Sunday, May 27, 2007

A weekend of music

Friday last we had a lunchtime organ concert in St John's with over eighty people in attendance. Then, last night Clare and I went to the Opera, to see Bartok's grim fable, Bluebeard's Castle, which I didn't like, and Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins, with Welsh Ballet Company, Diversions, and WNO collaborating. This was outstanding, memorable, a brilliant piece of 'moral' entertainment, satirising western materialism and the seamier side of American (not to mention European) aspirations for success. It should be required viewing for all sixth formers. The dance side was spectacular and at the same time vividly exhibited the spiritually injurious nature of the 'deadly sins', without ever being salacious, as one might fear. Welsh artistic enterprise scores again!

Then, Saturday night, we had a superb concert at St John's from an American choir from Rutgers University New Jersey. The choir had spent the previous week touring Wales and singing during their fiftieth anniversary year, also on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the great black activist and singer Paul Robeson, who was an engineering graduate of their college.

Rutgers claims to be one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse colleges in the USA, and the choir itself was certain evidence of this. They sang in English, Spanish, Chinese, and several items in Welsh, raising the roof singing together with the eighty strong audience 'Mae hen wlad fy nhadau' at the end of the concert.

The Paul Robeson Society's history exhibition was erected in the north aisle for all to visit. A fine piece of work, with a dual display for children (at a lower level for reading), also bi-lingual. Robeson's solidarity with the Welsh miners during the 1930s is part of Valley historical pride. The choir visited Mountain Ash, where he'd sung a concert for miners, and also performed a concert in St Paul's Ynyshir. They loved our building and its perfect acoustic for music, and made a full recording of the concert in the hope of producing a tour CD.

The choir made a quick excursion to England (Bath) during the morning, and returned from lunch there to a Welsh Tea before rehearsing briefly. We wondered how many people we'd get at 5.00pm on a Saturday, this being a bit of an unknown time for us to hold a music event. When they'd finished rehearsing the choir trooped outside for a breath of fresh air, and started singing spontaneously in the street as a couple of church people gave out leaflets. It was a moment of pure magic, and people did come in to listen to the music and stayed. We were fortunate to get another turn out of eighty people, a second day running

I loved the warmth, enthusiasm and energy of the choir singing music from American composers I didn't know. I'd have loved to hear them tackle more material from some classical and European repertoire, which I'm sure they do and would do well, given their vocal power and discipline. At one stage their organ accompanist let rip with a little jazzy improvisation, which made Father Willis dance in a delightful way. Americans do syncopation like nobody else.

Finally, a 'musical event' of a different kind. The baptism of Rosie and Chris Berry's son Daniel at St Teilo's Sunday morning. Rosie is a long standing choir member at St Teilo's, Chris leads St Teilo Arts Trust and plays organ in various palces including St John's, when he's not travelling to remote places as a Geolgoy researcher. It was my first visit back to St Teilo's since the benefice split, and it was lovely to be able to share a service there with Caroline, my new neighbouring priest. Daniel has been going to church since he was a few weeks old, so he's quite at home, and content to participate in his baby way. When I gave him the baptismal candle, he looked and exclaimed loudly 'Ah!', which made us laugh. Then when we clapped in welcome, he joined in, and we all laughed again. Such a pleasure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The frustration of voicelessness

I've been putting in a lot of spare time work recently on preparing the ground for the research project for which we received funding from the Community Development Foundation's Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. Instead of employing someone directly to work on data gathering, we've commissioned work from the Regeneration Institute of Cardiff University Social Sciences department. So, it's been important to be very clear about what we want done, who the subjects to be investigated are, and how to be sure we get them talking about the real subject of the enquiry - relationship between religious communities of every culture and background, and civil society, local and national government, and all the institutions which serve us.

I've represented Archbishop Barry for nearly five years, as an observer on various incarnations of the County's Strategic Planning Body, and it still seems to me that lip service only is being paid to the contribution made by religious communities to the economy and social welfare of the city. There seems a steadfast reluctance to engage properly with the views of religious communities, especially when they challenge and contradict the policy leads given by politicians. This is a cause of frustration, not only amongst Christians but also amongst Muslims I've heard speaking on radio, or talked to personally.

