Monday, December 31, 2007

At the turn of the year

As the year ends, I have the benefit of solitude for reflection, as festive fireworks erupt an hour early over the neighbourhood, and the 'Calennig' fun-fair thumps away in Cathays Park, a quarter of a mile away. I think rides and attractions are fewer this year. A sign of recession maybe? Funfairs rely on many having a little extra cash to throw around. Taking a funfair on the road is a costly, risky business, and may well be extra sensitive to the chill wind of recession.

The weekly retail statistics from the city centre manager don't indicate a big downturn, but suggest continuing economic slow-down, even when the negative impact of city redevelopment is taken into account. It could be worse, but huge promotional efforts made by city business and management have compensated. A real sign of economic slowdown would be Cardiff's club culture waning and closures increasing rather than being the occasional blip associated with improvident management. With what sort of economic initiatives will the city government and businesses respond, when the going really gets tough?

Over reliance on consumer activity without means to generate real wealth is dangerous. Do we have sufficient courage, enterprise and imagination to make the most of Cardiff's scientific and technological wealth-creating capabilities? The city's economic development plan proposes a suitable framework, but where will the confidence to innovate come from? If recent sports achievements are any indicator, Cardiff and Wales in general has much to worry about in performance ability and inspirational leadership. Our Victorian ancestors achieved so much in creating world class industries and infrastructure. What are our new assets, and how can we sell them? We're much better off than our parents were on the back of old enterprise. Our expectations have outgrown those we inherited. But where does this take us?

The planet pays, through pollution and climate change. The kind of growth and development that has continued unabated for two centuries could now destroy us. The will to apply new ideas and technologies grows piecemeal, not yet globally. Economical growth is rarely matched by moral or spiritual development. Violence of one kind or another continues to be the preferred option for resolving problems despite its evident long term ineffectiveness.

At the heart of all religious traditions is a path of non-violence, yet religions still let themselves be hi-jacked and used as an alibi to defend violence. To those who rely on their rationality religion is the problem and needs to be done away with. Yet, rationality also delivers violent solutions to human problems within its terms of reference. When religion and rationality both lose touch with their source in the divine life, violence is the outcome.

How can religious believers engage better with others and help faith-abandoners to realise how to open themselves up to a way of being that makes a difference to everything in life? I don't speak of rituals or religiosity as such, but of that openheartness to the Beyond at the core of authentic discipleship.

However it's done, it can't be achieved as it was in previous generations. The external world, language, thought forms have changed too much for conventional religious language to fulfil its role. Do those of us who sense the burden of the call to evangelise, see that today we are stuttering and incohate in our efforts to convey the ultimate truth of our being to our contemporaries?

Perhaps we should.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

What a way to go

A couple of days after the official explanation of Benazir Bhutto's death as a tragic accident in a moment of mortal attack are being rubbished by film footage as grainy and wobbly as that of Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Expert interpreters identify a gunman shooting in close proximity to her car in a chaotic crowd seconds before the suicide bomber's self-detonation. Either way, the risk of self-exposure was hers. Her willingness to make herself vulnerable, to renounce really secure protection in order to connect with 'her people' is the real political legacy of her death. Dissembling governments, armies, security forces, insurgents and assassins all come and go and are soon forgotten. Christ's message lives on in acts like hers ; "He saved others, he cannot (will not) save himself." Self-sacrifice is ultimately the only fruitful act.

Non routine efforts

Up at 5.30am to take Clare to catch an early flight from Cardiff Airport. Quite a pleasant drive in the dark with little traffic. Drop off arrangements have been modified in the light of the Glasgow airport terror attack. Now one has to enter a gated car park, where it is possible to drop off a passenger about 100 yards from the terminal entrance, at the nearest point. Sensibly organised, although it's not obvious how one would drop off someone with a wheelchair and luggage.

Back home in time for breakfast at dawn and a little last minute sermon preparation before the eight o'clock Eucharist. The congregations all day were typically poor for a Christmas Sunday. By the afternoon my fresh early start was paying me back with tiredness.

Although it's a 'quiet' time, preparations for the coming months are already starting - Philip our tireless organist spent most of his Sunday afternoon introducing plastic sheeting into the organ to protect it against the dust that will be generated when the painters move in the week after next to decorate the interior of the nave. First they have to scrape off a layer of modern 1960's paint that has proved useless compared with the now recommended mediaeval limewash recipe that will replace it. From the organ conservation point of view, this is a big worry, but Philip, ever forward thinking, has been working out the best way to do this for some time.

Without people like Philip who express their commitment in the most mundane of practicalities, running a church like St John's would be unsustainable. Paying 'experts' to do such thing is out of the question and not nearly as effective as having someone who does it for love rather than money.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Untimely death observed

The news of Benazir Bhutto's death yesterday was the worst kind of news to wake up to in the quiet lull that follows the intensity of the Christmas celebration. The great Boxing Day Tsunami of three years ago was a similar occasion. It's been difficult to think of anything else since. The new wave of suffering and killing that will now be unleashed in reaction to a successful assassination attack. The whole world will wonder how Pakistan can be kept stable and prevented from destabilising the rest of world. The Tsunami was bad enough in terms of loss of life and the damage to communities and the econonomy throught South Asia, but nobody knows what might yet unfold from this killing.

At this morning's Eucharist, I prayed for Pakistan, and remembered her name during the prayers for the dead . It doesn't matter to me that she was a Muslim. She was also a wife and mother as well as a brave leader and inspirer of people. She may not have been the most wise or effective of political minds, but she was someone around whom all sorts of people could gather, and voice their hopes for a future free of violence and tyranny. Someone seeking the kingdom of God, according to her lights. Someone to give thanks for, despite her failings and failures.

If the reports are truthful, and Ms Bhutto died of a broken neck, sustained as a result of blast injury from the suicide bomber, then it was an unlucky error that killed her - risking putting her head out of the car to acknowledge her supporters, just at the wrong moment. But what a tragic irony, and contrast, when her father also died as his neck was broken by the hangman's noose in a judicial execution.

Looking at photographs of her over forty years of public life it struck me just how beautiful a woman she throughout her life. Not the pouting sexualised trivial sort of 'beauty' that degrades and demeans western womanhood in much of the media, but a physical beauty that expresses strength, dignity and courage - inspirational rather than seductive. The world needs more like her. But how will the men of violence be hindered from destroying more people who are the evidence of real human progress? The world sometimes seems full of people who just want to deface it, pollute it and strew it with their litter. Another young person murdered by stabbing in London today. Violence in whichever direction you look.

May Benazir Bhutto rest in peace. May Pakistan, and all the rest of the world find some way to stem the tide of violence.

I keep on repeating the mantra - 'Overcome evil with good'

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day aeration

Boxing Day brunch after a long lazy sleep, a quick visit to comfort our son Owain who is down with the dreaded lurghy, and needing only to feed and sleep, then off to Barry for an invigorating walk along the beaches from Cold Knapp. Just a scattering of people out taking the mild air, and the tide right out, optimising walkable areas. The rain held off and the sun peeked through. All was calm and bright, and laced with quiet contentment. Except that Clare too seems to have the dreaded lurghy.

Thinking Anglicans remarked on St Stephen's Day being one of the poorest observed of the year, amongst (exhausted) clerics and laity alike. The Boxing Day edition of 'The Archers' was all about the Boxing Day shoot, with no mention of religious observances at St Stephen's fictional Parish Church, Ambridge. Not even the go-ahead Vicar Alan who wants to remove the pews and make the church more engaged in community activities seems to have got this one sorted. The Archers' message boards have no mention of this omission, unless it's deeply buried in tradition.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas comes - often it seems (2)

Midnight Mass was unusual. Instead of seeing five out of six familiar faces, it was five out of six unfamiliar faces - visitors from near and far away, including members of a holiday package tour, staying at the Marriott. Numbers again were identical to the morning and apart from the handful of choristers and stewards, different visitors were there, not just older people, also young Asians from India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan - students, professional interns or travellers tasting Cardiff life.

I was glad not to have to get up for an early service, and despite a short night's sleep, I was relaxed and fresh enough to preach off the cuff, rather than repeat my Midnight Mass sermon. Again, numbers in church were about the same as at Midnight Mass, communicant numbers were the same, but those attending were again different, apart from the small core group. I guesstimate this means about 150 people attended four services in the Parish during the last 24 hours, and 120 of these received communion. Of all these two dozen were known regulars, and the rest were passing through Cardiff from other places.

