Monday, July 31, 2006

What if the Pope came to Minny Street?

Friday to Saturday evening I spent with a bible study group from Pontyclun Parish, who invited me to lead their annual retreat focussing on the Acts of the Apostles. This took place at Trefeca out in the Powys countryside, an hour and a half north of Cardiff. This was once the home of Hywel Harris, one of the great Welsh language preachers of the 18th century Methodist movement in Wales. Trefeca now houses the well apppointed conference centre of the Presbyterian Church of Wales. I had been there for ecumenical missionary meetings twenty years ago. It was pleasing to find the place as tranquil and beautiful as it ever was, and to be there with mission as the centre of attention once more.

While waiting for the others to arrive, I browsed the Western Mail, and found in an article measuring one square inch at the top of a column an announcement that the Arcbishop of Canterbury was due to speak in Minny Street Welsh Independent Chapel, Cathays at 10h30 on Sunday morning. Minny Street is just around the corner from St Teilo's in Flora Street, one of the four churches of Central Cardiff Parish. This was the first I had heard of it. Elsewhere in the news I learned that +Rowan was being honoured by his former secondary school on Saturday, so it was unlikley to have been an error. One of the retreatants, a lay preacher of that denomination, confirmed that he knew +Rowan was under invitation to speak there, but couldn't confirm the date. What a surprise!

Well, actually a bit of an embarrasment if the truth is to be told. Had I missed out on an important circular, or a memo or an invitation? The leader of the Anglican Communion coming to a church in the next street to the place I would, at the same time, be leading one of my four Sunday services of the day. Did everybody else know? Would the congregation be there when I arrived for the service or would they have gone around the corner to hear the Archbishop, or maybe just to wave a flag or two?

I didn't let these discomforting ponderings intefere with a glorious evening journey home, but on arrival I hastily opened my post and went through my inbox in search of signs that I had overlooked a vital message. But there was nothing there.

Next morning, the faithful dozen were at St Teilo's as usual. Nobody had seen that square inch of newsprint I'd read, but someone said it had been harder to park than usual - extra cars in Flora Street, people speaking Welsh emerging from them, headed away from our church. After the Eucharist a handful ventured around to Minny Street to see if anything was going on there, but all was shut. The congregation had dispersed by that time.
Madonna performed to 59,000 in the Millennium Stadium that same evening. Several full pages of text and photos covered the event in advance. The streets filled with provocatively dressed fans from lunchtime until way past Evensong - a nicely festive atmosphere, quite different from football match days, when the centre feels more like a war zone.

The contrast between the visits of these two media celebrities couldn't have been more stark. But I daresay that if Pope Benedict had come to Minny Street Cathays, he'd have got as much coverage as Madonna, if not more. AND the church's media machine would have made sure we knew well in advance.

Quite apart from the discourteous lack of regard for local Christian communities, who might just welcome an opportunity to support and encourage such a distinguished visitor to their locality (even at a distance), the poverty of communication exposes here the virtual absence of meaningful ecumenical relationships between local urban churches in Cardiff, and across the language and cultural divide.

The need to encourage networking by simply letting people know what's going on is hardly covered by issuing a few press releases that get so little attention. Our Anglican leaders fret publicly about the threat of forthcoming international schism, while their media teams unwittingly help perpetuate, rather than challege the isolation of local church communities and the divisions between them, acting as if they didn't matter. A funny way to maintain a 'household of faith'. However, I musn't forget that in the real world 'oversight' means omission, not pastoral supervision as it does in the church.

Not everyone headed for Madonna on Sunday night. After such an intense and busy weekend I opted to renounce the opportunity to join the St John's Ambulance duty first aid team at the Millennium stadium. That's a pleasant duty regardless of what's on in the arena - game or concert. But it required more stamina than I felt I had, so I went home for some peace and quiet rest.

