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.

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