Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lenten trials and encouragements

How different life would be if church law required each parish to have an administrator to support the community and its pastor. There was a time when each Parish church had its full time Virger, who took care of both buildings and much parish administration. Back in Halesowen in the early nineties, during my stay, the last Parish Virger retired and was not replaced because the church could no longer afford to employ someone under modern pay and conditions. Managing a mix of volunteers and part time employees subsequently was quite a task, and not really a change for the better.
Getting a Lent programme together proves to be a struggle each year I do it. No matter how early I start drawing up a programme and recruiting speakers, getting responses to invitations is a bit of a nightmare, despite email, telephones and parish offices, colleagues are often reluctant to commit early to a set programme, not because they don't really want to do it, but because a lot more of us working in the church are overloaded, juggling times and opportunities, and almost fearful of becoming too tied down, as finding people to cover for absences gets harder. This is also a problem with making arrangements to cover absence on holidays. It absorbs time and generates anxiety.
At the last date possible for getting Lent programme publicity out on time, I succeeded, but with five Friday lunchtime lecturers this year instead of the usual six. I simply ran out of time to find someone for the first Friday in Lent. So we began our series: 'Spirituality for Today', with Monica Mills, the Cardiff Bay Lightship Chaplain, speaking about healing, and stimulating some good audience contribution.
I wasn't very pleased with the turnout, just over a dozen. Also the church was cold. It made me wonder why I bothered. She deserved a better audience than this. However, the first of the half-hour Wednesday lunchtime Johannine meditation services drew eight people, and the second today, fourteen. A woman came last week whose face was unfamiliar, though she said she was an irregular visitor. She said she had been reading some of the Christian apologetic leaflets I'd written, under the title 'Christianity for 21st century people', which she found in the tract case at the back of church. She'd found them helpful, and asked if I'd published any books!. This is the first feedback I've had on these leaflets in the three years since I produced them. I was amazed.
I told her I had a book on the Internet. She wasn't impressed or interested, but she did turn up to worship.
The book, 'Stones into Bread', an account of Christian faith for adult enquirers was completed in the middle nineties, re-edited to the bone over several more years, and uploaded to the Web over a year ago, after my few feeble attempts at finding a publisher had foundered. A few friends and family have read it in the past, including my late mentor, Dean Alun Davies, who said of it what he always said reflectively: "Interesting", followed by silence. I've caught myself saying the same about things in situations where I have been reluctant to elaborate. I daren't ask him what he meant by 'Interesting', just in case I didn't like the reply.
A month ago, someone thinking about confirmation asked for something for an adult to read in preparation, and so I handed them the copy which Dean Alun Davies returned enigmatically, which had sat on my shelf for three years unread. To my delight, it was returned a few days ago with a touching note to say that it had been there to read just at a moment of personal crisis and self-searching, and that it had been helpful.
Then a couple of weeks ago, someone else told me that they'd found reference to the book on this blog and had ventured to browse it, and had then downloaded it, printed it out, and read it. I was amazed by this, and even more delighted to learn that it had been helpful.
And it's left me wondering.... does this mean that the time is arriving for others to read it? Should I make a few more braver attempts to publish? I love writing and this blog has given me back a taste for telling of what I know and see.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Awayday in Broadmead