On my way past City Hall after Evensong, I heard the exuberant sound of live Banghra drumming coming from within, and saw women dressed in festive sarees making their way in - presumably for a reception after a wedding - it's a popular venue for Cardiff Asian community celebrations. I hope they all had a good evening - Madonna fans, wedding guests, and ponderers upon the words of
+Rowan, our long-suffering local boy made good.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Demolition time

Within a week or so, the familiar if ugly profile of the church halls on the site of St James’ Parish church will be no more than a memory. Demolition started on Monday last, quite a task on an enclosed site. You can’t just bring in a bulldozer and push the building over.
First there’s a lot of dismantling to be done. Electric and telephone wiring, water and gas pipes have to be removed – once you’ve gone through a telephone obstacle course to find out who’s responsible for cutting off supplies, removing meters and sealing off the mains. The weeks leading up to this have been a nightmare of negotiation and bureaucratic steps required to give the project managers freedom to work.
A significant amount of responsibility for this process tracked itself back to me as incumbent of the Parish. I can't say that anything in my theological college training or experience in thirty five years of ministry provided me with the expertise to make light work of this. I daresay the majority of lay leaders in the local church would want to say the same.
It’s probably more complex to demolish a building than to erect one. After the service supplies, there’s the partition walls and ceilings, doors and windows to be removed, drains to be sealed off, sinks and toilets to be taken out. It took hours to remove equipment and furniture before the demolition team arrived. The first thing they discovered was that we’d forgotten about the roof void – full of seats (some broken, some never used, brand new, over-ordered a deace or more ago), also large children’s play toys (absorbed into the next-door school’s stock, fortunately). The demolition team do their job painstakingly. with care. There’s so much for them to think about , to ensure work doesn’t damage surrounding buildings, pollute the environment, or endanger the public.
We didn't have the money to repair the halls. Several months ago the company redeveloping the neighbouring tower block into apartments offered (by way of compensation to the school and church for a year's noise, pollution and disruption) to demolish the halls, then re-surface and re-fence the areas covered for school playgrounds. It was a handsome offer. The outcome will greatly enhance the sites of school, church and apartment block. Turning the offer into a reality proved a little more complex than anticipated, but at last the job is under way!
So many people have over the past century of the life of these hall buildings invested time and energy in them. When they ceased to have any value as a meeting place, their users moved on or the groups disbanded. Evidence of their presence is left behind for others to clear up. They take their memories and their regrets with them. Their junk is left to go in the first of many giant skips that take stuff off to the nearest landfill - office furniture, old typewriters, computer monitors, a dead video player, endless broken chairs and desks, punctured footballs, and table tennis table.
The halls stood on the site where the first iron mission church was erected on the site in 1878. After the present church was built and opened in 1894, the hall buildings were erected. They served ‘senior school’ pupils at Tredegarville church shcool for fifty years. Following a fire in the school, they were pressed into service as a dining room and classroom area until rebuilding was complete, then returned to Parish use as ‘the Guildhall’. The premesis was home for many years to an operatic and drama society, until this moved on and the long spiral into decline of both church and community took place. The funeral rites for this dead community amenity are left to a harrassed cleric and churchwardens, and a dozen brawny suntanned guys in hard hats and hi-viz jackets.
We’ll get used to the empty space once new railings and gates enclose an expanded school yard, revealing the lines of the school, sparkling with the everyday vitality of work with children. All who lived and grew up with the Guildhall will regret its passing. There’ll be more regrets when St James’ church closes next month. Thankfully it won’t be demolished. We're all hoping that it can be leased or sold to a new owner sympathetic with the aesthetic qualities of this landmark buildings and its part in twentieth century city history.
Much use could still be made of St James’ church by community, school or Parish, but nobody so far, seems willing to raise or give the £100,000 needed to repair, adapt and an extra £100,000 needed to develop the running of the building over the next five years. That’s the cost of a house in some parts of Cardiff these days. But it’s money nobody is willing to spend. If we can’t, or won’t come up with the price of using it, we are destined to lose it. Sentiment is worthless unless it materialise in action. ‘Be doers of the Word not hearers only’ said St James’ in his Epistle general. How sad his advice has not been heeded. God forgive us all.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The media circus comes to church