Civil society, certainly in this city has disengaged from any meaningful dialogue with religion and is tries to push religious opinion and value out of the public realm all together, mostly by ignoring it or not inviting contributions. When I read news forums discussing anything to do with religion and listen to discussion programmes on the Beeb, the confident articulation of anti-religious sentiment amazes me, and it often goes uncontested, or challenged only by traditionalists without any real credibility or vigour in their responses. It seems as if a new kind of public consensus is is being forged - largely due to the poverty and weakness of current Christian advocacy. I often hear more incisive argument coming from top Muslim and Jewish thinkers. It's what becomes of the church squandering its energies on internal disputes, and failing to focus on the essential task of prosecuting the case for faith in the Gospel of Christ. We've fallen a long way behind in the last 30 years.

Active religious community members of all faiths probably make up ten percent of the population of the Borough, only about five percent of these are Christian, although over fifty percent of the number of citizens would put down 'Christian' on a census form. There's never a problem filling church school places, and people still turn to the church for crises and special events in life, as a kind of default consumer choice. So there's still a fair amount of general good-will towards Christianity, and an acceptance of other people's religious cultures as part of our urban diversity.
Fewer and fewer people are willing to stand up and be counted, and express views that many others may agree to but not have the confidence to voice. A society can hardly claim to be truly liberal and tolerant when it fails to engage sectors of its population in the debate about its present or future.

Politicians lament low voter turnouts and apathy. Many people feel powerless and lose interest in contributing socially because they fell they won't be heard. Talking politics on TV creates only passive 'consumer' audiences. The media belong to and are part of the powerful status quo. Too much street politics is a kind of performance art for the sake of the news media. Politicians come to church for special events because Protocol demands they should be there - even the Mayor (of one party) doesn't always show up if the Leader (of another party) is also attending - unless Royalty is coming! Few come quietly, humbly and ask to hear what church communities have to say about matters of mutual concern, without reporters or cameras around to distort the event into something other than grass roots listening.

There's such a lot of work to be done to prevent total alienation of religious communities which will leave them outsiders, stuck in their own past, unable to be shapers of the future. One has to admire those Christians who stick it out at the heart of politics despite the crushing weight of a system which doesn't much value what they really stand for any more.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Churchyard Path and Gates blessed

This weekend, I have a rare sense of achievement.

Yesterday, the Friday after Ascension Day, Assistant Bishop David Yeoman came to St John's to celebrate the lunchtime Eucharist, and later to dedicate the new gates and path in the south churchyard 'garden'. The churchyard closed to burials in between the World Wars. It was handed over to the Council to look after and made into a 'garden' open to the public in 1983. This didn't work very well because there was only one entrance gate. When substance abusers adopted it, the shopping public become too afraid to enter for fear of getting trapped inside, so it wasn't long before the garden was left locked. Although some flower beds were still tended, parts of it became overgrown and rubbish strewn. There was a strange incongruity between the regular appearance of fresh bin bags in the few litter bins adorning the locked garden, and the bottles, fast food wrappers, plastic and cardboard boxes thrown over or stuffed through the railings. A sad site indeed. An icon of communal slovenliness.

Part of the deal made by the City with developers Land Securities, involved money spent on works in the public realm. Newer smarter street furniture, lighting and granite paving, also a makeover for the churchyard 'garden' that involved putting a new path through from East to West and giving it gates which could be closed at night. The church council was very happy with this proposal and agreed to ask for a Faculty to cover the work over three years ago. Long delays ensued, not least because of the slowness of city lawyers negotiating with the Representative Body of the Church in Wales a new lease for the new path, plus a settlement of monies outstanding on other portions of land being used by the city to provide a basement entrance to the Old Library next door. It's a long saga, too boring to tell, and it started within a couple of weeks of my taking officer in November 2002. It was finally secured and back rent paid up in January 2007. Then in March, work began on the 'garden' make-over, and the construction site shutters only came down at the beginning of this week.