To follow up to the successful 'Church in the Centre of the City' conference last September, regional meetings of city centre missioners was proposed, and ours was arranged for Bristol. Five of us who had been at the conference from South Wales met at Cardiff Central station and took an early train to Bristol Temple Meads, then a bus into Broadmead shopping centre to assemble with others from Nottingham, Oxford, Swindon, Gloucester, Plymouth and Bristol at Broadmead Baptist Church, known as 'the church above the shops'.
There's been a Baptist congregation in Broadmead since 1640. In those days it was well outside the city centre. The old building was devoured in 1967 by redevelopment of the area as a modern shopping centre. The new building's entrance sits among the shopfronts of the main north south thoroughfare. It is a three storey affair with a basement, a collection of different sized meeting rooms, and a voluminous sanctuary the height of the building, to seat several hundred. It represented the latest thinking in liturgical architecture thirty years ago when I first visited it, and I was delighted to see how well it has stood the test of time.
The holy table, baptismal font and lectern/pulpit are all set in proximity to each other, and could easily be used for a variety of different kinds of worship. From each level of the adjacent stair well serving different floors a tall window permits passers by to look in on the act of worship. The solidity and permanence of the sanctuary is a reminder to all who come and go in the building (it is very busy with a great variety of daily activities, religious and secular), of its fundamental purpose, and of the relevance of God to every aspect of our existence. A good choice of venue, by our organiser Professor Paul Ballard.
We spent some time getting to know each other, exploring what sort of issues might be useful to address in future sessions. We looked at the outline of a publication proposed about ministry in city centres - well thought out, but still amenable to modification. Although mudane tasks, they gave us an opportunity to realise what concerns and experiences we had in common as Christian pastors and ambassadors in the realm of secular commerce.
Among the key areas of shared interest were, relating to change in big redevelopment projects (a new large modern shopping mall is under construction in Broadmead to match the one about to be started in Cardiff), change in the city centre economy, the night-time economy, how to relate to the governance and administration of city centre life. Pastoral issues weren't a topic in their own right, but really a dimension, a dynamic of all the bigger concerns attracting attention. We were Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and URC in denominational affiliation, and yet coherent in the sense of our engagement with the same mission. And that was encouraging in these times when it seems as if ecumenism counts for little in church life.
During the lunch break, I took my camera for a walk, as far as St Stephen's the one working Parish church of the city centre, which in Victorian days had eight or more. The fifteenth century church tower bears a strong family resemblance to that of St John's Cardiff, with the same kind of elaborate tracery around its parapet, although the edifice is narrower, and the church itself is smaller. Possibly the same builder was responsible for both. A far sighted Vicar and congregation back in the fifties built a meeting room extension in the churchyard, which serves as a café and place of welcome. Such a pity our parallel project at St John's was constructed inside the building, with its meeting place upstairs.
After lunch, Paul Orders, one of the lieutenants of Cardiff city council's CEO Byron Davies came to speak about strategic planning and development policy. It was good to have an overview of the world in which our work is set, interesting to realise the growing importance of cities as key drivers of regional economy in a long-term perspective being taken from the national government level downward. It's true that 'without a vision the people perish' but technological and social change world wide is occurring and accelerating at a pace without precedent in history. Futurologists try to imagine the outcome of trends, and their ideas are overtaken by facts on the ground. The bigger picture is the moving picture. And where is the church in all this?
We are currently struggling to envisage how to manage ministries and congregations in seven years from now, whilst local government is preparing for 2020 and beyond. Some strategic planners work with building a picture of our environment in 2050, with a changed climate and all that issues from that, to re-shape the face of the earth and the lives of maybe ten billion people on it, if that many survive the unknown side effects of change to come. It all intrigues me so much, I wish I could be around to see it all happen.
Meanwhile, I shall just look forward to the next encounter with colleagues talking the same language, for a change.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A St David’s Day worth remembering

How annoying for Ash Wednesday to fall on St David’s day, March 1st, as it must do every once in a while. Sensibly, our Roman Catholic neighbours in St David’s Cathedral kept the feast the day before on Shrove Tuesday. The Church in Wales calendar, stuck by its convention of keeping the feast the day after, the second day of the Lenten fast – silly really. An example of how rule bound and unimaginative Anglicans can sometimes be. Secular Wales and Cardiff commerce simply ignored the first day of Lent altogether and kept St David’s day with much pomp, ceremony and promotional psazz.

The Craft market, that comes at Christmas and midsummer, took up residence along St John’s Churchyard railings for the few days either side of St David’s Day, and there was a stages with bands and performances going on somewhere, I didn’t get to see. We woke up to a light covering of snow on our emerging daffodils. It was cold, but soon the sun was out. Quite memorable really.

The Queen came to open our new Senedd building, housing the debating chamber and committee rooms of the Welsh Assembly. Clare and I went down to view the inside last week and were much impressed by Richard Rogers’ simple light and airy design, with stunning views across the Bay. And in its context, next to the Millennium Centre Opera House and the Victorian Pier head building, it looks great. It’s built with sustainability in mind, and heated by geothermal energy. Expensive? Sure thing, but worth it, to have a striking building that really makes an effort to embody the values of a participatory democracy. I hope Her Majesty was pleased with the building.