Getting all dressed up

Thursday morning I was at St John's by nine, and soon after the BBC film crew vehicles started to arrive, plus the team dedicated to 'dressing' the church for the purpose of filming. The mis en scène, for the opening scenes of this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special edition, was to be in a church adorned for the festive season. The elegant fifteenth century pillars were draped from top to toe in spirals of shiny red satin cloth, and kitchy plastic vines (?). The young man tasked with this took his life into his hands eight times at least, mounting a 15 foot ladder to cast his drapes and vines out and around the pillars. A Health and Safety nightmare, but not for us, since the Beeb had charge of its own employees. But as the guy was old enough to be my son, my heart was in my mouth anyway.
Antique style lanterns on poles were added to a selection of pew ends of the main aisle for a bridal walk - a mighty fire and safety hazard in the real world, and more plastic flowers and vines installed, not to mention a couple of super iron standing candelabra I wished they'd forget to take away.
By evening the building looked the epitome of bad Italian ecclesiastical taste
. In TV-land the church where the drama is set was meant to be somewhere in Chiswick, London, not Parma or Palermo. TV producers are omnipotent it seems. They can violate the norms of taste and culture with impunity. Then the punters watch it on TV and start demanding the church be dressed up like that for their nuptials. It's a bit like 'You may kiss the bride', which features in no known traditional or modern Christian liturgical text but has insinuated itself into the action as people see it in Hollywood movies.
All our church notice boards were taken down and stashed away out of sight. All evidence of context erased. No Christmas tree, however, and no alternative noticeboard was erected. These were to be digitally added later in a cyber studio. If I'm to suspend disbelief for a bit of sci-fi entertainment, I'd prefer everything else was as authentic as possible ... I wonder if Chriswick turned down this unique video opportunity?

Tea and sympathy
The church Tea Room stayed open for business. Customers were meant to come in only through the churchyard instead of having the usual choice of two entrances to get there. As it was a nice day, and a University Graduation ceremony day at St David's Hall just down Working street from the church, there was a steady flow of business, though very little of it from the theatre technicians beavering away all around the building. One proud 'nice' family of a graduate hi-jacked a table meant for customers in the churchyard, and downed two bottles of Champagne there, leaving the bottles for us to throw away. I wonder if they saw that in a TV programme too?
The set dressers seemed to get through the day on paper cupfuls from Café Nero over the way, and pasties from the shop opposite the West end tower. Some folk just aren't spiritually ready for decent bone china cups (bought at auction), home made soups and those cakes-to-die-for that make our little enterprise so valued by Cardiffians and people from around the world.
Several church members turned up to act as 'welcomers' ( also known as ' church minders'). I printed them nice little official badges, which they wore with pride as they chatted up crew members and fielded visitors. Some walked straight past the rather dopey Beeb security hirelings, unaware of the goings on in church, the variety of trip hazards, not to mention the guy tottering atop the ladder. Some were disconcerted and annoyed as they'd come seeking peace and quiet. Most took it in good part, appreciating being greeted and informed by a church member, shown a little of the building and sharing a little of the excitment of the occasion. The usual handful of 'regulars' showed for the 11h00 Eucharist, which took place, a little tensely amidst the hustle and bustle of the moment.

All systems 'go'
Thurday evening and early Friday morning, all the cameras and recording equipment arrived, and the cameras were rolling by 8h00 recording Phil Thomas, our Organist's hands playing .... oh no!!! Not the traditional incoming Bridal March from Löhengrin, but the traditional outgoing Wedding March from Mendelssohn, to accompany the entry of the Bride. The producer decided it was 'brighter'. I'm glad the film is set in fictional Chiswick. We don't do such 'vain things fondly invented' in Central Cardiff wedding services.
Chris, my new Voluntary Deacon came Thursday afternoon, and again on Friday her day off, to share in the meeting and greeting. As a Doctor Who fan this was a treat for her. She was in her element watching the 'takes', chatting with people. The scenes shot didn't include the Doctor, but rather a key story character played by a comedienne I'd not heard of before called Catherine Tate. I consider my ignorance of media personalities to be a pastoral gift. It means one can deal with every human being equally. No more, no less. What else can anyone ask for?

Confession time
Well, the truth will out, I gave up watching TV, apart from news and current affairs some years ago. Game shows and reality stuff are insulting to viewers and participants.
Most drama I find too brutal or sordid and leaves me feeling more depressed about life than actual reality does. Speech and music, and a bit too much surfing suffices to keep me up to speed these days. Radio Drama has much better pictures. I hate the contrived illusions of video world and pity the generations growing up who know little better. Thus, I haven't watched any of the 21st century re-incarnations of the Doctor Who show. But, if they don't make unreasonable moral demands, I don't mind the modern illusionists using the church, so long as they pay enough to help us keep this building open as a sanctuary of prayer, encounter and hospitality for the rest of the year. One day these things will be as popular again as TV 'entertainment' is now.

