Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Pocket Pals arrive

Back last Autumn, the City Centre Retail Partnership and the St David's II development team mooted the production of a new street map to show the essentials of the shopping area, parking places, bus access points, main stores and public facilities, that could fold down into something that would go into a top pocket or small handbag with ease. Hence the name 'Pocket Pal' It was to be part funded with sponsored advertisements. I wondered if the churches might be able to but a small advertising space. City Centre Churches Together agreed to buy into the project, and our proposal received a warm response from the map arrangers. In the end we acquired a small space on which we could place the details of seven sets of church Sunday service times, plus our ecumenical website address. My strapline "Shop and Pray any Sunday" made everyone smile, fortunately. Over the next three years, these will be given away free - a quarter of a million of them!

Today, our first boxes of Pocket Pals were delivered, enabling me to start getting them out to the city centre churches. I put some at the back of St John's too, and noticed how quickly they were taken. A good sign? I hope so. Even if nobody makes the effort to respond to our ad. and comes to join in worship, at least it will be known that the church is still here, in the heart of businessland a part of businessland, welcoming and inviting consumers to 'taste and see the goodness of the Lord'.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A playground blessing

Five months after the demolition of the church hall, and re-furbishing of the site as part of Tredegarville school playground, we had celebratory opening ceremony this afternoon presided over by the Lord Mayor, and attended by church officers, a handful of parents and the school governors.

Chris and I between us devised a brief ceremony, and Father Roy Doxsey, chair of governors and neighbouring Vicar of St Germans led prayers of blessing, and sprinkled the football pitch section of the new playground with holy water. Then a couple of children went and marked the four corners of the pitch with crosses in chalk. The chill wind kept the speeches brief, and then we all repaired to the school hall for glasses of champagne and canapés.

The event was proposed by City Lofts, the developers who adapted the office block next door to the church for residential accommodation. The work took just over a year and since the site was right next to the school boundary, the impact upon the school was huge. Somehow everything managed to continue during the disruption and the result is an improvement to the entire surrounding area. It's just sad that the church had to close during this period.

If only we'd been able to continue maintaining it and opening up the development potential of the church through new uses, given the influx of new residents next door - already 75% of the 140 aparetments are taken. We may not have been able to re-build a worshipping congregation in the short term, but using the space for leisure and social activities to offer new local residents is a possibility we were unable to explore.

After the reception I had to open up to visit the meter house with the churchwardens to take readings to send to the electricity company. It's cold, dark, and empty, with a few signs of chaos due to the fact that no-one has needed or bothered to tidy up in there since the day of closure. It still appals me to think that such an opportunity for community enterprise has slipped out of our grasp, not just for lack of funds, but lack of shared vision and imagination.

We wait patiently to know what the future of the building will be.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Complexity and uncertainty

It's now a week since I bought a replacement for my horribly noisy desktop computer. Thankfully, the new one is quite quiet, and having a larger high resolution screen is proving beneficial. It was the sort of bargain that's commonplace at the moment with shops clearing their shelves of kit in order to display (on much the same hardware) the new Windows Vista operating system. I've already decided that I don't want to use Vista. If I wanted something with equal or better capabilities, I'd save up and buy a Mac, or else just continue using Linux, as I often do now, for the pleasure of using something different that works very well and looks good.
It's taken most of my spare time during the week to get Windows XP under control, rid the system of software I don't want to use, install software I do want to use, and transfer my entire filing system intact, so that I can carry on with my workspace as I have evolved it over the past five years. In principle there is a Windows program that enables you to automatically do all these things for you. However it presupposes that you use your computer in complete subjection to Microsoft's not always helpful way of arranging things, and use all their software. Also, for reasons of its own it stops working quite arbitarily if it thinks you don't have the right to transfer files. As one commentator said recently: "It behaves like it's like that Microsoft owns your computer, not you." There's no guarantee it will transfer everything you want, or leave you with the complete working system you need. So it's been a week to practice patience and determination, to show Microsoft who owns my computer, and painstakingly transfer everything I need, while keeping up with daily routine.
It's been quite a useful reminder actually of just how complex a process change can be, never as straightforward as the vision proposes, and even when planned out very carefully, there are always elements of the unforeseen that creep in.
The hoardings are up around the south churchyard, and the excavators at work creating a new churchyard path. This stage should have been reached about eighteen months ago, but has been postponed time and time again as the developers kept encountering other obstacles impeding the progress of the whole city centre redevelopment project. Long planning enquiries and appeals, question marks about design traffic, parking, how to keep the city running whilst half of it is a building site. So many twists and turns unforeseen when the presumed irresistible grand retail vision for Cardiff was first laid out over four years ago.
Even now the bulldozers are busy turning shops, offices and library into rubble to take away. As interest and excitement slowly begins to grow, doubts are still being expressed about the long term impact of the development on Cardiff's independent retailers and small shops - whether or not economic recession will undermine the capacity of this project to deliver a return on the investment, and generate the promised extra 2,000 jobs in the city centre.
The complexity of this project is vastly greater than one man's PC operating system, and it's truly impressive the way in which so many creative minds and high powered resources are set to work, rising to the challenge. Trouble is, inevitably it turns out to be even more complex to handle than anyone ever anticipates. The 2008 original completion deadline slipped to 2009, possibly 2010. Despite all our scientific and technological resources, fingers will still be crossed until it's finished. By which time I'll be retired and have either converted to using a Mac, or thrown my lot in entirely with the Linux and free software community.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A new way of praying?

Today I found an item on the CNET news blog entitled 'A new way to pray -- over IP'
IP for the uninitiated is 'Internet Protocol' and refers to the burgeoning new technology which permits free phone called to be made worldwide using broadband internet connections, properly called VOIP (Voice over internet protocol).

An Israeli startup company called POIP - you've guessed it...Prayer over Internet protocol - enables people to say a prayer anywhere in the world and have it broadcasted at one of eight holy sites in Israel, including the Wailing Wall, the Sea of Galilee, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and be linked by live webcam video to the place in question for the price of a special phone card.

"We provide your soul unlimited access to holiness," reads the company's website. "It's just $5 or $10, and you get eternal life," POIP Chairman Hanan Achsaf said: "With the lottery, you pay that amount, and what do you get? A piece of paper. This is much better value."

The people who launched this startup company have invested their money time and creative intelligence in launching this product. It's worthwhile taking note of what they consider prayer and spirituality to be.

1. Prayer is an action (thought and speech) which is more effective in historic religious places than anywhere else.

2. The essence of prayer is the appropriate words delivered to the appropriate place with the appropriate intent. To whom it's delivered, and for what purpose is up to you to decide.

3. Being there is 'holiness'

4. If you can't get there, technology enables you to see the place and have your voice heard there.

5. Access is unlimited, or to be truthful, limited only by what you are prepared to pay.

6. What you pay gets you eternal life.

7. For the price, this is more of a worthwhile experience than buying a lottery ticket.(Which doesn't pretend to get you eternal life.)

The entrepreneural genius that developed indulgences in mediaeval times lives on, and the marketing appeal crosses all sorts of cultural and religious boundaries.

It's an amazingly magical, materialist idea of what prayer is all about. As far as you can get from the mainstream understanding of prayer as intimacy in relation to the divine life held in many religions.

I wouldn't mind betting that their trade is successful however, as their perception is not far at all from the understanding of many a pious soul, no matter what their religion of origin.

I bet the Ship of Fools will lap up this one.

When I was on holiday recently, we checked the weather websites, and then the webcam of the place we hoped to ski, to see if the local scenario was consistent with regional forecasts. Just imagine having a remote voice link to the snowy slopes, to allow you to say loudly in the right direction "Damn lousy weather, let's just go to the bar.", and then turn around and pour yourself a drink without budging from the comfort of your workstation.

What if churches had webcams and loud speaker links? You don't have to go in for the illusion of internet prayer at all. You could just use it to make live excuses to the Vicar as he greets people at the door before or after the service, for not having made it for the Sunday service, and you could see from his/her face whether or not he believed you. Now that'd really screw up Anglican attendance statisticians wouldn't it?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Holocaust remembered

This lunchtime I attended the seventh annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony hosted by Cardiff's Lord Mayor in the majestic Edwardian baroque banqueting hall. There were about 400 hundred people there,including the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff and the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff, not to mention local Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish dignatories. The County Youth Choir sang, Christian, Muslim and Jewish students read texts witnessing to the Jewish Holocaust, but the ceremonial, the prayers and declarations embraced people and situations of every faith and culture who had been victims of genocidal politics in the twentieth century. A passage from Isaiah was read by Rodney Berman, current leader of the Council, wearing a yarmulkah, followed by Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Speaker of the Senedd, reading from 1 Corinthians 13, which he read at a wedding in St John's back in December. Truly a piece for all seasons. The act of dedication was in the form of a poem written by the Welsh National Poet Gwyneth Lewis for last year's commemoration.

