Sunday, December 11, 2005

Crowded days

"Your busiest time, Vicar ..."
As they say about December. Having Christmas on a Sunday this year, with schools and colleges finishing term six days beforehand certainly has shaped December diary planning. Annual Carol services, concerts and social events all take place earlier, so the first full week of the month added three charity concerts for hosting at St John's, a 'Christmas' lunch, a publicity reception and one local government association Carol service to routine worship services, meetings. It all brings many hundreds of additional people into church, on top of those who come to look at the art exhibition, or to buy Christmas cards.
Altogether, ten special Advent events to prepare for, thankfully, not alone, as a small team of regulars has this year come together to work on organising and welcoming special events. The number of carols services is half what it was five years ago. Several institutions that used to have their own special carol services no longer do. I guess there are fewer volunteers keen enough to take on the organisational task. Nevertheless, the growth of charity fundraising events is an interesting and pleasing sign, four in December, and eight across the whole year.
In addition there were two funerals, one of them of Gordon my last surviving uncle, who lived in Cardiff. Of my parents' generation of my godmother is still alive. This sad occasion brought together the extended family from far and wide for a burial service and shared meal. I was relieved just to be able to join his mourners, and not to have to take an active part in conducting the service. It's not easy to officiate at someone's funeral when you yourself are mourning the loss of that person. When my two aunts died some years ago their offspring insisted I officiate, as their mothers had requested. The women in the family were supportive and proud of my priestly vocation, and said they prayed for me, so I felt obliged. The men in the family, by way of contrast, were respectful but ambivalent about having a parson in the family, following Grandpa's lead. They'd have been happier to see me as a scientist or, even better, an engineer.
The other funeral this week was unusual, in that the widower didn't want any music or hymns for the short crematorium service. He was from the North East of England. Under twenty people attended, so it was a low key affair. Without the usual 'backing track' of hymns or music, I found I had to focus much more carefully than usual on the spoken text. Maybe that's how they did it back at home. The chief mourners declared themselves satisfied and went away, chatting among themselves, effecting their reunions with neighbours and relatives, just as I had done a few days earlier.

Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?
One wet evening, when the midweek choir practice was going on, I noticed that two small plaques warning of a tow-away zone had been affixed in an unaesthetic way to the spikes atop the church railings. As these railings have a Grade two conservation listing, this was a bit of a surprise, as the church council is responsible for their maintenance and answerable to CADW, the Welsh conservation quango for any transgression of its strict regulations.
Also affixed to the railing with string was a laminated A4 sheet of paper containing a statutory legal notice of road closure orders, from eight in the evening till four in the morning, Fridays and Satrudays relating to the street in which I was standing, plus the two side streets from which it could be accessed from the main thoroughfare St Mary Street. All very strange, since a quick enquiry revealed that none of the restuaranteurs or landlords in our sector seemed to have been informed, let alone us at St John's church. If anything, the operation of pubs and eating houses could be more affected by this than the church - getting employees in and out at night, or rushing in extra supplies in busy periods, not to mention clients who need to come in by car because they cannot walk. Think about this I realised it would ban access for any Saturday concert, and this year for Midnight Mass. This year for the first time in five years, we'd taken a decision to move Midnight Mass in from St James' back to St John's, for the sake of hotel visitors, and hoping that Christmas eve would be quieter with early closing and curtailed bus services, so that revellers would not disrupt the service, as had been the case formerly. With three weeks to go, discovering that vehicle access to church would be barred was a bit of a shock.

For the next 48 hours I found myself additionally busy with finding out what had gone wrong, why there had been no direct consultation, why the legal procedures had not been followed, why someone had exceeded their powers by defacing our railings with their tow-away signs. I discovered that the city-centre management team knew as much about this as I did, and were not pleased to learn that another city government department had acted in their area of responsibility without seeking their advice and support. Friday night the ninth was meant to be the first night of enforcement, but passed without incident. Still no public notices out on the streets of these closures, making it contentious to implement. Likewise Saturday night, when we had a singalong fundraising Messiah in church (raised nearly a thousand quid). The unauthorised tow-away signs also quietly disappeared, thanks to a member of the city centre management team who knows the rules and keeps to them! We still don't know who got them put up.
There had been a notice among the classified ads in the local paper, relating to periodic closures of St Mary Street as a safety measure on nights when tens of thousands roam from bar to bar rowdily and often drunkenly, making everyone else's life unpleasant, and risky. But if our few streets were mentioned, the print was pretty small. I took down the notice, copied it and took it round to some of the neighbours, none of whom had seen it. Naturally, they are worried about loss of trade. Normally I get sent paper or electronic copies of every temporary road closure notice, and of loud one-off events near the church. I created uproar about the lack of information and consultation when I first arrived, as nobody seemed to know when anything was happening, and often church events got disrupted by road closures, or noisy music roadshows set up in the street next to the church's east end. The local government officers once told of our need to know have been diligent ever since about keeping us in touch. Except on this occasion.

All on the web somewhere
I have learned that it is possible to challenge apparent impositions, because the regulations governing the running of a city do allow for proper consulation and feedback. They are pretty complex and don't always get followed to the letter. Implementation of any policies and decisions is flawed, and thus always open to challenge if they threaten to impose something nobody who has to live with the consequences really wants. The regular habit is acquiese to the impositions of local government bureaucracy, and maybe write to 'The Echo' a letter of protest, rather than analysing what's been done badly and raising the necesary critique with people higher up the chain of command. Local government hierachies are always dauntingly complex to the outsider, but there is a real concern for good service and accountability among elected officers and politicians, which translates into a City government website that delivers all the information one could possibly need about people responsible for things, as long as you have patience and time to learn the necessary navigational skills, since 'services' not infrequently change their names, and the names of officers don't always get updated as rapidly as they should. The virtual city is as complex as the real city.
In the end it was possible to secure an acknowledgement of the problem of getting cars in without penalty for concerts and services - it can all be done by prior arrangement, so long as you know whom to ask. So we're OK for Midnight Mass - which starts at 11.00pm, if you're thinking of coming along.

Two nice things to close the week
Firstly, Lauren Turner, reporter of 'The Echo' did our Christmas greeting video project proud, with a page long report, including a couple of pictures and an article largely, thankfully, based on our press release, so factually correct. One of the pictures has me looking like a trimmed down Father Christmas - no I'm not that fat, and my goatee beard is trimmed short. She also reported the street closure threat to Midnight Mass and its positive outcome. Good publicity!
Secondly, I was driving in before the pedestrian zone closes at 11.00 to deliver some robes to church, on a Saturday morning. Stopped at the lights with a bus in front of me, I saw through the back window of the bus a beautiful young girl, chatting excitedly to a companion I could not see in the corner of the back seat. She was chatting in sign language, and her lip movements were visible at 25 yards. This little urban cameo, radiated enthusiasm for life. Also the sun was shining and for once I didn't complain at having to wait for the lights to change.

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