It rained for the ceremony. Nevertheless we had a brass trio to play fanfares and accompany the blessing. Four children from Gabalfa Primary school, which had produced some winning poster designs to adorn the construction site fence for the duration, helped the Bishop to pull open the gates and break the red ribbon which was threaded through the railings around the entire site. It looked great. Council Leader Rodney Berman and local SD2 project manager Simon Armstrong made short speeches, and then the assembly withdrew into church for tea and sandwiches with more brass music. Despite the weather it was a satisfying occasion. Most of the guests were City officials, SD2 staff or church members. Most I had met, worked with and know by name, because of my role as City Centre Missioner. I had a certain sense of satisfaction in being able to welcome people to the ceremony and into church, knowing that almost all of the non-St.John's people have only ever seen me out and about in my workaday dress. NO doubt I'll get teased about that as time goes on. We're all working for the good of the city in our different ways, and share the same sense of pride and adventure in these changing times.

On a sad note - when I went to visit Nia Wyn-Jones manufacturing the gates in her workshop, her mother Gwen was working on them with her, welding pieces together, a woman of my age. A few weeks after the gate work was finished, she died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Her husband attended the ceremony and told me the story. Nia was off somewhere filming for S4C TV and sent him to represent her. The gates are a credit to Nia's craftsmanship. But now they're also a memorial to her mother.

One other sign of the times. At the City Centre Retail Partnerhship Board meeting on Tuesday I was presented with a Safenet shortwave radio for use in the Tea Room. We've had a series of thefts and other small incidents which have resulted in us acquiring second hand CCTV cameras (old ones links to Video recorders rather than hard disk recorders), courtesy of the city centre management. There's been genuine concern at some of the local rogues preying upon mothers with kids and old ladies who think they are safe and sound in church. The radio link keeps us in contact with the community safety network in the city centre, and forewarns us of trouble. The CCTV deters the opportunist thieves. But once again people aren't quite so tense and unsure of themselves in their usual familiar safe place. We are fortunate that there's such good will towards the Parish Church by fellow workers in the City.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Churches and civil society - raising the debate

It's nearly three weeks since my last written posting. I've been somewhat sapped of creative energy due to a persistent virus on the one hand and persistent problems with getting the religious communities research project up to the launch pad. Slowly, mostly by trial and error, the right people have become involved and CDF, the funding agency seems to be OK with our proposed way of approach. I would have happily renounced the good fortune of a large grant to pursue an investigation I feel very strongly should be made, had I known about the hassles in advance. However, at last Wednesday's City Centre Churches Together there was unanimous support for the path we propose to take - more on this when the deals are clinched and working.

At the same meeting we had two Local Government officers from Community Planning giving a presentation on the recently launched City Centre Strategy document 2007-2010. It's the first time they've attended a church meeting, as opposed to church members attending one of their meetings. And to be fair, they seemed pleased to have been invited, even though they were given a hard time. There was some very strong articulation of concerns felt by churches about the impact of taking traffic out of the city centre - top of the planners' wish list, when there's such inadequate Sunday public transport at times to permit people to attend worship.

It was also interesting to hear people other than myself expressing concerns about the way religious communities don't seem to appear even photographically, to figure as part and parcel of Cardiff's social and cultural life. Airbrushed out of the picture, was my phrase for this kind of social engineering. I've been striving to awaken some kind of desire for dialogue between city centre churches and the local authority about plans and development policies ever since I discovered the poverty of the situation over four years ago. Now the churches are, it seems, taking notice, finding a voice. So there's all the more reason to continue with the religious communities survey project, and deliver a quality product into the public realm to stimulate the much needed debate.

Also, of late I've put more time and energy into publishing photographs, rather than writing, but even this has slowed down somewhat now. Almost all the redevelopment site has been levelled and now piles are being sunk and foundations excavated. There remains one huge mountain of rubble as high as a house, being kept in reserve for use on-site. For most of the past four months over six thousand tonnes of rubble a week has been removed by lorry to other sites. New tower cranes and piling rigs have sprung up to add to the ones on the former Toys 'r us and Ice Rink sites. Movement is now more restrained. The sense of drama conveyed by the changing scene of demolition has been replaced by a kind of calm purpose.