Sunday, December 31, 2006

With a whimper

Today marks the end of the Parish of Central Cardiff, dissolved as a Team Ministry Benefice by Episcopal decree, to make way for the creation of the two new Parishes of Cathays, and the City Parish of St John the Baptist. The Bishop's proposal to do this, in order to secure a full time priest working in the city centre, and another full time priest working in neighbouring student land, was occasioned by the appointment of my remaining team colleague to an Incumbency of her own, leaving me with four churches to provide for during the last four months of this year. Thankfully, Caroline Downs was quickly appointed Priest in Charge, and takes office just ten days into the New Year. A good appointment, and at a suitable time. All I had to do was get the Parish through its last four months of life, without a full-time partner. Thankfully, Chris my new voluntary Deacon colleague has proved more than capable of giving vital support to the Parish and me during this time.

I've no found this process easy because didn't agree with the proposal on principle, since a) the Team Benefice had worked well, been accepted and made progress; b) the fragmentation of pastoral areas at a time when numbers of pastors are sharply declining (by as much as 50% over a ten year period), could lead to further weakening as each Parish has to stand on its own feet, unable to rely on its neighbour for support. Thus the weakest could go to the wall, denying the principal of solidarity - all for one and one for all. My advocacy for more teamwork not less, fell on deaf ears in deliberations about the future by the Parishes of our Area Deanery, and in deliberations on the future by Central Cardiff parishioners. Sadly the body of the church seems to want to go in one direction and me in another. What am I doing here?

In early discussion, I took a back seat and insisted the decision to accept the plan must be taken by the lay leaders of the Benefice, as they would, in every way, be the ones paying the price for it. After the vote was taken, some declared they thought I was in favour of the proposal, as it seemed to be a means of releasing me from some of the administrative burden of running four churches, so they voted for it. What I've insisted that the Benefice needed to do even better, and put less strain on its ministers was proper secretarial support, nothing more.

Sadly, excess bureaucracy and form filling which the Church in Wales imposes on its clergy, has re-shaped Ministers of the Gospel into Administrators of the Church, to the detriment of pastoral care. Everyone sees it and complains about it, but nobody does anything practical to put things right. People have learned to expect that clergy will run things by default. That the clergy have to delegate is obvious to them, and some are willing to help, but clergy end up with the tasks nobody wants. They either have to be brave enough to do nothing and risk the wrath of parishioners and hierarchy, or spend too much time pleading or bullying others to do take on new things. When there are lots of keen helpful people on hand this is hardly a problem. The Vicar can be like a referee moderating between willing enthusiasts - it was a bit like that when I was Chaplain in Geneva - but here in Cardiff, where we don't have enough people with time, skills and energy to get everything done that needs doing, it gets harder and harder to persuade people to do things you yourself don't much believe are essential to Gospel mission.

I did succeed in seeing through the building of office accommodation, two years ago, but not in getting it staffed. It all goes to show how much notice has been taken of all that I had written about and preached in the past four years. It's been quite a humbling lesson actually. But then it is hard to enthuse people about sharing in the running of an institution whose ways they they tolerate for the love of God, and haven't the surplus energy to shake up and transform. Sadly all our church leaders, good caring men, are there because they are kind successful administrators. They may want reforms themselves but nothing too radical, and only in an orderly way, for fear of chaos, dissention and anarchy prevailing. All too often another enquiry form to be filled in arrives through the post with an apology for adding to the burdens of clergy and church officers. It shows something is felt not to be right, to my mind. 'Excuse me while I hit you again.' It says, a rather strange sub-text for the church, but not uncommon.

Admittedly there was a degree of hesitancy in the Parish decision making process, when people couldn't be totally sure of the outcome. However, trust in the Bishop's leadership was rightly accepted, and whatever my views, it was not my place to stand in the way, and once it was all agreed, it has been my task to make the formation of the new Parishes as clean and healthy as possible, with no unfinished business or trailing resentments. The tidy-up process has been fiddly - not only websites, but overlapping financial arrangements, changing all the publicity to indicate the change to the general public, (always a messy process), re-generating separate membership lists, and dividing up the child protection monitoring dossier. Only today did the last of these hand-over tasks get done.

Getting cover for the various services I physically couldn't do proved to be difficult and initially time consuming. Separating out various administrative threads of the two churches in each entity, so that each can have a fresh start, without unfinished business bogging it down, has taken much longer and more work than I expected. Finally, we reach the threshold of the new start. Nobody has had any enthusiasm to mark the passage, so there have been no rites or celebrations. Only two people asked if we were going to do anything, and didn't volunteer to make arrangements, so that's that. Well, not quite. The locum priest organised to help out at St Mikes today, went down with bronchitis at the last moment, and I couldn't arrange a substitute. Chris is on leave and out of the country, so the best I could organise was to consecrate enough bread and wine for communicants at the Saint Michael's service, and take it around there, in between early and main services, and leave two lay ministers to conduct worship and give Communion, with little preparation. It's the first time it's happened during my time in the Parish. They were good about being sprung upon, and took it with good humour.

There's a certain irony for me in seeing out the last Sunday in the Parish, as the only priest left. When I came four years ago, there were three colleagues in post, struggling to get on with each other, and I had to persuade them into becoming a proper team. Then, one by one, they moved on and weren't replaced - a sign of impoverished times. Meanwhile Team work among clergy fell totally out of fashion, leaving me alone in more senses than one.

No time for regrets though. Now it's possible to think hard about where we go from here.

Having thought of everybody and blessed them, as she always did, my dear Godmother died peacefully yesterday, cherished, with her daughter beside her, a few hours after Saddam was judicially killed, exuding contempt and sarcasm. A world of difference we could all do without. So much work to do to ensure God's good-will prevails, so little time to do it in.

Happy New Year, dear readers, wherever you are!

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