The event was conducted by my parochial neighbour and colleague Fr Stewart Lisk, who is entering his tenth year as what used to be called 'Mayor's Chaplain', helping the County's protocol officers to devise suitable solemnities for large public events during the year. He is a dignified and diplomatic animateur of such events, and I know from the outcome just how much painstaking work must go into selecting texts acceptable to people of different religious faiths, and also to those who are there on sufferance, looking for the slightest excuse to criticise such offerings as contentious and divisive, in order to justify the abolition of such events.

Nevertheless there is lots of good-will between middle of the road practitioners of religious faith, and not a little shared disdain for those who want to sideline any kind of religious element from the public social agenda in pursuit of some theory of social cohesion,or political correctness.

However,it's not such a bad thing that religions and religious groups should get challenged and criticised, lest they become complacent and arrogant, when it is clear they enjoy the tolerance, but not necessarily the support of the majority. In the face of the phenomena of racism,prejudice and genocidal behaviour, religious communities are still obliged to earn the right to speak of God and higher moral values in a world bewildered and impotent in the face of its capacity for violence, cruelty and indifference.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Breaking old ground

Today, I was properly back into the routine of offering the Eucharist for the handful of people who still draw their hope and strength from quiet prayer and communion with God in the heart of the city. It doesn't matter to me how many or how few people there are, it's the fact that the doors to the infinite are open and the invitaton made that matters. It's what defines the value and purpose of there being a church at the heart of the city, no matter what else we do. It's a small point of reference, if anyone wanted to evaluate, regarding what really matters in the world we inhabit.

The sky was bright blue, and for once this year it felt wintery cold. I ventured abroad after the service, camera in hand, to photograph the latest stage in the long careful process of demolishing a third of the city centre's commercial and business heart. This evening, I found myself with a harvest of images of huge powerful machines, bulldozers with powerful pincers and buckets on board for chewing up concrete and steel, a forest of cranes dedicated either to shifting heavy objects around sites being cleared, or else discreetly punching steel girders deep into the ground. Yes, the pile driving technology of today is far quieter than it was in my youthful memory.

Right next door to St John's, work on the south churchyard gathering pace. There's a wooden hoarding creating workspace along the Working Street and Trinity Street sides. It sticks out rather a lot on the Trinity Street side, and is already causing hassles for the fleet of lorries and vans that deliver to Howells, as there is no longer enough room to allow overtaking of vehicles parked to deliver goods. I wonder if the contractors really need so much space on both sides of the churchyard?

There's a small earth moving vehicle (small in comparison to the monsters deployed to crunch up the buildings, that is) at work, carefully taking off layers of soil along the strip that is destined to become the second churchyard path. The first and only existing path dates from 1984. I reckon that wasn't dug by any kind of machine, but by hand, with pick and shovel. No doubt, at that time, a degree of care was required, since they were excavating a passage through places that had graves in which there had been burials within living memory. This path, popularly known as 'dead man's alley' still has grave numbers marked on it with brass figures, although contents interred have long since dissolved in the acid soil, if they hadn't already done do by 1894.

Grave 'ownership' with plots carefully marked in a grid seems to date from the late eighteenth century, some six hundred years, in all likelihood, since the land began to be used for burials. Headstones got moved around, parked far from the plot over which the last rites were pronounced, if there was nobody around to object, or buy a piece of land in which to erect a vault to contain the remains of their dear departed. St John's churchyards have only a handful of vaults and some large monuments that have attracted conservation orders with the passage of time.

In earlier times grave plots were rented out for a period. Later inhabitants were disinterred after a few decades, as is still the practice in other parts of Europe, except that nowadays surviving bones are cremated, rather than gathered into a charnel house in a quiet corner of holy ground to remind passers by of their mortality. Visitors to southern European monasteries and cathedrals may well have been fascinated or offended by seeing artistically arranged collections of disinterred bones in the posher version of the charnel house erected there for the edification of the faithful.

There's a headstone up in the church tower gallery commemorating a Vicar's wife who died in the 18th century. It got transferred into church by someone in the early 19th who, whether they remembered the dear woman or not, felt it wasn't a good idea that this particular memorial, should be turned into a paving stone for a churchyard path, as many others were, to the great fascination of generations of passers by. There have been many more memorials to significant people that have long been lost. Why some survive and others don't is a mystery.

Equally fascinating is the fact that some very famous people, like Calvin and Mozart were buried anonymously in common lime pit graves. Calvin because he wanted there to be no devotional cult around his grave, when that was commonplace; Mozart, because he was too poor for anything else. It makes you wonder about our customs today.

And all these thoughts, triggered by the soil being scraped carefully to forge a path across the churchyard. Most of the monuments have been moved at least once already. Only fragments of bones turn up in the soil nowadays. There hasn't been a burial here for an average lifetime, and the last of the family mourners stopped visiting so long ago that the gates have been locked for decades. Time passes. The details of a host of human lives fades and is forgotten as far as the life we know is concerned. It's not the most comforable of thoughts, but one which any who think themselves of high importance should not disregard. Much about the mystery of human existence and awareness is still unfathomable, even to the eyes of faith. To hope that one day it will all make sense to us is an act of great daring.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ministry Milestone

I attended a very special gathering at Llandaff Cathedral this evening in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood. The event was graced with a scratch orchestra and choir to lead the singing, and clergy, both female and male gathered from all over Wales for a bi-lingual Eucharist, led by a visiting Swedish Lutheran woman bishop. It was a joyous occasion, verging on the boisterous towards the end with dancing processions around the Cathedral singing 'We are marching in the light of God'.

It's been marvellous, the widespread acceptance of women's ministry, but also sad that there are still so many, including close friends, who regard this as an 'unorthodox' initiative which no church has the right to take unilaterally. It's not a position I've ever shared. I believe that at the heart of 'orthodoxy' is a spirit of eagerness to live together with our differences, in full recognition that we are not lords and masters of Gospel truth.

God alone calls people to ministry, through the circumstances in which they find themselves, even when we are slow to realise it. It's certain that as many women as men have been called and are being called to priesthood but with our cultural blinkers on for centuries, the church has failed to discern and act upon what the Spirit prompts, counter to the prevailing culture, when it comes to genuinely accepting women as both equal and different in exercising God's priestly gifts.

It's great that many gifted women through history have found ways to exercise God's priestly call, in the face of prejudice and prohibition, even though that hasn't until out times meant being able to preside over the Eucharist and officially bless others. We all need each other to share the Gospel with the world and build together the community of faith with all the diversity of human and spiritual resources that are available to us. I hope and pray that the Spirit will continue to change the hearts and minds of those who at present seem so convinced that Anglicanism has made a mistake and is deviating from the truth.

The real problem is that we still measure ourselves against ecclesial benchmarks set by the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. We like to see ourselves on a par with their institutional clubs, which means we don't believe in our own evolutionary continuity as an ancient expression of Christianity, first of all Celtic, later Latinised, then subject to renaissance inspired reform, followed by enlightenment driven reappraisal of our Gospel roots and all that ever nourished them. One day, maybe, our church will come of age.

Might that just happen in our time?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Business as usual

Sunday morning, nobody but I turned up for the usual 8.00am Eucharist, perhaps because some of them were intending to come to the 9.30 service and attend the Extraordinary General Meeting. So, I got a half hour to say Matins quietly on my own instead. Chris preached at 9.30 on the same passage of Nehemiah that I'd prepared. Our thoughts about it were quite different, she focussed on ecumenical variety in prayer and worship, and focussed on social regeneration. Both are in the text. It says something about what preoccupies us I guess. Thank goodness there are two of us!