It struck me as I prepared to celebrate that those Nativity stories are all stories about travellers and travelling, even the Saviour's birth. When we move around we experience familiar things from a new perspective. What's remarkable about this generation is that so many people are on the move because of leisure tourism rather than necessity. The challenge is how to speak to their hearts about things eternal in a way that makes a lasting difference. The trouble with so much consumer travel is that it's a superficial sensation based experience from start to finish.

I was so pleased that among the visitors this morning were Rupert and Kitty a couple whose wedding ceremony I'd performed four years ago. They've come at Christmas before when visiting family in Cardiff, but this time they brought their new first born son Sebastien with them, replete with a Rudoph the Red Nosed Reindeer bonnet with antlers. Such a delight to share their joy.

I was relieved to reach the end of such an intense time time of offering worship with so many people unfamiliar with our liturgy, yet wanting to be there and listen even if they didn't know enough music to sing along. To drive home from church and just relax quietly before lunch was a blessing in itself. For once, in decades, I didn't fall asleep, either before lunch or afterwards. Now, for a few days at least, there's no more fuss, no more visitors, no more arrangements to be made. For me, this is a feast in its own right. A modest space in which to contemplate 'God with us', and try to put the year in order before it rushes to a close.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas comes - often it seems

On my way to the city centre manager's office to pick up some Business Safe Mail, I caught a group of Salvation Army musicians from the Grangetown Corps playing carols on the Hayes, and raising funds as they always do on Christmas Eve. Happily I had my camera with me and took a photo from the same position as I took one of the band at this time of year two years back, when Oxford House was still standing. What a contrast between the views!

When I went to greet them, I saw bandmaster Captain Eric Smith with whom I'd worked on several ecumenical collaborations in recent years. Not so this year. The City Centre Churches Together Group simply had no energy to expend on a joint celebration. I wanted to apologise for this, but thought no, let me just resolve to ensure something worthwhile happens at St John's next year, and not wait in vain for a collaboration that may not materialise. Some local churches haven't returned their Spiritual Capital questionnaire, despite being co-sponsors of this research venture. Chasing up local colleagues on non-communication issues is embarrassing as well as disappointing.

As I made my way back to church for the Eucharist, the Sally Army was there connecting with the public - the sound of peace and goodwill at one end of the street, while at the other end, the bells of St John's were ringing announcing the worship to take place. Just as it should be.

An ITV News crew came to church to film for their Christmas Eve programme. They didn't want an interview, which was just as well. There was much to arrange in a short time, as people were arriving, and I'm just a bit short handed with a couple of key regulars away for the feast. There were over fifty people at the Eucharist. 38 took communion. Many of them were our regulars, and I don't expect to see them later or tomorrow. There were just six of us at Tredegarville School for their Christmas Eucharist at six. Disappointing, but the important thing is to be a praying presence there. It's a Christian school all year round and not just in term time.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

O Immanuel - children as evangelists, again

A chilly early Sunday start. Thankfully the church central heating timer/thermostat was behaving so the building was warm and welcoming. After the eight o'clock Eucharist, I transported the borrowed votive candle stand back to St Dyfrig & St Samson's, where it will be needed over Christmas, and in doing so had the opportunity to greet my old friend Fr Graham before the great feast. Apart from monthly clergy breakfasts it's a rarity that we have time to get together socially these days.

The small handful of regular Sunday School children with friendly support from occasional visiting children told us the nativity story instead of a sermon at the Parish Eucharist. Hannah, a bright and active two year old, dressed as an angel giggled loudly and ran about fairly quietly. Sheer delight. Janie's lovely little Josh missed out - he has chicken pox. Bethan was confident narrating with a strong voice for a nine year old. What a joy for us all.

A brief PCC meeting after refreshments and before last minute choir practice for this evening. It's hard to find a time that works when so many people have such busy lives. The compromise is to make sure people know what's happening in between meetings, make sure there's a written report for people to mull over between meetings, and not to take snap decisions - act only on what emerges as a consensus, and make sure any firm decision is progressed. We have a start now on work around plans associated with church re-decoration, and a Faculty petition to ensure work on west entrance modifications can be started as soon as north and south aisle painting is completed. It's comforting that we can afford the work ahead of us, thanks to all the hard effort put into earning through the Tea Room. 2008 will be a year of transformation if all goes according to plan.

Paul Gregory, Cathays Churchwarden came to join us for the Tredegarville afternoon Eucharist, a pleasant and welcome surprise, particularly as the school heating is off for the vacation. We have a Christmas eve Eucharist there tomorrow. After the service I took Communion to one of the long standing housebound members of St James' - always so welcoming and interested in what is going on outside the confines of her two room apartment. It would do me good to visit her more often, to remind me of just how positive someone can be living with severe limitations when I find the constraints of the job, not to mention work/life balance so difficult to manage.

The service of Nine Lessons and Carols by candlelight went very well. Bethan not only read (the second time in the day), but also played the opening verse of 'Once in Royal David's City' on the flugelhorn, (which she's currently learning to play) to open the service. Quite a challenge for a nine year old - by candlelight, fussed over by nervous adults. She just loves to make a sensible contribution to events, and is always full of the questions of the really interested. I suspect she takes after her grandma, who brings her to church, rings bells when she can, and does the refreshments after the Sunday Eucharist.

And tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Three services to take, no sermon written yet, and quite a few other jobs to do as well.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

O king of the nations - untimely feasting

An orchestral concert of Christmas music graced St John's this afternoon. To my delight over a hundred people turned up and paid for the pleasure of listening to popular classics brilliantly played by an orchestra of young professionals. I hope it will be the first of many. The orchestra, known as the Lucy J Morgan ensemble would like to make St John's their performance home base.

With the Tea Room closed for the Christmas break I was fearful that there'd be nobody around to keep and eye on the building and the musicians' needs. When I got into church to open up, I found other already there, preparing for services tomorrow, and Ian came in and acted as minder over lunchtime. This was good as it freed me to go to a children's theatre performance at the Sherman, with all the rest of the family. I got there just in time to enjoy the whole thing.

We returned home and had a cold turkey lunch with Chrismtas pudding and a first session of present exchange, before I had to head back to church for the concert - I'd been asked to open and close - it was a duty that turned into an unexpected pleasure. Nevertheless, all jobs done, it was an even grater pleasure to return home and catch up on the week and the family.

O Dayspring - the shortest day

Tredegarville End of term school Eucharist and blessing of crib this morning with Father Roy. Around 40% of the children were absent. The reason? Eid ul Adha began yesterday, and all the Muslim children stay home for several days of feasting and visits. It's the feast that ends the Hajj in Mecca commemorating Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, but is widely observed as it's in the middle of the last month in the Muslim calendar.

Within the month we've had Diwali, Hannukah, Eid ul Adha and soon Christmas. If the festivals don't clash there's no problem with Muslim pupils taking part in Christian celebrations - last year a Muslim girl sang the part of the Virgin Mary in a carol service. This year I think I saw just one child in school wearing a hijab instead of a dozen or more, and possibly she was these because she comes from a country where it is not usual to have more than one day off for such a holiday. Practice is as variable in Islamic countries as it is in Christian ones.

Today is the end of term, and for me, my last visit until I return from leave, a fortnight into the school term. I shall miss that contact with so many children from all over the world. Their delight and enthusiasm for life is so inspiring.

Christmas at home for us begins early this year, as Rhiannon and her parents are spending the weekend with us before flying to Spain for Christmas and New Year. Any pretence at maintaining traditional Advent restraint is futile when everyone wants a family Christmas feast, regardless of the date. It's so good to be together, there's nothing more to do than give thanks. I can make up for it some other time if I so desire.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

O clavis David - the poverty of consumerism

After the Eucharist today there were a few tasks to perform around church, and some more garden clearing up to do. I'm determined to make all our five church yards look clean and decent, free of rubbish for the festal season, knowing full well that day after day shoppers and revellers will continue dumping stuff over the railings. It makes me angry to think of how careless consumers are, just as it makes me angry that no amount of appealing to the council will secure additional litter bins for the area, or bicycle rack - so bikes get chained to the railings and across entrances even, ruining the paintwork and causing a nuisance as a result. It's been like this ever since I've been in office and probably for many year before.

It was cold out in the chuchyard, and I came into church every now and then to thaw out a little. On one occasion I saw a young girl in her late teens praying aloud in the side aisle. After a while she noticed me and accosted me, to ask for advice.

