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.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Memorable weekend

Memorial concert
Continuing the weekend’s Remembrance theme, we had a concert in church on Saturday night to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem and other pieces by Cantorion Llandaf, a very powerful and capable local choir. There were about sixty people present. My enjoyment was not improved by there being problems with the church heating – the boiler was refusing to light automatically, necessitating two trips out into the churchyard to the dank and dirty subterranean vault housing the thundering monster. It is the first time in the three years I’ve been working here that I’ve had to double as boilerman, as well as host introducing the concert, as there was nobody else around able or willing to do this. Since the complaints came to me about the chill, I had to try and do something. Not very successfully. At least the weather is so mild the boiler is being pressed into service a good month later than is usual, all of which will shrink heating bills that cast a shadow over our bank balance. Finance is becoming more and more a problem. We’ve had quite an increase in activities this year, and a modest growth in regular average attendance but not in income.
The two churches in the parish that once were the wealthiest,
St John’s and St James’ are proving the least capable of paying their way – a huge worry for us all.

Cenotaph service and parade
A warm sunny Sunday morning, with only the early service and one Sung Eucharist to celebrate. Then I was free to be able to attend the Remembrance ceremony at the national Cenotaph in Cathays Park, just opposite Cardiff University’s main building. I was there as a participant for the first time. In years past my presence at a 11h00 service elsewhere meant I couldn’t take part, so the Churhc in Wales has been represented by Fr Stuart Lisk, Vicar of Ely, formerly designated Mayor’s Chaplain, but when there was a change of regime, the ‘Chaplain’ term was done away with, although not the role. Stuart remains a religious advisor to the County Protocol Office, and continues to help them devise a great variety of special ceremonies and public services - these days they are not only ecumenical but also multi-faith in character (as well as bi-lingual). Stuart does a superb job, and still presides on such occasions along with other religious dignitaries, in a calm sensitive way which benefits the occasion. I’m not sure they want to do without him, no matter what the politics. In recent years, the City has made more use of St John’s for Civic events, and made use of me to arrange events as well. I always invite Stuart to share the task of preparing and officiating. It’s good the City sees teamwork from us in public service and not rivalry.
The good weather brought out a crowd of over five hundred, I’d say, and an equal number of services personnel, who paraded after the wreath laying, City officials taking the salute in front of City Hall. I again enjoyed just being there, seeing people I knew taking part, greeting friends and colleagues, and slowly beginning to feel part of the place. It was all beautifully organised, and the ever vigilant security people were there, barely in evidence, but still necessary just in case in these turbulent times.

Entering the Mystery
After Evensong, with its preceding Remembrance Sunday muffled peal of bells, a brisk walk around the block to Cardiff’s International Area for a diocesan Eucharist organised by the Youth Chaplain and his committee. Around four thousand people were there, of all ages. The drab hangar-like structure had been minimally but suitably adorned to serve as a place for worship. There was a music group from the West Midlands leading worship, texts and graphics were delivered by projectors on to hanging screens to left and right. There was another screen over the podium where the officiants sat, displaying live TV shots, which was on times illuminating, on times distracting. The whole thing was a celebration of the mystery of God present in the Eucharist, with a lively sermon from Bishop Lindsay Urwin.
Archbishop Barry presided, and looked a bit tired. He’d been over in
America all week. Hundreds of people were involved in runing the event, as stewards, distributing communion, serving the liturgical event, running the electronic multi-media side of the event. The music was all simple modern rock-soul stuff, easy to join in with, more capable of generating excitement than awe. Many of the musical items, even ones which the congregation joined in with, concluded with applause. There were even a few attempts at football chants at the beginning, but these soon died the death as the liturgical activity caught attention through the striking and effective simplicity of the ceremonial. It was very theatrical, and it struck me that the creative approach to movement and actions commonplace in theatre is something the church has often given up on, preferring the set menu of traditional liturgical rubrics, and it has lost out as a result. Hopefully, once they’ve recovered from the surprise of an innovative event like this, many traditionalists will not be able to see the Eucharist with the same eyes again. It was a very happy relaxed effort, and the combined teamwork was a real credit to the organisers and made the occasion all that had worked and prayed it would be.
I’m not a fan of large gatherings of any kind, and I went because I thought I should. Two in one day – I must be mad! On times the sound system was overwhelmingly and disturbingly loud, but that was my only complaint. Yes, I’d have liked some music which evoked a little more awe and mystery, as Taizé chants do so effectively. And I’d have liked longer deeper silences, but to have sustained longer quiet moments with such an exuberant and excited young constituency would not have been easy. It was inspiring that the event achieved such a high quality of production.
Seeing something done so very well made up for the bits I found irksome.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

What a Mess!

