Sunday, October 29, 2006

View from the board room

Friday last I attended the inaugural meeting of the Cardiff Proud Capital Vision Board, the rather esoteric title given to a gathering of senior city government executives with counterparts in other public agencies dealing with environment, health, education, sport, employment, business, transport, media, etc. This is a successor to a body called the Community Planning Implementation Group (CPIG for short), a body whose meetings I have attended over the past four years as an observer on behalf of the Archbishop, who was invited to take part as the equivalent of a church's CEO, even though the church has others who discharge many CEO functions. It makes you realise what a difference of management culture there is between church and city.

The idea of these gatherings was to oversee the way strategic plans directing present and future development of the city and region are put into practice. This is necessary, as so many major transforming projects rely on collaboration, or 'partnership working', in the current jargon, between different organisations and agencies with a wide range of interests and responsibilities.

You cannot redevelop city centre retailing, for instance without working with those concerned with transport, communications and public safety, for instance. Health and Sport overlap. Employment and education need to be bedfellows with economic development, if the city is to have the skilled work force it needs, essential to huge prestigious new projects designed to 'reposition' (another new bit of jargon) Cardiff as a front-runner on the European capital cities map.

From the vision proposed by our political leadership to its implementation through many different kinds of initiative is a long and complex journey. It took me several years of attentive listening to understand some of the jargon, and even to discern how far all the participants really understood the purpose of the exercise. Indeed, the difficulty of the exercise was uncovered when a review of CPIG was undertaken after its first three years, revealing a mixture of successes and failures, but also dissatisfactions in areas where it seemed little progress in partnership was apparent.

I had my own concerns in this review process, representing the head of one church out of many, in a situation where ecumenical instruments of collaboration have become weak with the weakening of member bodies, and where few of the churches have large enough an organisational profile to figure prominently on the radar of a huge corporate body like city government. Being the only religious observer was for me an interesting experience, presenting a conundrum to some participants. There are many churches, not to mention other faith communities that could also have been represented, but no adequate framework for collaboration or participation. One senior local government officer agreed that local government had only fragmented, partial knowledge of the city's religious community groups, and that research was needed even to be able to invite them to assemble without excluding anyone.

Given recent concern about the need for social inclusion expressed by national government, about other-faith religious communities and their young people, it seemed to me there's an issue to address here. As Cardiff has been mercifully free of conflict surrounding religious or ethnic communities for generations, social inclusion has not figured on anyone's political agenda, though some civil servants see there's a problem. Religious culture features little in the way the city presents itself, and largely because religious groups have made little effort, and have remained turned in on themselves, disinterested in the common good, apart from their own local and domestic needs. It's not only a problem of other faith communities, but also of the Christian enterprise. My conclusion was that the city itself needs to challenge religious groups to greater participation. But how to achieve this in the face of political apathy? So far, no answers.

The new Proud Capital Vision Board began life with a couple of presentations on the new approach to policy making and services, and attempted un-successfully to define its principal tasks in an interactive sessions that was poorly managed. Not an auspicious start. We were not short of top level expertise, but surprisingly short of skilled facilitators to help retain the focus on the process in hand. So we'll end up, as usual with most of the necessary work needing to be redone in the back office and served up for people to nod though. It's the way with all large organisations I guess, Churches included.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Of organs and window guards

Since our ‘Father Willis’ organ got restored to its original working condition over a year ago, I’ve got so used to the regular monthly routine of Friday lunchtime organ concerts, this rarely gets mentioned in my postings. One reason to mention this now, is that recently we had Thomas Trotter one of Britain’s finest organists back for his second recital, the first being the inaugural concert of the restored instrument. Philip Thomas, our organist and concert organiser, the instrument’s custodian and tireless promoter, had, over nine months careful stewardship of concert retiring collections, succeeded in putting enough money away to cover the cost of Thomas’ second visit. This meant the concert retiring collection could be used to raise funds for another project. What for? Window guards. Window guards? Yes, window guards. Not very sexy or noble, but very necessary.