The meeting was quite well attended, about two dozen people stayed after the service, and we voted in our officers, and discussed the need for a secretarial post to make the most of opportunity of our new church office. This time, there's a determination to make it happen. It was great to come back and find that all had gone well and without incident while I was away. I am very fortunate in the good support I receive.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Back to the future

The journey home to Cardiff from Geneva was thankfully smooth, despite reports of savage weather in many parts of Britain. My host dropped me off at the airport, ten minutes away from his place on his way out to Versoix where he teaches music at the College du Leman, and so I had plenty of time to check in, go to the Migros to buy some chocolate, and send my sister a belated birthday card, before making the long walk out underground on motorised walkways to the island departure lounge. Each of these, and there are, I think four, are circular and can welcome four aircraft. Being made largely of glass, there's a marvellously entertaining view of traffic comings and goings, so time passes quickly. In just six hours from leaving the house I was making myself a late lunch at home, and sifting through the pile of post awaiting my return.

It's good to be back, to feel refreshed, and to wonder what the weeks ahead will bring.

I started slowly to think about Sunday, and the Extraordinary General Meeting we're having at St John's to re-appoint officers, as required by the Bishop's decree creating two Parishes out of one. It occurred to me that the last time St John's was on its own as the only church in a much larger Parish, was when the new Bute-Town Parish created from it in 1846 after the building (on a new site in 1843) of a new St Mary's church to replace the one destroyed by floods in the seventeenth century.

In the next sixty years half a dozen churches and schools would be built. Three of those churches remain open and two of the schools. It was a time of immense social change, population expansion and economic development. A hundred and sixty years down the line St John's is on its own with an entirely different pattern of population, with far more people on the move and passing through than ever settle in the area. It's also a time of economic development, with new businesses and technologies imposing a very different lifestyle on people, and a different kind of response to their needs from the church.

It's great to be a church in learning mode, bringing generations of experience to bear on the situation, but also having to acquire new social skills and disciplines to enable us to understand people's lives and share with them Christ's Gospel. A brief walk around the city centre this afternoon revealed that work on creating a new path across the south churchyard, and re-fashioning of the gardens therein has finally begun, albeit a year late. Finally, over five years of unpaid rent on small portions of church land leased by the city, has been paid. It's sufficient to enable us to commission work on relaying paths that have become unstable, around the south entrance of the church.

We've also been promised CCTV cameras to install within, and RadioNet equipment linking the Tea Room with other shops around town - handy for lost people and for spreading warnings about problems on street, purse snatchers and the suchlike. It sounds pretty awful, surveillance in church? Well, for some people nothing is sacred, and although mischief in church is pretty rare, the danger is that people can be caught off guard at their prayers or sharing hospitality, and above all we want people to feel safe in the house of God.

Making pathways safe, creating new ones to enable people to approach the church and relax there. It's a nice crop of images to play with, to apply to our approaches to people and their needs as well.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

If ghosts could feel


A drab rainy last day, to visit Geneva town centre,so I bought a day rover ticket and went in on the train to Cornavin station, wandered the treets for a while, called into Placette to do some shopping for Clare and compare sale pricers with Cardiff's, then went down to the lakeside to view the fountain, spouting up into low rain clouds, the over to Holy Trinity Church, to sit quietly for a while and enjoy being there without any of the anxiety of responsibility for running the place.

It's clear that things continue to go well at HTC. It's probably the best attended of any of the non-Catholic churches within the city centre area. The institutional church that was re-founded by Calvin after vigorous reformation had all but destroyed both religious practices and social structures is itself struggling for survival, having lost the support of the native Genevois, and commending itself little to the huge number of incomers. Hard though they try, its dry sober intellectual style, however well meaning, registers poorly with seekers after faith. It has just about halved its staff over the past decade, and now struggling with church closures and amalgamations, just like us back in Wales.

HTC has a huge anglophone catchment area, and over 200 people as members or attendees. It is one of half a dozen anglophone congregations in the city. The largest is a Roman Catholic chapel of ease to the paroisse catholique de Montbrillant with a constituency of over a thousand, and two priests. Church of Scotland, Baptist, Lutheran and a couple of evangelical congregations make up the rest. Whilst it seems impressive, there's a catchment area of 20,000 or so English speaking expatriates in and around the Canton. When I did the guesstimates, a while ago, I reckoned that the actual proportion of church attendees in the population was little different to that in UK, about 1.5-2%. The paucity of buildings owned and run by expatriate congregations is an advantage from the management point of view, but it can give rise to no complacency.

Then, a tram ride to lunch with more friends. Keith, my host and I were invited by Gill Howie and Manel Kumarakulasinghe, at a Thai restaurant in the lee of the UNHCR building - United Nations High Commission for Refugees, where Manel works. Gill used to work for the WCC. Her late husband Mike, a dear dear friend, worked for CERN. UNHCR's 'iconic' environmentally friendly building is on the edge of the Place des Nations. We lived in a top floor apartment on the other side of the building for two years before we left Geneva, so this is familiar ground, yet unfamiliar. The Place des Nations has had a make-over during the past three years, now almost complete. There's a tram line running up there from the main station. Instead of a grassed central area (where protest demonstrations and other events are organised), there's now a huge pavement and some classy new stainless steel street furniture. Certainly easier to maintain than grass/mud. The passenger shelters for bus and tram stops are all glass, and look great. How long it will remain looking so good, given vandals and angry demonstrators is anybody's guess.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the rue du Marché on the other side of the lake, and on the way back to the station for my return train, found the Temple de St Gervais. There's been a church on this site for fifteen centuries, though the present building is roughly the same age as St John's back in Cardiff (c 600 years old). For most of my time in Geneva this building was surrounded by scaffolding and under restoration, not to mention excavation. I think I attended one ecumenical service there in my early months and that was that. Now it's open to visitors daily and organ music plays through the public address system. It's a fine building, and efforts have been made to recuperate remains of fifteen century frescoes and decorations to ribbed vaults, and some ancient carved furniture. It's a bit out of keeping with the otherwise austere and basic liturgical furnishing, which fails to make the most of the opportunities presented by handsome gothic architecture. typical of the region. I was disappointed that La Fusterie, the other city centre Temple on the rue du Marché, a pedestrianised shopping precinct was shut, though promising to be open this evening for an ecumenical Taizé service. An opportunity missed in one of the busiest commercial areas of the city centre.

Geneva continues to be well run and clean. There is still graffiti but less obvious than it was seven years ago when it seemed to be verging on the out of control. Public transport, with new tram lines up and running is outstandingly good with new buses and trams, with fresh new livery, advertising just how much the city's rolling stock gets replaced year by year. Some years ago a Genevan visitor to a capital city in Latin America was astonished to see on the streets there trolley buses in the old orange and yellow TPG livery, running but still with their destination boards displaying familiar place names from home.

It was a pleasant, if damp afternoon - the smell of coffee drifting out from small bars and restaurants, the winter aroma of roast chestnuts near the station and in the rue du Marche, the balbble of different languages among the people of the streets, the inventive artistic shop window displays in the big stores, the clangs and rattles of passing trams, noisy gaggles of school kids on their ways home, or off making mischief en route. A sucker for sentimental tastes, I called into Manor, formerly called Placette (still called Placette by the stubborn who don't understand why they keep on changing the name when there hasn't been a merger or a takover), to buy a whole pizza au saumon for supper - always a favourite tranche to have for a quick lunch with a beer. I was glad to discover it's one of my host's favourites also.

After the happy lunchtime reunion, I saw nobody familar until I got back to Keith and Claudine's. It was odd, knowing nobody and feeling unknown in old familiar places. I'm still very fond of this city, and enjoyed some wonderful years here. But, I no longer have a stake in it, as I do in Cardiff's city centre. In fact, I have more of a stake in Cardiff than I ever could have as an étranger in Geneva. I miss it however, and no return trip to Switzerland would be complete without a wander around the streets and tour of the escalators in Placette, even wiht little to be ever tempted to buy. It this what it would feel like to be a ghost, if ghosts could feel?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Conversations resumed


I was able to borrow a Fiat Seicento today, in order to visit friends outside Geneva. I was just a little nervous, as it's a couple of years since I drove in a left hand drive car on the left hand side of the road. I didn't encounter any difficulties, mainly because I felt relaxed enough to drive at a pace more moderate than usual, and relied less on my wits and more on working out where I was going to. My first call was in nearby Meyrin, where I found Alec and Ann-Marie Hester, he a retired CERN physicist, at home, and she, a legendary cook and providor of hospitality, who has run the English Church craft group for a quarter of a century. They were awaiting their daughter Dagmar for lunch. There was no question of my being allowed just to pass through and say 'hello'. I was promptly invited to stay and eat with the family - always a pleasure. It must be seven years if not longer since I presided over Dagmar and Guy's nuptials, at Holy Trinity Church in Geneva, so it was a happy reunion. Dagmar and Guy are both doctors back agan working in Geneva after a spell in Australia. Dagmar I noted has added ozzie colours to her English accent to add to the French and German hues resulting from growing up in a (another) trilingual household. It makes such a refreshing change from the transatlantic drawl affected by so many of those educated in this international social context.

