Friday, February 24, 2006

Night time economy and Christian presence

Today, the city centre management hosted a meeting of people interested in the issue of community safety and the night time economy in Cardiff – club owners, social workers, police, loca government officials and others – to hear a presentation given by Sister Wendy Sanderson, the Church Army Evangelist who is licensed by the Bishop to work in the city centre’s clubland, ministering among the staff and 70,000 nightime revellers who descend upon the city at weekends.

Officially, Wendy is a member of Central Cardiff Team Ministry, but the life of the Parish, even one as unusual and varied as ours, is so remote from the cultural and social life of clubland, that it’s difficult to inagine how they may connect. Wendy’s weekend work is mostly at night, and this precludes her from worshipping with morning time congregations. She lives in a neighbouring Parish, and worships there as and when she can, and draws her inner resources from being part of the community of the Church Army, which is the founding sponsor of this outreach project.

She’s been working in the city centre for over two years now. I have been involved in the diocesan group that oversees her work, and we have met from time to time at church conferences and meetings. I had no expectation it would be otherwise, and was determined not to make demands that drew her back from the diffficult challenge she faces. I made it clear that whatever useful support I could offer was there for the asking.

In her second year, the Church Army, facing its own financial difficulties began to put pressure on Wendy and her team to fund-raise for their own work. Not an easy task, even when you have access to a media relations office, and get a fair amount of press and TV coverage about the night time economy. One concern emanating from a long period of listening to clubbers was about the vulnerability of clubbers at the end of a night of partying, drunk, tired, needing to get home, finding taxis hard to come by, and at risk from being picked up by predators masquerading as taxi drivers. Wendy had the idea of opening a night time refuge where people could wait safely, have a cup of coffee, and if needed talk through problems with a friendly volunteer. Great idea, but where to start?

She came and discussed this with St John’s church committee, with a view to using church facilities, but it soon became clear there were too many risks and difficulties attached to opening St John’s at night from the standpoint of public safety. However, when she realised the Church Tea Room had two days a week when it didn’t open for lack of volunteers, she suggested taking on doing one of the days with her team. They did a few sessions of training with other teams and then got stuck in, raising funds for their own work, and evidently enjoying being part of such a successful little enterprise. In fact the extra day a week seems to have helped increase customer flow through the week. We only have Mondays to fill now.

When it was realised that St John’s wouldn’t work as a night-time post-clubbing venue, an approach was made to Ebenser Welsh Independent Church in Charles Street, opposite St David’s Cathedral, which has an unused basement, accessible from street level. After some deliberation the congregation there has agreed to welcome the initiative in their premesis. The Club Network team want to start with running a café there on Friday lunchtimes to promote their night-time presence and reach office workers in town who are likley to return later for a night out. Which brings us to the point of the meeting with all the stakeholders in the night time economy.

Wendy’s presentation was designed to solicit their comments and possible support for development. Her ideas were responded to with both interest and caution. She did particularly well, with both an unknown audience, and her new boss present, meeting her on the ground for the first time. It was clear she had identified concerns which they all shared, but had so far not addressed. There are also potential safety problems about the Ebeneser site. It’s quite a way to talk from the epicentre of clubland in St Mary Street. Aware of this Wendy has long wondered about alternative places for a refuge, but now for the first time was in the company of people who could brainstorm from practical experience about possibilities, and talk to her about accessing public funds interested in the aims of her project.

Because of a flat bike tyre and a chaotic start to my day, I turned up late and had to leave early to celebrate the midday Eucharist. Fortunately, I didn’t have anything to contribute to the meeting, except personal support. My co-worker Ian had done the ground work, made the introductions to the City Centre management team, and it all flowed from there. It makes me think that our city centre mission is really turning a corner. A real cause for thanksgiving.

