Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Half Term

Clare and I had fair mild weather for a good long weekend away in a Suffolk village with Clare's brother and his wife. It was my last Sunday off for the year, spent catching up on sleep and news of children and grandchildren, dining out, walking at Aldeburgh, Woodbridge, and in ancient forest, not far from Sutton Hoo whose visitor centre was disappointingly closed. Last week was half-term over there for them, and the low season hibernation had just started. The same seemed true for some of the country pubs as well, in an area receiving many more visitors in summer. The variety of autumnal colours has been quite spectacular this year, with more than usual shades of fading green to add to the yellows reds and bronzes we're used to.

We avoided the M25 / M4 rat-race coming home, travelling on less frantic roads at a more leisurely pace, via Cambridge and the Cotswolds, with the home run from Gloucester down the A48 along Severn estuary to Chepstow - a refreshing change. Not long after we arrived, Ian dropped in to get a signature for his passport, and deliver a cutting from the Saturday edition of the Western Mail. Following last Thursday's meeting with Martin Shipton there a whole page length single column article in Saturday's edition, which I think did justice to what we wanted to put across. None of the photographs which were taken appeared, and of course we'd have liked it to have seen the article under a bigger headline, but that's a sub-editor's decision to make, not a journalist's.

There were no fewer than four phone messages on the answering machine from the BBC asking me to come and be interviewed about the Spiritual Capital project on Good Morning Wales, first thing on Monday morning. Well, I wasn't there to respond, and I can't say I'm sorry, because normally, after a full Sunday, I'm at my worst, if I'm conscious at seven o'clock on Mondays, which is when the Beeb would have sent a taxi to collect me. A missed opportunity unfortunately, but I guess if they're interested, they'll come back later in the week/month - the project isn't going to go away suddenly, and just might get more interesting as time goes on.

Well, at least for tonight, I feel laid back about it all.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Photoblog re-vamped

Last night I completed the painfully slow process of setting up a Picasa web photo account for my city centre redevelopment picture blog. This service has the advantage of easily displaying larger photos than I've been able to show on the Parish web pages over the past nine months. It's far better to view and much easier to manage. In fact, I'd not posted any new pages of pictures taken since July. Time has slipped by pretty quickly with the research project grabbing spare time, and then convalescing.

Creating a Picasa site and managing it is easy. It's uploading that takes time and patience, also finding the original pictures archived, editing them to a decent size so that pages don't render at a snail's pace, and uploading them, five minutes for a batch of five. It's all had to be fitted in around routine tasks, with a bit of burning midnight oil towards the end when the prospect of completion became tempting.

Anyway, now it's done, and pictures from yesterday are up there for the world to see. I still enjoy the buzz of watching the slide-show of demolition and now construction unfolding. It's hugely colourful and visually dramatic, given the great machines used each in its brightly coloured livery, set against the colour of local soil and the sky in all its variations. This is more my kind of urban magic than glitzy street signs. Having said that, we're promised a whole new make-over of the Christmas lights around the St John's and on St Mary Street this year. That may prove worthy of the technical challenge involved in getting good pictures of them.

In my appraisal chat with the Archdeacon I spoke about how I spend a lot more time looking than I do reading books these days, because there is so much to be read in the landscape, in the cityscape, in peoples' behaviour, their faces and appearance. The job of looking. The gratitude for having eyes that still work well and notice things. Whether I'm driving or a passenger, I'm always first to spot the bird of prey on a fence post or hovering. I've always been like that, and it's strange really that music rather than visual art has been my choice channel of creativity. The 'grace of seeing things whole' Pope Gregory talked about in the sixth century - uniting the detail and the big picture. In this age of science and technology we have ways of seeing into the past and into the heart of the cosmos our ancestors couldn't have dreamt of.

But will we let God's creation teach us how to be better people, more reverent, more compassionate? On times, I wonder.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Engaging with the Press

Members of the Spiritual Capital Steering Ground and the research team met this lunchtime in the Cardiff University's grand Glamorgan building to be interviewed by Western Mail journalist Martin Shipton, commissioned to investigate our work and hopefully do a piece in the WM this coming weekend that will draw some public attention to what we are doing, and hopefully prompt recipients of last Friday's questionnaire mailing to fill them in and return them in the reply paid envelope.