Ann Marie, having provided us with an excellent lunch, departed for hospital to celebrate there the 95 birthday of one of the members of the craft group. Dagmar went back to work at the same time. Alec and I stayed and chatted for another half hour. I was delighted to learn that he had approved of, downloaded and shared the content of the Christian apologetic leaflets which I've published on the church website. I was pleased to be able to tell him that after a three years of a gap, I have this week drafted numbers five and six in the series. At least I hope they'll still be readable and make sense in the cool light of post holiday practicalities.

Eventually, I took off for Divonne les Bains, to spend the rest of the day with Philippe and Julia Chambeyron, a couple who were among the founders of the Anglican congregation based in the rural Vaudois village of Gingins, near Nyon, fifteen years ago. What was once a mission congregation of Geneva with a once a month service is now a fully fledged self supporting church with its own full time priest, and a growing mission congregation of its own based in the Temple de Divonne. Julia, I prepared for confirmation nearly fourteen years ago. She went on to train as a Reader after I left, then last summer was made Deacon by the diocesan Bishop in celebration at the WCC's Centre Oecumenique chapel in Grand Saconnex, Geneva. Her husband Philippe is a French Catholic, and a wonderful mainstay both of the Gingins community, and of his wife's ministry. Apparently a recent survey of French Catholics revealed at 70% were in favour both of women's ordination to the priesthood and of married clergy. How many centuries can the Vatican hold out I wonder?

It was nearly eleven o'clock when I headed back to Geneva in the dark. I crossed the border through Sauverny into Versoix, and encountered a flying frontier/customs control post, set up at the roundabout by the Stade, two kilometres inside the official border. They weren't interested in me and waved me through. If they were out working overtime, it wasn't for my benefit. I got back safely, but had a fright because at first I couldn't work out how to open the get to get into the house. I thought it was locked, and my key would not penetrate the lock, but it was merely sticking in a rather un-Swisslike manner, and eventually yielded to a hefty shove.

Glad to be back in peace and quiet to savour the conversations and emotions of the day. So good to be with people I miss back in Wales.

Lives on the move

Yesterday, I said goodbye Baulmes, and travelled down the autoroute with Valdo and Anne-Lise towards Geneva, in thin fog, and amidst quite busy traffic. The pace of the traffic was less scarily fast than I recall, though still around the 65-70mph level. Valdo pointed out that on the Lausanne to Geneva stretch, there are now speed cameras every two kilometres! After the initial wave of prosecutions and heavy fines, the effect is plain to behold - no succession of cars rushing down the outside lane at 140 - 160 kph, flashing and causing others to pull over. In fact the accident rate is well down. No doubt the cost of savings on hospital bills, rescue services, and insurance write-offs, will quickly cover the millions of francs it cost to install twenty odd speed cameras.

We parted company at Crans prés Celigny, where they dropped me off at the house of an old friend with whom I lunched, and went for a walk down to the little port of Crans on lac Léman. I heard about the closing of a number of rural railway stations on the Geneva to Lausanne stretch, not to mention village post offices. There is a bus service which circulates the villages to pick people up and take them to the nearest train station, either at Nyon for intercity services, or at Mies, where the local shuttle service into Geneva begins. This takes so much extra time, that it forces shoppers and commuters living in rural villages to take to their cars. Geneva is short of housing, due to its expansion over the past decade. Rural villages in Vaud between Geneva and Lausanne are springing up many new suburban houses, and there's increasing traffic on the narrow roads, built around the needs of farming - it is still an active agricultural area, rich with cattle, fruit farming and wine making - the stopping trains are no longer there to swallow up the commuters, however. This rail streamlining policy seems to go in the opposite direction to environmental friendliness. In order to get into Geneva, I gratefully accepted the offer of a lift, where a few years ago I would have been able to get on a train at Céligny station at the bottom of the hill. It's the same all over Europe, it seems.

Anyway, I arrived at the home in Vernier of friends Keith and Claudine. Keith is organist of Holy Trinity Church Geneva, and we used to be colleagues. He's been over to Cardiff and played several concerts for us there. Claudine is currently working for the Swiss government at the UN in New York, due to finish this summer, and looking forward to the end of shuttling between two cities three thousand miles apart. It was great to relax and catch up again. Keith has another organist friend staying currently, and helping out with various services at HTC, Gingins and Divonne. It's a very hospitable household, and all sorts of interesting people come and go from time to time, and conversation around or after meals is always pleasurable. We're almost under the flight path from Cointrin, Geneva airport here, a reminder that I'll be on my way, back home to work in only two days time. Meanwhile, more opportunities to meet and converse with other old friends in the time remaining.

Monday, January 15, 2007

One last climb


Today being my last day staying in Baulmes
, we decided to visit the Chasseron, one of the tallest parts of the great limestone outcrop that adorns the mountain top which is already another 500 metres above the village which is at 850 metres. Overnight the temperature dropped enough to usher in a chill layer of fog 200 metres above us, more typical of the weather here at this time of year. But once we'd climbed the mountain road to Ste Croix, we rose up through the fog into bright sunshine at around 1,300 metres, leaving all the mountain above clear and inviting a good walk. Well we were a bit lazy, driving out to the east of Ste Croix through the pine forest, and going as far as the tree line, before parking in order to walk from 1,400 to 1,600 metres across the windswept high grassland.

Right at the top, there is a hotel restaurant (closed on Mondays, unfortunately), and a telecom relay station (apparently also unused). The land rises steeply, and at the top, drops away in a sheer rocky cliff edge, or else very steep forested slopes. The view to the north is breathtaking, and vertiginous. A few minutes for photographs in the chill wind, and then it was necessary to move to keep warm. We only really walked for a hour and a half, but that was enough, so we had our pic-nick lunch in the shelter of the forest. Then we went for a drive on forest roads revisiting some of the terrain over which we had skiied in previous years and walked this year, and down into the Val de Travers, stopping to look at the fine Romanesque church at Môtier. It's the first church I've seen in Vaud, which has both a font and an altar, as well as a pulpit. As with other churches in the region, the liturgical layout is simple and uncluttered, in a way that I wish more Anglican churches could be.

Back to Geneva tomorrow, and an opportunity en route to call in on a couple who are friends from my time as pastor there. They live on the edge of Valdo's former parish of Céligny - in whose churchyard Richard Burton the actor is buried. His former family house is also in the village, and although no longer owned by any of his kin, it is still called 'Pays de Galles'.

Fou ta cagoule

We had some unusual internet amusement last night after supper. There's been a small groundswell of controversy rising in Geneva over a festive season stunt among the duty firemen at the airport. Evidently they are a creative bunch, but on one of the Christmas holiday periods when they were on duty with no 'planes coming in to be vigilant over, the guys assembled a video 'mashup', as it's called, and posted it on a French video blog site, and put the link on their boss' computer desktop, as a festive gift to amuse him.

Thankfully, the boss was suitably amused. The word went out very quickly about the video, and hundreds of people posted praiseworthy comments and congratulations. Except ... except ..., the local Geneva city councillor, who was not amused, and wanted to know if this was being done when they should have been working, and whether any misuse of public resources was involved etc etc. Total refusal to treat these young men as intelligent, sensible, responsible people worthy of their profession. Of course the Tribune de Genève got hold of it and gave it a page's worth of comments and publicity, and the boss's proud encouraging remarks made the politician look as worthy of office as some of our British politicians who frequently rush in and say something stupid before their brains are engaged.

The video, surely you want to know about the video. Check out "Fou ta cagoule - pompier." It's a funny take-off of another rap video by Michael Youn on the same page, which takes the mickey while celebrating hoody wearing. Youn's sound track has been used by several different video enthusiasts wanting to be filmed performing carioke. Early in December a crew of Parisian pompiers published an early attempt, but the Genevois take-off was technically far superior, and had the advantage of showing off, the firemen's mess room, a couple of monster airport firefighting machines, and the interior of an aircraft, all used as an impromptu film-set. for some dance routines. "Hm", said Valdo, that's the first time I've seen anything of the place he works!" All good hilarious fun, to inspire confidence in the feistyness of the upcoming generation, who know what to take seriously and what to take the mickey out of.