My only observation after the meeting was the extent to which so many of the stakeholders in the meeting were saying in effect : “This city is unsafe in the wee small hours of the morning”. Doubtless someone may eventually pick up my thoughts and try to sensationalise them, and others may say “You shouldn’t write things like that because it’s bad for Cardiff, bad for business.” Well, it’s the business ambitions of a variety of entrepreneurs that have made the city centre into a night-time playground that excludes large sectors of the population who are too old, or can’t afford to stay out late and get drunk. It has created huge public order problems for others to manage. None of this development was ever ‘planned’, nor put through any public consultation process as the re-development of a third of the city’s heart as a new cathedral of commerce was ‘planned’.

The night time economy has just emerged, and is a reflection of contemporary consumer culture and its degree of prosperity. It’s a bubble which any prolonged period of recession would burst. Meanwhile, coping with the fall-out of success is a formidable challenge for public services and policing. And, it has been met so superbly, that other cities grappling with the problems of the night time economy are regarding Cardiff’s operation as a best practice role model. In the midst of all this Sister Wendy’s little band is a quiet voice of conscience and compassion on behalf of visitors who aren’t as aware as they should how to be street-wise.

Cities around the world are moving towards a 24 hour seven day a week level of economic activity in this time of unprecedented rapid change, dominated by the opportunities of global communications technology. Is it universally sustainable? Is there a potential for serious damage to personal and social health, let alone economic health, as a result of this relentless pace and lack of rhythm that permits activity and passivity, regard for times and seasons, so much part and parcel of our evolution so far?

Cities are unsafe at night because their essential functioning has not yet begun to be planned for on a twenty four hour, seven days a week basis. We are still far from running society in a way that makes no difference between night and day, although night-time is now commercially exploitable. It we did this it would have to be done differently from what is presently done - which is a concerted effort to try and minimise the impact and the risk to people who are active when the majority of society is at rest. Will this present development continue indefinitely, through boom and bust? We don’t know. We don’t yet have any answers, perhaps because we’re no longer sure that we are asking the right questions about what it means to be human in the electronic age.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Food matters

With Clare, my wife being away for the weekend, I was charged with shopping for our weekly consignment of organic vegetables from the (BBC Food program award winning) Riverside Sunday market, on the bank of the Taff opposite the Millennium Stadium. This week, I didn’t have three straight services to do on Sunday morning, so when I’d finished over at St John’s, I rode over on my bike, and joined the other browsers in the dank drizzly air, queuing sociably to be served with muddy carrots and parsnips, and Brussels sprouts still on the stalk. It’s no frills shopping, but the quality is just great. There’s also a fascinating range of local indigenous cheeses, sausages, preserved meats, different kinds of home made bread, and I couldn’t help noticing there was packaged venison, and wild boar meat products also on sale. The kind of things you really have to hunt for in Tesco’s. It’s pleasing to think that such markets make it worthwhile for farmers to continue producing high quality food products.

One problem of having so much manufactured food produced and distributed by the big supermarket chains on a large industrial scale is that it drives prices down, not only making it harder for primary producers to earn a living, but making it easier for people to buy more, and eat more than they need. Then they have weight control problems and obesity is denounced as a major public health crisis. Learning to eat less, and making sure what’s eaten is of better quality is quite a challenge. It means learning to limit our habitual choice of food, and not being bamboozled into trying everything promoted with enthusiasm and fancy packaging in the endless aisles of the superstores. It also means restoring the old notion of having a treat to those rare occasional moments of enjoying something new or different, rather than a treat being, as it often appears, an alibi for repeated self-indulgence.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The changing face of information