Prayer in the midst of life's illusions
Anyway, back to the story. The Tea Room couldn't open on Friday as it was needed to prepare the stars for their appearances. We were well compensated, needless to say. I was consoled by the fact that several of the regular Tea Room volunteers came to join the midday Eucharist congregation, tucked tightly into the sacristy to leave the rest of the building free for uninterrupted filming. It was the only compromise made to filming apart from restricting church access.
All the Friday 'regulars' showed up, plus those freed from serving food and drink upstairs. Fifteen of us, bonded in worship by an unusual occurrence, and blessed by doing what we love best, no matter what else is happening around us. The last time a celebration in a different setting had quite such a satisfying impact on me was with a youth group around a boulder in a Valasian alpine pasture seven years ago. Again it was gratifying to see members of the church 'home team' just being there for people, being recognised and accepted.

Who is the real thing?
There were sixty 'extras' on site for filming, all dressed in style for a nuptial outing. They were used in different ways for different angles and only occasionally were all on the set at one time, so there were a lot hanging around at any time, waiting to be called, and we got to chat with them, and find out how many different walks of life they came from. At one moment I was amused, sitting outside in the churchyard chatting, to realise that cameras were being trained on me through the railings, by someone assuming I was an actor. Both Chris and I sporting our clerical gear were from time to time subjected to the question: "Are you an actor or the real thing?" It's an interesting question if you're the 'real thing' and you're acting the role of pastor and welcomer, but it's not the same as "Are you paid by the BBC?" There was an actor playing the cleric in the script. Chris learned he was a lay minister in a London Anglican Parish, commissioned to help distribute Holy Communion in his home Parish. Yes, there is a difference between reality and illusion, but it takes a bit of disciplined thinknig to make sure the difference between the two is always maintained. How good are we at doing this in the world of many virtual realities, I wonder?

The day's filming ended almost to schedule. Richard, our bell tower captain went upwards and fiddled the tower clock's hands to instructions issued over a walkie talkie, so that the movement of the hands could be filmed. A special elevating platform vehicle was brought in to film this. Once the work was done, the crew had problems stutting it down. Itz seems the accellerator stuck open, creating huge volumes of noise, and driving away customers from Piazza Italia opposite the church. Then the extending arm dropped slowly out of control on to an (empty, thankfully) table. Apparently the lorry from the hire company meant to pick up and return this vehicle turned up punctually and went away empty because the crew were slightly delayed - profitable for somebody no doubt - so, the platform had to be taken around into Working street and parked until it was collected after the weekend. Fine, except that the arm with the platform on was parked over the church railings, within a metre of a priceless window and a turret capable of giving lead thieves easy access to the church roof.
By the time filming was over, I was at home trying to re-focus on getting ready for Sunday. Around ten at night I remembered there were things I had forgtten to bring home with me from church, so I popped in the car and went down to find this platform compromisingly parked. On the way home I calle din Central Police station to ask them to keep an eye on it till Monday. Fortunately it was plumb in line with the surveillance camera on the Quuen's Arcade roof, so I slept soundly. And I got a call from Central on Monday to check all was well. One nice spin-off from this was seeing a guy I knew on night duty reception in Central Police station (a thankless task Friday nights). He's someone I know from St John's. He brings his elderly mother to church every other week, as his work shifts permit, but had never volunteeed that he worked for the Police. Now I know, and appreciate the effort he makes. Silver linings abound.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Decisions decisions

Blood pressure check up first thing Monday morning - the worst time in the week after a long hard Sunday. It was down, but still not as 'normal' as the Doc would like it to be. He is being very pastoral towards me and trying to understand the pressures and demands. But then life has far from returned to being normal. Coping with crisis just goes on and on.
I was supposed to go on a (mandatory) Leadership Training Course run by the diocesan Continuing Ministerial Education team during the daytime Monday to Thursday, but the week's diary was out of control before I got the details (late) of where and when, so I had to send an apology. Pity really, as I'd decided I was going to spend the four days protesting that I was tired of being in 'church leadership', and would happily hand over all my 'leadership' responsibilities to someone with more energy and competence, in order to return to a simple laid-back life of prayer and pastoral encounter.
Anyway, it wasn't to happen. I couldn't even get someone to take my place to celebrate the four regular weeday Eucharists, and I wasn't going to cancel them if I could help it. I wasn't going to give up playing guitar for 'God on Mondays' either - it's a precious moment of meeting with families finding what church can mean outside the conventional expectation.