Quite apart from the Queen’s visit, it was also a big day for the Army, to mark the merger of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, The Royal Regiment of Wales and The Royal Welsh Regiment into one new body to be called the Royal Welsh. A drumhead service of dedication had been planned to take place close the new Senedd building in the Oval Basin, a much used open air arena made from in a filled-in dock. However, uncertain weather predictions required a fallback venue be organised. At the end of last week I was contacted by the County protocol office to ask if St John’s could be used. I met with the officers charged with organising the service, and they made their preparations. Then, the day before, I received a phone call to say that the Army had been offered free use of St David’s Hall for the event – in fact, a much better option because it can seat four or five times what St John’s can contain.

Much appreciation was expressed for our readiness to assist and I was invited to attend the ceremony and the Civic lunch and tea that went with it. Since it was Ash Wednesday, I declined, but went to watch the Mayor and the Colonel of the new regiment take the salute at the first march-past of the combined forces after a quick snack lunch at home, before going on to share with Jenny in doing an Ash Wednesday service for the children of Tredegarville school.

Preparing for this school service necessitated me going down to the church late Tuesday evening, and setting out seating, moveable pews and stacking chairs to accommodate 250 people, single-handed. Not much fun, but there aren’t any able bodied people to call upon to do such vital caretaking operations. Two days later, I am still stiff from humping heavy pews around. It’s cheaper than going to the gym, I suppose.

The children were all a bit high from the snow, and from having their traditional St David’s day school Eisteddfod that morning. (not even the school seemed to care that the Church in Wales had transferred St David to the next day). However they sang the few familiar songs we used very cheerily, and were very attentive for Jenny’s story. Such a pleasure to see their bemused faces when signing their heads with a cross in ashes. They take it on trust, but whether they really understand what it’s all about apart from it being something special we do on this day, I have my doubts, despite Jenny’s outstandingly accessible way of speaking about the importance of this first day of Lent.

We finished just in time to allow me to get a lift over to St David’s Hall for the re-located drumhead service. However, Jenny’s car was blocked in by a van whose owner was nowhere to be found, and I was obliged to jog the three quarters of a mile to the St David’s Hall instead and got there breathless, just before the service started. Not bad, considering I am still limping from an ankle injury back in January.

The drumhead service was a impressive display of military ceremony and formal Establishment type worship, diplomatically put together. The chaplain general preached and said all the expected things, although it was notable that he emphasised the importance of the moral struggle, and higher values in the complex scenarios presented to modern soldiery. The Colonel also spoke very well. It was a bit like having two sermons. All the soldiers of the regiments were there, plus families and friends and members of veterans associations. A real family gathering, followed by a bun fight and beer for the troops in City Hall.

After the service, I made my way home, and finished my preparation for a short PCC meeting later on. Then it was back down to City Hall for a Conservation Advisory Group meeting at 6.15 in a committee room, with the background sound of revelling squaddies finishing off their little tea party. There’s was lots on the agenda but we got through it all in just and hour, which meant I was able to get up to Saint Michael’s for the Parish Ash Wednesday Eucharist and Ashing ceremony in good time.

The heating hadn’t switched on, the church was cold, so worship had a brisk pace about it – just as well with a PCC meeting to finish the day. We gave ourselves half an hour, and dealt with just one item of business properly, and I was home by ten past nine, finally to eat my evening meal cold.

An unusually full day, capped by the pleasure of a full page of pictures and story about the restoration of several stained glass windows at St John’s, which have been boarded up due to vandalism since last June. Haskins’ the glaziers from Kingswood, Bristol took a couple of buckets loads of glass fragments away in the middle of last June, and eight months later, here they are again, good as new. What skill! The first window was re-installed last Thursday, and the second on Tuesday. Monday evening I phoned Lauren Turner at the South Wales Echo, who did a good report on the vandalism, and told her the good news. She did an excellent job, not only celebrating the glazier’s art and craft, but plugging the fact that we are now fundraising for new window guards.