Retail Partnership thinks strategic

Tuesday last, the city centre retail partnership board met for the first time since the transfer of city centre management activities to City Council. Not a lot was said about what the team had been through - everyone present knew the score and took it in their stride, since it had been 'business as usual' despite the boardroom drama. The meeting returned to reflect on key issues for the retail partnership to engage in actively, a process begun 18 months ago.
Top of the list is the St David's centre phase two development - how to keep the city running successfully during the next three years of daily building-site type disruptions? Tied in with this is the question of public transport and parking, finding new ways to get shoppers in, as building activity deters them from trying. The city's Park and Ride scheme has grown considerably in popularity over the past few years, but the overall proportion of scheme users is only a fifth of those driving into town. Problems of access to the city by car, and traffic congestion due to poor infrastructure are already shown to be strangling the growth of city's competitiveness. Advocacy for improving city access is central to its traders' interests. Directly connected with this is marketing the city, as a desirable place for shopping, business and leisure.
Louise Prynne, one of the city's chief marketing officers was at the meeting to promote the coming year's city sponsored events. She mentioned in passing that building a City Centre Retail Partnership website was now under consideration. This was an idea I had put to Paul the city centre manager, just before the big crisis struck. Creating an service to promote the commercial life of city centre, and inform the public of access problems, sudden crises and accidents, special arrangements for big events, major sales promotions and so on, news of redevelopment progress, all this independent of mainstream media, and more quickly up to date, if the technology was right, would go a long way towards addressing the strategic aims articulated. When I expressed my delight that City admin. was thinking in these terms, Paul graciously inferred that my enthusiasm for the idea was infectious.

Broadening information horizons
Today, I met with my new co-worker Ian and his brother Glyn, who works on using mobile phone messaging technology as a marketing device, for an informal discussion, stimulated by Ian and Glyn talking about the information challenges coming at us fast over the event horizon.
I'm not big on everyday mobile phone uses other than urgent texts and calls, so it wouldn't occur to me to invest in using this medium as an information service, though evidently lots of people are prepared to pay for information they need delivered to them, to save them finding it out.
When Glyn explained what's now possible I began to see that a Retail Partnership website is but the tip of an information iceberg. Ten times as many people use mobile phones as use computers. Mobile phones can now be used to access the internet. All sorts of personalised services can be designed around the needs of mobile phone users. e.g. weather for outdoor sports fans, localised traffic conditions for delivery drivers, special offers for shoppers. With sat-nav capabilties in 'phones, such information services could be triggered by proximity to the place where the information is relevant. Wow! This isn't Star Trek fantasy, but stuff already possible. Glyn is an enthusiastic advocate, and doesn't talk mumbo-jumbo. So there are now interesting possibilities I didn't know existed on Tuesday last, for an integrated information service embracing the Web, telephones, public video access points all according to the identified needs of users.
Yes, there are possibilities for abusive exploitation, but what strikes me is that all new information systems rely primarily on trust and co-operation. Security precautions are necessary to avoid abuse, but they are secondary. Desire to communicate, to work together for mutual benefit is fundamental. Things that compromise or exploit that desire unjustly are merely parasitic - nothing that cannot be managed by healthy bodies.

Living with the Blogosphere

I feel I am learning new things about the 'information society', both from professional and pastoral encounters and from my rather geeky reading of newsfeeds and blogs. One day, one day I'll settle down and try to do some proper theological and spiritual reflection on all this.
Despite all the horrible things going on in the world the number of people working together and working honestly and hard for the common good far outweighs the number of villains and parasites, and just possibly more so than at any other time in history.
We have the means to sound out each other around the world and come to a common mind on profound and significant issues, before traditional journos and politicians wake up. Both classes of power-mongers are finding that they need to look at the blogs that concern their concerns before opening their mouths or putting pen to paper. Yes, it all happens very fast, too fast for proper reflection and consideration, far too often. It's a new challenge to our spiritual maturity, not to be rushed early into judgement, to debate openly, fearlessly. As Bill Thompson said in a recent article on the BEEB's website, ( blogging is changing the boundaries between the public and the private.
He states that when things are said in cyberspace the speaker is accountable not just to their desired audience, but potentially to the whole world. All desires are known, no secrets are hidden, for better or worse in the so-called 'blogosphere'. Fair enough. But in this new manifestation of the 'global village' there is nothing remotely like being silent in public, where one's silence is the statement. I have in mind a picture of Jesus confronted with the woman taken in adultery and her accusers doodling in the sand and saying nothing while the stone throwers lose their murderous zeal.
It is comment and dialogue that goes a long way towards debate that empowers people. Would that church folk would take this possiblility more seriously, and not fear it, since we are supposed to believe Jesus' words "The truth will set you free."
Yes these are very important influential developments in human communication, but they are not all. There are still things better left unsaid, moments when silence is the appropriate response. In the real world, this is easily understood. For years, I did telephone counselling, and a lot of the work done between client and listener was done in the silences which added meaning to what was said. Unadorned text, even text with 'emoticons' (awful word with trivial content), can hardly achieve what the voice can.
But then, we're not far off from an abundance of computing power that feely offers an alternative - write or speak your blog, see or hear it instantly, so that anyone can listen or re-read and evaluate your thought as easily as you expressed it, as if they were in the same room as you irrespective of the displacement of time. Almost as if they were inside your head ....
That's the point at which the inner will, spiritual disicipline, discernment, whatever you call it, is vital to enable us to retain our integrity. OK, we can run away and hide in a corner, and sometimes that's just what we need to do, but we can't keep on running and hiding, or we become slaves to our fear. It's truth, explored and discovered in the revelation that comes through dialogue that sets us free.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Swings of the pendulum