I confess that I felt very nervous about the whole thing in advance and didn't sleep very well. However it was a relaxed occasion, starting with photo-call outside next to some of the imposing statuary flanking the main portal. Mohammed, Prof Ballard, Roy and 'Becca all spoke well. It was interesting that Martin homed in on public order issues and what the religious communities might be able to contribute to achieving overall improvements.

I tried to explain that part of the problem was that civil society often left religious communities out of policy shaping public debate, because it was too difficult to include them if, as often seems to be the case (for better, and sadly for worse) religious views seem to run contrary to public opinion and even common sense. I struggled to say that dialogue between religious and civil society, and recognition of social contributions often taken for granted, that might make a difference and add to greater creativity in addressing social problems which afflict everyone.

It was also an occasion to give some publicity Prof Ballard's latest book, 'Community and Ministry', copies of which he had only just received. It's so hot off the press that at the time of writing this it hasn't yet appeared on the SPCK New Books webpage. I came home with one, pleased to have it to read during my half term break.

'Becca reported that a handful of questionnaires had already been returned, including mine, thankfully. Although I leave nearest of all to the Glamorgan building, I still popped my envelope in the post box on the main road. Given the instabilities in the postal service of late, this was a bit of a risk. I was glad the PO dispute settlement had been reached before our mailing went out.

Well, we've cast our bread on the waters. Now it's simply a question of waiting, in my case as impatiently as ever, to see what the outcome will be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Landmark Day, in more senses than one

On my way from church over to Tredegarville school on an errand this afternoon, I saw a forty foot articulated lorry parked alongside the construction site hoarding on the Hayes, close to Mister Bachelor's statue, sole perpetual witness to redevelopment from start to eventual finish, on his traffic island plinth, a stone's throw away from the perennial Hayes Island open air Snack Bar. The lorry was laden with long steel girders, the first batch of hundreds to be delivered in the coming months for the construction of the rest of the SD2 development.

The weekly bulletin from City Centre Management already noted that the next really visible phase of the work in hand was about to start. In fact, a trip upstairs in the newly opened TKMaxx or Borders Bookshop stores occupying the former David Morgan apartment store buildings, would afford anyone a good view over the hoardings across the road, and reveal many layered activities of excavation, pile driving and concrete pouring going on simultaneously in different sections of this giant building site, since well before the opening of the stores this summer. Anyway, I noted that the deliveries had started, cursed not having my camera with me, and went about by business.

Three hours later, back home at tea-time, I took a casual peek at the latest hi-res images from the webcams overlooking the construction site. To my great surprise, in the bottom right hand corner of the view from the St David's Hall, I noticed a large section of steel framework was visible for the first time. In a fit of enthusiasm, I picked up my camera and cycled as fast as I could with sunset fast approaching to get a first photo of the beginnings of an edifice which will rapidly fill the open city-scape which we've enjoyed in the past six months since the demolition of Oxford House and the Old Library was completed.

Thanks to Google I have a new photo gallery for showing off larger versions of the pictures I take, and hope to record the incremental growth of this new structure with greater regularity than I managed with the erection of the John Lewis store framework over the past month.

When the shopping mall and the high rise apartments overlooking the Hayes have risen to a hundred and fifty feet above street level, the entire David Morgan building, magnificent in its day, will be completely overshadowed by its new neighbour. I wonder how many of the eager purchasers of the apartments created by the conversion of the upper stories of the David Morgan buildings realised this when they put down their deposits on that famous occasion when over a hundred apartments were sold in a single day's trading?

Under inspection

Last night the church officers met with Archdeacon Bill Thomas for a new style 'Visitation'. No longer the public inspection of church registers, and a formal address attempting to read the runes on the basis of annual statistical and financial reports in the context of a Deanery act of worship. This new effort, coupled with a separate personal appraisal meeting between Bill and myself, seeks to engage parish leadership in discussion around the parochial 'Mission Action Plan' - a sort of 'to-do list' combine with a purpose and mission statement. Our parish MAP is now in its fifth year and has survived transition from Rectorial Benefice to small city parish.

