Monday, July 30, 2007

A fresh look at life

This past week, the church has played host to an unusual exhibition of documentary photographs, mounted by a young photographer Paul V Kelly who trained in Newport, and travelled on project work in Ghana, where his subjects included people living with AIDS and with Leprosy.

His work has been mounted during July in three venues around the area, two in Cardiff, one in Newport and one in Penarth. Our exhibition was enitled 'A dying disease'. It features pictures taken at Ghana's last leprosarium, outside the city of Accra. The title celebrates the fact that there is no longer any need for leprosy patients to be confined to colonies to limit contagion, because there is now a complete cure for the disease and can be caught early enough to control its spread and allow sufferers to be treated in their home communities. As a result, one by one the old leprosaria have closed down. The final one contains elderly people, among the last to be disabled by the disease when young, who have made their home there.

Paul's pictures consider ordinary and simple things - a man's room, a bench in a public space, faces of individuals resting or at work. The natural colours of this tropical environment bring extraordinary vigour to his subject. He has the gaze of a contemplative, and the few well chosen words of his titles and commentary invite deep reflection.

We've had a few interesting photo exhibitions over the past couple of years, from Christian Aid and USPG, promoting their work, and using some fine photographs, but this portfolio is different in that the images speak for themselves and allow the viewer to interpret them on their own terms. It's quite refreshing, not being told too insistently how to look at something, in order to see in a new way. Maybe that's more characteristic of art than religion, but in a way its a refreshingly spiritual approach to considering the world.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Evensong visitors

Unless there are city centre road closures on a Sunday, due to a big stadium event preventing worshippers from getting in to the centre to attend worship, we generally get between one and two dozen people at Evensong. Most regular are half a dozen choir members and a few regulars of the congregation, who come for the relaxed pleasure of praying this way through song. It's a serene end to a busy day for me.

Often we welcome visitors from other parts of the world - North Americans, Europeans, occasionally Asians. We've have visits from Japanese, Chinese, Pakistani and Indian Christians. Tonight a young woman from Mumbai joined us. She's recently arrived in Cardiff to join a growing number of graduate computer programmers who are being sent to support various corporate IT projects that have been set up by Indian software houses in the city.

Dilip, from Bangalore was one of the first. He arrived four years ago, stayed a year, returned later for several months to service the project, went home, then returned again as project supervisor, introducing one of his young Christian colleagues, who'd come over as part of her training. If not in business IT it's in medicine that the city is welcoming skilled young Indian professionals, enough of them Christian, not only for some to find their way to the City Parish Church, but for others to be putting out feelers about how to hire a place where they may meet to worship in their own language and cultural style, according to a senior councillor I spoke with a couple of months ago.

It's an interesting variant on the 'migrant' theme, especially when you consider that only 2.3% of the population of India is Christian. Percentage wise, that's only just a bit smaller than regular church attendance in the population of the UK nowadays.

Friday, July 27, 2007

An unwelcome return visit

Last Sunday I became aware of an unfamiliar face I thought I recognised at the Communion rail during the Parish Eucharist. I was a little disconcerted, as I half recognised what I thought to be the face of the thief who had, despite being identified got away with half a dozen bag thefts from women, either elderly or with childen pulling at their hems. Very quick, unobtrusive and smart. Ours was one of several churches and small shops he targeted until he was caught red handed with a stolen bag, arrested and identified as someone with along history of theft behind him. But that was several months ago, and we'd not heard since if he'd been charged or punished. So, was it him or someone who looked like him?

We found out on Friday, when the handbag of an 87 year old woman was stolen while she and a couple of others were opening up the tea room for business. The man, identified from CCTV pictures inside church during the brief period of the theft, ten minutes in and out, was the same as had been caught before, and had appeared, as I feared, on Sunday. It was as if he was there to annnounce "I'm back, catch me if you can." He's a clever predator, and always leaves a trail of distress and trouble in his wake. We're faced with a large bill to change keys now, as the stolen bad contained both house and church keys labelled. Once more, a place which we'd take much trouble to make safe, with CCTV cameras is shown to be vulnerable because it cannot be protected from a skilled and determined thief. Nowhere is sacred any more. The police are as upset as we are, but seem unable to deal with the increasingly unruly and unscrupulous elements of society. We are weighted down with a surfeit of laws meant to give them power to act, but also with a surfeit of paperwork which keeps them tied to desks rather than dealing with crime. Such a mess. What one earth can be done about it?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Post Office nonsense

I had to post a newspaper to Dr John Floreen, director of the Rutgers University Choir in New Jersey USA this morning. The shiny new Post Office is conveniently situated in the Queen's Arcade, just opposite the sacristy where the church office is now running at last. To weigh the packet, I had to negotiate my way down the middle of two queues of people standing side by side, waiting to be served at the bureau de change counter. The weighing scales is mounted in between service windows on a small shelf, fifteen feet away from the counter that sells stamps.

So why is this? I asked the woman who sold me the stamps I needed.

Because the management won't let them have a weighing scales on the stamp counter, where it's really needed. The stamp sales-persons aren't trained to employ weighing scales as part of their service and advice to stamp purchasers.

And why not?

Well, it's something to do with dealing with packages they are not qualified to handle. Some packages (big or small for that matter) could require health and safety or anti-terrorism preliminaries. You know, the kind of stuff you get at airline check in desks....
Is this your parcel/luggage sir? Did you pack it yourself? Does it contain any of the following prohibited substances? Did anyone give you anything to carry in it? It doesn't quite go with selling of stamps and stationery. I guess you'd need training to take that seriously when it comes to weighing in a thick envelope weighing forty grams, otherwise you'd start giggling on the job, wouldn't you?