The fireman's cagoule, in case the penny hadn't dropped, is a vital part of the safety kit without which nobody can go into action and save lives, without endangering themselves. Châpeaux aux pompiers!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sunday at Romanmôtier

This morning, we made the half hour drive in bright sunshine over to Romanmôtier to attend worship in the 10-11th century Cluniac Abbey this morning. It's now the local reformed parish church, and serves as a centre for educational and spiritual activities of the église reformée of the Canton of Vaud. There's an ecumenical community of about fifteen, who, together with the pastor, meet for daily offices of prayer throughout the year, in a style influenced by Taizé. We've attended offices there on previously, but this was the first time for a Sunday Eucharist.

The classic simplicity of the church has been retained, with sparse furnishing and decoration, in the minimalist manner of contemporary monasticism, save the fading remnants of restored mediaeval wall frescoes and other painted embellishments. The pastor, dressed in alb and stole, was assisted by a young woman who read all three lessons and the intercessions. Members of the prayer community were dispersed among the congregation, rather than occupying their usual places in the choir. There were over sixty people present, and all gathered in a long oval the length of the (long) chancel, to stand for the Eucharist. A golden pain brioché the size of a large dinner-plate was used for communion, and two large pewter goblets served the wine (local pinot noir, I'd guess, rather than some standard vino sacro), with two earthenware goblets serving grape juice as an alternative. All very homely.

As we'd been invited to come up singing a hymn, with books in hand, there was nowhere convenient to put them down to receive communion, which was a bit awkward, but apart from that, the atmosphere was serene and thoughtful, with the sun streaming in from above for this celebration of the baptism of Christ,
(The Swiss reformed church now uses the international ecumenical three year lectionary). I appreciated the way in which the organist, playing on a fine modern instrument, sensitively accompanied the whole service, and not just the hymns we sang. After the blessing, the service concluded with Bach's D minor fugue, for which the congregation remained attentive to the end, before strolling out into the warm sunshine to greet each other and the Pastor in the open air. It was exceptional to be able to do this in mid-January, when normally people would hurry away, bracing themselves against the raw cold that persists in this secluded valley.

Once more, I enjoyed worshipping out of my habitual English tongue. Despite the infrequency of my use of French these days, it remains familiar and comprehensible enough for me to receive without the effort of having to translate mentally to make sure I've taken it in. I wish I could say the same about my comprehension of Welsh! The homily on the biblical theme of the day was straightforward and well delivered, though lacking in contemporary application, to my mind. It reminded me that I need to think carefully about this. Exhortation to prayer and godly life is a good thing, but even the faithful, always there to feed on the Word, need reminding of how this is to be made relevant to the everyday world.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Ibex surprise


Yesterday, Valdo was occupied for most of the day with a funeral, so I spent most of the day working on a text I've been hoping to find time to prepare for several years, part of the series of Christian apologetic leaflets I've produced for distribution at St John's. I need holiday type space to do any creative thinking, as day to day coping with church and people maintenance absorbs so much of my energy. Mid afternoon, I broke away from the computer and went for a brisk two hour walk through the forest to the West of the village. The skies were blue and there was no wind. The silence was beautiful, broken only by the occasional strange bird cry, and the screech of the mountain train whistle going past below me on its journey up to St Cergues. Blissfully peaceful. After two weeks away, I really am wound down, and feeling the benefit of the respite.

Today, we returned to the heights of the Jura, and walked again to Creux du Van, under clear skies, without a breath of wind. It was around 15 degrees in the sun, a little less in the shade, where signs of the previous few nights frost was evident, though everywhere that was exposed, the snow had melted. There were a number of walkers out, and several family groups taking advantage of the unseasonable weather to make the climb and take pictures. Walking around the entire edge of the huge cliff gave us plenty of opportunity to do what we had been unable to do on Tuesday - take pictures, of course. At the far end, we came across four Ibex (Bouquetin in French) grazing on the cliff below the path, only 4-5 metres from us, entirely unconcerned about our presence there. Normally these mountain goats are shy around people, and can only be seen grazing at dawn and dusk (well, that's the pattern of the Chamois which descend the cliff to graze in the garden of the
Cure, I have lots of photos from last year). They know how safe they are, perched on an almost vertical cliff face with a 200 metre sheer drop below them. It was a rare opportunity, which crowned another great occasion for winter mountain walking.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Gutenberg, Tinguely and la Crèche d'Hauterive


We travelled over to Fribourg for lunch today, then visited the Gutenberg Museum, housed in a 13-15th century building overhanging a 30 metre outcrop bordering the River Sarine. It's tucked in behind two churches of similar date - l'église des cordeliers and the basilica of Notre Dame, which are separated by a small museum (which used to be a posh auto garage) dedicated to Jean Tinguely, the Swiss mechanical sculptor. The museum is dedicated to the 15th century founder of modern printing. As well as housing a priceless original Gutenberg printed page, it has displays of early printed books, and a huge collection of printing presses and other machines spanning the centuries down to a 21st century electronic book. In the basement is a working print-shop using mechanical equipment of the 19th and 20th centuries. It wasn't operational today, but I imagine it's busy with school parties in term-time.

In the great variety of visually complex machine designs displayed in the museum, it's possible to see how the remarkable Mr Tinguely may have got some of his inspiration. I noticed a Tinguely-esque mechanical mobile spanning three floors, suspended in the central open space of the Migros Centre Commercial where we lunched. No wonder really, Wikipedia informs me that he was born in Fribourg in 1925. Lucky chap. It's a beautiful small university town of 37,000, stuffed with culture and nice bookshops, a bi-lingual French and German town. This year it's celebrating the 850th anniversary of its foundation.

On the way back, we stopped off briefly to take a look at Hauterive Cistercian Monastery, on a secluded verdant bend in the Sarine River valley about 10km from the centre of town. The church is 12th century for the most part, with a wall painting of Christ being accompanied by Simon the Cyrenian to Golgotha which dates from 1572, while the reformation was in full swing, though not in the Canton de Friburg I suspect. Most of the rest of the monastic buildings are austere dignified 17-18th century, well spaced out.

We didn't see the 15th century cloister, but we did see an extraordinary exhibition in a vestibule next to the Abbey's west entrance. A plaque on the door simply said Crèche, and indeed, within there was a beautifully constructed nativity scene set behind glass in the wall, all small figures 10-15cm high, in a rustic Palestinian setting. However, this was only one of the dozen such windows set into the walls of the room, each was a depiction of one of the biblical events in the childhood of Christ. The rest were all half the size of the main one, but all exquisitely observed and executed, like three dimensional picture postcards, except that none had a title. If you knew your bible, it was easy to work out which was which, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the losing/finding of Jesus in the Temple. It was indeed a beautiful surprise. The artist? Unknown, undeclared, probably a monk with an artistic hobby. What a gift to visitors with children.

It reminded me of the Crèche that adorns the welcome area of the Beit Gimel Monastery of the Soeurs de Bethlèhem in Palestine, which I stayed at for a weekend in December 2000, during my last sabbatical. There, the greater number of visitors to the Crèche are Muslim Arabs and Jews from the nearby settlement, all admiring and curious. Silent witnessing by communities living the silent life.

By sheer coincidence, when we got back to Baulmes, there was a review in the local newspaper of a photographic exhibition of monastic life at Hauterive, by Paul Joos from which I learned that the community numbers twenty monks, aged between 30 and 80+. They support themselves by high quality dairy farming.

All in all, a fascinating afternoon's excursion.


Even if I'm relaxed and happily on holiday, work still haunts me from time to time in my dreams. I awoke this morning from a dream in which I was taking part in a very grand wedding in a cathedral, which seemed a bit to be like Llandaff, back home. It was very crowded and there seemed to be lots of clergy especially women clergy, taking part. I had a small part to pray - the nuptial blessing, but the service was long and elaborate, I had no hand in arranging it so wasn't entirely sure of what came where, and I had either lost or was not given the order of service. To cap it all, everyone I asked for a peek a theirs seemed to have a handful of books and leaflets, and didn't know which was the one I wanted to consult. Moreover the service seemed to have started, though the bride and groom seem to have slipped in unconventionally by a side entrance.

