Thursday, September 28, 2006

Parting of the Ways

Within the space of this past week, the Parish Churchwardens and sub-Wardens unusually met twice, first with Archdeacon Bill Thomas, the diocesan Registrar David Lambert (a church lawyer, in case you didn't know) and the Bishop's Chaplain, Chris Smith, and secondly with Archbishop Barry Morgan. On both occasions the subject was how to create two parishes out of one, and bring to an end the Rectorial Benefice of Central Cardiff, founded six years ago, in order to create a team ministry to serve the central area.

I've worked in teams most of my ministry. Many of those I work with in the service of the city act as part of one team or another. Partnership is the buzzword in city development strategy and planning. I would have preferred to see the church creating larger teams and more effective working partnerships in order to serve people whose work experience is not too dissimilar. But clerical leadership prefers to go against the grain - to be counter cultural, you might say. This is a church buzzword nowadays, used without reference to the past and almost no justification, when I reflect on what 'counter culture' meant thirty odd years ago.

Anyway, don't look back, just keep going forward or die ... I have to facilitate an episcopal initiative (viz: dividing a successful working team of four churches), which I don't agree with, even though it's intended to set me and my new colleague Chris free to explore all the emerging possibilities of city centre mission and ministry at a time of accelerating change. (By the way, the big time demolition work has started. The city centre Ice Rink has gone, Toys 'r Us is next for the giant bulldozers.)
Well, I'm free to say my piece, but I don't run the show. I'm only an actor, not the producer, so I have to make the most of whatever direction is given, or quit the set.

So, onwards and upwards ... which the home team did to their great credit, negotiating in the most constructive and collaborative way how to split the parochial area and organise the division of its assets. You can't quite call it an amicable divorce.
It was more their trustful response to episcopal leadership, which I find hard personally to emulate in these times of schism, knowing too well that all of us professional pastors have feet of clay, and fall short of our own visionary aspirations and potential. The driving force behind the initiative and the response to it remains a desire to see a new priest serving the area as soon as possible, by whatever means the Bishop believes opportune. Creating a new Parish of Cathays out of Central Cardiff Parish means sacrificing revenue from the sales of unsuitable houses, in order to provide a new Vicarage. Sale promised a modicum of financial security, but it's more important to ensure there's a priest in the community.

I don't share the official version of how we should be doing mission any more. I dpon't think that smaller pastoral units will necessarily survive the course. In bigger teams, working together in the spirit of the Gospel, other members compensate for the 'weakest links'. Pulling together, 'all for one and one for all' make survival possible. But nobody seems to see it that way in the church right now, so we'll learn what's right by doing. I think we've lost the plot, and are fast becoming a 'church centred mission' rather than a 'mission centred church'. But maybe congregational survivors all over the place just feel happier with the former concept than the latter. I'm just grateful that despite my misgivings I end up able to give more time to St John's, which somehow, by divine grace, manages to be a 'mission centred church' no matter what leadership it gets, and despite the fact that much of its mission centres around the church building and the affection it retains in the heart of Joe Public.

It's a funny paradox really, but our raison d'ĂȘtre comes from the fact that we are a sacred space in the commercial heart of the city, visited by a thousand people a week, looking, seeking, connecting or puzzling with the mystery of faith represented both in our beautiful building and in the equally beautiful smiles and welcomes of our members. People come and go, they take what they can, or what they will from what we offer. They canot be dragooned into membership. We cannot impose any conditions on them. What we can do is work together for them in the hope that God touches their hearts, either despite or because of us. We don't know which, we just trust.

I wish more congregations across the city could have a chance to meet the public to the extent that we do, and be educated by the experience, as we are. Maybe working together would be less of a challenge subsequently.

The major policy decisions have been taken and future plans are moving towards action. The new Parish of Cathays comes into being on the first of January 2007, and becomes someone else's responsibility. I just hope and pray someone will be appointed as the new Vicar and it won't just be left in the hands of a series of caretaker clergy. Someone other than me will have to organise these arrangments. It's a nightmare of a job, as available locum clergy get fewer and fewer on the ground. But I shall worry until I see that those I have led and cared for over the past four years are happy and settled, without regrets.

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