Alternatively you could move the scales right next to the counter, where stamp purchasers can weigh their own mail without hassling the bureau de change queues. And if you were to put a poster on the wall behind it with the usual precautionary interrogation written on it, you could have DIY security clearance, like you have with the computerised airport check-in systems, with a ticket print-out that gives you permission to buy the stamps.

In fact the combinations of irrelevant idiocy when common sense fails are limitless.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday Market

The Cardiff Riverside Farmers' Sunday Market just across the Taff from the Millennium Stadium is quite a modest sized affair, but because of the quality of the food bought and sold there, it has attracted recognition from the BCC Radio 4 Food Programme. We've been shoppping there for several years now, as the veggies are organic, also fresher, cheaper and not stifled by plastic wrappings. You can buy fresh fish and meat, and a range of cheeses, goat, sheep, cow, of superior quality, mostly made in Carmarthenshire or Cardiganshire. My favourite treat is wild boar sausages. Clare goes there regularly after the Sung Eucharist, and if I'm not busy, I'll go over and join her for a stroll and a chat. There are usually people we know there - many of Clare's associates from the Cardiff Steiner School Initiative shop there, and Ian, who works with me in city centre mission is a trustee of the Market. If the weather is fine, a few picnic tables appear and refreshments are served outdoors.

Wales' First Minister Rhodri Morgan has been a keen supporter of the market, and a regular shopper since its early days. He was there this morning, sitting quietly and relaxing with a drink - no security guards, no spin doctors, just Rhodri on his own, at ease, normal, accessible, the way we like it to be. We just don't do things Westminster style in Cardiff. It would be certain to result in a total loss of credibility.

Passers by, including me, stopped to chat with him briefly and wish him well. He's had a tough time this past two months, getting a viable coalition together to run the WAG (Welsh Assembly Government) following a rather precariously balanced election outcome. On top of this, his final success was overshadowed by a serious angina attack that landed him in hospital for angioplasty surgery.

I asked him how he was feeling. "Ten years younger" he said, acknowledging that his medical crisis was timely, and could easily have been fatal. I wished him well with his coalition venture. Far from being concerned about having a leader with a health vulnerabily, it's a relief to have someone in charge who is now aware that he's not omnipotent, either personally or politically. It should lead to healthier decisions in the long run.

Sunday surprise encounter

While we were socialising over a cup of tea after the Eucharist this morning, a young couple in their late teens early twenties came into church and sat down quietly together for a while. Then they came over to me, where I was saying farewell to someone leaving, and asked if I had time to talk with them. "I wonder if you could advise us ....", he said, somewhat tentatively. "We're pagans, and we want to set up a pagan temple over in Newport, where we live. And we figured that we should ask other religious groups if they'd support us, and help us get started, as many religious people try to respect each other these days, but we don't know where to start."

Well, neither did I. Some pretty unusual things happen in and around St John's, one way or another, but this was certainly without precedent! I had to think hard, and as respectfully as I could. The first thing that came to mind was the experience I had back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I worked in the inner-city St Paul's area of Bristol. It was a time when there were several different groupings of 'ethnic minorities', first generation immigrants striving to establish places of worship to call their own - Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of African and Caribbean Pentecostal backgrounds. I was involved in the advocacy work that enabled them to acquire buildings, get planning permission, funding, and receive a welcome in the network of religious communities in the city. This was where my education in religious pluralism began.

I was also reminded of the St Davids II development plans, which include in the shopping mall design a 'prayer room', without any indication as to who it's meant to serve or how it will be managed, let alone who has asked for this to be included in the architects brief. Sure, similar malls in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur may require such a space, likewise designs for airport teminals world-wide. But in Cardiff, a city whose publicity presents a social landscape which is almost religion free. Who asked for this? So, what I said to the young couple was this:

"Ask yourself, who is asking you to set up a pagan temple? Who is going to use it? Are there enough people of pagan religious community who are ready and willing to do something other than pursue their own private spiritual practices, because if there are enough people wanting to do something religious together, they'll find each other and make common cause to start the temple you like to see."

That was what I saw happening amongst the immigrant communities in Bristol during my years there. It was also what I saw amongst expatriate Brits in Switzerland, where new Anglophone arrivals eventually began to look for means to organise worship and social activity closer to where they lived and took time off, rather than trekking back into the city with its established English congregations. Out of the need for local community comes new intiatives. Simple and obvious once you've seen it happen. But not obvious to a new generation, exploring religious ideas that are probably new to them, taken from the global supermarket of religions, and slowly being unpacked and put to use.

Now, it's equally possible that this young couple were trying to wind me up for a laugh, as it is that their enquiry was sincere and serious. In fact, noticed the woman was wearing a silver pentagram as a necklace, but even so, they came into church looking for respect and acceptance, and I hope that is what they went away with, even if they answer they got demanded more of them than they might have expected.

Individual choice is everything today. If anyone is really enthused with what they discover they can sink their energies into promoting it, extending the offer made to them, in the hope that other individuals might catch on, and be persuaded. It's not quite the same as building community of people in a new situation who share something of a story or an identity, or a history of spiritual endeavour, which is the pastoral enterprise continuing to flourish among all sorts of expatriated cultural and religious minorities. It's not the same as evangelisation, which seeks to engage a new audience with which to relate the story of Jesus and his Gospel in terms that translate into people's own experience - from such shared experience new community does grow. It's what happens when you step outside the supermarket of religions clutching your newly acquired product. You have to learn how to use it, and to find out if there is any user support or even a network of users. And when it comes to individual acquisition of this kind, you're on your own to start with .

