about it, when I was a newly ordained Curate 35 years ago.

A sense of occasion
The conference was scheduled for autumn 2005 during Cardiff's centenary year, in the hope that it would help attract attention to the event, and maybe give a prod to Cardiff churches to do some thinking about mission. With an 18 month lead-in time for conference publicity, we had no real idea of how many we would attract. Fifty was the break-even number. We got over eighty. The Lord Mayor threw us a party to open the event in the conference venue itself, Aberdare Hall, just 300 yards from my house. This meant I could sleep in my own bed and didn't have to travel. The disadvantage was that there could be no clean break from work. I had to juggle the conference with other tasks which simply would not go away.
The 'Drawing the church plate' event at St John's not to mention the Conservation exhibition went on during Monday and Tuesday, required me to do some caretaking. St James' needed its gas appliances inspecting. Another caretaking visit required there. Also there was a Eucharist and a funeral on Wednesday and a Eucharist on Thursday to find time for during conference sessions. I was assigned two conference tasks - one was to lead the three night prayer sessions, which I found a most refreshing thing to do, even if the preparations kept me up burning minight oil the night before. It seems they were appreciated, and it gave me the illusion of being more involved than a really was, given my absences.
Talking of absences, I had to send my apologies to the City Centre Conservation Group meeting, and to Cardiff Deanery conference, meeting to discuss how to cope with a future with 50% of the current staffing. I sent a paper I'd written with some ideas about a response to the crisis, as a contribution to the debate, as I couldn't be there myself. I felt it was necessary to do so, although I have little confidence that any new ideas would be entertained. Churches in East Cardiff seem unable to cope with the massive shrinkage in church membership and support. It's a chronic problem of denial of reality.

On being disregarded
My other task was to arrange a visit to St John's to speak about its role in the city, and to visit the office shared by the City Centre Management team with the development team of the St David's second phase shopping centre, soon to radically transform the heart of the city centre.
The idea was to give participants a picture of how the city is run, day to day, and to invite the developers to speak about their project and how the management of change was being handled.
In the event, the City Centre Manager, Paul Wiliams spoke to the two dozen conferencers who came with me about Cardiff as a major retailing venue and about the new development. The operations manager Stephen Barrett also spoke about day to day running of the city, but there was nobody representing Land Securities - the developers - despite the fact that they had been informed of the Conference (their liaison officer Simon Armstrong, said in writing that he would attend, but didn't). They had also been asked to co-host this visit and respond to the questions arising. No apology or explanation was offered, either before or after. Worse than that. Simon Armstrong, and Paul Mannings, (liaison between the city and the developers) were highly visible the other side of a glass partition in the building talking around a conference table with several other people. I was very tempted to go and make an embarrasing scene, by asking them what stopped them from having the courtesy to at least apologise for not taking part in welcoming an important group visit, of which they had received at least a year's notice.
The heavyweight players, the City and the developers, are so big, so important in their own eyes, they seem to have no need to treat smaller entities with value or respect unless it suits their own needs in the exercise of power. Whether their intention is benign or ruthless, the ultimate effect of this arrogance is contempt for the lowly. Any management system, whether elected municipal or corporate investor directed behaving like this is its own worst enemy, losing trust and support which would be so easy to win.
Paul and Stephen work on the ground in the city, and do a tremendous job. They are very considerate of the needs of the churches - small though our public profile is. I was thankful that they were there, and welcoming, ever ready to put anyone in the picture who wants to know.
It was interesting during the conference to hear others articulating their problems with getting themselves acknowledged by powers that be (municipal or business), who consider churches to have no power to be reckoned with, nothing important to contribute to the shaping of society and its future. Yet, as soon as the corporate will or imagination fails, the churches get rediscovered as contributors of creative ideas and motivation. It's amazing how so much power makes the most sensible of people uitterly stupid.