Yesterday, I had a visit from Alison Bunyan, British Telecom's PR manager for Wales. She was responsible for the campaign surrounding the installation of the St John's wireless internet access point last summer. She brought a colleague with her from North Wales, who is interested in developing a link between a similar wireless acess point installed in a public telephone box, and the chapel it is located next to. He hadn't yet approached the church's leadership, but was looking for some angles of approach. It seems the church in question has some young people's activity on a regular basis, so if that's the case, the potential is enormous - well, the kids will see it before the adults will, no doubt.
In missionary thinking, back in the seventies, we used to speak a lot about 'the world dictating the agenda', meaning that mission is a purposeful response to what is happening in society. It was necessary to emphasise this at a time when many churches, even whole denominations found it difficult to engage in any way with modernity. It's far from being the whole picture, as we discovered. If Christians only respond to what is going on around them and do not listen to what is going on within themselves, they are in danger of being nothing other that social and political activists.
Christians contribute to the human social agenda as well as respond to its challenges. Telling the story of Jesus and the church, in advocacy of the unique model of humanity and relationship, which is the Body of Christ, is at the heart of their reason for being. Spirituality and prayer centred life in relation to God, cultivated as a way of being and becoming authentically human is equally an essential agenda item which the church proposes to the world. Maintaining the balance between right response to the world, evangelism and spirituality is always challenging because life is constantly changing. So, we have this tendency, like a pendulum to oscillate between extremes - being totally outward and other centred or totally inward and disregarding of what goes on around us. It's interesting to observe that the 9th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches taking place in Puerto Alegre Argentina in the coming week is focussing on the renewal of ecumenical spirituality, after several decades of engagement with many of the great social challenges of the age, in a way that, to the casual observer might make it appear to be like a religious version of the United Nations. A closer look would always reveal a considerable amount of deep theological reflection and spiritual thinking, but now this seems to be ascending in priority - as it should, given that it is what religious communities uniquely have to contribute to the world health and peace.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Making the future our business