An unique local institution
One of my public roles is that of Chaplain to the United Services Mess, a unique
Cardiff institution which provides a place of hospitality with bar and restaurant facilities for personnel of the Armed services, active and retired, in the centre of town. Mess members come to church for an annual service ni the summer, and I attend formal dinners to say grace. The Mess been in existence for over 90 years, and its first president was Lord Tredegar, who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, as a young subaltern. The Mess building consists of two upper storeys, opposite James Howell’s department store entered by a staircase – it was probably offices or legal chambers at one time – crammed with military memorabilia, a real treasure house for historians and afficionadi.
The ground floor of the building is a trendy pub. The site was once a glassworks, and its former name was The Glassworks. Why ‘they’, whoever ‘they’ are, changed the name to ‘Copa’ I can’t imagine. I guess it’s in line with the policy of evacuating all the character from a place to enforce conformity to the company’s marketing norms. The Mess is all character, unique, irreplaceable. But so it seems are its ageing members. Modern military personell move around a great deal and don’t get much time to settle in places or meet for lunch or a quiet evening pint in town. As a result the pub downstairs does the better trade, and the tireless chairman of the Mess keeps exhorting his members ‘Use it or lose it!’

A politically correct break with precedent
The Mess comes into its own on special occasions, putting on receptions for ship’s companies, or visiting miltary dignatories, and of course November is a special month. This year’s annual Mess dinner was on Armistice Day, with over 250 mess members banqueting at the Angel Hotel in the presence of the Duke of York, who charmed everyone with an entertaining and funny speech after the meal laden with toast, martial music and acts of recollection, full military style. It was an unique occasion in one particular way.

One several occasions in recent years annual meetings have debated whether or not female military personnel should be admitted as members instead of as guests. There are often members’ wives at functions in the Mess, so it’s not quite a female exclusion zone. But it is a club run by men mostly for men. Ties are worn and smoking is allowed everywhere. Redolent of another age altogether and entirely politically uncorrect, in the best stubborn old codger tradition.
However, Royal protocol had to be observed. Among the other honoured guests were the Chief Constable, a woman and the Mayor, also a woman. Even the deputy Mayor is a woman this year, so not a hint of compromise was going to be possible. To crown it all, the Prince’s aide-de-camp was a tall beautiful woman soldier in regimental scarlet Mess uniform. The honour of having a senior Royal visitor was enough for the committe to sacrifice the rules for this occasion. The next AGM will be interesting, to say the least.
I wish I had more time to spend at the Mess socialising, simply because the interesting people who go there, with many lifetimes of stories to tell of what it was really like to go to war. I feel something of an impostor. The only uniform I ever wore was that of the Boy Scouts, although as a teenager I wanted to join the RAF and fly planes. But that was before I got the anti-nuke message. Listening to many Mess members, I find most not at all eager to see this generation of young men go to battle. They still remember what it was like.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Hassles and opportunities