There was a Tredegarville school governors' meeting, straight after 'God on Mondays' at which I had formally to seek permission to hold Parish worship services in the school, once St James' is closed down. Not everyone is happy about what we propose. There are anxieties which arise from failure to recognise that we are trying to care for people who are outside the existing congregation, plus those of the congregation who have stayed loyal but do relish being welcomed by near neighbour churches, and losing touch with each other an the fellowship of their distant youth. Anyway, we don't know where this venture will lead, and won't unless we give it a try.
I was contacted by the Representative Body's Properties Office to inform me that it was my duty to put in a request for planning permission in relation to the tidy-up works planned for two weeks hence at St James' which will give the school more play area and a secure boundary. I thought this was routinely done when the church want through its faculty procedure, but apparently not. This was something special to do with the transfer of a strip of land a few feet wide and fifty feet long from one Church in Wales organisation to another. City Planning would be interested - interested in what? A theoretical and internal change of ownership of a gap between buildings filled with rubbish, excrement, occasional needles and dossers, sordid enough to be mentioned in a modern novel about Cardiff low-life. Just the thing to make my blood pressure soar.
I got on to a local councillor whose planning consultative group I am a member of, and explained what had happened, asking his advice about whether turning an eyesore into a bit of extra school-yard space was really an issue for the Council as it seems to be for someone in the legal bunker (which seems to be making a bid to become the Church in Wales command and control centre, rather than its servant). His response will be ... interesting.

News of SD Two
Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of taking my new colleague Chris to sit in on the monthly Retail Partnership Board meeting. People were, as ever, welcoming, and there was lots of interesting input, especially as we were being treated to a first look at the latest designs for the Grand Mall of the St David's II shopping centre. DHL, the meeting Chair was on the ball as usual and said astutely: "Now that looks like the main Mall I visited in Dubai recently, or was it Singapore?" A great discussion starter on the theme 'How are shoppers going to know they are in the Capital city of Wales, without overkill on dragons and daffodils?' Tricky - the designers and architects are not really on the same planet as the rest of us. Their enterprise is still far too London based. I never forget how when the first architects model of the city centre was unveiled, the tiny model of St John's church had been placed on the board recto-verso, with the tower at the east, not the west. It was great to joke about, but a serious side effect of remote control management and design.
Worries about the effect of redevelopment on the supply of shoppers' parking space in the city have been with us for the past two years. A big effort is being put into providing new 'Park and Ride' schemes, but a bit of brilliant lateral thinking has produced an enterprising solution. IKEA in Grangetown is too big for the region's needs and its parking twice what is needed. Five hundred of them are to be taken on for weekday Park and Ride - ten minutes ride from the central shops. IKEA's big retailing time is weekends and holidays. No doubt their restaurant will get extra business from tired and hungry shoppers on the way home. Another site in the Bay promises an additional 350 parking places to ease the loss of central multi-storey parks. City centre site clearance starts in earnest this coming November, a demolition and excavation exercise that will produce enough rubble to fill the Millennium Stadium. It'll all be up and running for Christmas 2009, so they say. While we are waiting, teams are preparing to excavate a new main sewer route through the back streets using underground boring equipment. This report was also the butt of jokes and puns. It's a great meeting, never a dull moment.

Look Who's coming
In the afternoon following the meeting, I had a meeting with Patrick Schweizer, a BBC site manager working for the Doctor Who Production team to finalise details for a two day film crew use of St John's to stage a wedding scene as part of this year's Christmas special. The team would like to have been left to its own devices, but we insisted that weekday worship would continue as normal, and that there would be several 'welcomers' from the church team around during both days, to keep an eye on things and be helpful to the crew. This seemed to me to be the most suitable way of avoiding accidental misuse of the building or its furniture, and was accepted meekly. Taking the church out of use and restricting public access at the height of the tourist season is not the best thing to do, so it was important some of the locals were around to explain politely, rather than leave the task to some BBC security gorilla in a hi-viz vest. It also meant that we were seeking more compensation than the BBC were offering as a starting price. A bit like haggling in reverse, they met our reasonable demand in the end, though some thought we should have held out for more.
Eventually, the publicity will help augment our visitor count. We've noticed more visitors coming in because the City Centenary town trail (in which we feature), its guidebooks and markers are now in place. We have English, French, German and Welsh guidebooks for taking away, and they are disappearing at a pleasing rate. It's a nice quality product.