She said she was a new Christian and had been helped to come off heroin by a Teen Challenge evangelist and was now learning from scratch how to walk the walk of faith in Christ. She was struggling over asking God's advice about what to buy as Christmas presents for people - sure she should ask, but unclear about what to expect. A voice in the ear maybe? I told her not to expect anything like that, but to rely on the sense of God's love she already had to guide her whenever she thought about people she wanted to buy for. Trust common sense, trust love, be open to new ideas. That was the best I could do. I prayed with her, and she went off happy, admitting before she did that she was still on methadone and still resorted to the odd alcopop and a couple of valium to cheer her along. But going in the right direction, learning to trust in something she could not consume or control.

How many young people are there around like her, whose knowledge of drugs and intoxicants of all kinds far exceeds their knowledge of God's Word and Wisdom? Thankfully there are evangelists around who are able to work with those who've been failed by their families, the church and civil society in not educating and protecting them against the mortal dangers of this age. But is there sufficient concern? Each night this week the streets of Cardiff will be awash with drunken revellers celebrating Christmas 'their way'. It yields nothing constructive apart from profits for brewers and distillers and tax for the government. How much longer can it go on? I almost makes me want to pray for recession and a return of the time of shortages and poor wages I grew up with. We just don't seem to know what to do with excess wealth apart from over consume unwisely.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

O radix Jesse - misfitting technology

Tredegarville School held its big carol service this morning in St German's Church. It's a vast imposingly beautiful building, able to take an amazingly tall Christmas tree without it seeming disproportionately large. Fortunately the microphone used by the children worked well enough to allow their specially written Christmas narrative to be heard, with all their different accents, and pace of speech to remind us of the diversity of their homes and backgrounds,

It's a real worry arranging events with people who may not be accustomed to using a particular church PA system, to ensure speakers can be heard well throughout the building, whether its great or small in size. These days, most churches rely on valiant volunteers. It's not the same as the old time caretaker or Verger who can double up as a technician, a security officer, handyman and switch roles if needed when things to wrong. It's dreadful when a microphone battery dies during an important moment with a church full of visitors. I know a single-handed country priest with four churches who never leaves home without spare batteries, a biro or matches - just in case.

We have a recurrent problem with central heating at St John's at the moment. Everything works perfectly. The problem is that the radio linked thermostat has a timer with such an esoteric programme of settings that nobody reading the manual and then playing with it can remember for long how they got it right if they did. We go through periods when it works fine as it should, then one of its four obscurely labelled buttons gets touched accidentally so that next time someone goes to manually adjust the temperature they end up doing the unintended, and plunging the building into ice age for half a day, instead of keeping the temperature at a stable moderate 14-15 degrees. It's just too complex by far for the intended purpose. So frustrating.

It's like the computers you buy off the shelf in the big electrical commodity chain stores. They contain so much stuff you never use, and nags or ruses to persuade you that you should use stuff you don't need or want. Known by techies as bloatware or crapware, a new computer loaded with this stuff can be a time wasting nightmare to set up and make fit for purpose. The companies which make so many of these useful add-ons give financial incentives to the computer manufacturers to use their products. This means the commodity can either be sold cheaper, or at an improved profit margin. For the consumer it means time wasted getting started.

Pauline bought a new HP laptop this week to use for tea room accounts, having put it off for months because of the time swallowed up getting started, which she can't find in her busy life. I offered to 'commission' the new machine for her, as I did her desktop machine eighteen months ago. So she trusted me to strip out the useless and confusing software and deliver it to her ready to use. It took me just a couple of hours of machine minding while doing another job, and a brief visit to her place to register the wireless modem password settings, and install a printer or two.

So she's now got a working Vista laptop with all its bells and whistles in the name of security. A fresh install of Ubuntu Linux on her machine would have taken only half an hour to have given her a system fit for purpose. But persuading her to do this and showing her how it worked would have taken more time than either of us has to spare. How much time and energy is wasted by people getting their expensive commodity items to work the way they want them to? One day we'll have have kit that just works out of the box - like Macs do - did I hear anyone say?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

O Adonai - survey non-responsiveness

I've just received a database of the responses to the Spiritual Capital survy questionnaire, about a 25% return on those sent out, and astonishingly to me, such a dearth of replies from fellow Anglican clergy in parishes acrosss the city that the content of the survey would give a totally unrepresentative portrait of our kind of church life in Cardiff.

Having said that, it was also notable that only half of the member churches of the City Centre Churches Together, the sponsoring body of the research project had returned their forms.

Anyway, I sat down and wrote an email attaching the questionnaire, appealing to my two dozen or so colleagues across the city to fill one in and return as soon as possible - the deadline is already nearly a month past.

Within half a day, I received three positive responses. Nothing more.

Sure I can sympathise with being too busy to bother, fed up with being pestered with questionnaires, because for the most part clergy don't have secretaries or people keen to share their burden of paperwork. But, this also serves to explain why local government and others find it so difficult to obtain an authentic picture of churches' life and participation in local community building. It's an excuse for not taking the totality of religious communities seriously at all. It's also an excuse for only paying attention to any religious group that shouts loudest and turns threatening.

Churches think they do a lot to serve local communities and to promote social inclusion. Our Bishops have this week issued a public statement in response to a new Welsh Assembly Government strategy paper on social justice and inclusion, in which they offer our civil leaders the resources and experience of the church in the service of common aims.

Clergy and churchgoers aren't often that good at responding to their leaders' exhortations. Some even resist on principle. Communication top-down, despite the paper and the procedures is rarely as good or effective as it desires to be. The same is true of communication from the outside in, as the non-response to our University-led survey has shown. It seems to me this is due to believers being so turned in on themselves, preoccupied with survival at different levels. Even being 'church for others' is reduced to reaching those within close range, those who are like me. We seem to have forgotten that those who seek to save their lives will lose them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

O Sapientia - just another Monday?

Getting up early on a Monday morning is no pleasure when I'm just wanting to recover from the demands of Sunday, but today was necessary as Haskins the glaziers were returning to install the North West nave stained glass window, removed for stonework repairs over a month ago. Thank heavens it was a crisp and sunny morning when I opened up for them to start work at 8.20am. As ever,the streets around were filled with huge vehicles dropping off goods for the pubs clubs shops and market, dwarfing the glaziers' van.

I had to wait around for others to show up to open the tea room and for the final day of trading for the charity card shop, so I donned the safety gloves and spent an hour picking litter from three different sections of churchyard. Two black bags worth of rubbish, all the usual stuff - paper and plastic bags, glass and plastic bottles, congealed copies of the Metro newspaper dumped over the railings, publicity flyers from the pubs, and endless serviettes, blown in by the wind and bonded to concrete by winter rain. The only good thing was six pence in small change. Some people throw coins they don't want into the churchyard, or is it at the church.

Why do I go on about it so much? Every discarded object is another contribution to a couldn't care less society, destined to smother under its own carbon excess consumption without either a radical collective change of heart or a draconian regime whose emergency 'excesses' nobody will relish. It makes me ashamed. I feel like a stranger in this culture. But then so do many older people these days. What did we do wrong that our children, and our children's children consume and discard so shamelessly? What did we do? We got rich - and it's done us not a lot of good ultimately.

At lunchtime I presided over a Welsh Assembly Government carol service for about a hundred employees. Reading the first lesson (the Fall of Adam) as he has done each year since I've been in post was Permanent Secretary, Sir John Shortridge. This was his last official appearance with us setting the tone for the event by his presence and participation. Since he's about to retire, I conveyed our good wishes to him at the beginning of the service. By the time we started the entire stained glass window was installed and looked radiantly fresh in the midday sun, transformed by a session in the stained glass workshop.

After lunch, mince pies at God on Mondays, but quite a small gathering, which makes me wonder about the future. Winter sicknesses certainly played their part, but there are few new participants this term to replace those who've moved on.

I returned to church for a late afternoon meeting with Kath Richards, one of County Hall's public relations people, to discuss my concerns about the lopsided projection of the City conveyed by its range of publications, in which it seems hardly anyone works gainfully, most people are young and seem to be having a good time, and there are no evidences of public religious buildings portrayed in pictures of the city-scape.

Equally problematic is communication within the local government and between local government and the public during periods of change. We've been plagued with enormous confusion recently, and it seems to be a symptom of poor internal relationships between different responsibility sectors. None of these things serves well to advertise the reliability of our city to potential investors. There's nothing new about my nagging on this front, and I don't suppose anything will change. But I keep on nagging in hope anyway.