It's ten days since Archbishop Barry came to the Deanery Clergy chapter to explain how the reduction of clergy numbers across the Church in Wales is being tackled, and how this affects Cardiff. In several years time there will only be 13 full time posts for twenty odd parishes. Nobody is happy about this, but we don’t see to be able to agree thow we might transform this problem into an opportunity to renew the churches’ mission across the eastern half of the city. So few clergy seemed to have anything fresh to contribute to the discussion. Jenny was outspoken in expressing her frustration at being stuck with things that divide us – chiefly ministry of women, but also clerical territorialism. Thinking seems inhibited by expectations based on how things were rather than how they are. If good things happen it is despite the past not because of it, and that makes me sad, because the wonderful missionary enterprise of our forebears in no less difficult circumstances than ours, is like a reproach to us.
Maybe if clerics were all voluntary and unpaid, like the laity, we’d look at things differently. But as it is, clergy have vested interests to preserve - tied houses, salaries, pensions. Yet it’s clear these things are coming to an end, because in the long run the present economy of the church is unsustainable. Our parish is only able to meet its financial obligations towards clergy pay (it nearly failed last year) if it disposes of two houses it part owns and maintains for assistant clergy we can no longer afford. We’ve been warned that this seriously compromises future provision for full-time ministry, but for us, the future is already with us.
We are fortunate that Jenny lives in her Minister husband’s Manse, so that her accommodation needs don’t add to the current financial worries of the parish. We are a year overdue in receiving a response to my urgent request for a diocesan review of the role of St John’s in the life of the city and diocese, having already warned that it has turned from being a financial power house for the parish into a needy creature, struggling to pay its way, because of the sheer size of its running costs, and the demands of being such a public building. Without the work of oue tea-room volunteers the churhc would have had to close years ago. But it remains open and exercising a vital ministry of hospitality and care in town, enjoyed by people from all over the diocese. We have development plans, but nobody really seems interested is listening to what we have to say. Which is sad, because we need the challenge, we need a critique of our vision to strengthen it.
Regardless of this, we won’t stop looking to the future. How we manage in seven years time with much less clergy is not nearly as interesting to consider as the question of how
St John’s will fare as a place of Christian mission in 2020, or 2050. We’re going to start planning an investment in geothermal energy to heat churches, given that solar panels will be rejected as unaesthetic by building conservationists. It’s hugely expensive now, but the Welsh Assembly’s new building down the Bay has set a good example by going geothermal. I’d like to see our big churches go the same way. The capital outlay is frighteningly huge, but the soaring costs of other forms of energy could become a decisive factor in whether or not keeping such a large public building open is sustainable for use, whether run by the Church in Wales or surrendered to others.
Our Tea-Room facilities are inadequate for their purpose, and it’s a triumph of popular demand over inconvenience that it is such a success. We’d like to remove the vestry block entirely, and re-partition the South aisle, retaining the
St John chapel and using glazing with toilets, kitchens and restaurant facilities on the ground floor, topped by an upper storey containing vestry and storage areas. It would cost millions, no doubt, because of the problems of demolition, and protecting all the older features of the building. Yet, if that were to be undertaken, it would transform the building, enhancing it and making it more functional as a place of hospitality and worship.
Looking back over the past few years, it’s clear there are an abundance of ways in which the building can serve the people of
Cardiff, and retain a role as the warm prayerful heart of the city where all are welcomed. It’s a huge amount of work though, and those with the vision and the heart cannot do this on their own. Nothing will prevent them from making the first steps, alone if necessary. There’s no standing still when our hearts are fixed on ensuring St John's remains a key asset to city centre mission for generations to come, and we believe this is what God challenges us to do.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Death of an Initiative

During this week, the city quietly weathered a potentially serious crisis. Undisclosed financial problems caused the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce to shut down the operations of Cardiff Initiative, a company run in partnership with the Council, which runs the tourist enquiry offices, hotel booking systems, marketing and promotion of Cardiff as an international venue for sport, tourism and business, also the city centre management team. Thirty five staff were simply sent home on Friday evening, informed without ceremony by their CEO, Russell Goodway, former city Council leader, that the operation was being shut down and all were being made redundant. In effect they were shut out of their workplace - a decision to which the city centre manager Paul Williams took strong exception.
While he was absent from his office attending the meeting, all the computer equipment his team relied upon for their everyday work in keeping the city's commerce and streets humming smoothly was removed.. But that didn't stop them turning up and carrying on as usual, using their own personal equipment. Paul defied Goodway. "I'm not staying home", he told him, "I have a duty to this city, and it'll be business as usual no matter what you say." He was not alone in thinking that the way in which this affair had been handled was inappropriate and damaging to a successful enterprise. Financial problems in business organisations are not unusual when there have been large un-anticipated funding cuts. Senior management is there to defend their organisation, by every means possible other than dismantling. Admittedly nobody knows what went on the the background beforehand, the staff didn't. The idea that they might have been able to participate in tackling difficulties, rather than treating them as disposable commodities fails to commend Goodway's management style.
The Monday morning after, the Council's executive leadership team met with Initiative staff, re-engaged them all temporarily and re-deployed various parts of the operation in City Hall or the Bay. A new body is to be created to generate financial support for this work which essential to the success of Cardiff's hotels and businesses. The city centre management team are still in their offices, waiting for new computer equipment to be delivered, and getting used to the ramifications of being Council employees, at least for the next few months. I sincerely hope that Paul and his team's loyalty to the City is noticed and honoured. He has, of course, made himself vulnerable to vendetta should there be another change of political régime in the next decade. Let's just hope that Cardiffians will regard as un-electable anyone prepared to show inhumanity and ruthlessness in exercising public office.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thinking about Partnership