Friday, July 20, 2007

To look at the Queen

When I was ten, my maternal grandparents arrived one day from Burton on Trent to live with us, after Grandma had a mild stroke. The brought their green and yellow budgie Barney with them, who got photographed for the local Burton newspaper because he was formidably loquacious. One of his offerings was 'Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been? I've been up to London to look at the Queen.' Across the years the memory of Barney's voice rattled around my head as Clare and I drove up the M4 on the way to a Royal Garden Party and Buckingham Palace yesterday. We'd received invitations courtesy of the local Lord Lieutanant, with whom I've worked on preparing several civic services in recent years. It was his way of expressing appreciation.

The last time we went to a Royal Garden Party was over twenty years ago when we were in the riot-torn St Paul's Area of Bristol. We received invitations courtesy of local politicians who were none too comfortable about royalty and Garden Parties themselves and happy to see the invites put to use by others. I had no objections to going, either then or now. Prince Charles came and opened the new inner-city replacement primary school in St Paul's, I'd campaigned for several years to see built, and made the occasion special and unifying for the community. We appreciated that.

I find our royals very good at being considerate and hard-working at bringing people in communities together, despite conditions and concerns that tend to drive people apart. In fact, despite the tabloids, they do a better job than either politicians or the church in generating good-will that holds people together. And that's a view I've held for most of my life. Growing up in the Boy Scouts probably accounts for this more than anything else.

Anyway, we drove to some friends who live in Beaconsfield, changed there into our best outfits, and took public transport into London for the sheer pleasure of not having to fight with traffic and parking. Mercifully, the rain which threatened to pelt down all day from a dark cloudy sky managed no more than a perfunctory sprinkle while we awaited Her Majesty's walkabout.

The classic 'Engish Tea' food served to over 7,000 people was excellent - neat little sandwiches (including cucumber with a touch of mint), a selection of cakes and very nice ice cream. It was brilliantly organised. Her Majesty stopped and talked to a young Muslim couple and an entire Nepali family who were stood just a few yards from where weere. She looked well, and looked as if she was enjoying herself. She doesn't just preach about social inclusion, she practices it.

There were plenty of attendants surrounding her, but neither of us saw anyone with an earpiece, or muttering furtively into a radio, apart from the Bobbies who checked our i/d on the way in. There were a couple of guys with cameras on the roof, but the only evidence of crowd control and security were the charming ushers in top hats and tails, who joked with the crowd, as they made way for the 'walk-about', plus a dozen Beefeaters with pikes for stylish decoration.

Crowd watching was quite absorbing. There was such a complete cross-section of people in balanced numbers from all walks of society present among the guests. Uniformed organisations were well represented. Army, Navy, Air Force (UK and Commonwealth) Police, Fire, Ambulance (St John's Ambulance volunteer teams were proudly there 'on duty' and also as guests), Scouts and Guides. The diplomats had their own special tents, likewise specially invited guests. Their area was enclosed by a large semi-circle of chairs which permitted other guests to sit and VIP-watch while they ate tea. They also had a grandstand view of the Queen's departure, as punctual as her arrival on the dot of four.

Mayors and council leaders in the crowd were evident from their chains of office, war veterans by their hats or badged blazers. Clergy like me were identifiable by their collars, though most seemed to disregard the permission to wear a cassock. However, I counted at least half a dozen be-cassocked Bishops, and thought how embarrasingly conspicuous they appeared, standing out in loud magenta colour from the crowd as much as the Queen did in her peacock blue outfit. Members of other faith communities were also evident by their dress. So too the Scots. No doubt the Law, Politics, Medicine, Academia and other professions were represented, among the frock coats and lounge suits, as well as folk whose public service through charity fund raising, or a lifetime of conscientious caring through a voluntary organisation, afforded them recognition

In a way, most people there were representatives of one aspect of public service for the benefit of others. What the Queen, and other royalty do so well is to recognise affirm and uphold all those who 'serve one another and seek the common good', as one of our Anglican intercessory prayers states.

In her time, Mrs Thatcher declared that there was no such thing as 'society'. The idea was that people are mainly driven by self interest, everyone is an individual, and what people have in common can be evaluated by examinating 'the market' - what most people want. Society's not easy to describe, unless you start with ideas like serving one another and seeking the common good. Well actually they are ideals, values, aspirations to be strived for. Not necessarily things we want or know we want, but ultimately things we discover are more worthwhile having than things we think we need or want.

I like to think that our royalty understand and work to promote such unifying ideals, even if they may not always successful in living by them or communicating them. There's always a bit of a gulf between what we are and what we stand for. If there wasn't, the media would have no reason to bully and humiliate people for revealing their weaknesses and failings.

Just to be included in such a beautifully organised gathering, and have an hour to stroll around the marvellous Palace gardens, right in the roaring heart of London was indeed an honour, even if we didn't get to meet the Queen in person. It was a sound remedy to combat the feeling that all we have is social decay, wrought by the kind of selfish consumerism which seems to have diffused through the country since the Thatcher years - such that many growing up today no longer seem aware of anything different. In some corners of the world affirming altruism is still found.