Before the Cardiff blitz, the church stained glass was removed for protection until the war was over. That’s how we know the age of the window guards covering some, though not all of the stained glass most of which was returned to its place 1945-46. Many of them rotted away over sixty years leaving little trace. A few had been replaced at different stages, several on the north side of the church within the past three years. One new post war window never had a guard over it. This, and a neighbouring window over 120 years old were both vandalised eighteen months ago, on two separate occasions over 48 hours, smashed with a lager bottle by person or persons unknown who had climbed over the fence to do this. It happened the weekend of one of our rare weddings. Sue, the bride’s mother was terribly upset, not because it was going to make the church look unpleasant to photograph, but because in the run-up to the wedding she had simply fallen in love with the building, its people and its activity and was horrified at such sacrilege.

After the wedding Sue and her husband Peter started to attend church regularly. She started obsessing (healthily and constructively) about getting the windows fixed, and getting some preventative measures in place. The outcome of this was a personal campaign to raise funds to get safety guards put on every window lacking one – a project with an estimated cost of £35,000. They had recently retired from business locally, so between them they had lots of professional contacts to solicit for support. To date, over a third of the total needed to install the guards has been raised.

The two vandalised windows took six months to repair at a cost of £7,000. These were the first to receive new guards, since then a third has been done and another is to follow shortly, much to everyone’s great pleasure. At the Trotter concert, Sue stood up and spoke with great eloquence and brevity about the value of the project, and evidently the 300 strong audience agreed with her, for the collection produced an amazing £1,050 – the cost of one more new window guard.

When churchwarden Allan and his wife Lyn celebrated their golden wedding back in the summer, many of their friends joined in by donating to the window guard fund as a thank offering, raising £2,000 beween them all. Neighbouring pizza entrepreneur Tony Venditto taxed his sales a pound a piece, to raise £1,000 for a window guard. We reciprocated with a posed photo for the local papers, with pizza in church. Well, we are the church, not only in the market place, but for the market place, and we are still learning how to value the goodwill people have for a church about its business, even in this secularised multi-cultural new age. Sue has done us good by recognising what the church community values, seeing it with fresh eyes, and realising that our efforts at valuing our heritage encourage others to do likewise. The good old virtuous cycle at work again.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Changing circumstances, changing roles

One of the purposes of creating a new city centre Parish focused on St John’s Church, is to enable me as Vicar to focus on ministry to the institutions at the heart of the city, its businesses, hospitality, public services and local government. My churchwarden joked the other day that my wife is the only person on the church electoral roll who is actually resident in the new city centre Parish. And it’s true, since all those who are signed up live in different residential areas away from the centre, and travel in to make themselves part of the worship and hospitality that characterises the life of St John’s.

It’s not that ours is the only residence among offices, shops, arcades, theatres and restaurants, far from it. Around two thousand occupy new-build high rise apartments – student residences and luxury apartments - plus the remainder of old low rise flats and established houses like ours. With several more new housing construction projects in hand, and the re-adaptation to dwelling spaces of areas above shops, the city centre population will rise fourfold in the next five years. Add to this three new hotels planned, bringing the number up to a dozen, and those sleeping in proper beds in the city centre area, transient and resident together, is set to hit ten thousand, by the end of this decade, from a low of five hundred a decade ago.

Of new residents, whether students or a new generation of apartment dwellers, only a few drop in to St John’s or any other church on a regular basis. Today’s mobile lifestyle takes people all over the place for work and leisure. Home may be a dormitory or a place of refuge, but not much of a base from which to socialise or engage with others in the local neighbourhood. New lifestyles represent a new pastoral challenge, and quite frankly we don't really know where to start engaging with it. Maybe in a few generations people will settle more, have children, reconnect with the place they live for most of their activities. The agenda for ministry in the city centre will be different again another two decades from now.

For the moment, the redevelopment of the retail environment, promises to create three thousand new jobs and bring many more tens of thousands in to shop every day. This is a huge challenge for running the city. If churches have any interest in the welfare of the city, either short or long term, it’s necessary to have a constructive working relationship with those who run the affair, in public services and in city government itself. This is now one of my responsibilities, now I'm about to change from being Team Rector of Central Cardiff to being Vicar of the city Parish of St John the Baptist.