Last week I was asked to do a funeral booked at a time which clashed with one of my weekday services. The Funeral Director was adament this was the only time available on that day, and somewhat reluctantly I said I would find a replacement to take my service, as the funeral was of someone from the street in which St Teilo's church is located. This involved leaving a message and waiting three days for a reply, because my locum was away for the weekend. No sooner than I had this sorted than I found a message on the answering machine to say that the funeral had been postponed as the coroner’s enquiry had not yet reached a conclusion. So why book me until certain that the latter had completed his investigation?
Funeral companies are often so keen to conclude all their arrangments, they’ll hire anyone they can to conduct the service if local clergy, who might have a pastoral link with the mourners, aren’t readily available. There are fewer and fewer clergy around, increasingly stretched and needing to manage demands on their time. Funeral directors and clergy of all denominations would benefit from sitting down together and examining the problems of availability. Clergy would benefit from working more closely together in teams. I make proposals about this to my area colleagues, but they fall on deaf ears. Eventually, when our numbers are halved, necessity will bite, and hopefuly stimulate creativity. In France already where priests are in chronic shortage, trained lay bereavement teams accompany the grieving and conduct services in the priest’s absence. Will we go that way too?
Anyway, just as I was considering whether or not to stand down my locum, I had another call to cancel a meeting due for the afternoon of the same day, so I decided to benefit from this co-incidence and quit Cardiff for a few hours. Ty Mawr Convent, my favourite spiritual watering hole is only fifty minutes drive from home, so I was able to go over there in good weather, and join them for their tranquil midday Mass. So good to be on the receiving end in a place which is a real spiritual home to me.
After a few hours sunshine and a visit to a good friend on the way home, I attended the City Council’s Conservation Advisory Group for the central area, with its regular task of keeping a watching brief on planning applications for building developments in the city centre. This is an interesting group from which I learn a great deal, as its members are full of architectural and design expertise. If I am able to contribute anything, I guess it’s from the angle of examining the social impact of proposed changes.
My last duty of the day was to meet a couple wanting to marry next year – she from Portugal, and he a Cardiffian. I now have the challenge of facilitating a cross-cultural bi-lingual wedding service, for which I shall have to a) find and Anglican tradation of the Prayer Book wedding service and b) learn to read the appropriate sentences (the bride’s vow and the blessing) in a suitably authentic way. That’ll be quite a pleasure. I haven’t done anything like that since leaving Monaco three and a half years ago.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Remember in November

Praise the Lord we are a musical nation

On the first Saturday of November
St John’s welcomes Royal British Legion members from Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan for a Service of Remembrance and dedication of a memorial garden, in which crosses are planted to remember fallen comrades, in special plots marked by the different armed service units. Whilst the majority of plots represent the First and Second World Wars, Korea, the Falklands and the Gulf Wars are also represented. There are fewer World War Two veterans planting crosses now, sixty years on, but some are replaced by a younger generation of relatives, determined not to forget.
This is my fourth such event in Cardiff, coming as it does as on the first weekend anniversary of my appointment as Rector. This past two years, the ceremony has been graced by the presence of
Cardiff’s Pipe Band, finely attired in kilts, playing out in the churchyard though intermittent rain, attracting much attention from passers-by on a day when there’s a big rugby match at the Stadium. This year, for the service in church we had the St Athan Voluntary Band, prize-winners at this year’s national Eisteddfod, playing heart-warmingly beforehand, and accompanying the hymns with great warmth. Every face seemed to be lit up with smiles. The best thing happened at the end. The band came out to accompany the National Anthems, sung in the churchyard by all those who had planted crosses, and others who’d managed to exit the church in time to join in. Then the band and pipers went back inside and began a spontaneous jam session. They’d never played together before, but filled the church with a mighty joyous sound, of beautifully played music that made you want to cheer. We’ve invited them to come back next year and put on a joint concert, just for the pleasure of it.