Last week also, the day 'God on Mondays' restarted, while all the crisis of Cardiff Initiative's demise was being played out, I was due for a meeting with the City's Chief Executive, Byron Davies and several of his colleagues, to discuss issues about religious comunities' participation in planning consultations. On the day he stood me up, as he had another engagement with Welsh Assembly officers, but as I was aware of all those other things going on about which little was being publicly said, I wasn't miffed. In fact, I had a very worthwhile meeting with one of the County’s senior cabinet officers, Emyr Evans who takes the lead in matters of community planning and he would have been there anyway.
After several years of nagging from me, city officials are privately admitting there are flaws in the engagement of religious communities in city development planning, shaping our social future, and this is now being acknowledged as a weakness. We pored over detailed survey reports on community facilities together, and could see that although religious communities were indeed providing services to their localities, there was no specific data on all the city’s hundreds of churches and prayer halls, and no way of assessing the scale of their social contribution, except for big educational stakeholders like the Church in Wales and the Roman Catholic Church.
If there’s no social mapping that recognises the contribution of religious communities, nobody thinks to include them, or to consider what they offer and ask how this could be made better use of, how working together on social projects could be improved, all of which is easier when there is information to hand. I’m hoping that this will lead to some research whose fruit will be more positive engagement of religious communities by the City and County in its planning.
This meeting was intended also to address difficulties of local businesses in the neighbourhood of St John’s church, due to proposed new parking restrictions. It was only touched upon as part of a preview of proposals for new transportation infrastructure in the city centre zone, still being worked out, not yet fully tested against reality. Public meetings on this are supposed to happen in March, so it wasn't possible to go into those problems in any detail, except to point out that the process of consultation about changing regulations affecting many people's lives and work had become disjointed.
Almost a week after this meeting, a repeat traffic closure order notice went up on half a dozen lamp posts around St John's and the Hayes, repeating what was issued on Jan 11, giving objectors until March 2 to act. Neither I, nor anybody I’ve spoken to has had their objections to the traffic order acknowledged, so we don’t know if we have to object again on a monthly basis, to fend off the unacceptable closures, or whether this merely extends consultation time.
Perhaps the officers involved in this believe that every citizen should know the procedures of the Town and Country Planning Act by heart, as well as patrol the streets reading the small print of notices attached to lamp-posts to ensure that democracy is upheld. Or have they a right we don’t know about, to try and slip controversial impositons through while Mr Average is inattentive? Running a city and getting it right is a huge and complex task, and when you look at it closely it seems as if many components have a life of their own, and don't find communicating with other components, and harmonising actions something that comes naturally. It requires determined political leadership and vision to oblige and enthuse everyone to work together despite their differences. It also requires re-education to move people towards co-operation as a modus vivendi, rather than competition. And anything said here about a city can equally be applied to the church, within denominations and between them.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Beginnings and ends