It's not so strange really, I often get anxious when I do weddings, even though usually I have not only done the painstaking preparation and rehearsal, but also take the entire ceremony myself. Although I'm in control, I feel out of control. At one level that's OK, as its God's Spirit who really is in control of all our sacred encounters, but somehow, my fear of a descent into chaos which I am powerless to prevent has haunted me right through my years of ministry.

When I was first ordained, I dreamed of standing up to read the Gospel and being unable to make myself heard or gain the attention of the assembly, quietly chatting away and oblivious to my presence. This has repeated itself over the years in similar form. A few months ago I had an interesting variation on this in which I was, for once, in the congregation in a church resembling Holy Trinty Geneva. I was seated at the back with the stewards and the welcomers, coping with an influx of people during the service, and struggling to keep them quiet, and in one case having to deal with a veiled muslim woman who wanted to go down the front of the church to pray in the side chapel while the service was going on - and why not? In a house of prayer. This was another 'struggling to cope' dream, but from the other side of the communion rail.

How to understand such dreams?

I think that I've always been acutely aware of the potential difficulties in communicating the truth of faith in a setting that no longer shares a consensus about what religious truth is, which has limited regard for the authority or conviction of ministers of the Gospel, and which is far from knowlegeable about how to behave in church or what goes on there. This is the climate in which ministry is exercised today, virtually isolated by one's knowledge and experience, in the shadow of one's own fears of failure, if not rejection.

Yes, of course God is in charge, but trusting God in this sort of climate doesn't depend on passive acceptance, for our calling is to be God's fellow workers, taking responsibility, doing what is right under the cloud of uncertainty, always questioning, open to make things better, without absolute certainty that everything we attempt will turn out for the best. Perfect love certainly casts out fear, but at some levels, it's a lifetime's process.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Eat the place you're in

Valdo had a bereavement visit to make this morning. The man he went to see in the hospital at Orbe died yesterday. The funeral is Friday again cutting into his holiday, but he promises to take Monday off in lieu, so I just quietly lazed around. Slowly the low lying mist evaporated, leaving us with clear skies and sunshine. Valdo returned for lunch before we went out and walked for a couple of hours on the Col des Aiguilles, directly above Baulmes. A sizeable area of this steep forested mountainside belongs to the commune. Up at 1,300 metres the local ski club has its own cabane, and a 500 metre remontée méchanique, which at the moment looks sadly folorn, and useless standing on steep grassy slopes with only sporadic patches of snow. The wind blew, and although it was fairly warm, around 10 degrees, it chilled us, as we fought against it.

Over a lunch of sprouts, spuds and an excellent pork saucisson, local, hand made, pure ground ham, no additives of any kind, I learned about its provenance. Baulmes, village of a thousand souls has its own central heating system. There is a communal wood fuelled furnace that supplies water for domestic consumption, washing and heating. The Cure is the last house in the village that can be reached by the pipe network and pumps, and it was some time before the état de Vaud which (being an established reformed church) owns the property, decided to buy in to the service, connect up to the supply and disconnect the installed oil fired system. When it finally happened the Pastor was left with several hundred litres of mazout, for which he no longer has use. Eventually he found a purchaser, wanting to use the oil to heat his engineering workshop. A deal was struck, the oil was sold and transferred to its new home. "I think of the Pastor every time I light up the heater in my workshop." he declared. And in appreciation of the deal, Valdo and Ann Lise received a brace of these large saucisson, made apparently chez lui, by the engineer's cousin. This, plus a glass of Marc Bovet's fine Pinot Noir d'Allaman, to go with local cheese from the village fromagerie for supper. As well as being a viticulteur, Marc is also a diacre of the église reformée, serving the côte vaudoise of Lac Léman. I love these personal touches that characterise the rather understated rural parish life of the Swiss reformed church.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Another mountain top experience

By eleven we'd confirmed that last week's snow was melting further and was now un-skiable. It was raining and the cloud was low, so we decided to go out, go up and walk, hopefully about the cloud line. We drove in the direction of Neuchâtel, then turned north into the Jura, on one of the mountain roads that leads to the Val de Travers, through Provence, the village where Brother Roger of Taizé was born, baptized and spent his first two years of life. We took the turning that leads to Creux du Van, and drove up to 1,300 metres before parking the car to make the ascent through the forest to the extraordinary mountain top which has a huge crescent shaped cliff scooped out of its north eastern face. The limestone cliffs are 500 metres high, giving way into a gorge that leads back down to lake Neuchâtel. The cliff is nearly a kilometre across! It's an extraordinary feature of the landscape, dating from the age of glaciers, and well worth a visit.

Last year, we ski trekked to the top on a bright cold day, minus five. This year, the cloud came to meet us at 1,350 metres and stayed with us. Temperatures about plus eight degrees. It was wet going because of the melting snow, and the wind blew through the mist when we rose above the tree line. In fact we couldn't see anything of the spectacular view, and simply followed the safe side of the dry stone wall that runs along the perimeter of the cliff, thankful that it was there, since the number of possible places to fall over the edge, if it wasn't there, is endless. With the wind, the mist, and complete absence of other walkers, it felt very desolate, until peep-peep, peep-peep, a text from Nathalie, announcing her arrival in Singapore, where the temperature is twenty-five degrees.

Somehow we missed the path that would take us back to the Ferme du Solliet, a refuge somewhere on the ridge above us below the summit, probably closed anyway. We continued around the cliff until we found a path which descended zig-zag fashion down into the Val de Travers near Noiraigue, then took forestry tracks, climbing back in a southerly direction up on to the mountain to the place where we'd left the car. We'd been walking energetically for just over four hours, when we found it, shrouded in mist. Our clothes were wetter on the inside than outside, despite the mist, I reckon we covered about fifteen kilometres.

We returned by the same route, and found that we left the cloud behind at 1,200 metres. The views south over Lake Neuchâtel, with the panorama of the Alps, fifty miles away, lit by evening sun, was breathtaking. There was cloud, but it was a lot higher than that shrounding the mountain, perhaps indicating another weather system on its way. Waning sun flecked the myriad of cloud formations with orange light, at times resembling waves in the sand on a beach, at others, some crazy abstract wallpaper. We stopped in a lakeside village to take photographs but didn't linger long, as we were both feeling a little chilly. In half an hour we were back in Baulmes enjoying hot showers and then a most welcome evening meal, starting with a most welcome bouillon, both of us aching every bit as much as we woould if we'd skiied up there.

Monday, January 08, 2007

In Nescafé land

Today it rained, and cloud was low for most of the day, making a trip up into the mountains hardly worthwhile. Valdo had to go and visit a dying man in the hospital at Orbe, (yes, he is on leave, but ...) so I went with him and explored the older parts of the town, while he did his visit. The town's château was destroyed in the fifteenth century, only ramparts plus the shells of a square and a round tower remain. The area enclosed by the ramparts has been made into a park and playground, overlooking the plain below, through which the river Orbe runs.

Close by, in the narrow street of old houses leading up to the park, is the Temple possibly it was once part of the château, as it sits on its own promontory on the inside of a defensive dyke, which has been turned into a lane right around the south side of the town. The building is of the decorated Gothic period, and some of its arches contain elaborate stone carved friezes and figurative bosses. It boasts four stained glass windows, and the remains of some mediaeval wall paintings in the chancel area.

Although the reformation in Vaud was calvinist driven, it didn't lead to the same extreme puritan iconoclasm that typified much of the British reform. The chancel was left spacious and simply furnished, really making the best of the architectural features of a fine building. Best of all, it was open so we could visit, as are many churches in this part of the world, even though popping into church for private prayer is not a feature of popular devotion.

One noteworthy modern complex of buildings sits on the plain, bearing the legend
Nescafé. The huge Nestlé empire has its headquarters by Lac Léman at Vevey, half an hour away by autoroute. This is one of their factories. In fact, it's the one where coffees are blended, roasted and ground sous vide before being encapsulated for use the latest innovation in machine made fresh coffee. On a day when coffee is being roasted, if the wind is right, the tantalising aroma can be savoured over in Baulmes about five miles away - that is, if you like coffee.