I was thrilled to see that the glaziers had also fitted a new stone-guard to the window they'd worked on. What a marvellous day's work they put in before heading back to Kingswood in Bristol. A good three hours longer than mine. They have my highest admiration.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Family treasures

In the midst of a busy weekend we had a visit from our grand daughter Rhiannon and her lovely parents Kath and Anto. The experience of the light of joy in a child's face at this time of year so captures something of the real Advent spirit. Clare and Rhiannon decorated the Christmas tree together and assembled the crib scene, made of painted clay figurines modelled in a Bristol Junior school classroom over 25 years ago, and added to with various visiting animals and angels ever since. Our children, even as adults, have always been happy to share in these tasks. Having the child of one's own child to initiate into a family tradition is a priceless treasure of a blessing.

It was also lovely to receive an email from a friend in Sweden relating her experience with two step children, her infant daughter and husband at church and St Lucy festivities together, and reflecting how, all over the world families bond around their handed down rituals, recipes and small seasonal pilgrimages.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks last week spoke about how Hanukkah had started life as the commemoration of an important Jewish victory which returned them to freedom autonomy, but with the passage of time, and the reversal of those gains, the festival became instead a festival of the freedom to practice one's faith, something which has left the Jewish community passionate about everyone's religious freedoms, not just their own, and rejoicing in the marvellous diversity of faiths openly and freely practised in Britain today. In a way our contemporary society now much more resembles the way things were before Christianity predominated. The way things are and have been for millennia in many corners of the earth.

It isn't people of faith who find this a problem, but those who live by suspicion and distrust. Such a pity that so often they seem so loud and predominant in public. It's as if they received nothing much handed down in their family tradition worthy of treasuring.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Working out where we stand

The doctor was satisfied today that my blood pressure was 'normal', for a change. Whatever small adjustments I have made in my diet and lifestyle in recent months, not to mention getting back to vigorous cycling and walking, is hopefully taking effect. It doesn't alter the fact that the régime of medication he's kept me on has led to my being refused an annual travel insurance policy by Boots Travel. And, it's a preventative prescription, not just a damage limitation one. Annoying.

We had a Business Safe Board of Management meeting today, continuing to work out where we stand in relation to the city government, and how to ensure the current enforced distancing of City Centre Management employees from CBS work doesn't lead to more chaos and communication problems. Whatever was intended, it's sabotaging the situation and grievously undermining staff morale.

Add to this the chaos surrounding the enforced 'transformation' of St Mary Street into a pedestrian zone, undertaken without any consultation with the Bus Companies about how they are going to get passengers in and out of the city, either from near or far away, and you have some idea of just how old style leadership in local government is simply not fit for purpose. Officers complain that politicians interfere too much, politicians never seem to be fully in the picture, whether because they cannot understand the picture or because the vital information is being withheld - who knows?
This week, saw the resignation of Councillor Elgan Morgan, who has been overseeing city centre changes (which I know have been on the Officers' agenda since well before he was elected to the present Council), and the appointment of Simon Wakefield, a local academic with city centre knowledge and planning expertise. It's a poisoned chalice, but he has a good sense of humour, and can call a spade a spade in a way that makes people smile. That's got to be an asset in this presently grim situation.

I also learned today that Cardiff Business Safe features as the communications network for use in the City Centre's Emergency Evacuation Plan. This is good news, and re-enforces the need for CBS to secure its operational future, and its independence from the vagaries of local politics and the current back office intrigue distancing local government from CBS. There is a way forward, and it requires that we are very clear about our 'mission', and our boundaries.

Thinking about this, we had the Kidney Wales carol service at St John's this evening, with me in the role as liturgical compère, at the insistence of my good friend Roy Thomas, the charity's chairman. Now Kidney Wales is a model of clarity about its 'mission' as a charity in support of the kidney transplant service, and enables thousands of people to pull together in fund-raising and publicity education campaigns. One can say that the nature of the cause gives it a unifying focus.

The same should be true of an enterprise devoted to crime prevention, as a service to public welfare, but in reality the weakening of social concensus, moral laxity, over-tolerance of certain kinds of dysfunction, discourtesy and bad manners numb the senses. We call things 'a crime' which aren't, and overlook things which are crimes. This can lead to a blurring of the focus on crime prevention, and ambivalence to the purpose of CBS. If the church were more forthcoming about values that are an antidote to crime and disorder, maybe social concensus would be less diffuse and the focus of CBS would be consequently sharper. If only .... Why am I involved, if not for this?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Active on several fronts at once

A valuable meeting today for Ian Thomas and myself with John Winton, the Welsh Apostle of Church Tourism, as I think of him, being the prime mover and director of Churches Tourism Network Wales John came over to St John's to share his considerable knowledge with us about organisations that may be willing to fund a project to help us develop further our activities in relation to church tourists and visitors.

Now that remedial work on window stonework in the northwest aisle is near completion, our minds are set on re-decorating the church interior in the New Year, and working on ideas to open up the west end of the nave and tower entrance to make visitor access safer and user friendly. We need to do this and work on new ways to promote St John's in relation to the mediaeval history of town and castle. Ian is certainly the man to do this, with his knowledge of the tourism industry and enthusiasm for making contacts with people all over the city centre. The church is becoming better known because it has several active lay people and a priest who are interested in the people who make this city the marvellous place it is.

In the afternoon I attended the meeting of St John's Ambulance Chaplains, assembled at HQ down the Bay for one of its two meetings a year. A most informative and useful briefing paper on caring for people of different religious and cultural backgrounds was discussed and welcomed - very much in keeping with the inclusive spirit of the organisations which happily and thoughtfully has been welcoming Hindu, Muslim and Sikh ambulance cadets now for decades. An Order of Chivalry dedicated to care and healing, with moral and spiritual roots in multi-faith eleventh century Jerusalem could hardly be otherwise. Ancient and modern, all in one.

Later, in the evening, 250 members of the Order came to St John's for the annual carol service, complete with Cwmbach's 60 strong male voice choir, a harpist and an operatic soloist with an unpronouncable Asian name - as I discovered when I tried to read it off the sheet unrehearsed during my welcome at the beginning.

It was a good event, but my mind was largely elsewhere, thinking about the fulfilling the tasks I have undertaken as Company Secretary (pro tem) of Cardiff Business Safe, to formalise its action-driven policy and help secure its future as an organisation in the service of the public and the retailers of the city.

Since the demise of the Cardiff Initiative, Local Government has not exactly been helpful towards this key enterprise serving the welfare of the city, and made it painfully difficult for those who have seen the need and cared about securing its future operations. Whatever the reasons, I am determined it shouldn't continue like this. I got involved because I can see the bigger picture, and want to see justice done. Where there's a will there's a way.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tidying up time (3)

I just filed my first ever return at Companies' House by popping up to their headquarters, at the top end of the old Parish. Just outside the boundary line, on Crown way stands the imposing assembly of redbrick buildings with a multi storey car park which seems to be almost a third of the size of the whole complex.

The receptionist who issued a document receipt seemed distracted by the scores of people who were strolling out of the building at 2.30pm. Was it a fire alarm drill, I wondered, or a wildcat walk out? No - not the latter. There'd be a form to fill in and a fee to pay before anything happened.

Now I wait to see if the documents pass scrutiny, as they need to, and whether CBS Ltd. will be fined for late delivery, after my plea for indulgence a fortnight ago.

'After death comes judgement' says Hebrews 9:27 - a very Advent-ish thought. Waiting and seeing after making the submission is a bit like that. Not quite purgatory - that comes if we got it wrong.

Tidying up time (2)

A lovely crisp sunny morning. Waiting at church for a call for a rendezvous I have time to kill and the sight of rubbish in the church yard irritates me, so I get a bag, a picker and a gloves and take some bending down exercise.

The leaves are beautiful, but someone has sown styrofoam packaging beads among them, and they look so badly out of place, so artificial. Also strewn among the leaves, on the grass and in the flower beds, are cigarette butts, their packages and film wrappers, drinking straws, the lids and trays from take away cups, sugar packaging, tickets, promotional flyers, cardboard and styrofoam cups, bottles - plastic and glass, bags - paper and glass, food trays - slow and fast - sandwich wrappers, paper hand towels and tissues, shreds of newspaper, plastic cable ties once used to secure banners, even lengths of used duct tape.

This is all the regular stuff. After an outbreak of strong winds, guaranteed there'll be a broken umbrella. Twice last week I counted six cheap umbrellas broken abandoned in the street during my mile walk to church. On each occasion only one was placed in a rubbish bin.

Here's a list of the most frequently picked up branded pieces of rubbish :

Macdonalds' boxes and cups
Burger King boxes and cups
Cornish Pastie Shop bags
Costa and Café Nero cups
Cigarette packets

Then it's soft drink plastic bottles, including spring water bottles and cans which are widely sold in stores large and small. After that it's small lager bottles, often smashed, indicating the state of mind of the consumer. Wine and spirits bottles are less frequently found.