A new beginning?
Anyway, to return to the conference, it was a positive event, not least because of the rich variety of participants from different denominations and across the range from conservative to radical - even to an agnostic theologian attending. At the end, the means proposed for keeping in touch and sharing ideas - easier than ever before - is a website, a mailing list, a discussion forum, a resource network in cyberspace, where people's stories can be told. Possibly, in the longer term a published book that could be a kind of text-book for students interested in the same things as us. Certainlty that's something Paul and Noel would like to see. There's still work to be done to sharpen the focus of ideas that attracted those eighty people to come to Cardiff, to create a channel of information which can be used and contributed to in the work of mission. Let's hope this proves to be a significent new beginning, for more than those who managed to be there.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Quite a weekend

Heritage Open Day
Indeed, that was quite a busy weekend. Saturday was designated a European Heritage Day, so that translated into a Heritage Open Day at St John's, with people from the Glamorgan Family History society promoting genealogical research and the church's own record archives open to view. The City Council's conservation team mounted an exhibition on the St Mary street urban conservation area, which just embraces the church - this runs every day for a week, a bit of an experiment, to solicit public views about area development. SPCK bookshop, and the University Hospital Chaplaincy did stalls, and the South Wales Artists Society displayed material from its nearly 150 years of archived records. Many rich and famous Victorians found time to be patrons and participants. The Society does a summer and a winter exhibition at St John's, and a prodigious amount of work by talented amateurs and semi-professionals goes on show and gets sold. There was a full rehearsal for the Duruflé Requiem, to be performed in church on Monday night - a nice showcase for the Organ and choir. We take our encouragement of the creative arts pretty seriously. The church tower was open for guided tours to the top. I took the last of the day with my camera, for once, and it poured down, so I got one picture only through a dirty pane of glass in a stairway lancet window. Cardiff drowned.

Family silver on show

The piece de resistance of the day, was having a small selection of our best church's plate on display for artists to draw - a 1574 paten and chalice, a 1662 plate, a flagon, cup and plate of 1820, plus Virger's wand and churchwardens' staves of office (modern pieces). These were set up in a side chapel with a security guard and an artist in residence. It's a modest commuunity arts project sponsored by funding from the City centenary celebrations. Those involved are taking great delight in the opportunity. They are repeating it on Monday and Tuesday also.
I think we have a moral and spiritual duty to encourage people to understand the church as a place where artistic creativity of all kinds is welcomed. In centuries past rich patrons funded the adornment of religious buildings. Today we don't have that knd of support, but it's no reason to be welcoming of those whose imagination is inspired by the peace and beauty of the place.
There were certainly more people passing through the church than usual for this special event, but we need to make it better known, more widely - and more accessible to the young.

Foresters en fête
Sunday services, we were our usual number, three dozen and a handful of visitors, but then we had an extra service for a convention of the Ancient Order of Foresters, a friendly society, with its own arcane rituals and vesture (a bit like the church) which provides mutual financial support, insurance and savings support for its members. There was a congregation of over three hundred, plus their own chaplain for us to welcome. Their service borrowed many familiar CofE common prayers, and most of the hymns were to Welsh tunes, befitting the occasion.
I had planned to welcome them publically, but in their eagerness to get their processional formalities right (the deputy Lord Mayor was there), they left me no space to intervene, so I shook lots of hands at the end instead. For much of the service, I stationed myself at the main entrance on the look-out for a frequent visitor to church these days, whom I needed to divert away from the building at least for the hour and a quarter celebration, lest a slight element of farce insinuate itself distractingly inot their celebration.

Oriental enigma
Over the past six weeks a silent wraith-like young man of Chinese or possibly North Vietnamese origin has been haunting the church. He speaks hardly any English, says his name is 'Ming', (we think), and comes from China. He behaves autistically, quickly becoming absorbed in some tiny detail only he is aware of, and ritually circumnavigating the church, stopping at certain points to sit or kneel with contemplative composure. When addressed, he struggles to speak the few words of English he knows, or struggles to comprehend. It's as if his attention span is not big enough to cope with more than a few sentences. He takes his shoes off, pads around barefoot, and sometimes leaves the church barefoot, returning later to pick them up. He is always clean, decently dressed and has a change of clothes. We think he says that he is staying with someone a little way out of town, and has to walk in. He visits our tearoom and the restuarant opposite, asks for tea, drinks it and walks calmly out without paying, and returns other days for a repeat performance. Like a child, at the mercy of the world and its ways. We are concerned about his mental health and personal security. The city can be an abusive environment at night, and on big match days. But he moves around, silently, unobtrusively, conveying almost no sense of presence. He can walk up to you, silent as a cat. You don't hear his approach, but he emanates no threat and means no mischief. He does like to inspect things very closely however, and touch things where normally people would restrain themselves. He goes and sits in the Bishop's chair, if allowed - during and after services, in full public view, unselfconsciously, silently for a few minutes, and then moves somewhere else to sit or pray. I wasn't sure how 0ver 300 middle aged to elderly guests would have handled the distraction, let alone the preacher, whom I had no time to brief. Ming, if that's his name made half a dozen attempts to slip past me during the service time, but retreated when noticed.
Later in the afternoon, when I had attended a service for Racial Justice Sunday at neighboring Tabernacl Baptist church, I returned to St John's to get ready for Evensong, and he was still hanging around. Alex, the Chinese speaking restauranteur of Piazza Italia opposite was there thankfully just at the right time, to address him, and obtain a surprised timid response that indicated he understood Chinese. He is so elusive that it has taken six weeks to get these two into conversation. I look forward to hearing later in the week if Alex got any further, since after their first exchange, 'Ming' fled, and then slowly re-traced his steps and hung around, as Iwas going back into church. Very cat-like behaviour. Very strange. Who is he, let alone who does he think he is?