From Orbe, we drove to Neuchâtel, and spent some time browsing in computer shops, then taking photos in between rain showers. Once the cloud finally lifted and the showers ceased, we headed out along the south side of the lake, and took ourselves for a walk in the forest which covers the slopes above the lakeside strip that is marshy and contains reed beds. This entire area attracts many different species of birds, indigenous and birds of passage, so it is an important nature reserve. As the sun went down, we headed back into town, to rendezvous with Ann-Lise for the journey home, pleased with ourselves for having managed some kind of exercise despite the unseasonably mild winter weather.

Sunday as a real rest-day

How good to have a Sunday worshipping in the pew for a change. I understand that Swiss Reformed clerics have one Sunday free
each month, just like their Scandinavian Lutheran counterparts. And most only have one service a Sunday. It says a great deal about different expectations or lack of them, between UK and the rest of Europe.

I joined Valdo and Ann-Lise for the culte de dimanche in the church I can see out of the lounge window, here in Baulmes. Each Sunday of the month, the service moves around the four churches Valdo looks after. For this Epiphany Sunday, the service was a Eucharist, attended by twenty people, all relaxed and very friendly. The hymns had classic tunes familiar to me from the hymnals of Britain. We stood in a circle around the small stone altar table in the lee of the pulpit (used less and less nowadays fewer attending worship, I was told), decked with white cloth and candles.

As the designated parish councillor for reading and assisting was absent, Ann-Lise stood in, reading with beautiful clarity that allowed me to enjoy hearing the Word in French without strain. I noticed that two communion cups with wine, plus a third with grape juice, were circulated at communion time, delivered in a relaxed and expert way into the hands of each communicant by Ann-Lise, in an appropriately homely way that cheered my heart. Valdo celebrated and preached with great warmth. There's nothing of the dour solemnity one associates with calvinism or puritanism about this 'reformed' worship - it's very much of the heart as well as the mind. The Temple is large, able to hold well over 500, so we were a small group, occupying just one small section on front benches. Yes, people do sit together!

After lunch Valdo and I went for an exploratory visit to the pistes above and behind Ste Croix, a ten minute 1,000ft ascent around hairpin bends, and then another ten minutes across to the ski area along the Franco-Suisse border. The snow covering is very thin and wet. Here and there it's melted away, the temperature is five degrees. Nevertheless, we were able to find a part of the domain, slightly higher up and in the forest, where we were able to ski 3-4 km before fine rain descended, driving us back to the car. The pistes were deserted. I don't suppose anyone thought it would be possible to ski today, but the conditions weren't impossible, as it turned out, and our persistence was partly rewarded.

We returned to Baulmes, and amused ourselves after supper by trying to resolve wireless security installation problems in a modem/router set up. Far more frustrating than the weather. By midnight, I had completed reading the second of the two books I bought for a tenner at the airport, both stories of adults who triumphed in life despite the evil done to them by abusive parents. Thought provoking stuff. What shall I read next, I wonder? It's so quiet here, with few distractions. It's a delightful retreat.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

From rural Berne to rural Vaud

A very lazy morning, packing, then reading in a quiet house, as Camilla and Martin took advantage of one last lie-in before their return to Geneva tomorrow, to their house in Thoiry, ready for the start of term on Monday Laura went out early to ski with a friend, but I took my skis back yesterday, renouncing another outing before departure, in order to avoid having damp sweaty ski togs with all the rest of my clean clothes.

We all lunched together, and said our warm farewells before Martin took me to St Imier's Collègiale church, a simple église romande, rather large for a town of just 8,000. Before the reformation it housed a foundation of Canons Regular, and endured a couple of make-overs before being restored to present essential simplicity. I was able to take the photos I wanted to add to the ones of its exterior I took yesterday, much to my satisfaction.

We then left for the gare CFF for the 14h45 régionale to La Chaux de Fonds, en route Yverdon via the lovely lakeside town of Neuchâtel, two train changes, the second to the swish Intercity train to Geneva, stopping at Yverdon, where my dear Pastor friend Valdo Richard met me, to take us both home to Baulmes, the main village of the four which he looks after. Despite cloud covering most of the sky, the horizon was clear clear enough to see across country fifty miles to the Alps during the hour long rail journey and subsequent 20 minute car trip out into the countryside to Baulmes. It's something I've rarely seen in my recent winter trips here, when fog and low cloud have been persistent.

They live in a huge white painted mansion with characteristic green and white chevroned shutters which advertise the fact that this is the residence of the pastor paroissal. The tower part of the building large enough to contain a couple of rooms on each étage dates from the fourteenth century. The ground floor is occupied by parish rooms and an office. The three floors above that belong to the two of them. During most of the two years they have lived there the roof and walls have been renovated, so they have endured living in the midst of a building site. Fortunately the walls are nearly three feet thick, so most of the sound was shut out!

We had soup de courges, cheese and home made bread for supper. The soup put me in mind of Anne-Marie Hester, who introduced us to her German variety of this dish, a decade or more ago, when we lived in Geneva. I hope to be able to catch up with her and her husband Alec before I return home. Valdo has a culte in the morning, in the church next door to the house. I can see it from where I am writing in the lounge, floodlit on a promontory opposite the house, dramatic against the night sky.

Valdo says that the chamois which usually graze in the back garden of the house in the early morning haven't yet started to descend. There's not enough snow to hinder them grazing in the fields or forest higher up - a 500 metre cliff rises up from the top of this garden - also they were culled during the year, in oder to keep the numbers at a sustainable level in this setting. The snow has started later than ever this season, and it's also unusually mild here, as in Wales. We may not be able to ski this week, but there are many wonderful places to walk and visit, when Valdo's leave starts on Monday. Tomorrow we shall be able to share the Eucharist together, the first time, I think, since he came to my induction service five years ago in Monaco, although many times since we have communed with God together in remote places to which we have skied, in the beautiful vastnesses of wild nature in the Jura.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Church crawling

It rained yesterday, and so skiing was out of the question. After a leisurely lunch, Martin took me on a tour of the villages, churches and organs of the Vallon de Saint Imier, which was interesting, despite the rain. The church at Courtelary, where Laura is organist, is as old in its origins as the Colègiale in St Imier, dating back to the eleventh century. It's particularly interesting to me as, unlike the other churches of the Vallon, which have either wooden or stone altar tables, it has an octagonal infant baptismal font in the prime position. Admittedly it is covered over by a board with a white embroidered cloth, so that it can double up as an altar, but it also sports a paschal candle.

I've also seen a font where one would expect the altar to be, in churches of Eastern Switzerland, also hybrid stone altar tables with a bird-bath type hollow in the middle to contain baptismal water when needed, in the Canton de Vaud, although stone altar tables dating from the early eighteenth century are fairly common. These église reformée buildings are generally simple in design, with prominent pulpits and lots of seating - they often have wooden galleries - Courtelary is an excpetion with a stone gallery built in the 1930s, matching the ancient style of the rest of the building. The sanctuary areas of these churches, pre- or post- reformation is generally quite large, spacious and uncluttered, despite the dominance of the pulpit. Few have stained glass, mostly the windows are plain, making it possible to see out, although it's not unusual for windows to be slightly opaque, to raise the distraction threshold for listeners within!

In the evening, Eva Jos, the pastor of the German speaking reformed diaspora in the Vallon came to supper. She once studied in Sheffield and speaks English well, in addition to French German and Italian, so once again conversation floated between languages, occasionally with amusing consequences. We finished the evening with a glass of wine listening to some amazing oboe and organ duets by a contemporary Swiss composer called Hummel, recorded by Martin on the St Imier organ. He's hoping to find a publisher for these, as they've not been recorded before. It's good to hear modern music that is not so outlandish as to be unintelligible, but which stretches one's musical perceptions in new ways, and evokes the numinous, as I believe all good music really should.

Laura and I got up early enough to go out and ski this morning. Conditions were still good in spite of the rain, but we had less time since both Laura and Martin had funerals early in the afternoon. We were back back noon, and I was able to surrender my skis and pay my dues at the hire shop, before sitting down to a pasta lunch. Tomorrow, I take my leave and go west to Baulmes, to spend the week with Valdo Richard, my ski buddy for the past eleven years or so. What piste conditions are like on the 'balcon des alpes' remains to be seen.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

First ski outing 2007

Martin and I talked late into the night - music, philosophy, where the decline of the church leaves both musicians and clergy. It was a good way to unwind, and get our working lives in some sort of perspective. I was awakened at 8h30 by the sounds of three teenagers jumping into action. Martin and Laura's daughter Camilla had two of her school mates from the Lycée Internationale at Ferney Voltaire outside Geneva for some skiing. By the time I descended for breakfast, they'd already set off to hire skis and spend the morning skating at the patinoire in the village.