If I had 20 pence for every item I picked up, and did it several times a week for a year, I'd be able to pay for a new Apple Macbook.

Now, the Council seem reluctant to move forward on providing any new rubbish bins (and cycle racks) or introduce Street Warden scheme with powers to fine litter droppers - I reckon it'd soon pay for itself, through fines and reduced cleansing costs.

So why not introduce a standard 20p charge per item with disposable packaging, which could be refunded by those returning items to collecting points. It could give a source of income to city beggars in exchange for real socially constructive labour.

Well, I can dream. Too many of the 'Proud Capital's' citizens are beyond caring about pride and turn our streets into a midden, hardly ever challenged. I know I'm not alone in hating this civic slovenliness. But changing attitudes and getting real action requires a lot more than funding, political will or bright ideas. We're as perverse a bunch as we are sloppy.

I'm sure the exercise did me good anyway.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Day of performances

An overnight trip for us to Kenilworth to watch granddaughter Rhiannon and fifty other under fours sharing in the same playgroup take part in a nativity tableau in the Parish Church of St John the Evangelist. This year she was one of the Wise Men, and mum bought her a special costume in Woolworths. It was wonderful to behold the enthusiastic involvement of all these little ones, parading around and singing (or shouting) with gusto.

Despite the evidence of sophisticated display technology (a huge state of the art screen hinged out from one wall, showing larger than life video feeds of the stage for all at the back to see, neither church heating nor amplification was switched on, making it daunting for the audience on a chilly day, but the kids didn't seem to notice. They were either all grins, or awestruck with amazement. It just amazes me how making the church welcoming to all comers seems so difficult to get right. There wasn't even an apology or a welcome from anyone representing the church. However, the playgroup leaders did an excellent job, and my personal word of congratulation at the end seemed to be appreciated.

We had to drive straight back to Cardiff after the performance, so that I could be on time for the usual God on Mondays. Fortunately the weather and road conditions were good and enabled us to make good time, and I was able to grab some lunch and catch up on necessary details before going down to school. Then there were final preparations to take care of in order to present the CBS Ltd. Annual Report by tomorrow's deadline, involving a lot of waiting for others to turn up, followed by spending the rest of the evening in and around church waiting and the clearing up after the day long visit of a production team working with choirs and a live audience to film the Christmas TV broadcast of the Welsh S4C channel's 'Dechrau Canu Dechrau Canmol' hymn fest.

Having a full TV crew in church is always a nightmare as they turn the place upside down to make it into a temporary studio. No matter what precautions you take, there's always collateral damage caused by men absorbed in their task ignoring their environmental impact, banging into things and damaging them and hardly noticing. This was encapsulated for me once, watching a film of a Latin American solider shooting dead the very cameraman who had him in focus.

Philip the organist was justifiably hopping mad to find a long score mark across a century old pristine oak panel, caused by someone trying to squeeze their equipment into a tiny space for a special angled shot. He vented his fury in the most sustained and controlled way to the producer afterwards - which saved me shouting at him, I guess. I was also annoyed.

It's always the same. We want our lovely building to be well used and well publicised, but whatever we do there's a price to be paid - extra time sweeping up and caretaking after the crew or visitors have left thinking they've put things right. But they're tired too, after an intense day's work, and know nothing of who will follow them in using the church the following morning.

Those last out of the building are the ones who remember what it's supposed to look like. I'm just so lucky that it's rare for me to be alone and last. Other members of the church welcome team are there too keeping an eye on events, forestalling problems, limiting the damage of the careless. It's what has to be when you can't afford a caretaker. It's just wonderful that practical responsibility for being a 'church for others' is seen as a shared task. When St Paul spoke of his "daily burden of concern for the churches" though, I don't think this was what he had in mind.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Feeling better

Another long day - the evening being taken up with overseeing the LGCM Annual Carol Service, switched to a Saturday evening from a Sunday this year. It was miserable and wet, but that didn't deter people from coming. There were a hundred present altogether, only slightly down from last year, so that was pleasing.

I spent four hours washing dishes as part of the Tea Room team, as we held a special fund raising day in appreciation of and support for the work of St Luke's Hospital for the Clergy, where I had my hernia repair done back in the autumn. Between donations and sales just over £500 was raised for their development fund. I was utterly delighted. Also delighted to feel fit and well enough to enjoy being on my feet working at the sink for so long without hindrance.

During the carol service I couldn't help remembering how shaky I was at this event last year, when I had to defend myself from the assaults of mentally disturbed young man, who tore the shoulder of my leather jacket just before I was about to get up and give the final blessing. I had no injury, but with my blood pressure condition not yet stabilised, I felt really shaken up.

Now the medication regime seems to work and my general level of fitness has improved after the hernia repair, so I don't feel as if I'm having to drag my body around the place quite so much. One other thing has changed. It's now a year since I renounced drinking coffee as an experiment. I still love the smell, but don't touch a drop.

Living without reliance on one everyday stimulant has shown me how hard I've tended to drive myself for most of my life. Now I sleep better, and pace myself in a more relaxed way, and this means a lot more enjoyment life, and no less achievement in the tasks that present themselves in everyday life. That's a lot to give thanks for.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Tidying up time

Advent so far seems to be tidying up time for me.

Lately I acquired the (hopefully temporary) role of Company Secretary to Cardiff Business Safe Limited, the organisation which addresses the problem of Business Crime in the City. It was a way to say 'thank you' for the charitable gift of a radio subscription to St John's Tea Room, to help us cope with the problem of our persistent purse thief. We all cheered when, several weeks ago now, he was again caught with evidence of his activities, and later asked for several other crimes, out of his hundreds, to be taken into consideration. One small piece of evidence that anti Business Crime networking works. I'd say it's pretty essential to everyone trying to earn a living out of retail trading in the city.

The demise of the CBS Limited sponsoring body Cardiff Initiative over a year ago, shook the foundations somewhat, and neglected some of its administrative activities in the fervent pursuit of the day to day operation of crime prevention. There was a bit of a mess, and I offered as a church representative of the Retail Partnership Board, to try and sort out the annual returns for Companies House. I'm well known in church circles as hostile to excessive administration, but none of my moaning about this for the past five years has made a jot of difference, so I comply grudgingly and as diligently as I can. But, looking at what hadn't been done for CBS Limited, I thought, I've seen this kind of admin before, as a director of St Teilo Arts Trust, school governor and as Team Rector. So why not just pitch in and give a hand, tidy things up a bit?

It hasn't taken a huge amount of time - not even a re-write of the Constitution now needed in the light of changed circumstances. Getting it adopted by stakeholders in CBS is another matter, but that's a task for the New Year. The City Council didn't what anything to do with CBS when Cardiff Initiative collapsed. It rescued the essential enterprise of City Centre Management and Cardiff Marketing by taking on their staff and paying them. This wasn't necessary for CBS, as its Business Crime Prevention Co-ordinator is paid by South Wales Police as one of their Community Support Officers, and it was generating a modest income and seemingly not vulnerable - except for the background tasks of administrative and management support. This has proved to be the Achillee's heel threatening to bring down the whole operation.

People paid a whole lot better than me didn't spot this strategic error. Moreover, the Council management insisted that its new employees distance themselves from CBS Ltd, with the excuse of 'conflict of interests'. A better comedian than I on Radio 4 would make mincemeat of the logic of that notion. If active support for an anti-business crime organisation that provides security radios for the city centre is contrary to Council employees 'interests', does this mean the Council is backed by the Mafia or something? Don't say a word ....

Now I think it will be possible for things to be sorted out properly. New Directors have got a grip on the situation and are vigorously reminding Council high-ups that there's a blind-spot, and that continuing the way it has been lately could have been catastrophic for anl outfit which has been intsrumental in tackling cime and disorder problems successfuly and ensures the city centre is a safer place. If anyone out of sight in the corridors of power was hoping CBS Ltd would fall over and die quietly, they got another think coming. Maybe even egg on their face. The Business Community knows what does it good, and what doesn't. Practical common sense will prevail.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A spiritual legacy

Today we said goodbye to Doreen Cooper, whose unexpected death ten days ago shocked us all. There had been little sign of life threatening illness. She was found dead at home after failing to turn up for an appointment, sitting on the stairs with her coat on and a letter in her hand, ready to go out to the postbox. She was quite an organised person in some ways, and from what I knew of her ready to go whenever the Lord called her, as she would put it. She'd pre-paid her funeral arrangements after her husband died sixteen years ago.