I’ve been gratified at the positive response I’ve met to my announcement of this change from people involved in making the city work. Living up to the challenge will be a long slow journey, given the complexities of everything connected with running a place with a throughput of a hundred thousand people every twenty four hours. On a day to day basis, developing ministry to tourists, sharing the the church’s offer of hospitality, conducting worship, encouraging the team of volunteers who work at St John’s continues unchanged, if less pressured. Now I'll have more time to respond to different opportunities arising from contacts I make and the concerns about city life shared with me by different individuals. Also, I have a little more breathing space to consider the future - how church ministry and mission might develop practically in new ways for new times.

On my ‘do do’ list is to re-vamp the church website, as one kind of publicity which I already know from emails I get to deal with gets read across the world. There's the church magazine too, and other print publications. Due to our investment in an advert in Cardiff’s promotional 2006 tourism brochure, and a mention in a local city walks guide, the presence of St John’s as ‘must-visit’ place has seen tourist numbers rise 50% this past six months. The Tea Room is busy most days it is open.

Just now the annual ‘Cards for Good Causes’ charity Christmas Card shop is preparing for business in the St John chapel area of the church. This also brings in large numbers of people. For the past couple of weeks a Christian Aid exhibition about post Tsunami reconstruction work in Sri Lanka has graced the North Aisle. In mid-November few weeks time South Wales Artists will turn that aisle into a gallery to exhibit paintings for sale by talented amateurs, bringing in many more people, just to look, and enjoy the peace and quiet.

This week, outside the church, on the west railings of the north churchyard, there are five large yellow panels with black artwork on them, done by a member of Cardiff's One World group, expounding the importance of international trade justice. This is one World Week, and the third year the exhibition has appeared, growing by one panel each year. It's remarkable given the rowdiness of revellers in the streets several nights each week that the panels have never been vandalised. Next week, the Royal British Legion will be planting a field of crosses in the churchyard behind the same railings, to prepare for the Cardiff & Vale Branch Garden of Remembrance. There's another bigger Garden of Remembrance that will also be planted with crosses, just a quarter of a mile away at the National Cenotaph behind City Hall, in Cathays Park. Both are as much dignified protests against the futile violence of war, as they are commemorations of those killed.

The church and its environment is a busy place, but it rarely loses its tranquility. This holy place is the engine room for every other city activity we try to become part of. ‘Our lot is set in a fair ground’, as the Psalmist says. (Ps 16:7) As its custodians church members have much to live up to.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Muslims and Mosques in Cathays

As I was preparing to celebrate the evening Eucharist at St Teilo's last night, a dozen men arrived in church, whose dress declared them to be Muslims of varied ethnic backgrounds. Due to a mix up in their leader's diary they were 24 hours late for a meeting of the local community and police representatives being hosted by the church. There was more laughter than embarrassment at the mistake, and many warm greetings were exchanged, ending with a invitation to the handful of us who welcomed them to visit the local Mosque in Wyvern Road the following night to join the members for their Ramadhan breakfast, or iftar, as it is known, part of their celebration of Lailat al Qu'adr, the 'Night of Power', a vigil celebration which commemorates the descent of the Qu'ran from Allah in the seventh heaven to the first heaven from whence the angel Gibril (Gabriel) dictates it to Muhammad. Matt, one of the churchwardens and myself were free and promised to attend.

I had been to the Wyvern Road mosque once last summer with my wife Clare, when an Open Day had been held. The buildings were once the St Teilo church hall, but were sold off twenty years ago, when the fortunes of the parish took a downward turn. It was good to see it still in religious community use, and indeed to see how international a Mosque it is. Being close to the University, many attendees are students and single, others are settlers of many years standing, local businessman and university people with generations of their own families in the Mosque with them.

We were warmly greeted, and at the end of opening prayers, served with a meal of soup, curried chicken rice and vegetables, followed by a milk pudding and lots of tea. We chatted with various elders from Pakistan, Palestine, North Africa, and interestingly with two students from Azerbajahn, brothers who were both mathematicians and computer scientists. There was even a talk about Lailat al Qu'adr by a teacher from a neighbouring Mosque, possibly an Omani by his dress. Perhaps because it was Ramadhan, when people set aside more time for their devotions, many arrived to pray in non-European costume, making it all the more clear how many nationalities were present, several dozen at least.

