Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A centenary banquet

A week off work, staying by the seaside. A chance to let the sea air clear my brain of frustrations and worries. A chance to catch up on life the universe and everything with my dear long-suffering wife, during our long walks and meals together.

Then, home Friday morning 28th, the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, to attend a civic banquet at Cardiff’s City Hall, in celebration of the centenary of the city charter being granted on this day 1905. There were three hundred and fifty guests. I had been invited to say grace, a huge privilege, so the night before I spent an hour with my laptop, trying to compose something suitable for the occasion. The result was as follows :-

We feast to celebrate our city centenary
thankful for achievement in times of prosperity
and endurance through hardship and woe.
We think of citizens past and present
whose labours made visible
all that gives us cause for pride and joy.
Bound by the spirit of good-will,
looking to the future, open before us -
for all we’ve seen and hope to see
all we shall enjoy as we share this table -
let us give thanks to the Source and Ground of our being.
To the One in whom all good things have
their origin, purpose and destiny
be blessing and honour, glory and praise
for ever and ever, Amen.

I’ve been asked to say grace at events like this several times in the past few years and am conscious in such public gatherings that there are people of all religions present, and none. Unbelievers and outright anti-religionists aren’t going to find prayers acceptable to them, but they are expected (without it being clearly stated as a public policy) to be tolerant towards those who wish to pray over their food. And in their turn, the diversity of believers are also expected to be tolerant towards everyone else as well.
To my mind, people with a declared religious belief have worship of God and thanksgiving as a common foundation, and for this reason, I seek to express a prayer in words which have a degree of universality in their reference to the One who is worshipped, rather than praying a specifically Christian or church sourced prayer. Maybe some devout Christians are uncomfortable that I don’t end by saying ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. To be a priest and pastor is to be an ambassador of Christ, to represent the presence of Christ, to be at home just as Christ would be, at a banquet. I ask myself how Jesus would have prayed, aware that on times his audiences were multi-faith. He gave thanks, he always pointed beyond himself to his Father. He claimed intimacy with the unseen unknowable God of his ancestors even more so than his statements, by his attitude radiating love and healing strength. So in seeking the right words to pray, I start from what people at the gathering have in common to give thanks for, then point to the One who is the source of our existence.
I’d like to think that any Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, and maybe many others of faith would want to do likewise, if given the privilege of being entrusted with such a moment to unite fellow citizens in thought and intention.
The Leader of the Council and the Mayor made speeches, appropriate to the moment, encouraging us to celebrate the past by looking forward to the future, affirming the governing policies in a way designed to generate good-will, not contention. Nice work, well crafted. Good-will, like trust building has to be worked at. It can’t be bought. Such grand formal traditional occasions provide a stable platform on which this task can be achieved. When I was young I used to think such things were pointless. Now I see the way that the diplomacy of hospitality on a grand scale can be a valuable force for social cohesion.
Also invited to speak was the City’s Centenary Poet, Gillian Clarke. In our best bardic tradition, she was commissioned to write an ode for the occasion. We sat together on the top table, a privilege for both of us, but also very practical for our 90 year old toastmaster, to have all his speakers grouped in one place in the vast banqueting hall. He was in grand form. I enjoyed talking with Gillian about the pleasure of being a wordsmith. Her poem was an imaginative entry into the world of the young architect responsible for building City Hall at the time for the granting of the Charter. The building is a great landmark of our city and her evocative words captured its beauty and solidity. What a great setting for such an important event.

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