Nearly a hundred people came to pray their respects - from the Parish of Roath where she'd spent most of her worshipping life, and most of our regular congregation, where she'd made herself at home five years ago, when the Parish congregation at St Teilo's school stopped meeting for worship.

At seventy eight she still rejoiced in a full head of undyed black hair, and took a lively intelligent interest in everything. She went everywhere with Mary, a neighbour widowed in the same year. They never missed anything at church unless either of them was away on family visits. She clearly enjoyed the Lenten meditation courses I gave and would often comment on them with a smile.

When I visited her children and their families a few days ago to discuss the funeral, I discovered she had it all sorted out, as well as paid for - hymns and suggested contributions to the order of service. No eulogy was to be given, but instead a poem by William Blake expressing her committed and questioning faith.

You don't believe - I won't attempt to make ye:
You are asleep - I won't attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life's clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.

Reason says `Miracle': Newton says `Doubt.'
Aye! that's the way to make all Nature out.
`Doubt, doubt, and don't believe without experiment':
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said `Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!'

I'd never come across this poem before, and was delighted that her son was willing to read it at today's funeral Eucharist. As Doreen was a regular at the midweek Eucharists as well as on Sundays, so this was an appropriate send off. Nearly half the congregation took communion - unusual in modern circumstances.

Remarkably, she left a hand written selection of scriptural verses, that had evidently been a consolation to her over the years of her widowhood. Members of the choir and her family welcomed her body into church overnight, and at the vigil office I read her scripture selection, and then used it again at the Committal in Thornhill. It was as if she herself was speaking to her family unequivocally about the faith which sustained her through life. A very Anglican faith, rooted in tradition, reason and scripture, centred on the love of God in Jesus his Son, incarnate now in Word and Sacrament. We're all the poorer for her passing.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Children as evangelists

Like any parent or grandparent, I was delighted to learn that Rhiannon is going to be a Wise Man in this year's playgroup Nativity Play. It's a church based playgroup, and like church schools around the country, the story will be told, whether deemed politically correct by opinionated secularists or not. Their influence in the educational sphere is disturbingly high. Apparently four out of five schools no longer have a Nativity play or celebration. No wonder so many young people grow up ignorant of basic components of the cultural, let alone religious heritage of our country. This is what happens when the churches and Christians turn in on themselves, get pre-occupied with defending unreasonable or unjust positions, instead of renewing their understanding of the Gospel in the light what's happening in God's world today and applying that in practice. (End of rant)

At God on Mondays yesterday, a grandma present with her daughter and six year old grandson told me of the child's openly expressed concern about what's going to happen to God's house, now that it has been closed down for worship - referring to St James' next door. This youngster has been asking about this for months, preoccupied by the matter. He was carrying with him a crumpled news cutting with a picture of the church, and the news that it's now up for sale at a half a million price-tag. He doesn't want it to become shops or apartments. He wants to tell everyone he meets about his little worry. He's not old enough to understand just how helpless the local community has been to overcome its own indolence and inability to rise to the challenge of supporting their church building. Well maybe it takes half a lifetime to understand why. God's house is very important and special to a six year old, who is a lot closer to the angels than those who look after him.

Last night we had a grant concert for a full house at St Johns, raising funds for the local George Thomas Hospice. There were many outstanding moments, but the one that I'll mention here is the young eleven year old harpist who played so beautifully, and who introduced his own music so confidently, standing along side an instrument which dwarfed him in stature. Benjamin J Creighton-Griffiths, a seasoned charity fundraising performer for several years mentioned to his audience how pleased he was to be playing in the church where he was baptized. That was before my time. I hadn't met his family before, although his great uncle is my next door neighbour, so I was delighted to learn of this connection, and even more delighted that he chose to mention this in his self-introduction.

Like all the rest of the congregation, I too look forward to the tiny handful of children among our regular worshippers making their contribution to the Eucharist on the Sunday before Christmas with their own presentation of the Nativity. Their freshness is a reminder that the story is indeed Good News, not Good Olds.

But how can I reassure that worried little six year old with his crumpled news cutting?

Sunday, December 02, 2007


The arrival of Advent is always a special time for me, charged with many memories of new beginnings.

My first ever retreat when I was just eighteen took place this weekend forty four years ago. A moment of wonder and mystery that set me on my journey towards ministry.

I started work as Team Rector of the St Paul's Area in Bristol, my first incumbency aged thirty, on Advent Sunday 1975.

I started work as Chaplain of Holy Trinity Geneva , after travelling to Switzerland overland alone two days beforehand, aged forty seven, on Advent Sunday 1992.

At that time it was no more expensive to go by train than to fly. I booked to travel via Paris and take the TGV for the second leg from Gare de Lyon to Genève, just to have a first experience of the legendary train. However, storms delayed the ferry crossing and the last TGV to Geneva had left long before I got to Gare de Lyon, so I had a wonderful sleepless night on an ordinary train, absorbing the sights and sounds of a ralway by night, arriving just as dawn was breaking. An unforgettable way to make a new start.

Memories and emotions connected of all these experiences have flitted through my mind today, though the emotion isn't nostalgia. It's the sense of new beginnings, horizons opening afresh, adventures and stories unfolding anew. Advent Sunday is usually like this for me, although not New Year, which is too much associated with post-festive exhaustion and depression.

Although Advent is a season to think about divine judgement, and this is associated commonly with dread and foreboding, there is an alternative angle. The divine judge looks at all that is good or ill , all that is wholesome or broken about our human endeavour, not only as the judge, but as the healer, who looks at the mess as a diagnostician assessing the situation and saying : "Hmm, let's see ... I can fix this this."

Well, that's one way to read that marvellous saying of Jesus : Behold, I make all things new." We look honestly at the way things are, and trust that by letting God come, not keeping him out of our affairs, there can and will be transformation, rather than loss or annihilation. This is what makes Advent for me a special season of renewal in my journey of faith.

It means that the run-up to Christmas, although always an endurance test, is still an enjoyable time, looking forward inwardly to all the heart desires most, with God, all in all.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Even as I slept it seemed my mind was puzzling over why that darned router hadn't worked first time, and wishing I'd brought the appropriate documents home to read over. Slowly I began to get an inkling of the mistake I'd made. It wasn't enough to get me back into proper sleep, so I got up early, and did some paperwork. I had to be at the church to admit the carpenter at nine, as he had to finish off tidying up a job he'd done on the communion rail by George Pace which he'd brought over from St James' earlier this week. With amazing synchronicity, the Faculty granting us permission to remove and re-install furnishings from St James in St John's finally arrived yesterday. It's more than a year since the formal request was made. Craftsmen carpenters work quicker than church legal processes.

As soon as I'd briefed the carpenter, I went over to the city management office in Southgate House where the business crime prevention team are based, and within half an hour had both computers connected to the internet using the same router, and set up a Google Mail account for the organisation and its night-time worker, PCSO Deb Harvey. An amazingly trouble free and productive time. The achievement made me sail through the rest of a dark damp day as if the sun was shining.

Philip Thomas, our organist gave the last lunchtime concert in the series until after Easter next, to an audience of ninety, undeterred by the miserable weather. Concerts will be on hold after Christmas, as the organ will be 'bagged' in polythene sheeting while the interior of the church is scraped and painted.

At the moment there's a 'bagged' scaffolding next to the north west window inside the nave, and another scaffolding outside. The window is out while stonework repairs are done. A two week job seems to have become four, and we're keen to see it finished and the window back in for Christmas, not least because S4C want to use St John's in ten days time to record the Christmas TV broadcast 'Dechrau Canu, dechrau canmol' chez nous. We could do with space and beauty restored in that small but significant corner of the church, graced as it is with a window of the Burne-Jones school of Victorian church glaziers.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Prevention is the best measure

I've recently found a small supportive role as a member of the Board of Management of Cardiff's Business Crime prevention partnership, and now Company Secretary. It's not a huge task as there is administrative support in the background, but it helps hold the organisation together at a time when it's gone through some significant changes.

It's something I would have found difficult to refuse, as St John's has been indebted to the local Police Community Support Officers, keeping an eye on us in this year when we have been plagued by a persistent and very smart thief. After wreaking much havoc in small shops and churches around the city centre and further failed, he's been caught in flagrante at last, and requested several other crimes to be taken into consideration.

Truth is that scores of thefts in the city are attributable to one man's activity over the past year or so, but he has eluded detection, even though often caught on camera entering and leaving at the time of a crime. Through the partnership, the church has been added to the local security radio network, and has acquired a couple of CCTV security cameras and video recorders - all of which has helped to restore a sense of confidence after another outrageous theft in church.