Friday, September 09, 2005

About our 'wired' church

A new take on hi-tech

Had a call from Gordon Dalton, organising a Cardiff festival of Creative Technology – a new event sponsored by the Cardiff 2005 centenary celebration programme. (Check the website: www.mayyouliveininterestingtimes.org) This is bringing people together with a wide range of imaginative ideas of using various kinds of new technology for artisitic presentations, some of which are interactive. The call was to ask permission to project videoscreen images on to the outside of the church, as part of a city centre wide involving similar sites, and hopefully a host of adventure gamers using their mobile phone SMS service to interact with the game host. It's a text based game, with scenario borrowed from one of the classic MUD games, but 'indigenised' using the city centre streets as location. I suggested that we also had some good flat white interior surfaces for projection, and that project would be welcome to use the interior of the church also. Could be the start of something unusual in our relationship to creative arts. We already welcome many different groups of musicians and painters to use the church for shows. It's not a big crowd money making venue, but a place where creativity is to be supported and encouraged.

Marketing hindsight
This approach was made because word has got around about our church wireless access point, which has been running now for three months. It attracted quiet a bit of pulicity at the outset, from press and broadcast media. It was all quite naïve and amusing really, journos fantasising about people using laptops during sermons - a load of nonsense. The reality is that every day tourists from around the planet with 'wired' phone cams take pictures in church. Promoted well, the wireless hotspot could be of far more use to that kind of passing trade, wanting to send pictures home, than to businessmen on the hoof looking for peace, quiet and a good signal. I enjoy sitting writing with my laptop in public view at the back of the church. That way I get to chat with people entering. If must concentrate I hide out of sight behind the huge 'Father Willis organ', and work there. It's a marvellous space to work in – so big, peaceful and light-filled. The imagination can soar, and it's so easy to be reflective in this sacred space at the heart of the city's shopping district. We're so blessed.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

New term, new school

The new term begins
School restarted on Tuesday. For me, that meant a visit to both Church Aided Primary schools in the Parish, to say 'Hello' to the head teachers and catch up on the news.

This time last year, St Monica's Primary School moved to a new building, as Diocese, the County and the Welsh Assembly between them could ot come up with the necessary funds to renovate a 120 year old building. Falling enrolment numbers everywhere in Cardiff are leading to school closures to rationalise the available resources, except, it appears where Church schools are concerned. Rather than spend money on renovation, a plan was hatched to re-locate St Monica's in the surplus Infants' School building of Gladstone Primary, some 100 yards from St Michael's Church in our Parish. Gladstonians were not pleased about this and resisted the initiative, but in the end bowed ungraciously to the inevitable. The move was a great success, and now just under a hundred students, plus staff are happily beavering away in their bright new accommodation.