By nine o'clock there were more than two hundred men praying the late evening prayer before the vigil proper, and goodness knows how many women out of sight, either on the stage behind a curtain, or out in the back hall preparing meals for all these attendees. Hundreds of Ramadhan breakfasts are served up nightly here, perhaps because this is a Mosque that welcomes many single people. Commonly Muslim families break their fast at home together, so this was something special and pastoral, serving a mobile community - and yes, just as many mobile phones went off during prayers, and suprisingly often, people answered them, even made calls in the prayer hall, despite pleas to switch them off.

Our hosts and those we spoke to were very natural and uninhibited in speaking about matters of faith and the problems all believers in God share due to the modern political secularism that seems to want to problematise religion and religious believers. The teacher who spoke was at pains to remind his audience how much the three Abrahamic faiths share in common, (sounded like one of my sermons!), and how Muhammad demanded that all the prophets of Judaism including Jesus, should be revered for their lives and their teaching.

Whilst we may never agree on the meaning of the life and death of Jesus, with the Qu'ran taking Jesus straight to heaven and effectively bypassing the significance of the cross, their prophetic take on Jesus has value. I remember Walter Hollenweger, professor of mission in Birmingham in the eighties writing about the Qu'ranic view of Jesus, and saying that it possibly lies closer to the view of Jesus which would have been held by some first Jewish believers believers - 'early Semitic Christology' he calls this understanding of Jesus as an anointed prophet of God. The idea of Jesus as Son and Word of God belongs more in the realm of Hellenistic thought. Islam was born among semitic people, even if they aren't so very keen on their Israeli cousins nowadays. I guess we all get to work first with perceptions and ideas we inherit from our ome culture. Question for everyone is: how necessary is it to remain stuck there? How can we move to a new experience of God's truth coming to meet us from beyond, not conjured up within us.

Both Matt and I were presented with copies of the Qu'ran accompanied by an English translation as a memento of our visit. Our hosts asked that we should bring them a Bible, and next day Matt organised a suitable presentation gift purchase. I wish more non-Muslims could have this experience of being welcomed by fellow believers who are thoughful, intelligent and determined to live a godly life in what is for most of them a foreign land. It reminded me of my time in Geneva's international community as a chaplain to an expatriate congregation - thinking of which, in eight years there, I never made it once into the principal Mosque in Petit Sacconnex, despite the Consul's residence being opposite, plus an old people's home where I took communion to an ancient international civil servant for several years. But prior to 9/11, it didn't seem to be such a priority. Pity too, as it was a fine purpose designed building in grey Jura limestone, befitting an international city, not a red-brick seond hand church hall in a Cardiff back street.

Next year, building starts on a brand new Mosque at the other end of Woodville Road from St Teilo's, a multi-million pound project to replace the warehouse building that community presently uses. There's been some controversy and internal division over the new building apparently. I hope this doesn't lead to a characterless compromise construction that looks more like a large lego version of a Mosque than the real thing. Modern computer aided design seems to be producing more and more buildings that look like models of buildings than the real thing. Architectural symbols of faith communities, whether ours or someone else's, should still be substantial contributions to our visual landscape to my mind.

Interestingly enough at the bottom end of Cathays, another group of Muslims has taken over a rather fine former Baptist church, with an ornate frontage, and byzantine like cupolas and portico. When I pass that way it's often busy. With its somewhat oriental facade, it has stuck me that the possibly suits its new owners idea of a sacred place better than its previous owners with their more austere origins. Interesting times!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Light in the tunnel

From the bad news

Thursday last, Jenny my former colleage was inducted as Rector of Radyr. It was a full house at Christchurch Radyr, around two hundred people, and a warm air of anticipation. At the start my anticipation was tinged with apprehension. How long are Chris and I going to be able to cope with the routine workload before a successor is appointed? Already I am faced with doing five services a Sunday until the end of the year, when the separation of the new parish is meant to come into effect. At that stage the Area Dean takes charge of finding ministers for services in St Mikes and St Teilo's, or enforcing cutbacks - something I have never been happy to do unless unavoidable. There are so many distractions for people these days, that once a routine habit is interrupted, regaining it may no longer be guaranteed.