We returned to our friends' house for supper and stayed overnight. Really heavy rain arrived overnight and persisted all through today, extending our return journey from two and a half to four and a quarter hours. We felt glad to have survived. We got back too late for me to celebrate the Midday Mass, and in the absence of a stand-in it had to be cancelled. Normally cancellations only happen because of snow or illness. Monsoon-like conditions are an altogether new phenomenon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thank a teacher

This morning I joined with Fr. Roy Doxsey my neighbouring colleague in leading Tredegarville School's Eucharist for school leavers; i.e. children in class six who will be going to secondary school in September. Several dozen parents turned out, and the school leavers gave a presentation instead of the usual homily, in which they shared in remembering their best times in school and offering a litany of thanksgiving lifting up every aspect of school life to God in appreciation. At one moment they broke into a well coordinated 'street dance' and sang to a funky rhythm track, and few few adventurous souls made little solo excursions into break-dancing.

It was inspiring to watch, as there was over thirty of them crammed into the confined space between the altar and the first row of infants sitting on the floor. Nobody pushed or jostled. Nobody got trod on. It showed just how much of a group they'd become, with all their varying abilities, cultural, social and religious backgrounds. Most of the staff and half a dozen parents made their communion, and at the end, each leaver was given a small olive wood cross, made in Bethlehem, apart from the one Muslim girl in the class who received something special in a large envelope instead.

Finally, year five children made an arch of raised arms leading to the door of the assembly hall, through which all the leavers marched, while the school sang 'Farewell Class six' to the tune of Shalom Haverim'. They leave for the Great Unknown of High School knowing that they are loved and appreciated.

I came away feeling very proud to be associated with a church school with a history of being at the community front-line in welcoming newcomers to the city, going back nearly a century. Teachers in secondary schools around the city sometimes remark that they can recognise a church school educated child by observing their attitude and general behaviour. They are used to being co-operative, helpful, polite and easy to get on with, despite the fact that some of them have had tough experiences through their first stage of childhood, with family instability, parental unemployment, accidents, illness, loss of loved ones. I like the advertisement which says 'If you can read this, thank a teacher.' You could do a similar ad. saying; 'If you have self-respect, confidence, ability to get on with others and work hard, thank a teacher.' These days many parents who want to instil those values in their kids find they rely greatly on the support teachers give them in a social climate which seems on times far from sympathetic to these aims.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Christening rarity

Christenings have been few and far between as St John's for several decades since the destruction of the ancient residential community at the heart of the shopping centre. Up until the late sixties, there were scores of baptisms a year from streets around the heart of the city. In the seventies the slump came, addresses of Westgate Street flats, or St Mary Street apartments above shops and pubs appear in the registers from the eighties, plus baptisms from apartments of retainers at the Castle, before they were dispersed to more modern accommodation. Most baptism families lived in Cathays, or came from further afield in the city where former city residents had moved. Slowly and inexorably the flow reduced to a trickle, to the point that a couple of years would pass without a baptism at St John's.

By 2010 there'll probably be upwards of 5,000 people with city centre addresses - though these days ownership doesn't necessarily imply domicile. If two in a hundred had church connections, that would mean a hundred new worshippers, between nine churches if any of them were looking for a new place to worship. Of that hundred, singles would predominate. If a third of the potential worshippers were partnered or married, maybe only a third of those would possibly be in the process of having children, and maybe wanting to have them christened. Statistically speaking, if there were one or two children to baptize whose families live in the city centre parochial area in 2010, that would be a surprise, since people with that sort of conviction would be more likely to return to a church they grew up in for a Christening, and not bother with their new local parish church.

Most of the babies I have baptized have been of families with a link back in the past, with the exception of two children who are regular attenders with their parents, plus my own grand daughter, born in the Vicarage last November, now living abroad. Three or four baptisms a year is now getting more common - better than it was. A few months ago I was asked when a child was last born in the city centre. The register last gave addresses in the city centre for children baptized back in the early eighties, but that was a period when home births were out of fashion. So it could be 35-40 years since the last - with one exception.

Milly Floyd Evans was born in High Street, just opposite the Castle, just three years ago. Here parents own and run a small bar-restaurant, Bar Floyd, over the clothes shop they also run. It was the day Wales won their last Rugby Grand Slam. Sharon, heavily pregnant after several days of twinges, arranged a stand-in caterer, and went into the bar to brief her. It all happened so quick, Milly arrived in the loo before an ambulance could get there. In fact, a passing ambulance man stopped off and helped deliver her at the last minute. There were no complications, apart from a double celebration that day.

Running a pub which is not part of a brewery chain is a demanding business, so it took Sharon and Calvin three years to arrange a Christening. It's the second baptism of a publican's offspring I've done here. The last one they saved up and baptized both their children at the same time. The Christening was done during at Evensong tonight, although the singing part was not as usual. None of our three regular organists could be there, so it had to be a said service. I apologised for this to Milly's family in advance. To my surprise, Calvin arranged for a mate to turn up, play the guitar and sing - not Gospel choruses, but 'Fats' Waller style blues songs. Fortunately he was very good, delighted at being able to play and sing 'unplugged'. A bit of a challenge for him, really, as a quiet attentive audience made him feel rather exposed. Usually he plays in a noisy crowded bar and is treated as background music. As any good ex-choir-boy should (yes, honestly, he was ex-Llandaff Parish Choir), he rose to the occasion and enjoyed himself. So did I. It framed the spoken words and actions differently, made us all sit up and take notice. Milly was a little darling, and not over-troubled by being at the centre of attention.