To be or not to be?
The day ended with a Parish Church Council meeting, to discuss suggestions by the Bishop that the Parish be split to relieve me of some responsibilites and allow Chris and to concentrate on city centre work. This would put Jenny's successor in charge of a Cathays pastoral area, containing St Michael's and St Teilo's. I have misgivings about dividing up something that's working well. There are all sorts of issues, financial and organisational that will be rendered less easy by a separation. But what do the people want? The clergy helped establish the pros and cons and withdraw for the laity to discuss freely. Much to our surprise they agreed to go with the Bishop's proposal. Several key voices in leadership were absent, and St Teilo's under-represented, so this can't be a final position. After the meeting, I emailed a report to the Bishop. My brain buzzed with unanswered questions all night, so I got up at seven and emailed him a memo with nine questions arising immediately. No doubt there will be more!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Tredegarville triumphs and trials

'God on Mondays' revisited
Remember 'God on Mondays' ? It's our school term-time venture, over in St James' church, to bring together children from Tredegarville church school with their parents for a time of Christian worship and storytelling. Started last year before Christmas, now in its fifth series of themed teaching services. The school teachers are marvellous. Generally around half a dozen of them turn up in support. Another fifteen or so parents and relatives, plus children from six months to eleven years old, so we are usually 35-50 people. I lead singing with the guitar and Jenny my colleague tells stories, usually out of the Gospel, only this summer half-term series is based on the lives of the Saints. The church War Memorial chancel screen is decorated with strings of paper people figures of church heroes, and even more strings of figures with the names on them of the adults and children who turn up with delightful regularity. It feels like we are slowly, carefully making community happen, building relationships of trust and affection, or rather, to be honest, building upon the existing bonds of trust and affection well established by the school with its parents and children. Chris, my new colleague has joined us, leading worship and enjoying a new experience - three clergy working together at the same time, right on the edge (sic.) of the conventional frame of parochial religion.

Unexpected blessings
Given that 'God on Mondays' gathers parents and children, it's not surprising that the spin-off has been several families asking for Christenings. St James' , although by far the weakest of the four churches of the Parish, has seen four times as many baptisms as the rest of the Parish put together over the past few years. Most people who ask have family roots in the area. Christening their kids is an affirmation of their identity and their sense of belonging in a shifting world. They don't come to worship apart from this special occasion. We try to make it as special as possible, but have to admit that far too much of our worship makes no connections with their longings, their spiritual search. But 'God on Mondays' services and the social interaction produced bridges the gap to some extent. Our biggest surpise came when Julie, one of our Mums asked if she could be christened. She'd missed out as a kid, and mentioned it awkwardly, with embarrassment to some previous clergy, but never been taken seriously. After we'd recovered from astonishment, Jenny and I agreed that we should act decisively. At the first Monday service after Easter, Julie was baptized in St James, and on Trinity Sunday, she was confirmed at a Deanery service in the Parish of Canton. She now comes on Sundays as well as Mondays with her kids. It's been a marvellous experience accompanying her on her journey.

In the midst of life we are in death
Back in April, the Parish recognised that we couldn't afford to keep St James' open any longer despite 'God on Mondays'. In May the University property department officers came and gave the building the once-over to see if it might meet their pressing need for space. Silence since then. After six months of silence, the London-based Historic Churches Building Trust officer got in touch to ask if a joint site visit to St James' with CADW, the Welsh building conservation agency, would be possible, to evaluate the Parish's application for £25,000 to repair a seriously leaky roof - one of the issues that has defeated the church council over the past five years. I wrote back to say that we had been forced to seek redundancy for the church, and received by return a rejection of our application. The building remains one of Cardiff's landmarks, no matter who can afford to maintain it. But we are no longer eligible to be funded, or even part funded.
If we were to take all the salaries paid out to administer and monitor these funds so conscientously I wonder how many more buildings might be saved from ruin. Aspiration to save our heritage is a worthy thing, like aid to the Third World, but the way funding is organised to preserve jobs and channel energy away from the purpose never cease to amaze me.

Meanwhile, St James will close on September 16th, with a European Heritage Open Day event. We'll keep open house and run a local history exhibition in conjunction with Tredegarville school next door - the church was founded from a local pastoral mission which started with schooling in the area back in 1850. Sunday and Monday services will continue in the school hall, saving us a huge amount of money in costs of heating, lighting, insurance and repairs.
We're all sad to lose the building, but heavens, how much has sentiment been costing us, both in money and worry? Nevertheless, losing this building is hard blow for both church and school.

