Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Pilgrimage and a Baptism

The day after our return from holiday was the Parish Pilgrimage - a traditional coach outing, beginning and ending with prayer. Three dozen of us gathered in Tredegarville School for the morning Office, before getting on a coach which took us to the border market town of Monmouth, a hour away in rural Gwent. There was time here to have lunch and a wander around the shops, and fortunately the rain that threatened to fall did so only half heartedly. We travelled on down the verdant Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey for a guided tour of the majestic ruins from a knowlegable local artist and historian who dressed as a thirteenth century Cistercian monk, to take us back into the period of the monastery's heyday. It was a most interesting and comprehensive account of mediaeval monastic life in its social setting, albeit a little prolonged for some older tired pairs of legs. At the moment, sculptor Philip Chatfied is at work in the Abbey, recreating with local stone and period tools a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus, based on the torso of a statue found at the site. You can read about it at www.ourladyoftintern.co.uk

The final leg of our journey was to the village of Usk which we'd sped past on the motorway, en route for Monmouth. This has a fine Parish Church, also dedicated, like the Abbey, to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Until the reformation it was a Benedictine womens' Priory. It still has a fine mediaeval chancel screen, plus a rather exotic looking organ which used to be in Llandaff Cathedral in the 19th century. Here the choir sang Evensong, and the church ladies of Usk gave us a super High Tea to send us on our way rejoicing. It would have been a most wonderful day, if it were not for the necessity of returning to rush through preparations for Sunday, there being so little time to catch up since our return, routine tasks left undone, and a baptism to prepare for.

Sunday morning, Joshua, one of our regular children, who comes with his mum most Sundays, and is now two and a half, was baptized during the Parish Eucharist. It was a joyous occasion, with a congregation almost twice the usual size. Josh didn't seem to enjoy being in the limelight, and all this fuss being made of him, and when the time came he was very apprehensive and reluctant to have water poured over his head, though I did manage a sprinkle. This delightful little boy had quite a lot of early illness crises, and clearly hates people doing things to him, unless they happen to be mum and dad. Katie, his regular playmate, around the same age was also there, and several other family members brought children, so all in all almost a fifth of the congregation was of school age or under - a very special pleasure. After the baptism part of the service, some of the Sunday school children sang their own version of 'Thank you Lord for this new day', with 'Thank you Lord for Josh's baptism', as an extra verse. The after service refreshments were augmented with cake and wine, then Clare and I were invited to join the family for lunch, with others from the church congregation.

That was my second baptism of a child from a regular churchgoing family within a month - in both cases it had taken a long time to get around to doing it, because of the trials and tribulations of finding suitable godparents and agreeing a date when both family and godparents could make it to church. With families often scattered these days, it requires determination and sacrifice to make it happen, and the joy of the gathering is palpable.

On principle, I don't refuse baptism to anyone who asks. In the year before St James closed we had more baptisms than had been held in the other three churches of Central Cardiff Parish over a three year period - nothing to do with the threat of closure, just a surprising number of people in Adamsdown and Splott areas giving birth in the same period, who still looked to the church for a Christening. A small handful of these families had childen in Tredegarville school and although they never came on Sundays, they do come to 'God on Mondays'. The majority, however, turned up once and were not seen again. Perhaps a thousand people, mainly locals, passed though the church in baptismal parties in that year before its closure. The sad thing is that it wouldn't have occurred to many that their support (or lack of it) for the church they expected to be there for them, would make any difference. People's sense of Christian identity and belonging is so fragmented in this day and age, that little remains that has the power to make any difference. The persistent nagging question for me now, over the past twenty years has been - how do we evangelise in this generation, in order to regain a Christian sense of self, meaning, purpose and community in life? And still there are no answers that make a difference. It's no reason to stop trying or asking, especially as I still regard this as a matter of life or death. It's just hard to be running out of years to give to the task.

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