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.

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