Proposing a Cardif Blitz memorial
Last year I suggested that Cardiff should consider erecting a memorial to the 350+ victims of the Blitz in Cardiff, just to see if there’d be any interest. The Legion’s leaders like the idea, and hopefully this will get discussed and eventually take shape as a practical proposal.
As part of the St David II shopping centre development in the centre of town, work on the ‘public realm’ is envisaged as part of the general proposals. The church yard is currently intersected by an east-west path constructed at the time of the Victorian restoration of the church. The larger south section is maintained by the City Council, and for some years, management problems have led to it being closed except for routine work on trees and bushes – of no use to the public at all. The a proposal was made for a second east-west path in the lee of the old library building next door. The design would allow for two extra gates, new seating and paving to allow it to be used as a thoroughfare, be open daily, and used as a small park. This has been well received, as it will restore to public use a quiet open green space at the heart of the centre.
There was an early suggestion about a public art installation, but nothing specific. Since it’s a grave yard, I though that anything put there should be a memorial of sorts, as are all the other stones therein.
The buildings around St John’s were blitzed. One incendiary went through the roof and was dealt with. The burn mark is still visible on the tiles – I want to put a plaque next to that to tell that story.
Anyway it occurred to me that a Blitz memorial would be appropriate, so I started investigating whether or not one already existed. Recently I found a common grave with a memorial to some Blitz victims who died in the same tragedy, up in Cathays cemetery, but no public memorial to all. Eventually I am hoping a simple obelisk can be erected in the churchyard, and a book of remembrance (which the Legion are interested to provide) in the north chapel - a dedicated war memorial.
Last year the City did a memorial event for survivors. A local historian produced a list of victims for that occasion, so there is already a knowledge base for getting this project moving. I feel this is very much in keeping with our role as a ‘citizens’ church. For many years,
St John’s has been nicknamed the ‘Westminster Abbey of Cardiff’. It’s how people see the church’s role in the city, much more so than playing the part of an ordinary Parish church. Something that needs a lot more work to develop properly.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Technology plays in Cardiff centre

A new light on the church tower
Over the weekend the first Cardiff Festival of Technology and Creativity finally took place. Chris Evans’ text based adventure game was played out with mobile phone input from the public on Friday Saturday and Sunday nights. The course of the game was displayed using a video projector on the south face of the church tower, which provided a big clear 15 foot by six foot screen display on the wall. Interestingly, Saturday night it rained and the water streaming down the surface of the tower absorbed rather than reflected the light display and the screen became invisible – simple physics, unplanned for.
I caught up with Chris after Evensong on Sunday. He showed me his ingenious link-up of mobile phone to computer and video projector, in the upstairs room of the pub opposite.

The message is the medium or vice versa?
Then we wandered over to St David’s Hall where there was a huge sized video text display (used normally to display winners on racecourses). This had been set up with another laptop computer to receive phone text messages. Well, someone first fielded the messages and checked them for offensive content, of which there was relatively little. Everyone was delighted and intrigued when a marriage proposal was texted in. When we stood there a message arrived in Italian wishing Cardiff a happy centenary. It turned out there had been texts displayed from Holland and Brazil as well. How come? Well, apparently some of the weekend events were based at Chapter Arts Centre in the neighbouring district of Canton, and these included a live webcast. People with similar technical creative interests out there across the planet were joining in through the festival website (, and then sending text messages of greeting, to display on screen in front of the Old Library.

Learning through play – a new angle
The whole business of computer games is big business, and its development has spawned technical advances in the way usually it seems only war can do. Well, I suppose war is only a rather big and very nasty sort of game anyway in which nobody really wins). The idea of playing with technology sounds like the kind of thing that gives luddites nightmares, yet play is vital for both learning and creativity – not only in children but also in adults. Conventional computer games are one strand of development. Flight and car simulation programs can be fun, but also useful in training when they reach a high level of sophistication and are linked to real handling equipment. But it seems to me that there’s a huge amount of play potential yet to be exploited, where social interactions involving electronic media are involved. Think of how communication and word-play using text messaging has skyrocketed in less than seven years. Playing around with things imaginatively reveals hidden potential, for good or for ill. It puts us all on the spot when it comes to considerations of moral responsibility for the content of our interactions with each other.
Anyway this consideration was not particularly strong in my mind when I started wondering what else could be done with our possibility for putting interactive displays on the south wall of the church tower. I mused about displaying sermon text on the wall inside while it’s being preached inside, but rejected that as being as naff as PowerPoint in church. The PowerPoint subverted me from inside. Why not display a sequence of Nativity images in the run-up to Christmas? Chris and I started chatting about this. Then we thought, why not display Christmas greetings texted in? Why not sell advertising space for charity – like commercial breaks in between image displays. A few seconds of playful thinking had us the making of another creative technology project that may extend our opportunities to get people thinking about what that good ol’ church tower stands there for.

We live in interesting times, that’s for sure.

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.