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

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