Basically, this is a document which I devised and proposed in the first place, which which has been revised in the light of on-going experience and discussion. I believe it's important as a means to recognise and value the various components of parish life and activity which work well and should not be taken for granted, but also gently to keep under scrutiny things we're not comfortable about but can work at carefully, so that they don't slide neglected into crisis.

There is also a further component, which is having one forward looking ambition or intention, which may well be a project in the making - in our case it's been tourism development over the past three years. This has converged with maintenance needs, painting, repairs, and making the church interior safer and more user friendly, so that now all our routine mid-long term tasks are starting to focus on the 'higher' objective of giving all our thousands of annual visitors a deeper experience of Christian heritage and hospitality, as the context for our evangelistic witness. All this has evolved with each year's MAP review.

On top of all this, the fortunate and unexpected reception of the £30k FCCBF research funding has led to ecumenical collaboration precedent in times of failing church institutions. So when we look back at where we were a year ago - just starting an interregnum at the most demanding time of year, entailing the formal division of the Benefice and where we are now - the parish MAP tells us we've done more than survive. In fact we can delight and give thanks for achievement beyond expectation. Funnily enough it seems to have been like that most years since we began the process, the best part of a year before the diocese started to insist that everyone did it.

I'm always happy to praise my PCC and officers for the things they make happen - always with a smile and good humour - so it was very nice to let Archdeacon Bill loose on the affirmative action, for a change. He picked up on most of what the MAP documents had indicated. However, I was a bit surprised to discover that he was unaware of our FCCBF grant and project. Did I copy him in on my email about it to the Bishops? Did it not even rate a mention at the Senior staff meeting? Well, if the response to project press coverage next weekend leads to further journalistic interest, I hope there's something about this on file at HQ, or else the diocesan press officer will be embarassed. I'm incommunicado during this spell of holiday leave.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Police Millennium Stadium gig

Last night, The Police played at the Millennium Stadium. Clare and Owain got tickets and sat at the far end from the stage on the top level, where the noise level was bearable with or without ear plugs. I donned my hi-viz Chaplain's jacket and spent the evening on my feet visiting the St John's Ambulance First Aid posts, sampling the atmosphere and the music on every level, and taking lousy pictures when I had a moment to spare.

After half a dozen or so stadium tours of duty, I am now somewhat less disoriented, and can find my way around from level to level and back to the basement without too many enquiries. Each time I do an evening I enjoy it so much that I wish I could do more. A long evening following a long day - Friday is always the busiest in and around St John's - it's pretty taxing, especially as I had the annual Trafalgar Day service for members of the local RNR establishment HMS Cambrian this morning at church.

The concert was impressive, Sting was on great form despite throat problems last week. Straight music, no antics, no gimmicks apart from a light-show, sounding vital and fresh to me, although the songs are from the seventies. It struck me how many people looked happy, were smiling, enjoying themselves, singing along (as they do these days) a bit like a gymanfa ganu for romantics. The very little amount of aggro I saw (one man being ejected) seemed hugely incongruous in that laid back atmosphere. Quite a different crowd atmosphere from that of the Stones or Rod Stewart.

I left before the end, to get home and start preparing a sermon for the morrow, which somehow I'd not got around to doing during a busy day, which had started with a two hour job appraisal with Archdeacon Bill Thomas. I'd had a nice time chatting with the volunteers, ever ready, but enjoying a relaxed and mostly uneventful evening. Some of them were singing along with The Police too, in the corridors, down in the first aid posts. They deserved an easy time of it. Heaven knows what time some of the core team would have got home. Some have to stay until the stage riggers have finished breaking the set in the small hours of the morning.

Clare reported a conversation with fans who came down from Crewe for the concert, but had to leave half an hour before the end because they feared missing their train. On previous occasions they'd come down for concerts and, missing their train, found themselves locked out of Cardiff Central station, with no public waiting room open to them. My guess is that the cost of security has made this an item that public bodies are reluctant to afford. Another price the city pays for not being able to re-habilitate its drug addicts, and the threat of crime that does wherever they go.