New school in old buildings
Part of the deal done to secure a new home for an old school was the sale of the old buildings. Ten months of waiting resulted in the purchase of the site by Cardiff's Muslim Educational Trust, for a private 'faith-based' school for Muslim children. Both Church schools have had Muslim children for many years, and are proud to be entrusted with their education. Everybody asks: 'does this mean you're going to lose your Muslim kids?' Answer - quite unlikley. The Muslim school will address educational needs of pupils from linguistic and cultural backgrounds who will benefit from not being obliged to attend another kind of school. When I worked in Geneva there were several campuses of the International School - very multicultural and liberal. But there were also private schools modelled on an English Primary school for newcomers, and Catholic schools catering for English/French bi-lingual learning. Some politicians and educationalist suspect faith based schools and private education, and would prefer a 'one size fits all' approach to learning.
It's an abstract notion of 'equality'. What works best is equal attention being given and justice done to the different kinds of educational need. It's demanding and costly, but kids are worth it.

The school sale released funds, not only to pay for St Monica's new building, but to pay for it to be re-roofed during the summer vacation. In the six weeks since the handover, the new Muslim school has also been re-roofed and re-windowed. This has attracted the usual neighbourhood racist style comment: 'Why is that being done for them, when it could not be done for us? The truth is that the Muslim school is being kick-started by funding from wealthy patrons, not the state. And so history repeats itself. A hundred and twenty years ago, Caridf's rich industrialists also did what the state would not do. They invested in constructing schools and new community facilities with money generated from coal and steel production. Our educational provision would not be so varied and excellent if it were not for such good-will and interest, yesteryear or today.
What's lovely is to witness the mutual appreciation and support being shown by the staffs of the two faith schools towards each other. I hope the educational authorities and politicians are watching closely.

Schooling the displaced
Our other Church school, Tredegarville (named after the titled industrialist who gave the land for both St James' church and school) is full to bursting again. The new intake brings numbers back up to 200. It's in an area designated for urban renewal (in other words it's a deprived area)
which soaks up newly arrived or re-located economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Child numbers can fluctuate by a couple of dozen when the cases of the latter are processed and families are moved on or expelled. It's the kids who suffer most from the insecurity, and they are lovingly and supportively dealt with by the staff. The most recent influx is of displaced Roma people from the Czech Republic. Before that was from war-torn parts of Africa - kids hiding under desks when a plane flew low or there was a loud bang. Over decades on its cramped site surrounded by tall buildings, the school has seen it all, and it thrives. Last year it had a first class inspection report, which would be the envy of some establishments in leafy suburbs. It's impossible not to feel proud of what is constantly being achieved.

Monday, September 05, 2005

What a load of rubbish!

Whenever there's a big match at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium the amount of booze and fast food consumed and the streets goes up phenomenally, so does the amount of rubbish. When Wales won the Rugby Grand Slam there was ten times the amount of normal saturday litter. Our street cleaning and waste disposal teams are brilliant and mostly the streets are clean and returned to normal again by the time the shops open next day. This doesn't apply to litter shoved through or thrown over the railings into the church yard or church porch. Too poor to afford a caretaker, church maintenance of this kind relies on the goodwill and energy of a few ageing volunteers.

You will have to go down a few steps into any traditionally constructed Parish Church dedicated to St John the Baptist – like going down into the Jordan, I guess – but a porch below street level is a magnet for litter, blown or thrown. Any morning after a match, whoever arrives first has to wade through a sea of paper and bottles, and then clear up to make it safe for others. After a Saturday match, that's my job as first in for the early Eucharist.

Doing this is a kind of ascetic exercise, resisting the temptation to curse those who have peed or spewed over the steps, tossed their bottles, cans, beer beakers, paper and styrofoam food wrappers, promotional flyers, newspapers, cigarette packets, gift wrappings and plastic bags over the fence. Empty sugar packets, cigarette buts, drinking straws and table napkins mostly get blown in. It's the record of a multitude of people's idea of a 'good time', both at their own and other people's expense. It's quite a challenge not to arrive at the altar of God full of anger and resentment at the world God loved so much that he sent his only Son to sacrifice his life for it. The exercise is also good for knocking on the head fancy ideas about the meaning of priesthood in the modern world.

When the Bishop preaches about God being present in the mess of life today, I wonder if he'd like to come and give a hand at 7.45 on a Sunday morning. And by the way, did I just toss God into that black bin bag?

It's a quiet Monday today, nobody chasing after my attention so I have a go at clearing the two smallish gardens opposite the Owain Glyndwr pub on the north side of the church, where people sit and drink at tables on warmer days. Glyndwr was a Welsh warlord of the 15th century who sacked the castle and burned St John's church in 1404. His supporters today would bury the church in a rubbish mountain, if a few conscientious volunteers didn't clear up regularly.