‘God on Mondays’ Part two

Last week at St James' church we re-launched our informal worship and teaching session for Tredegarville school children, their parents and staff. It’s pleasing that post-Christmas, people still want to come along. Jenny and I are encouraged to plan now for a further series, throughout Lent. It’s a slow task, getting to know those who come, and building up relationships. We’ve got members of the regular congregation supporting us with gifts of food for the refreshments with which we welcome the congregation after school finishes, and one or two of the parents are bringing things as well. Though we haven’t included the ritual of taking a collection in the service, we get asked about it, and now a styrofoam cup has appeared with Donations scribbled on the side, and money is given. The only hassle we have is arriving to find the church car park blocked up with unauthorised vehicles from the building site next door. So, we block them in and go about our business, only to see a worried face in work clothes appear when we are in full flow, anxious to get out. We make them wait until we’ve finished. There’s plenty of alternative parking 200 yards away they can pay for, and those creating the jam in our parking lot aren’t paying either. Serves them right for taking advantage.

A community remembers
At St John’s we’ve had two big memorial services and a large funeral in the course of a week. The first memorial service was for Roger Morgan a former Bristol Channel pilot, described by everyone as a larger than life character. After a life on the ocean, he retired to the high plateau south of Madrid, as far as he could get from water, cold and fog, and thee he died three years later. There were 250 people in church from the maritime community, some from the USA, one from Sweden, and all around Britain. The singing was lusty, and his larger than life son gave a hilarious tribute to his father, ending with a minute’s applause and three cheers. It was quite uplifting. I couldn’t resist using the Psalm 107 passage about those who go down to the sea in ships and brave the storms, and the Gospel of Jesus stilling the storm. It struck me how often in rough coastal waters, ships crews unfamiliar with the area must be swamped with terror, and look to the ship’s pilot for reassurance, just as the disciples looked to Jesus. The engagement of trust runs right through our lives, and those who are trustworthy honoured by those who depend upon them. Even though we live in a climate of distrust, bred by security preoccupations of the ‘war on terror’ (ridiculous non sequitor) we cannot survive unless there are people we can trust, and unless there are areas of our lives where trust can be built and rebuilt in the light of our failures.

Another community remembers
Our second memorial service, at noon on Sunday, was for the Royal British Legion (of which I am county chaplain) to honour the memory of Major Bernard Schwartz, an outstanding Cardiffian in every sense, who had led the Armistice Day veterans’ parade annually for over 50 years, immaculate always in pinstripe suit, bow tie and a characteristic brown bowler hat, with furled umbrella. I was delighted to see his successor as parade marshal turn up in Bernard’s bowler hat – a bequest from the family. His hat goes marching on. He had been a succesful local businessman, and president of the Synagogue, as well as being active in the RBL’s fundraising. He ended his war as the only Jewish officer serving in the Arab league in the Middle East. Extraordinary. Two hundred people turned up including a couple of dozen family and synagogue members. Devising the service was an interesting challenge. But with the Psalms and the Scriptures of the Old Testament to draw from, and a few theistic hymns, it was possible to offer a celebration that respected Bernard’s tradition and Christian tradition. I used a Jewish mourners’ prayer and the Aaronic blessing, and just before the service, had the inspiration to put out our seven branched candelabra (a gift from a young Indian Christian computer programmer who worshipped with us while he was seconded to Cardifffor two years). I lit it with a Blessing of the Light at the start of the service. The current Synagogue president, Alan Schwartz rushed up to me after the Legion’s flags had been paraded out of church and shook my hand warmly with congratulation for such an appropriate form of service. That meant a lot to me. So much of what I get to do on occasions like this is highly conventional. Indeed, there's a book of ceremonial prescribed for British Legion events. It's taken seriously and done well. For once, the person and the occasion were unconventional and that enabled me to risk doing things just a bit differently. I was pleased that everyone seemed pleased with the worship as well as the ceremonial