It's an ironic play on words that these fans were willing to put themselves out for... The Police.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mailing deadline achieved

Today the final version of the Spiritual Capital research project survey questionnaire went into the post, nearly 270 envelopes in the end, to all the religious communities for which an address could be found in the City and Borough of Cardiff. Thanks to the hard labours of Roy Thomas who has been managing the project for us over the past six months, I've had nothing to do with the hard practicalities of doing a big mail-shot that I've been party to setting up. This is the first, time I've not had to manage it myself I recall, when I look back over the number of mass mailings I've done over the year - back to my time in USPG circulating over 600 parishes across Wales, parishioner mailing lists and so forth.

There's less need for things like this today, since it's become possible to use the internet to make enquiries and distribute information. Mind you, I just hate those little pop-up surveys which appear and block my view of an article I'm trying to scan quickly. The monthly diocesan distribution of church publicity materials is now done via the diocesan website to save paper, and people can ask for hard-copies if they are not web users. This doesn't prevent tons of ecclesiastical junk mail from others arriving through the post however - people selling furniture for church halls, maintenance equipment, vestment catalogues, various missionary societies, charity appeals - especially at this time of year. All this has to be sorted through before binning or reading/passing on/using. Our survey adds to this mountain of paper.

I only hope that recipients realise that this envelope is a 'one-off', and that a reply will be beneficial to the position of all Cardiff's religious communities when the research is publicised next year.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

City of dreams?

Yesterday, I was invited to attend and observe a 'Generation Europe' conference, which assembled from Cardiff's twin towns in France, Germany, Ukraine and Norway groups of senior citizens and young people to consider an agenda of wide ranging social policy issues, family values, environment, community safety and neighbourhood renewal. Over a hundred people took part.

Unfortunately it clashed with the last City Centre Retail Partnership meeting before Christmas, so I could not stay for the whole event. The Retail Partnership meeting is so informative and relevant to daily life in the city, it's vital for someone from St John's to be there to keep on top of unfolding events. So, I had to dip in and dip out of a conference which normally I would have been glad to observe from start to finish. Now I have to await the conference report.

In the opening session the latest edition of the irritatingly trendy Cardiff promotional video was proudly shown, to introduce the city to our poor visitors. It's a brilliantly crafted piece of hokum, more like a pop video (soundtracked with third rate euro-techno-pop), full of fantasy images that somehow manage to take the substance out of the city, disorient the viewer and reduce Cardiff to a dream world, in which you're not exactly sure where you are to start with. And this is the city I live in?

By way of contrast, our twin city of Nantes gave us a beautiful presentation of video and still images of their city, shown to a typically nonchalant French soundtrack, that was chock full of content. Images of culture and entertainment, of industry, science and learning, noteworthy achitecture, art and physical environment that left me wondering why I haven't visited Nantes, as the city appears to have a lot about it - certainly a lot more than dreamy images.

What are the image-makers and spin doctors doing to our city?

I asked the two six formers sitting on my conference table to rate the videos out of ten. They didn't bother. The French one was better, they said.

Does that mean they didn't recognise the Cardiff they live in either?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cops and robbers - new take, old story

Earlier this year, St John's Tea Room was given a short-wave radio, and became part of the city centre Safenet security network, as one of the measures taken to help the church cope with the persistent problem of purse and handbag theft. If our chief suspect turns up and is identified, we can inform others on the network (local retailers), and even ask for help. It reassures many who work in the Tea Room who are aware of the possibility of a predator, but not always confident about what to do if there is any suspicion that one is present. When crooks treat the church no differently from any shop, then the church has to protect itself in credible ways, in order to remain in the public eye, a safe place to be.