After an hour I have picked up another black bag full of stuff, enough items (including a pair of kid's socks and a broken up bunch of bananas) to suggest that more than a hundred people have deliberately tossed their rubbish over the fence. Often I watch people dumping within a couple of paces of a litter bin, not bothered to make the effort. So little pride in their environment is a symtom, to my mind of poor self-respect and self-discipline.

The city's cleansing department manager told me solemnly over the phone and repeated it in print, that it's city policy to prosecute people dropping litter. It's clearly unenforcable 99.9 percent of the time, so the statement is like a deadpan joke, except you can't laugh aloud for fear of giving offence. Nobody wants to examine too carefully what needs to be done to change attitudes and habits, so that people begin to care about keeping things looking good, and not just leaving it to professionals, who are stretched enough already.

There's so much individualism being expressed on our streets with aggression these days, that few are brave and confident enough to challenge persistent rubbish droppers to use the litter bins, and stop reducing the place to a slum. How is it possible to bring about a wholesale change of attitude, and re-introduce a sense of civic pride and responsibility that is universally accepted?

Sunday thoughts

Things to do on Sunday mornings, other than church
Today's routine of worship was distinguished for me by two things - normal traffic flow in and out of town was changed because of a 10 kilometre fun-run in aid of Kidney Research, in which thousands of people of all ages and types participated. This required closing off a broad avenue through the civic campus to set up a finishing post. Most of the run took place through Bute Park and the Castle grounds, and only the last quarter mile of road needed to be blocked. It wasn't difficult to get in and out, living as I do, just a mile from church, and there were diversions to accommodate shoppers and the few coming in for worship. Our numbers, therefore, were much the same as usual - nine at the early service and around thirty five for the 9.30 Sung Eucharist.

On unconditional baptism
At the latter we welcomed a family for the baptism of their nine year old child. They came to us, not from locally, but from the South East of England, where they had migrated from Cardiff. Mum had been baptised in St John's at roughly the same age. Ten days ago she shyly approached me in church, with her son in tow and asked if it might be possible to do the same for her son. It was almost as if she was expecting me to say no. She wasn't a regular church-goer. I spoke to the boy, asked him if he understood what his mother was asking on his behalf, and how he felt about it. His eyes were full of trust and openness. It wasn't a quiz. However much he understood at that moment, he was willing to go along with Mum's proposal. I explained a little more. His face lit up. In a later conversation, she told me how pleased he was and looking forward to the occasion. Mum and dad and the boy came with half a dozen members of family and godparents. Mum and Dad looked a bit awkward, uncertain. The lad was eager, alert and responsive, with bright eyes, quite at home for this momentous occasion in his young life.
The regular congregation members were wonderfully welcoming before and afterwards over our usual refreshments. For once, I didn't have to rush off and do a third service of the morning, so was able to enjoy a gentle engagement with visitors and regulars alike. I treasure days like this.
It would have been very complex and difficult to have insisted on 'proper' preparation and instruction before baptizing the child. I'm not sure what making people jump through hoops devised by clergy is really worth. Evidently a return to a church with which mum felt a personal link was an important and motivating factor for Mum, a way of re-connecting with her roots, following the family's displacement for work purposes 150 miles from home. She wanted to share an important faith experience with her son. She was brave enough to ask, despite whatever inner uncertainties she might have been bearing about achieving this aim.

I'm more and more prepared to trust the faith people have, and their ability to share it with those closest to them, and offer them what the church received to pass on freely, without imposing any conditions, insisting we know all there is to know about commitment and faith.
We don't. God is working everywhere in his world in ways we don't understand - even among all those who prefer a six mile Sunday jog for charity than attending Mass. But I have to admit that I don't really in my heart understand how this is a satisfactory substitute for living worship.
And I used to be a regular runner!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Who am I?