Yet another community remembers
The week ended with the funeral of Doug Langley who had been prominent and active as a member of the Welsh Football Association, and also former organist of St Michael’s in our Parish. So this time it was the footballing fraternity gathering in remembrance, 150 of them. David Collins, General Secretary, of W.F.A gave a eulogy, which again described one of these towering energetic characters who touch so many different lives with their inspiration and leadership. He began his speech ‘
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen’ which surprised me. I’d never heard that before in a eulogy. He ended saying : ‘May he rest in peace and rise in glory.’ and was very confident in his use of these words – confident in his own faith, I suspect, as he was confident in speaking about the deceased’s faith in young people.
Reflecting on these three different events, I was struck yet again by how few people attending I recognised, with the exception of British Legion officials and members that I see at a variety of different events throughout the year. The role of a city church is to be a gathering point for celebrations that bring people together from far and wide. It could easily be as impersonal as a crematorium, but it isn’t because, at least in our era, a great many people have some thread of their personal histories that connects with this particular church, from the days when the centre was populous,and huge numbers of people came for weddings, baptisms and funerals. In another generation, those links will have mostly withered away, and people’s sense of identification and belonging will be far weaker, if it exists at all. I get calls from researchers into family history, keen to piece together the story of those who’ve before them, in their own attempt to work out where they fit in the scheme of human existence. The pattern of data will look very different in the future, much more complex, now that family life is far less stable and more fragmented, people are more mobile and the record of their presence in the community, of which the church has been a custodian for five centuries or so, growing more patchy as religious identity ceases to be a connecting feature of the heart of our culture

Monday, February 06, 2006

Another apology

Well, I’ve spent ten days wondering why I bother expending creative energy on this journal, risking the possibility of offending people I hold in high esteem and affection. It’s been hard to keep quiet because these have been interesting days, not least because of those in the news who ‘publish and be damned’, and succeed making things worse for the world.

Danger lurks in instant electronic media of disconnecting yourself from the consequences of your output, of forgetting the importance of discretion and respect, for retaining full humanity and not being destructive towards others. There are things that are better left unsaid, and there is also a time to voice issues of concern even though the impact will be painful, misunderstood and provoke a negative reaction.

Disciplining oneself to take time for discernment of what needs to be said is essential when means of communication are so instant and impersonal. Religion like sexuality is an area where everyone is vulnerable, sensitive, defensive. Both are areas where the search for truth must be pursued, however difficult. It’s worth the time and effort taken to say only what really needs to be said, no matter what pressures are on us to react instananeously.

It would be possible to take refuge in silence, (on the grounds that in the realm of the ‘powers that be’ nothing I have to say makes any difference to what happens), or just to keep diary thoughts to myself (to be used only by my heirs for entertainment when I am beyond influencing things). I have journalled privately in appalling longhand during significant periods of my life, also during travels and retreats. This helped me sort myself out, give account of myself to myself, as I prepared to open up to another. No need to publish any of that, apart from the odd worthy poem or prayer - if I ever get around to doing so. When I started this blog, what was different about writing it was giving account of my thoughts in public, irrespective of who might read it, for good or ill. Some who write blogs do so because they have a political or commercial axe to grind, and an audience willing to trawl their thoughts for news. That's not my intention.

Publishing thoughts about being a pastor in a church enduring crisis, for better and worse, isn’t newsworthy. This is not about My Truth. It’s my story, I'm not ashamed of it. However flawed, it's an offering in witness to the One whose truth is a light shining in the mess and darkness of this world.

Even if nobody reads what I write, writing as if all the world heeds my every word is a discipline and a challenge to do what is right and good and true. There’s no guarantee I'll succeed, but I hope it is possible to learn from my mistakes. How much dare I speak of the search for truth that embraces darkness and light as anambassador of Christian faith in a world that seems more interested in darkness than light? What does it mean for me to be guided by discretion and respect for others, wanting to tell it the way it really is, so that all can hear and respect the real struggle for life in today’s church? Somewhere in these questions the ancient struggle to overcome the passions and live for God is still hidden.

Bear with me – I have more to tell about everyday events at the Edge of the Centre. Keep watching this space.