The gift horse cometh. However ....
Admiral House, next door to St James, is a tower of a building, which has lately been converted from being an empty office block to small desirable, profitable residential apartments. In fact, the portacabins of the site office move out next Sunday, blocking us from using the church car park once again. The building work has given both church and school much trouble with noise, dust, rubbish, vibration from pile drivers and demolition work, as well as parking blockages.
After negotiation, City Lofts the developers, agreed an 'everybody wins' compensation package. The church hall, pretentiously known as 'the Guildhall', with its derelict annexe, plus boundary walls between church and school, are to be demolished, and the space created re-used, fenced in as school playground - the school's space allocation is well below standard, so it wiill benefit. The church will be more accessible, (an asset when it comes to sale), and Admiral House will look a lot more attractive to prospective buyers. I can't imagine that the £30,000 expenditure on this project would effectively buy as effective advertising promotion for the new apartments.
Work begins Monday 24th. At the moment church officers are having trouble communicating with the providors of water, gas and electricity to request termination of services, and final billing. Each facet of these services is managed by different companies using different telephone services (automated and otherwise), so that it's impossible to be sure one has reached the right person with authority to call out workers on the ground to achieve the desired objective. The deadline day could prove to be fun, dangerous fun if they don't get their act together. There's even a 'phone line into the premesis, from a letting that finished seven years ago, which was nothing to do with the church, so there is no information in the church record that will allow us to call someone and ask if they want to come and take away their line.
The final nightmare, having received formal approval by way of a Faculty from the diocesan Chancellor to proceed with all these works, was advice from the Representative Body of the Church in Wales to ensure that city Planning Permission was granted for the re-defining of the school site by fencing and demolition - something we thought was covered by the granting of a Faculty. If this is not received, the work is held up sine die, work which must be finished between 24th July and 31st August, or could end up not being done. Without any guidance of offer of support, the resolution of this issue was dumped back on me as representative of the Parish - a move which is hard not to regard as petty and spiteful. Suffice it to say that those who think they are generous and conscientous in the exercise their duties need to get their vision tested. It's no wonder my blood pressure is reluctant to subside, and my doctor wants to give me sick leave. We're all prisoners of modern legal systems, and their logic that so often defies common sense.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Long Time no blog

It's more than two and a half months since my last posting, unintentionally.

One day I started having tingling and numbness in my left shoulder. My dear wife Clare insisted I should get a doctor's checkout, and I complied. It was, he said, a matter of a trapped nerve in m neck. However, my blood pressure was worryingly high, and I should be taking medication as a matter of course. This put the wind up me, and I went home in shock having argued that it was likely to be caused by the stress I have been recently subjected to with the waning fortunes of my bid to rescue St James' church from closure.

I asked for a delay in taking up the pills to get some time out, lose weight, get back to regular exercise etc, on the grounds that my diet was OK and my general health otherwise not a problem. Blood tests showed cholesterol was not a problem, liver function OK. So, I went out jogging, tried to relax and rest more, and work more normal hours, but there was little impact on my blood pressure.

During my month's period of 'grace' my only colleague was asked to take on a new job this autumn - a well deserved move indeed, but the timing was unexpected, and as I was unable to contact anyone responsible to find out if she'd be replaced sooner or later, I was left wondering what sort of work future I would have, recognising that I wasn't just tired, but feeling rotten, physically ill, and honestly, pretty anxious. I spent rather a lot of time feeling angry, self-pitying and resentful that two years of on-off crisis management had left me in this state with no support other than my wise, kind and long suffering wife.

Thankfully, a fortnight's planned holiday in Corfu intervened. I acquiesced and took with me the first pack of pills to try out on holiday. We had a secluded self catering apartment in an olive grove. Peaceful, beautiful, no phone, no computer, no radio or TV, no car. Lots of pure silence warm late spring weather, excellent food and walking. It wasn't a cure all by any means, more of a retreat. Time for lots of prayer and meditation, exercise, and just sitting together with sheer natural beauty and simple country wine. Really I could have done with a month.

I kept my health concerns mainly to myself at the outset, but slowly it leaked out when I realised that my reactions to yet more stress inducing experiences in daily work had turned from my habitual fight into flight. I had such a surprise to discover how many people, both older and younger than myself are also on medication for high blood pressure, and living contentedly with it, as if it were of little concern, as it holds out the promise of less risk of stroke or heart attack. But what sort of world are we living in that generates in normal healthy-ish people such levels of stress that produce this 'silent killer' ailment? I am still not content with having to dose myself daily. If I gave up public ministry and lived permanently in retreat (happy thought), would the change of lifestyle reduce my blood pressure? It it too late? Is it just a matter of ageing that I am no longer able to deny? Questions to live with, not over-react to.