To the good
Having said that, I don't really know why I worry so much. Obviously, not enought faith. We restarted God on Mondays two weeks ago, having moved the event from St James' church into the school, and were delighted to see the same number of familiar adult and children's faces turning up and singing lustily. And no, I needn't have worried at all because Paul, the outgoing Central Cardiff Parish Warden, who will undoubtedly continue as one of the Wardens of the new Parish of St Mike's and St Teilo's, took me aside after the induction service to tell me that Archbishop Barry had already written to all the new Parish Wardens to propose the appointment of Revd. Caroline Downs as priest in charge of the new Parish. This is as good as it gets as far as I'm concerned, as Caroline, lives in the neighbouring Parish of Roath nad has been working there part time for the past five years, handing with aplomb and great humour some very tricky situations. Funnily enough she had been guest preacher at the St Mike's Songs of Praise only a fortnight ago - already known and well liked, and an excellent choice, since she can start work quickly without housing hassles initially, since she and her husband have their own house. It's great news for Cathays, and a relief for me, to know that two of the churches I have cared for over the past four years will now be in good hands.

Clearing the desk
The Archbishop certainly moved fast in response to our urgent pleas, hastening to resolve urgent concerns before going on a well deserved sabbatical. I've been quite short with people who've moaned to me about him having several months of paid leave. They don't really have much idea how how much he has to carry, even with a small staff support team, fulfilling a demanding pastoral task of rallying flagging demoralised legions of faithful, coping with a bureaucratic system failing to catch up with the 20th let alone 21st century, despite the hi-tech tools at its disposal.

A thankless task
On top of this, Barry has a valued role as an Anglican Primate of the world wide Communion of churches, straining at the leashes to break apart because of the difficulties some member churches have with the idea of agreeing to disagree, respecting each other and living together with differences. Ease of modern international communications has taken Barry away from his diocese and province for too much for its own good for these high level deliberations which seem to have done little or nothing to prosecute the Gospel cause - 'the Primate Wars', my good friend Martin calls this. I resent all this as a waste of Barry's time, and our resources expended on processes which seem unconnected with the mission we're actually engaged with at home.

Contrary agendas
Do the 'led' really want to break communion with each other as much as the leaders think. Or is it just the 'led' who have cash and influence to spare, trying to be the tail that wags the ecclesiastical dog? I think most people don't much care about these so called divisive issues. They've moved on, seen life differently, and are aiming to live the Gospel truth from within their real experience of people and relationships, as close to the compassion of Jesus as they can get, closer than one can get just by endless debate over Biblical texts and church regulations. Sure we can't do without scripture, but following Christ in the everyday world is miles bigger than just scripture or church law. I don't notice Christ letting us down either. I wonder what He thinks about these power struggles.

When will we ever learn?
Our ways and means of management and self-government as church leave a great deal to be desired. Sometimes basic communication skills and disciplines seem to be lacking, other times it's a lack of accountability in decision making, as I've found in some of my dealings with the Representative Body of the Church in Wales. How we will ever become a mature egalitarian networking culture within the communities of the church is a mystery to me. We still cling to past privilege and status (under the guise of 'responsibility'), and look to a way of being in society that belongs to the past.

Time for time out
I'd hate to be in the driving seat, in Barry's position. He sure deserves a good break from it all. I hope he'll do as little as possible with his time, and enjoy some freedom from all activity, whether gainful or futile. Come January, I'll be taking time off as well, and heading for the Swiss Jura and Alps once more. This thought will make light work of the harsh pressures of the next ten weeks or so.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Family Treasure

The day after Jenny's farewell celebration, Clare and I attended a first ever Kimber family re-union at a hotel outside Bristol. This brought together thirty odd people, two of the four surviving aunts, cousins, spouses and offspring, including my daughter and grand daughter Rhiannon, who at two and a half was the youngest. We'd been promising for some years to get together on some occasion other than family funerals, but not got around to it, until cousin Dianne took charge of masterminding the arrangements. It was an excellent occasion for sharing photographs, comparing likenesses and telling stories, particularly of my paternal grandparents, and the family home in Duffryn Street, Ystrad Mynach in the Rhymney Valley in the days when coal was king in South Wales.

