Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Something's not quite right here ....

Bureaucratic begging beef
Tiredness catching up on me, as it often does in the autumn, I've gone down quite suddenly with a dose of bronchitis this past two days. So, I've stayed home as much as I could, and rested fitfully. When I'm unable to settle there are always so many administrative tasks to be done that nobody wants to do but must be done. I tend to avoid doing things like this (along with tidying my study) until I've got down time, and nothing to distract me.
The worst of these jobs are applications, either for Faculties (the Church in Wales' equivalent of obtaining planning permission - a 15 page document), or for grants, either from the Lottery Fund or from other charitable bodies interested either in the church's work of mission or at least in preserving its fabric. Every agency written to for an application form sends by return not only its form, but a list of a dozen or more other charities one can apply to. They think they are trying to be helpful, but their message is - don't expect success first time, you've gotta compete for the pile of cash you need. It's the mark of the beast written right across our modern culture, and the institutions of the church oblige themselves to go along with this in order to preserve their past heritage. In doing so, it seems to me, we are forfeiting our future.
All these grant making bodies have different criteria, different kinds of forms to fill in, and information to be supplied. There is no single form that can be completed once and run past all, so the work is multiplied many times over. Competition for grant aid is huge, as churches once raised and supported by public subscription are now rotting away, due to their desertion by the general public.
To be fair, the public are very generous with charitable giving and give away millions whenever there' s major disaster in the world that's marketed by aid agencies to get attention and cash. Better really that money is freely sent to millions of poor unfortunates, rather than squandered on buildings which, however beatuful and inspiring in their day, no longer commend themselves for general moral and spiritual investment. Let's be honest, there are far too many of them, both for the need, and for that kind of expenditure on bricks and mortar not be regarded as obscene. But, the same buildings that are liabilities when in need of repair are also potentially assets if they can be re-commissioned for community service. That's what we've been attempting to do with three of our four churches. The fourth is modern, small and sustainable by its members with relative ease. The three are financial nightmares to run, and I often ask, why am I wearing myself out, performing, in effect, as a licensed beggar on behalf of churches incapable of sustaining all the glorious trophies of their past?
Many clergy like me are desk-bound by bureaucratic demands, simply unable to give adequate time to pastoral work. It's so bad, that the faithful nowadays expect little personal attention from their pastors. Clergy don't know and aren't known by their fellows like they used to be. It surprises me that when we are identified, people are still prepared to place their trust in us, confide in us. Do all those in need of any kind care about those forms and procedures which seem to be the lifeblood of so many in the world of work today?

Tragedy - in absentia

This morning, feeling poorly still, I went into St John's by car instead of bike and offered Eucharist for four 'regulars' (all over 70), in an unusually low and quiet voice for me, because of bronchial inflammation. Nobody seemed to notice, and all departed without greeting me, (familiarity foregoes formality) each going about their business - going up to the tea-room for a cuppa, or to buy their cards (Cards for Good Causes is now open for business), or going to the market opposite. I stopped long enough to apologise to Philip the organist for having to miss the lunchtime organ concert, then headed home and went straight to bed. After a few more hours sleep I felt I was beginning to turn a corner with the infection, and got up and began to potter around the unfinished tasks in my study. Out of habit (I'm news-addicted), I went to the BBC news website, and did something I rarely do, visiting first the Wales news page - I view international news first, then UK and provincial news after.
There on the Wales front page was a picture of St John's church tower, and Church Street below it wrapped in police cordon tape. A murder had taken place just after noon in the Poundstretcher shop not twenty paces from the church porch. I agonised about going down straight away, just to be there, to be ready to listen to anyone who might be there and be affected by this tragedy, not least our city centre constabulary. But my wife insisted there was nothing I could be expected to do after the event - life moves on quickly. It was just sod's law that I wasn't there where I usually hang out when the church tea room's open, 'being available' to meet people in and around the church, on a day when it might have been useful to be there, when there might have been someone needing to be prayed with, or for. Life goes on whether I'm there or not. So why do I feel bad?

Policing lament
The locality was crawling with police apparently. Only when they are very unbusy do the cops feel able to pass the time of day with others concerned, like themselves, for the health, peace and safety of the community.
Sadly nowadays, the Police don't seem keen to be on the receiving end of interest from pastors on the ground. They'd rather employ professional psychologists. Offers of support are politely declined with the alibi of 'having a police chaplain' - somewhere over the rainbow - no doubt.
Two weeks ago there was a national Police Federation gathering in St David's Hall with 2,000 coppers present. The first I heard about it officially was from a Sunday eight o'clock news item about a service being held in St David's Hall to commemorate police personnel killed on duty during the year. Unofficially, Archbishop Barry told me ten days earlier that he'd just received an invitation to attend, which turned out to be an invitation to preach he hadn't expected. Nobody thought to invite a city centre parish priest whose church is across the road from St David's Hall. I'd love to know which religious leaders other than the Archbishop were invited to be 'good community relations' tokens at this gathering. Not because I'd have been enthusiastically given up my Sunday afternoon with the family to attend, but because I'm interested in the 'politik' of the communications exercise accompanying an event on that scale. If there was police chaplaincy involvement, how engaged were chaplains in planning and preparation? Indeed, how rooted are any of our area constabularies among the people they serve these days?
I've heard there's a 'patriotic' move afoot by the Welsh Assembly to integrate all local constabularies into an all Wales Police force. Policing, like Army regiments, moves relentlessly towards mergers which weaken local loyalties, ignore history and cultural difference. Do we need this, really?
A couple of centuries ago the local Law and Order person, the Constable, was elected by the same annual Parish meeting that elected Church Wardens. There was local accountability for policing. It's now become so complex, technical and specialised, that being rooted in a locality, if it happens at all, is a management policy decision made by one section of a large complex hierarchy. It not a way of life. All too often police seem to act like professional strangers - more like soldiery than constabulary, because for politico-economic reasons they are forced to be part of bigger structures, whose scale turns humans to mere cogs in a machine. Policing, I've been told, is becoming more an employment option people make for a few years, rather than a vocation for life - it looks good on the CV, like being in the Army. Do we have to go this route? Is opportunistic commitment to our beneift? Is it inevitable that it continues like this?
If this new value-free cultural climate, affects 'vocational' professions, how will it impact on priesthood? I've already encountered speculations about clergy spending periods of their work lives in full-time paid ministry, then opting to become self-supporting (and vice versa), but in this free job market world, can we expect to see parsons switch from being Vicars to brothel keepers, game-show hosts, or papparazi, rather than the usual social workers, teachers or care assistants? The daftness of the suggestion exposes the daftness of value-free ideology. All 'vocational roles need affirming, celebrating and encouraging as lifelong commitments as paths to fulfiment worth sticking to. But in order to achieve this, there has to be some substantial challenge to the idolatry of the economic market-led world-view which seems to deliver twice the number of curses for every glamorous blessing it bestows. What kind of world do we want? Are we prepared to live self-sacrificially to achieve it? That is the question.

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