When I went for a review with my doctor, two weeks after returning to work, my blood pressure was still too high, requiring an adjustment in dosage and monitoring side effects. We spoke about work and he asked if the pressures on me had reduced, and how I was feeling. I had to say 'no', and explained what I was facing with the loss of a colleague, at least for half a year. "In my profession", he said "Doctors carrying double patient load get to suffer from real burn-out." I told him I had two books on clergy burn-out and how to avoid it. He'd never heard of clergy burn-out. Maybe I'm his only ordained client. OK, so am I a burn-out case or a survivor of burn-out? Or what?

There was an article on research into clergy burn-out in this week's "Western Mail", saying how widespread it had become with decline in numbers of working ministers. I didn't recognise the role portrayed by the report given on the research, which made ministry today sound as if it was just about rushing around taking lots of extra services, and carrying an even larger pastoral case load. What a delight that would be compared to the reality. More and more paperwork, negotiation, fundraising, publicising, event co-ordination, caretaking buildings, coping with crisis in organisations fending off collapse and dysfunction. These are the matters that drain life from a pastor trained to be people centred. This produces the stress edging ministers toward burnout, or coronaries, cancer, mental or marital breakdown, even suicide. In a few words, ministers are taking on many tasks for which are they untrained and ill-equipped, simply because there are no longer sufficiently skilled lay church members to take them on. They feel duty bound to do something to try and stop the collapse of all they have cherished and worked for. It's so hard to let it all die, especially when it's been the source of your revenue as well as your way of life and your identity.

It's taken me a while to come back and record all this. Shame is a great inhibitor. Knowing how many sufferers there may be. Not wanting to whinge about how tough it is. Because at some levels it's so rewarding, such an adventure to be where I am in ministry at this time of life, seeing God at work in people's lives in the heart of the city. It makes me want to fight on and not throw in the towel - to 'give and not to count the cost', as that beloved prayer says. Except there comes a time when giving to the limits does nobody much good. Nobody can run on empty. Many things about the church will have to fail and die, since so many people no longer want to support the way it is or used to be. Living with all that heart-break, suffering powerlessness, weakness and limitation, is what all of us in the church must learn to live with or be broken by. A bit like taking up the cross and following Jesus. I'm not so sure how good we are are going that any more.

Nevertheless, a month before my colleague intimated her likley departure, the Archbishop asked if I'd like to help train a deacon who would work as an unpaid volunteer in the Parish. So it was that on St John the Baptist's day, 24th June, Christine Colton was ordained in Llandaff Cathedral and started next day with us. She's a mother of two grown up sons, married to a priest working in the Parish of Whitchurch, a few miles away across town. Moreover, as well as her pastoral and lay training interests, she is taken with the idea of learning her way into city centre ministry. For me this is a great delight. Now I have voluntary lay and ordained partners to take an interest in the world of everyday business, commerce, hospitality and tourism, and make the Church's interest in normal life known by their presence and their attention.

In this opening few weeks I am acquainting her with the routine life of St John's, taking her around to introduce her to people, 'walking the talk', as the saying goes. Amazingly it's a great comfort to have a companion who is interested in seeing the city differently, seeing it as a pastor does. For once I felt a kinship with the police who patrol the streets in pairs. It's encouraging to see the odd glance of recognition, the smile, the greeting from strangers as we pass.

We were entering the churchyard one day this week, and a woman accosted me. "Don't you work here?" she said. I confessed jokily. "Sometimes." "Yes, you're the one I spoke to six months ago. The first time I came in here to pray. The first day I joined AA. I've just been in to say 'thank you' to God. I'm getting my own flat again next week. I'm sober, and wouldn't be if it wasn't for Him above. I've got my life back again, thanks to Him." It was so good to share that moment of blessing with a colleague. The church building ministers to people when its pastors are elsewhere, strugging to cope with the demands of the bureaucracy from hell which is the diocesan and provincial administration of the Church in Wales.

Nothing personal, bosses. You suffer from this organisational dinosaur as much if not more than the rest of us. I just hope you too have moments like this to keep you coping.