My grandfather John learned steel erection working on New York skyscrapers as a young migrant at the time of the Titanic, then returned home to marry Gwenllian, daughter of a market gardener in Cardiff, who was co-incidentally a stallholder in the market adjacent to St John's church, which is now centre of my ministry. He worked on mineshaft sinking projects all over the South Wales Coalfield. The family is said to have moved house 26 times before settling in Duffryn Street, when Grandpa became under-manager of nearby Penalla colliery. It was so near that there was a substantial coal tip (aka spoil heap) beyond the gardens the other side of Duffryn Street. As kids we used to play there. He trained me to recognise plant fossils imprinted in the abundant carboniferous shale of the tip.

It's really the internet which has brought our generation of cousins into contact wiht each other after what seems like decades of childrearing between weddings and funerals. Several are interested in the family tree, notably cousin Lindsay who has traced Kimber family ancestry almost back to the Civil War. My grandfather seems to have shared this interest in the family record, with his willingness to recount his offspring and thier deeds. The Family Bible, which John and Gwenllian bought when they married in 1904, was handed on, at my grandfather's death to my Uncle Mostyn, his youngest son, with the understanding that it should eventually pass to me as the son of the eldest son, my father Jack. Mostyn's widow, Auntie Mary brought the Family Bible with her to the re-union and handed it over to me to pass on eventually to my son for safe keeping.

I recall seeing it last at Grandpa's funeral over thirty years ago, and remember also looking at it with wonder as a child fifty years ago. It’s big and ornate, like a church lectern bible, typical of what was once commonly found in the best front room in family houses of my youth, though now somoewhat delapidated with one of its brass clasps missing. It’s not an Authorised Version King James Bible. It's called the National Comprehensive Family Bible, published locally by Jones and Jones in Porth, in the Rhondda. In addition to the text of scripture it contains notes and commentaries by notable bible scholars of the time.It's is a typical artifact of Victorian non-conformist religious culture, following the practice of the Geneva Bible, once common in Puritan influenced Britain, of printing scripture plus commentary side by side to assist in reader’s spiritual formation. This publishing practice continues with modern scholarly equivalents today.

I doubt if the choice of commentary much mattered to my grandparents. I don’t actually know if they read it with the children Sunday afternoons, as many pious families did in those days. It wasn't a practice I was brought up with. What I do know is that the ornately supplementary pages in the front of the book were used to record the births and achievements of their eight children and many grand-childen over the next sixty odd years. It's an old fashioned family database in fact.

Uncle Mostyn, writing just fifteen years ago, in a note inside the cover, comments on the book's worse for wear condition and speaks of it as a sacred heirloom testifying to generations raised on hardship. Grandma had penciled inside the front cover 'Please wash your hands before you handle this book, Mam'. Often it would be covered with a fine layer of dust, coal dust, polluting everything within a mile of the mine.

In varying degrees our family members were churchgoers, mostly Anglican. I suspect the book's contents were more revered than they were read. What mattered to them was that the family story, as it was recounted in the front pages, was bound together with the story of God’s dealing with humankind. This is, or should I say was, a commonplace heirloom, far less valued these days. Family Bibles turn up for auction on the internet or in antique shops, perhaps because a family line has come to an end, or perhaps because this treasury of memories no longer means anything to its inheritors.

There’s widespread interest in family trees these days, in gaining or re-gaining a sense of forgotten identity in a world where so many wish to be recognised only by what clothes they wear or beer they consume. It seems people want to know where they came from even if they don’t know where they are going to. Linking your story with God’s story in scripture requires a huge effort, a measure of hunger for the truth of our existence, the meaning of our lives. Old family bibles are a religious commodity from our past, when bible knowledge was so much more commonplace that it mattered less whether your family heirloom was read or not.

There’s not much point in lamenting that things aren’t what they used to be. We’re faced with the challenge of recovering the habit of reading and remembering scripture for its true worth, and recovering the habit of discussing it together as a natural enterprise of thinking people, rather than consuming the latest video epic giving its own spin on half a biblical narrative wrenched out of conext for misinterpretation.

I must say, I'm much taken by the Bible Society's catchword 'Bible poverty', not just to describe the situation in those parts of the world which don't yet have scripture to read in their native tongue, but those parts of the world where secularism deprives people of a sense of the value to be gained when one reads, marks, learns and inwardly digests, what has been written and is within everyone's reach for our godly learning.