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.

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