Today the Board met for a sales presentation from a company bidding for the next contract to supply a security radio network. The sales manager was quite impressive in his delivery of information but yet again (twice in two days for me), hopeless with his technology. He tried to show us a Powerpoint presentation on a twelve inch Thinkpad in a room without blackout and ... no video projector. I think he assumed our meeting place would have one. I laughed quietly to myself. He needn't have bothered, as he was pretty coherenct and well in charge of all the salient facts he had to put across.

It's reassuring to hear educational psychologists criticising the use of Powerpoint as a learning aid these days. I've tried it, but never thought much of it. I want people to listen to me when I speak, follow my arguments, not look at my crib-sheet. If I use it at all now, it's to show pictures or display information I want people to look at properly.

After the meeting, PCSO Ceri Evans our Business Crime Co-ordinator was fretting about not being able to get a new router to work back at the office, to enable both the PCSOs seconded by South Wales Police to crime prevention work in the city to connect to the internet, so I offered to go back with her and see if I could fix the problem. Well, it was a router I didn't know, and I was a bit fed up that I couldn't get it to work either. All I could ascertain was that it wasn't broken, so there was no point in taking it back to the shop. I just couldn't figure it out, and ended up leaving Southgate House after all the office staff had gone home, not a little annoyed with myself.

Ceri is a real asset in her job. The only thing that annoys me is Ceri's official title. Calling her Business Crime Coordinator sounds like something out of a mafia empire blockbuster. She does business crime prevention. The key word gets omitted. Maybe that makes it easier to ignore one key piece of prevention work which she pioneered. I was most disappointed that her work with young graffiti artists last year was kicked into touch by politicians and other petty officials who should have known better. A year of clear up work, followed by doing something constructive with those most likley to offend had minimised graffiti attacks around town. Now it's creeping back insidiously. The south west buttress of the church tower has been tagged recently, and that hasn't happened for years.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not quite in the wilderness

I was pleased that yesterday's South Wales Echo not only reported my bit of rhetoric at last Friday's Licensing committee meeting, but also ran a short ep-ed piece as well, voicing concern about the predominating culture of debauchery. Some people I meet are quick to express appreciation that I spoke out, and express their fears and worries about not being able to go out at night. And this is not to do with fears of violence nor even of crime, but the fact that it is no longer a relaxing and enjoyable experience to share the streets in the evenings, light or dark, with crowds of shouting staggering foul mouthed revellers.

The collapse of social courtesies and controls plus the relentless commercial exploitation of alcohol driven 'leisure' aided and abetted by, I won't say over-tolerant, but rather over-indulgent city policies - 'value-free' secular policies - has unleashed a kind of chaos that will be difficult to pull back from, unless it's possible to re-build a consensus based on what is health and good for all citizens without exception. An economic recession that bit fiercely enough to curb drinking to excess would also cause much suffering in other areas of life. Would it ever get that bad? I wonder.

Meetings that matter

Inter-faith Wales and the Community Development Foundation arranged a meeting today for those in receipt of CDF funding, bringing people together from West and North Wales. It was held at the officers of Women Connect First, a local cross cultural womens' empowerment and education organisation, led by a dynamic Egyptian woman called Soad Hamdi.

There wasn't a great deal that was new in the meeting content, but it was good to hear what a different group of grant recipients are up to. Most memorable was a woman from Penllergaer called Pam Evans who founded an organisation to educate young people about religious and racial tolerance, focussing around the wearing of a simple multi-coloured bead bracelet, representing fourteen different world religions with a common essential teaching and message about peace. The bracelet is called a Peace Mala. Their website is worth looking at.

One thing that annoyed me however was that speakers wanted to use a laptop and projector for presentations, but full mastery of the technology was absent, so the wall used for a screen behind the speaker flashed distractingly with images that didn't connect with what was being said. Totally pointless.

It's wonderful to meet people who are passionate about reconciliation and diversity, who see these things as real good news, and constantly look outwards to engage with others. So much more cheering than people who struggle to remain stuck in their chosen rut.

I had to slip out of the meeting and pedal in the rain over from Riverside to St John's to offer the midday Eucharist, and then return for the rest of the session. I should really have peddled in the opposite direction, over to Roath for the Deanery Chapter meeting following lunch, but sad to say it was in my diary but not in my field of vision. More often than not I come away from our official gatherings with fellow clergy feeling frustrated and depressed. But there was enough at the other meeting to draw me back to it, laptops notwithstanding.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Time warp

Today, another Match Day, the weather not being good enough for a decent walk, we ventured out to Nelson to visit Llancaiach Manor, a sixteenth century dwelling, which I recall as a shabby old farm house, growing up, and going hiking in that area as a young Boy Scout in the fifties. Since then it has changed hands, and is no longer owned by a farmer. It has been well restored as an historic visitor attraction by Rhymney Valley District Council, and is open to the public.

It's an impressive venture, and the place is well used, with a varied programme of activities, some of which exploit its reputation as one of Britain's Most Haunted houses. Apart from its posh tourist shop and its scenic modern restaurant, it has an excellent visitor interpretation programme. The place, after renovation was restored to represent the house as it appeared in 1645 equipped with period artifacts.

The tour guides are in the period costumes of household servants and speak in period English. You are invited to imagine that you are invited to the house of Colonel Thomas Pritchard, Lord of the Manor, and at that time co-incidentally governor of Cardiff Castle.
The Colonel and his family are away from Llancaiach, but the servants welcome visitors and show them around, telling the story of life in their times as they go, in fascinating detail.

Pritchard was a Puritan and prominent local Baptist, initially loyal to the king, then to Parliament, eventually taking a more independent stance seeking to shield Glamorganshire and the neighbouring counties from being sucked into the Civil War - was his armed militia a kind of prototype Free Wales Army, I wondered?

It was good to see such creative imagination being applied to bringing an historic monument to life for the modern age. It reminded me of 'Brother' Thomas, the Cistercian costumed guide to Tintern Abbey, seen during our Parish Pilgrimage back in the summer.

Will there come I time, I wonder, when St John's visitors will be shown around by a role-playing guide emulating the last generation of active believers to have served God in the heart of a totally secularised city?

Friday, November 23, 2007

On reflection

Strange to find myself doing battle against the sale of alcohol. I've enjoyed buying and drinking wine most of my adult life, and appreciated the growing variety of choice from all over the world. Now I find myself wanting to challenge the complacency that seems to surround the habitual debauchery which is damaging the health of young and old alike, leading to increased crime and disorder, and generating a great deal of damage to family and social life.

The controls that local Police implement have resulted in a some improvement in public order over the past two years, but with no real change in personal behaviour. Excessive consumption of alcohol by the masses, like 'bread and circuses' is a sign of the deep dysfunction arising from the way society works today.

The pressures of work, debt, competition exalted over co-operation, the cult of celebrity, obsession with image and appearance, consumer materialism, confusion of spirituality and sensuality - all conspire to leave individuals anxious, struggling with loneliness and self acceptance, with a huge inner spiritual void, painfully unsatisfied. People go to extremes with drink. drugs, sex, or risk dangerous pursuits to work around their real lack of fulfilment.

Until there a major crisis affecting general well being, whether a natural disaster or a disastrous economic recession, I don't suppose there's be much change. Sadly, all this weakens society's ability to respond and overcome great tribulation. How long, I wonder, before the bubble bursts and reality penetrates the world of illusion we have made with the wealth we think we have created?

Standing up to be counted

A new swish Spar convenience store has opened on the corner of Queen Street adjoining St John Street. A few weeks ago a notice went up on its outside window advising of an application being made to the City licensing committee for permission to sell alcohol from 8.00am until midnight - the opening hours of the store. Local social workers have frequently spoken about the problems surrounding other liquor selling stores in the city centre, and the substance abusers from nearby hostels or sleeping rough, who tend to loiter there, so this notice set alarm bells ringing in my head. Aggressive begging from passers by, fights and quite disturbing behaviour by intoxicated people in such a public place does nobody any good. Just the refusal to sell alcohol to known troublesome customers can create uproar and conflict. It's hard to control, let alone to provide help for the needy in such a setting. The City centre still lacks a suitable place where street people can get help.

With the impending demolition of the central bus station building in the New Year, I could foresee such gatherings being displaced from that area, to the street around Nye Bevan's statue, and carrying on as they do outside the station. There are still no bye-laws in Cardiff prohibiting on-street drinking or litter dropping, and the whole environment suffers despite efforts to keep it all under control. Whenever I clear litter from the various enclosed spaces surrounding the church, there are alcohol bottles with the soft drinks and fast food containers tossed over the fence. The arrival of a convenience store in the vicinity threatens to add to the mess, because so many eat on-street and throw containers away regardless.