At the party over in the bar afterwards, I chatted to two beautiful black Cardiffian women, daughters of the retired pastor of Shiloh Pentecostal Church, one of Cardiff's long standing Afro-Caribbean Churches. They were full of energy and confidence in the work they did together, teaching about black culture, encouraging people to find their musical and speaking voices. What a wonderful way to help banish mediocrity from our bland society. It took me back to my younger days of bridge-building in Bristol between the white religious establishment, the emerging afro-caribbean churches, Hindu and Sikh communities. The other day someone showed me a directory of Bristol's religious communities compiled by the NHS Trust. Flicking through it, I couldn't help notice how those same emerging churches and other faith communities are now successful enough to have more than one place for worship and meeting. Despite huge decline in religious association across the country, groups that haven't lost their spiritual or cultural identity are thriving and consolidating. I wonder what attitudes towards them are like on the part of the old religious establishment these days?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Good Samaritan Sunday

The shadow of dissolution of the city centre social services team as part of an 'improvement' to local authority social services provision has loomed for eighteen months or more, despite high level denials by the political leadership. This is a great worry, as it will have an impact on those who suffer, and on the rest of those who work in, use or visit the city at any time. Last Sunday I found myself preaching about this, and again today, perhaps more searchingly, conscious as I am of our limitations as a city parish church, and of the ambitions of the missionary newcomers in Tredegarville. Here's what I said.

"The story of the Good Samaritan is so familiar and can be applied universally. Jesus wants the world to know that it’s compassion for others in their suffering and need, couple with practical action to help them, that is the true measure of faithful religious believing, and of what it means to love one’s neighbour. Would that life were so simple.
Beggars outside the church gate, the same faces year in year out. Destitute certainly, but also begging to feed the drug habit that has them excluded from hostels, and in and out of court and detention, since there are few sustained programmes to help them stay off drugs, and able to heal the inner wounds that drive them to drug-taking to start with.
People give money so often because they need to make themselves feel better, they give despite being informed that they are contributing to that sufferer’s slow death from drugs.
What is compassion in such a case? Is it feeding the habit? Is it getting beggars moved on arrested, then pressurising the establishment for solutions that work? Is it donating to a charity that directly deals with addiction problems? Who has the time, the energy and the resources to do as godly a job as the Samaritan did on the man who fell amongst thieves? What would Jesus do, where would Jesus start with such a complex social, moral, spiritual problem? Would he preach? Or would he listen? Would he ask ‘Do you want to be free, well, doing something you’d prefer to do with your life?’ and wait for an answer? Would a miracle take place just because he was there? We read that sometimes it did, and other times it didn’t for want of faith among people in places he visited.
The old man who sings Gospel songs in the alley will preach to anyone sitting there, as well as anyone passing by, hand them tracts, even distribute bibles if requested, and do so with much love and kindness. But does he, do we, actually have time to listen, to befriend the sufferers. Do we even know they care about any attention we give them, as opposed to money? I confess I don’t have any answers, and don’t know where to start. Sometimes I pray for the right words to be given, but they don’t come, so I stay silent, and I just look, not knowing if there’s anything I can do that represents that saving grace of God demonstrated in the Samaritan’s compassion. Even the kindly tea and sandwich offered could mean a few quid saved towards the next drug fix. It’s a hard dilemma to face.
Some think that such manifestations of untreated chronic mental health problems should be eliminated from our shiny new streets, tucked away somewhere else anywhere but here.
The Nazi mind-set lurks in the shadows of many a heart and mind. The true test of the moral and spiritual worth of our proud capital city is how well we deal with such deep suffering, how successful are our rehabilitation measures. But there’s not much about any of this in the city’s development strategy and action plans. What can we do to help people get better, conquer addiction, make a new life for themselves? I’m at a loss to know. Maybe you’re the same. Let’s go back to the Samaritan.
He was in hostile territory. Jews treated Samaritans badly, vilified them, excluded them for being only a little bit different in faith and culture. So maybe he had some experience of being hurt, victimised. Maybe he was only doing what someone had once done for him, and acting out of gratitude when he rescued this mugging victim, identifying with him in his broken loneliness.
What happens to us when we are hurt, and nobody notices, nobody cares? We become sad, depressed, inwardly isolated, whatever’s going on externally. And we have all sorts of ways to cover it up – being very busy, over-working, over-indulging and so on. It helps to talk, but only with someone who gives you space, and enables you to feel you’ve been listened to at a deep level, who lets you tell your story, and feel your real feelings. So often the best and wisest of counsellors have come through much suffering themselves. Is there someone here with the gift of listening in healing depth to those whose broken lives are shrouded in a narcotic haze? Is it me? Is it you? If it is, Jesus will be there with us, where two of three are gathered together.
If we can’t face it. If it isn’t our calling, let’s not ignore the discomfort before our faces, but take it into our deepest prayer of intercession for those who can and will help, and those who need it, but stay inwardly restless about it, until we see a real change for the better in the poor who are, as Jesus said: ‘With us always’."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

New kids on the block

At the City Centre Churches Together, last week, somebody handed my a promotional newspaper being handed out by a new missionary church group in the Tredegarville area. It's the same kind of colourful tabloid as the diocesan newspaper 'Croeso' It's called 'City News', and its news is vividly presented like the 'Daily Star' or the 'Metro'. The content is mostly testimonies by people whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with UKCG - the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. The paper lists their presence in sixteen church locations around Britain, and they have activities in another fourteen places. Their website is impressive and professional in appearance (which makes me think about the shortcomings of our parish website), and the surprise is that they occupy the former Tredegarville Unitarian Church building, which has been empty and up for sale for two years, or available to rent for £3,500 a month. So who are they? I wrote to the Bishop to ask if he'd heard of them in the context of the World Council of Churches (of which he is an executive member), but he hadn't. After a little time scouring their website, I came up with the following story of their origin.