I spent several frustrating hours trying to top up my mobile phone through the Orange website, which wouldn't register my debit card details. I switched to trying the register the card by phone and even this took two attempts to get right. The operatives at the Indian call centre were very good humoured about it. First time around I was told to report the non registration problem to their help line, when I attempted to call, my call was rejected according to the texts I received, because I only had 8p credit on my account and the helpline call cost 60p! For once, instead of getting angry, I just laughed helpessly, and made another attempt to top up, which was successful. Thank goodness I'm on holiday, and there's no urgent call I need to make.

At a more leisurely hour, took me down to the hire store to hire cross country skis, and after a spot of lunch, we drove up into the mountains south of St Imier to Les Savagnières for a 10km trek, the first of the season for both of us. It's always a special moment, donning skis for the first time in a season and wondering if your body will remember how to move and stay in control. Once a gentle start is made, relaxation comes and enjoyment begins, surveying the scene, resembling a black and white picture, especially when, like today, the sky is mostly white with grey streaks. With everything snow covered, all is utterly silent, apart from the very occasional solitary bird calling. Meditation on the move comes easy, but so does fatigue when you've not hard much regular exercise for six months.

The snow conditons were quite good, as the piste engine had been out and flattened a course through the forests during the morning. Here and there the surface created wasn't really firm enough, after a first pass by the piste engine. I suspect the ground had not been cooled below freezing by autumnal and winter frosts as usual. The packed down snow at ground level would melt and chill the ground to freezing, leaving a void with packed snow above. Here and there on the piste, firm snow would give way, and create 10cm ruts when skis passed over it. After a dozen or so skiers, the surface was roughed up, unstable and difficult to ski. This made the steeper slopes in the last downhill stretch very tricky to negotiate, so I played safe took off my skis, and walked down them. In a few days, when they've been re-flattened several times, these gradients will be more manageable. Nevertheless, a good first outing, followed by a splendid meal, with three tired teenagers, and conversations going across the table in Italian, French and English, all of which are naturally and regularly used in this household. And so to be, tired but very contented.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Away from it all

After lunch yesterday, I made my way to Bristol Airport by car, parking in the pouring rain as near to the terminal entrance as I could get, to make it easy for Clare and the rest to find when they return fromSpain on Thursday. I was early checking in, so had a nice relaxing time waiting, aware that despite the bad weather, flights were leaving on time. The evening flight arrived in Geneva ten minutes early, which gave me plenty of time to find the double-decker commuter train to Lausanne, and then onward to Neuchâtel on the Swiss high speed train, modelled on the Italian Pendolino. Both were almost empty, as it was New Year's Day.

On arrival, I met up with Laura for the drive up to St Imier, in the Jura Bernois. As we drove, the torrential rain gave way to sleet, then heavy snow, much to our delight - the first big 'dump' of the season by the looks of it. What a welcome! Laura was church secretary when I worked in Geneva, Martin her husband is organist of the Parish of St Imier, with a huge former monastic church building, parts of which are a thousand year old, Laura too is an organist and singer.

They have a typical Swiss four storey town house, plain and square on the outside, with lovely wood floors and simple interior decor. I'm occupying a top floor bedroom with a view west up the wide forested valley. St Imier is a precision engineering town, renowned for watchmaking. Swiss watch company Longines manufacture here, but this is the last such business here. Many more have moved on or closed down, so it's a quiet town, even when it's not Bank Holiday. It's snowed on and off throughout the day, so we've passed the time catching up, eating, and getting rid of nasty popup ads from this laptop on which I write.

It's just so good to be back in Switzerland, and in the depths of the Jura. It's the sort of placeI daydream about when Cardiff is giving me a hard time.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's gift

As Clare is in Spain for a few days with daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law, New Year's Eve, like the rest of the weekend I've spent enjoying a little silence and solitude, when I've not had to go out and work. As a chilly wet Cardiff hit midnight and the fireworks started over in Bute Park, I was chatting with my cousin Ivor, an architect in Cambridge, reflecting together on the passing of Auntie Celandine, and other family members. There was nothing to keep me up after this, so after a few gulps of dank night air and alcohol-free, I went to bed, the more distant sounds of firework explosions punctuating my drowsiness.

This morning, on my way through the Civic Centre, a handful of workers were out dismantling the 'Calennig' stage from last night's festivities. Streets had already been swept clean, and were almost empty of people. I don't suppose a huge number of people were out partying last night, but don't really know, as I didn't bother to leave the house again after returning from New Year's Eve-ning Prayer with my two churchwardens. The shops had not yet begun to open. If the sun hadn't poked through the clouds it might just have looked a bit more desolate in the city centre.

As I anticipated, nobody showed up for the 10h00 Eucharist. The few regulars being away overnight meant it was only likley that casual passers by would drop in, maybe hotel guests who'd noticed the advertised service. For me, it was important to be there, to wait, to make the invitation. I said the Angelus, read aloud the Liturgy of the Word, for the Naming of Jesus. Then just as I was finishing, in came a solitary Indian man whom I've got to know over the past few months. In his mid thirties, he's a contract computer programmer working here, as are several other Indian Christians we've had in church this past few years. But J. is a Hindu, hungry and thirsty to learn and know more about God and puzzled by many things he is finding out.

We've had several deep, interesting conversations - some face to face at home or in church, others on the phone. He does internet bible courses, and watches every bible video he can get his hands on, but needs dialogue to expand and interpret the information he takes in. He is growing in devotion to Jesus, but also trying to work out how all this fits in with his Hindu culture.

He'd come to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and presented himself at the communion rail. As I recognised him, I gave him a blessing. Next day he rang me, puzzled. The last time he'd been in church he's been given communion, as the distributors didn't know any different. Then I explained that communion was what bound together the baptized in relation to Jesus, and he seemed to understand, and said he will be happy to accept a blessing on another occasion.

Because the information he receives is mediated by websites and not by human contact with a community, his prodgious amount of data is not well interpreted. Also, he comes across confusingly different Christian interpetations too, and hasn't yet acquired the skill of discerning wholesome truth from rubbish. He put me on the spot by asking about this. "How do I know the difference between the good things out there and the evil?" He asked. All I could think to say - trying to think in geek-speak to a programmer - was, "You need a simple rule with which to filter and process the data you have. So admit and follow only what you perceive to be loving, truthful, compassionate, liberating and inclusive. This is what Jesus did and taught." Did I say that? Is this what I do?

I believe he's considering baptism, because of his growing devotion to Jesus, though there are bound to be problems for him, given that conversion is too often associated with de-racination, turning one's back on family and culture. I expressed to him my view that all world religions possess great spiritual truths and offer a path towards God, and that no matter what Christianity had made of him, Jesus lived and taught God's embrace of all people without discrimination or exclusion. Jesus took as his foundation the best of Judaic teaching, so it must be possible to draw out the best and highest Hindu spiritual teachings, and discover that these converge with the way of Jesus and are embraced by Him. I told him that I believed it was possible to baptize (understood as interrogated by, and immersed in the love of Christ) any culture that had high spiritual values, to be a disciple of Jesus with Hindu roots, but that this is a difficult narrow path. Even an Indian Christian community has its own culture, which may or may not be suspect in Hindu eyes. It's a question of finding the right place in which to express one's discipleship. I also told him of Bede Griffiths and Henri Le Saux and others who had plumbed the depths of Indian spirituality as part of their Christian monastic journeys, so he has gone off to look up their books on the internet.

In the end, I'm convinced that the key to the convergence of great religious traditions lies in their spiritualities and their prayer life. Monks are quite good at exploring this, largley because their way of life has stripped them of over-dependency on any particular culture, but focusses them on fellowship and prayer, in what Herbert Slade called 'Contemplative Intimacy'. I just don't think we're nearly as good at this as we need to be. The ways in which we are used to pray are too culture bound, and engaging with them may not free people and open them up to a deeper experience, but rather leave them feeling confused and alienated. We've a lot of work to do in this area, especially at St John's, as a place of welcome and prayer at the heart of the city.

Nice start to the New Year. Now, off to Switzerland for a complete rest and change from the world of work.