A Pleased Patriarch
I guess there are lots of people with unpublished books written. I've got one out there in cyberspace somewhere. I'll have to find the URL and post it. The second chapter is entitled: Who am I? Taken persistently, the question takes a lifetime to answer, I reckon. There are lots of simplistic sound-byte answers, and snapshots of me as I like to be seen. The longer you live, the more snapshots there are, and I'm already sixty. Time flies when you're having fun - that's also the title of a song written and performed by my singer-songwriter daughter Rachel: Her elder sister Kath is also a singer-songwriter with her husband Anto: and they have a younger brother Owain who's a techno deejay, producing his own records . Their mother Clare and I have been married 39 years and we met making music as undergraduate students in Bristol. I was ordained an Anglican priest of my native land Church in Wales in 1970. Clare is a practitioner of Eurythmy, a performing and a therapeutic art of movement. So I guess music and performances of one kind or another are all the kids ever knew. The wonderful thing is how much more creative and productive they have turned out to be than either of their parents.

Working close to home at last
We lived and worked in many places, Llandaff, Caerphilly, Selly Oak, St Paul's Bristol, Chepstow, Hales Owen, Geneva Switzerland, and Monaco, before returning to Cardiff in 2001, where I was invited by the Archbishop of Wales to take charge of the Parish of Central Cardiff, embracing the city centre's business, commercial and civic heart, along with the university and studentland. I have four churches, one colleague full time, and another part-time. The city centre has the second oldest building after Cardiff Castle, the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, founded circa 1080, rebuilt in the 15th century - a splendid edifice and ocean of transquility, right next door to the covered market, in one of the busiest streets of the capital. It's a centre for civic functions and artistic activities (see:- www.cardiffcentralparish.org), hospitality and support for local people. The church tea-room was acclaimed as one of the six best places in Wales to chill out during retail therapy last winter. The food is great, but the level of kindness expressed to all by the volunteer teams who run it is even greater.

To sing a worried song
Yes, I'm a proud of all that, in many ways, but I'm also a worried man, when I witness the dysfunctional behaviour of so many people frequenting our city centre at night, on weekends, and on stadium match days. I'm painfully aware of how the churches (and not only my church) are utterly failing to reach the hearts, minds and wills of people with a wholesome personal and social vision of what it means to be a free responsible and dignified human being. There's a great spiritual vacuum out there. I remain convinced that Christian tradition and creativity still has essential and life transforming potential to renew society, and make the world a more just and safe place. But somehow Christians have got trapped inside their insitutions, and have been pushed aside by the fierce secular materialistic propaganda that characterises a consuming and competitive society. No, I'm not anti-materialism. I trained first as a scientist. I resist the idol worship that surrounds both products and people, and thinks awe and wonder are commodities to be peddled for profit.

Nowadays I experience the depressingly painful marginalisation of religion from many aspects of public life. It is problematised, stereotyped, devalued by exploitative caricature. Religion as the uncomfortable quest for truth, authenticity, cutting edge reality test in a world of illusions is kept out of the public gaze. Fundamentalists of all kinds hog headlines - they are easy to criticise and heap contempt upon, in the dismissal of religious faith by its cultured despisers.

A death ignored
When Brother Roger of Taizé was murdered three weeks ago, it made front page headlines in his native Switzerland, but hardly made an impact on broadcast or print media here in UK. I learned from a Swiss friend's email a whole day before obituaries appeared. His sixty years of constant commitment to peacemaking through prayer and personal encounter, has touched the lives of millions all over the world. Roger was a personal friend of Pope John Paul and Mother Teresa, both of whom died in their beds with the world media camped outside their doors. Here was a man equally influential whose death was a cruel shock, felt around the world - but Madonna's broken collar bone got more media coverage. For me this is a startling example of how some of the most significant public Christian witness and activity of the past half century has been ignored. This is calculated marginalisation. It's an example of how Christians are being edged out of society by those who think they know better about what's in the public interest.

From the periphery
I've only recently learned about how blogging is beginning to influence news gathering and reporting, and is now a powerful means of alternative communication and information exchange.
Which is part of the reason why I've started this blog tonight, to reach beyond the few who remain in the pews, or read the church newsletter, with whom I share thoughts about life, the universe and everything from week to week. It's not me preaching, so much as thinking aloud, stimulated by the rich and varied encounters of my daily life, conscious that though I am very much a man of the center (middle of the road, middle class, in the midle of the city), my life stance places me very much at the edge of both society, and the church. Hence (I never thought I'd get there tonight), the overall title of this blog, 'Edge of the Centre'.