"The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) HelpCentre was formed in 1977, in Brazil. Pastor Edir Macedo started by holding services under a small park shelter in Rio de Janeiro. His passion was to reach out to needy, less privileged people who were often excluded by established religions. As Pastor Macedo's services grew in popularity, he used cinemas and local halls to accommodate growing congregations, attracting people from the streets to the expanding movement. Today, the church is established in over 90 countries and has a membership of around 10 million.
Our motto is ‘Helping people to make a new beginning’. We are therefore committed to guiding you to discover your potential, to live a full and happy life, and to connect to God directly."

Their website makes it clear this is a Pentecostal church and it offers a ambitious seven day a week programme of activities for people in need of all kinds - financial, health, personal growth, family and marriage, spiritual cleansing, learning how to be prosperous. Prayer and practical help go hand in hand. Their publications exude self-confidence, as much as confidence in God. One CCCT member paid a friendly visit to their church to find out more, and his curiosity was met with courtesy and caution, so he didn't find out anything to add to what was in the newspaper. I guess they want to stay totally focussed on their mission, rather than get diverted into positioning themselves among the existing churches. When they are satisfied with their success, then it'll be time to relax a little and get better known.

It's time I paid them a visit, as they are based in the parish (just). I've already exchanged cordial emails with their press officer. I spotted an editorial error on the 'religious' news page of their website and dropped a line both to inform them that it misrepresented the story, taken from a BBC news web-page, and to welcome them to city centre mission. I'll be fascinated to discover what impact they are able to have (based on their state ambitions) on the problems of the drug addicted and homeless handful of souls that are both a reproach and a challenge to both city centre churches and social services.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Eisteddfod afterthoughts

As we drove home from Llangollen yesterday, Clare was observing how the British folk dance tradition was so weak amongst young people, compared with that of other countries. It's not 'cool' or fashionable, and thus not popular. Places where folk dance tradition remains strong are places where loss of identity is still being struggled against, where a kind of cultural patriotism is inherited and valued. Here and there it is still being taught and transmitted, in Wales, Scotland, Ireland - though I'm not so sure about England. Some of the Eastern European groups had travelled by coach for most of a week to be able to dance for their country, even if they didn't win a prize. Their pride and delight was evident. We've really lost something very precious about ourselves in the continued effort to be a world leading nation in political, social and cultural innovation. I don't think we are healthier for this loss of local identity, merely dissatisfied, listless.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Llangollen field-day

During the day, I enjoyed dividing my time between the choral competition in the Eisteddfod tent and wandering around the field, watching some of the offstage performances being given by dance and music groups, usually warming up for their competitive appearances or just relaxing and having a good time. It was marvellous to see a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks perform a ceremonial dance, with a couple huge alpenhorn style instruments and percussionist accompanying. Then they involved scores of visiting school children in learning the basic steps of the first section of the dance with the help of an interpretor. There was a spirited performance from a group of Turkish Kurds, accompanied by a wild shawn-like instrument and a melodious drummer - a very tight-knit group of young people sparking with pride. There were three Banghra groups, all immaculately and vividly dressed, and radiating friendliness. One group was British and the other two Indian. They all had to be diverted to the back of the pavilion at a later hour, because the noise of their drumming in the area used for dancing displays outdoors was too close for comfort to the main pavilion, and the noise intruded upon the choirs. One piece of percussion per group was no problem, but half a dozen or more, was too much. You can't do Bangra quietly !
There was an amazing French a capella singing group of middle aged fellers on the S4C stage, back of the pavilion, accompanied only by the sound of one of their members seated and drumming on the stage in his lumberjack boots. The accent took me by surprise at first, and I thought they were a group of Wallonian miners, from their 'aged' denim attire, but no, they were Canadian. There was also a superb American Blue Grass band, the real thing, and an African dance workshop, again drawing scores of schoolkids. There were so many children there in school uniform. The Eisteddfod is evidently a major summer excursion for North Walian schools, whether they are there to compete or not. It is a great educational experience, no matter what age you are.
I bumped into a very busy Gwyn Williams the artistic director, whom I'd met last month at a meeting of FCCB grant recipients meeting down the Bay in Cardiff. He told me that the Eisteddfod site could only take 9,000 people at a time. It looked full enough to me. I guess the real throughput is much higher - people drift in and out during the course of a long day, as I did in fact.
Rather than join the long queues for lunch I went into Llangollen and was served fish and chips in a takeaway in as much time as it took to cook the fresh fish. I made my way over to St Collen's neat churchyard, and sat at the foot of the churchyard cross in the sun, just making a brief appearance in the midst of an overcast day. Just as I finished, a lady 'churchwatcher' turned up and opened the building to visitors, so I was able to look around and inspect the wonderful fifteenth century mediaeval roof, with large angels on every beam end, gracing the nave.
It's probably twenty five years since I last saw the roof. What most interested me on this occasion was not its religious symbolism or the evident artistry, but the high quality of the conservation work that has been done on it in the years since I last saw it. (Well I would, wouldn't I? with one of Cardiff's on-going major conservation sites as my workplace.)
My generation, back in the seventies, exuded moral indignation about squandering money on preserving all this old stuff when the church needed money for mission. In retrospect, I'm glad I had no real say in it. So many people have had reason to come and look as I did, and wonder, place themselves in the bigger human timsecale of life. Many others too have worked together, and made a little community across the religious-secular divide around their shared pride in this small piece of spiritual and cultural history. Especially in this age of mass produced ephemeral and throwaway things, we need to work at transmitting to those who come after us evidence of what unites simple craftsmen working with their hands in every age can achieve that is lastingly beautful. Seeing the stone carver at work on a new statue of Our Lady of Tintern during our parish pilgrimage last month made me think of this too.
We bought tickets for the evening's open concert, given by a selection of Eisteddfod performers - choirs, dancers and musicians, starting with a parade of representatives from all the countries taking part, more than two dozen, filling the stage. The final four of the folk instrumentalist competition was played live as part of the concert. A twelve year old soloist from Hong Kong performing on a Chinese zither with the skill and expression of a great virtuoso got first place, deservedly, but my favourite was actually the Bishop Anstey High School for Girls steel pan ensemble, from Trinidiad & Tobago. They'd accompanied the schools choir earlier in the day, and were superbly tuneful and tight in their performance.
There was also a spectacular and youthful folk dance group from Russia and another fine Trinidadian dance group with an amazing drummer to conclude the evening. Rather strangely, their second and final dance was done to recorded music, and whilst it was spectacular, the switch from live music made the whole thing anti-climactic. Such an odd production choice. I wonder why?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Llangollen Visit