So, I decided to lodge an objection to the application, and obtained support from all present at the Churches Together meeting last week. My letter of objection was passed on to the Police, who were also making a case for refusal, expressing their concerns about public order issues associated with booze sales at convenience stores.

The hearing took place in City Hall today.
In addition to elected members and officers, there were a dozen people attending as observers present, including, I noticed, the Leader of the Council.

After the Police presented their case I was invited to speak in support of my letter of objection. I took the opportunity to remind the committee of the city licensing policy which had recently been agreed by the Council, which recognised that a saturation point for licensed premeses in the St Mary Street area had been reached and that no new licenses should be granted. The applicant's shop lies a hundred yards outside the zone of restraint, in a place where there could be new concerns about public order, particularly in the evenings, when people arrive to go clubbing. Doesn't this undermine the principal of having a policy? I asked, going on to point out that the policy, good though it was, had been written without consulting and religious communities that might have views about alcohol abuse and the culture of debauchery that gives Cardiff such a negative image. If they had been asked, they might have proposed restraining or even reducing numbers of licenses, moving towards changing a culture which many are not proud of, which does little to promote the declared vision of a Proud Capital city.

Sure, I said more than I should, and was an embarrassment at what in the mind of many was no more than a routine hearing. But it's clear that religious communities of all kinds have been left out of the social equation, ignored by those who run the city. Maybe when the intentions of the new Equalities Act have been articulated, there will be grounds for challenging policies which disregard the ten percent of citizens who have an active religious affiliation, and calling elected representatives and officers to account legally. So much better to be able to do this, than to let the frustration and resentments of powerlessness build into a reactionary political backlash for nurturing by the extreme right.

The applicant from Spar and his lawyer defended their application reasonably, stating that they had in place all the necessary checks and balances to ensure nothing gets out of control. The store's policy is to be an up-market resort for passing trade, eliminating the poor contingent by over pricing what they sell, including their small range of 'fine wines', the list of which remains undisclosed, as do the prices. They promised there would be no cut-price promotions on bulk purchased booze. All these good intentions would keep out the riff-raff, they anticipate. Well, time will tell whether they get enough high spending custom to pay their £100k per annum rent. The shop is not very big, relatively easy to control. They seem confident of success without resorting to fast turnover special discount offers. They have 16 CCTV cameras in quite a small area - who are the looking out for? Do quality clients need to be watched so closely?

Needless to say, their license was granted. That makes five establishments in the quarter mile of Queen Street with alcohol take-away licenses, quite apart from clubs and pubs in the vicinty. I didn't really expect to succeed, but without taking part in the debate, without a measure of protest on social issues, religious communities shall continue to be marginal to the functioning of civil society. I shall be watching developments closely. No doubt the Police will be also.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Real Comedy

Tonight, Clare and I went to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company perform 'A Comedy of Errors' at the New Theatre. The production was hilariously funny, fast moving, and very physical. The 'commedia dell'arte' influences were strong. It was presented more like adult pantomime than classical theatre. I was amazed at how the use of movement really helped make sense of the text.

We were also treated to a couple of North Country accents, a strong Italian accent and a right-on Jamaican yardie accent from various characters, alongside the expected Received Pronunciation Shakesperian Delivery of the rest of the cast. All this made the point that the characters portrayed were themselves a multi-cultural bunch, and the speeches lost nothing. If anything this device made one pay more attention. The youngsters in the audience, including primary age children clearly loved it.
I have no doubt the Bard would have approved with this vigorous, engaging, entertaining interpretation of his work.

A dozen of the cast stayed behind afterwards for a Q&A session with members of the audience. Although I was tiring by this stage, it proved a very worthwhile half hour, encountering the personalities behind the
personae of the actors. We've spent so much time at the opera since we've been back in Cardiff that theatre visits have become quite rare for us. If there are productions of this quality around these days, we should change out habits and get out more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Rubbish - keeping on the case

Since Friday last, a large un-emptied wheelie bin with a Council logo on the front, has stood at the north west corner of the church tower overflowing with rubbish on to the street. In fact, it was joined in that position by two bins from the Owain Glyndwr, and left there, after they were emptied and not put away in their bin store. Sunday Evening I rang the Council's 101 problem solving referral unit to report the bin, and was told it would be emptied on Monday morning.

Monday passed. Tuesday morning came. On my way to the City Centre Retail Partnership monthly meeting I took a photo of the bin to show to Steve, the operations manager, to see if he could get it cleared away on the fifth day since its arrival. He was not un-surprised at my report, as Waste Management seems to be fraught with management problems at the moment, such that the boss is on sick leave. He kindly printed out the picture, so we could get a better look at it and show it around the office. Then it occurred to me that I was about to walk into a meeting with the Council's Chief Executive Byron Davies. He's always friendly and considerate towards me, and when I saw him he came over and shook my hand and asked how things were going. I just couldn't resist showing the picture and telling the story. He calmly took out his phone and exused himself while he spoke to some poor soul in waste management. He returned after a few moments promising it would be removed straight away.

He spoke at the meeting, addressing retailers' concerns over the impact of pedestrianising St Mary Street, the inadequacy of shoppers parking and public transport issues. He announced the set up of a weekly forum of all involved in service delivery, presided over by himself, to ensure every problem was spotted and tackled, during the next two years of reconstruction and major change to the appearance and running of the city centre. When I returned to the church two hours later, the wheelie bin was still there, and it remained there all night.

When I arrived for the Wednesday Eucharist, it was still there, half emptied. And this obstructing part of the very busiest pedestrian thoroughfare of the city! Not even the city's CEO can work miracles. For all the rhetoric about partnership working, there remains a protectionist proprietorial culture in which section bosses don't always take orders willingly. You'd think they'd all want to work for the good of the city all the time not some of the time, but so often it seems this is not the case. The next couple of years will be a real challenge for the city's elected members and local government officers. Can they deliver the vision of a 'proud capital' which they proclaim? Will the world want to invest in it?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fresh air

At last a completely free day, with a week's work well done in time, and the possibility of a day away from Cardiff. This is generally a good idea when there's a big Saturday match on at the stadium, as the city gets over-congested with cars and pedestrians, and is no fun for shopping expeditions - noth that I'm good at these at the best of times.

We drove down to the Gower and made our way out to Rhossili where we walked before lunch along the cliff top, and after lunch along the beach. The weather was perfect, mild for the time of year, though the wind was strong. We returned with glowing cheeks full of delight and much refreshed. A photo of Worm's Head now decorates my computer desktop, to remind me more often of the world outside of my workplace.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Changing how we imagine God

I took time out to attend a lunch at the United Services Mess today, to which I'd been invited to listen to the St Athan Methodist Minister, who is one of the RAF station's long serving chaplains, and had been invited along as guest speaker. The other guests were all well retired military personnel and their spouses. The speaker himself, I guess, was in his seventies, and he opted to speak about the measure of change he had experienced in his lifetime and ministry. It was quite amusing for me to learn that his moment of media fame back in the eighties was due to him being the first Methodist Minister in Wales to learn to use a computer. Another enthusiast ahead of his time!

What he steered his audience's thoughts towards, however, was changing ideas of God - something which he found himself still working on, due to the contact he still had with new recruits who most often had no concept of God in their lives, and even no clear code of values to work from. He explained a little about how he sought for new images that connected with their experience, and then took us back to a 1950's book by J B Phillips with the title 'Your God is too small', one I remember well, although I came across it in the late sixties after the publication of Bishop John Robinson's landmark book 'Honest to God', which was also about perceptions and images of God, the first book to lead me to the discovery of mystical theology. It was hated by the evangelical fundamentalists I know and grew up around in the South Wales Valleys. Our speaker challenged his elderly audience to remain open to change in the way they thought about God, to relate this better to their whole experience of life.

For me, as for him, this is at the very heart of what evangelism today must be.

This evening we went to the Millennium Centre's studio theatre to watch a contemporary dance performance, a collaboration between a Polish group and Wales' Earthfall dance group. It was loosely based on Aristophanes' 'The Birds', containing a mix of very energetic physical theatre, challengingly dissonant a capella vocal music, and bizarre humour. We weren't sure really what it was tying to say or achieve, but the energy and seemingly effortless athleticism of the performers were most impressive and engaging, even if it left us a bit puzzled about the message.

Perhaps this is what Christian liturgy is like for the uninitiated.