Funny I should have thought of Terry Waite in my last post. I saw him on Tuesday evening, being driven around Llangollen in the competitors parade on the opening day the annual International Musical Eisteddfod. He's currently Eistedfod President, and takes part in opening functions, evidently with much pride and pleasure.
After Tuesday's Retail Partnership board meeting, Clare and I took off to North Wales in the car, for the three and a half hour journey to Llangollen. We arrived just as the roads were being closed, and were fortunate to end up re-directed to the hospital car park to await re-opening, just fifty yards from where the parade left the grounds and hit the main road for a tour of the town. So we had a grandstand view of the hundreds of mainly youthful competitors from all over the world - Australia, America, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, India, Romania, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine - to name some. It's the sixty-first year of this festival of world music. It was going for nearly fifty before the term 'world music' hit the markets. It makes me really proud to be Welsh.
However, our reason for going was the appearance of American singer Joan Baez in the Tuesday evening concert. Terry Waite introduced it with a poignant tribute to her, with festal acclaim for the release of Alan Johnston. He quite unashamedly told of his own efforts to get a message to Alan in captivity by getting interviewed several times during those months on the World Service and other global media networks. "Take each day at at time" he counselled; "You will be surprised to discover resources within you that you didn't know you had."
I heard Terry given honourable mention by Alan Johnston on the day of his release, and this advice quoted. Nobody knew Alan had been given a radio and just how much the reports of the campaign for his release given him hope. He had heard Terry's message, and learning this was a blessing that Terry was glad to share.
For once, in this cruel world, solidarity worked. May it not be the last time.

Joan Baez was as moving and inspiring as ever, singing all the songs we listened to and learned to sing for the first time when Clare and I were just turned nineteen. Next year is her fiftieth as a public performer and peace campaigner. She started when Llangollen was only twelve years old, also spreading its message of peace and reconciliation through music. It was her first visit, and the audience was full of people 'our age' - old hippies, ex hippies, and so on. It made me wonder. What have we achieved? The world is as unsafe now as it was in our youth. We failed to raise and educate the leaders who could make it otherwise, no matter how hard we tried. Thank God for the people of courage who were never daunted by the reality, who kept the faith throughout the darkness of this present world, whether in prison, or on the frontline of protest. They saved us from the indignity of our mediocrity.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Independance Day

Today, my eldest daughter and son in law celebrate their fifteen wedding anniversary. They got married just before I applied for the chaplaincy job in Geneva, which took us out of the UK for nine years and widened our world considerably. It seems to have turned us all into a family of globetrotters, with Rachel and John now dividing their time between the Rockies and the Caribbean, with Kath and Anto thinking about moving to Spain next year, and Owain expecting to end up somewhere in Europe eventually.

Today BBC reporter Alan Johnson was released from his kidnappers. A moment of great triumph for the international community of journalists. We haven't had joy like this since Terry Waite was released.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What a load of rubbish - what price civic pride?

Today I had the honour of welcoming the judges of 'Britain in Bloom' who were visiting the newly revised south churchyard, as part of their assessment of the city's summer floral efforts. It was good to relate the story of the new gates, which are such a splendid feature of the work done, costing a third of a million, believe it or not.

Last week in the run up, I discussed with Steve, the city operations manager, the possibility of getting in someone from Cleansing to empty the north side churchyards of the rubbish jettisoned there by city users (and abusers) passing by. I received an email addressed to Steve and myself from their head of department saying no - declaring that church property is private, and they don't do private. This is the second time in three months the issue of the inadequacy of their division of the city into public and private has been an issue of contention. The last time was also about rubbish dumped in churchyards, which church volunteers clear up, and get penalised for if it is not handled properly.

There is no understanding of a church being a public body entrusted to and run by volunteers, and no concern about the churches' failures, for lack of support, to manage adequately their inherited public resources. Yet, if somebody royal comes to town security squads, if not the Protocol department, would insist on things being cleaned up for reasons of eliminating threats if not for pride. Where good will exists in city government it exists in patches. Indifference is more common.

I copied my riposte to this institutionalised meanness and indifference to the County Policy office and the Deputy Leader, who rebuked all involved for not working together to make the most of the environment in preparation for the Britain in Bloom judges visit. But it made no difference. Nothing was done by Cleansing. Steve was determined to come and pick up the litter himself, in the face of non-cooperation, but ran out of time.

I can't believe we pay people to ignore what is, after all, a small portion of the common good. So, the rubbish remains there, until one of us can get around to picking it up.

The same day a letter showed up in church from the city planning department, an invitation to visit an exhibition in the Old Library next door of plans to pedestrianise St Mary's Street. This is being done in haste in order to move to implement in haste. Many in business locally fear the impact of the proposals will be economic ruin, because of the added cost of getting goods in at unsocial hours, and restrictions on less mobile people going to pubs, shops and to St John's. Some say that buses will not only travel through a pedestrianised area unhindered, but at greater speeds, causing greater hazards to pedestrians. Crossing Greyfriars, also a major bus route, is very risky because there's no separation of traffic and pedestrians and controls are poor. Bollards get knocked over on corners drivers ant to cut. Sometimes there are people around too. How there's been no bloodshed, I don't understand.

And I didn't mention. The planning letter was addressed to

"The Manager/Occupant"
Hut in St John's Gardens
Working Street
City Centre

The hut is Grade Two conservation listed and houses gardener's tools. The garden, make-over newly completed, has been Council responsibility since 1982. So here they are - one Council department, communicating to another via the Post Office and the church. Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing? Not exactly the sort of things to take pride in.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Ordination time

I prepared Julia for confirmation soon after I christened her youngest child over fourteen years ago. It proved to be a spiritual awakening for her, and she became a committed member of the Anglican church plant in the Swiss Protestant village Parish Church of Gingins in the Vaudois countryside 25 miles from Geneva. After I left she began preparing for lay readership. Then, on one of my winter holiday visits five years ago, she started talking through with me the possibility of ordination. She was made Deacon last year, and I couldn't attend. This year, I was free to fly out for the weekend to Geneva (having carefully saved a holiday weekend for the purpose), and join the two hundred strong congregation at Gingins for her priesting, along with another woman who is a member of Holy Trinty Church Geneva.

I stayed with Keith, the organist and his wife Claudine, an international human rights lawyer. The two of them are always kind and hospitable and guarantee much enjoyable conversation and laughter. They loaned me their 'jellybean' car - a brown Fiat Seicento, to give me independence for getting to and from Gingins (they live close to Geneva airport - convenient, if noisy), so I had the pleasure of several trips up and down the Pay de Gex in the shadow of the very green looking Jura (not scorched by summer sun or snow covered, as when I usually come), with fields of corn waiting to be reaped, lining the country roads I prefer to use rather than the autoroute, for leisure.

The region is full of memories both pleasant and painful, as I had a quite a tough if rewarding time there. The countryside was always a great consolation, and remains one of my favourite places on earth. Memories of working with the Gingins congregation are among my happiest. Now they have a chaplain of their own, and a priest who has risen from their own ranks, and is now working on another church plant across the border in Divonne les Bains, close to where she lives.

A multitude of people from both Geneva and Gingins were present for the ordination on Saturday afternoon. Although I hadn't seen most of them for more than six years, I was delighted that recalling names and fitting them to faces was not a problem. The ordaining Bishop was neither the diocesan nor suffragan Bishop, who refrain from ordaining women for either diplomatic or ideological reasons. Under CofE rules, however, they must delegate the task to another, so they make use of retired Bishops if the ordinations are somewhere in Europe.

Bishop Frank Sargent was appointed to the task. He's done quite a bit of occasional work in the diocese in Europe since his retirement ten years ago. He was sent to Monaco to investigate the paranoia and chaos caused when relationships broke down between the diocesan secretary and the church treasurer. The consequences of this were that the church committee then set about driving me out, as they refused to heed my calls for loyalty and reconciliation. In the end I was extracted by the diocesan and returned to peace and harmony in Wales. Expat congregations have many capable and powerful people, and conflicts whether they involve a chaplain or not, are not uncommon in some places. In Geneva there were conflicts, but Gingins was always special, a place where mutual support and friendship conquered all fears and angst.
With both congregations each receiving a new priest on this occasion, there was no room for conflict or rivalries. Everyone was united in great joy.

I had a lazy Sunday morning sitting outside, drinking tea and talking with one of Keith and Claudine's four other house guests, another human rights lawyer stopping over from Copenhagen on her way back to work in New York. The Gingins Eucharist at which Julia was to preside for the first time was a four in the afternoon. In its great simplicity and stillness, I found this even more moving and inspiring than the solemnity of the ordination. During the Lord's Prayer, there was a thunderclap and rain began to pour - a wonderful cosmic 'Amen' to the weekend.

Later I went over to Julia and Philippe's house to take her a small gift I'd bought in the craft market outside St John's church the day before I left. It was a small Welsh wooden carved love spoon, on which the only symbol is the cross - the 'GOd is love' lovespoon. I told the carver I bought it from that it was an ordination present. "Lovely" he said; "I'm a Christian too - be sure to give her my blessings."

The journey home today was hard work. The Airbus flight was debilitatingly noisy, and I missed my expected bus connection at Heathrow, and had to wait an extra hour. I swear the bus wasn't announced. It didn't appear on the display panel either. I just assumed it was late and was astonished to discover it had gone. Heathrow bus station has an information communications system so bad that it must actively serve to promote the avoidance of bus transport altogether. It's a nightmare.