Today was the Safenet AGM, which I attended as a representative of 'stakeholder' St John's, and learned something of the intricacies of developing a new security network to service the city centre. It's not only about tracking crooks. It's invaluable in the case of someone suddenly going down with an illness, and needing emergency treatment. Currently the city centre is enjoying the trial deployment of a fully equipped cycle-riding radio-toting paramedic who can wherever help is needed a whole lot quicker than any other emergency service vehicle in the pedestrian area. For a while we had a cycle riding policeman as well (posh bike), but he was moved on, and there was no follow through. The presence of a bike-riding paramedic has been well received by the public and by those concerned for the welfare of the city.

But, to get back to back to cops and robbers, despite success in reducing violence and a decent detection rate on robberies and burglaries, one area where success is elusive is business crime, aka shop-lifting. The epidemic continues. At the Safenet meeting the national business crime prevention advisor told us how an audit had revealed that every shoplifting offender apprehended by store detectives and reported to the police cost £1,000 to process from offence to punishment, in time spent by police, prosecution service, lawyers and magistrates. Modern criminal and human rights legislation reforms have escalated the cost of due process. Many of those caught shoplifting are persistent offenders. Drug addiction is a key factor in all this, and it costs retail operations a significant proportion of their revenue. Nobody will admit just how big a proportion for fear of undermining shareholder confidence. What on earth can be done? It seems there is an alternative to illegal summary justice.

Under the law, someone caught shoplifting can, once their personal details are taken down, be excluded from entering the shop. The management is not obliged to trade with anyone who commits a crime against the retail outlet. So, it's possible for records of offenders to be kept by people in business, and shared within their commercial network for crime prevention purposes - through one brand of store and between store brands, so long as data is kept secure and confidential, with highly restricted access. In this wonderful age of high technology, there are several companies that have developed extensive business crime databases, capable of sharing information wherever secure telephony is available. Based on exclusion records the movement of 'business' criminals regionally, even nationally can be tracked and even predicted over a period of time.

It's a private initiative which police authorities would love to own. They can buy into it, if the local authority and business community are willing to stump up the hefty purchase price - let's say £20,000 for starters? That's the cost of twenty crimes fully processed. There are maintenance costs on top of that, but when thousands of crimes of this kind are committed every year in every city centre and retail park, adoption soon becomes cost effective.

It's interesting how police and crime prevention professionals' observations and intuitions are substantiated by data collected. In Wales, the movement of active criminals tends not to be to or from north or south, but rather along the M4 corridor, linking with the English M5 corridor. The names of shoplifters excluded in Bristol are recorded in Newport and Cardiff also. The vastly increased mobility possible for most people in modern society has meant that it is possible for criminals to exploit the fact that they are unknown in localities outside their home base. The ability to gather information on those who do nicely day by day, stealing from others reduces the anonymity factor considerably.

It doesn't do anything to tackle those factors that drive people to steal, whether that be mental sickness, dysfunctional family background, addiction, or a combination of all three. Maybe the additional pressure of detection will deter some from re-offending, maybe even cause them to question their futile lifestyles. Much more is needed, for there to be a real change, however. The ability of the police to catch thieves is constantly compromised by the lack of useful provision to put offenders into therapeutic and rehabilitation programmes that will eliminate the compulsion to steal at its very source.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Never a dull moment

St John's had a visit from the diocesan Chancellor to inspect sites for the mounting of war memorials now taken out of St James' church. Thankfully he is willing to agree that we do this, although he is not keen on such things, on the grounds that few living now recall the names of the dead thereon. This came on the day when the Queen and Archbishop Rowan attended and dedicated a memorial to the 16,000 men and women killed in the service of their country since World War Two. The Chancellor seems dimly aware of how much people in the military as well as civilians regard it as a perennial duty to remember the names of comrades they never knew, as a point of honourable citizenship. "My great grandpa's name is on this war memorial." I can hear members of my extended family saying just this, ninety years after his body wasn't found at Paschendale.

Thomas Trotter gave today's lunchtime organ recital with his usual brilliance, delighting an audience of over 280 people. Perhaps because of the concert there were more people at the noon Friday Eucharist than I can ever recall. The average of a dozen has crept up to fifteen recently, but today there were twenty one people there, and another half a dozen sitting scattered around the church.

Before the concert finished I had to ride off down to County Hall for a meeting of the Capital Vision Board, which brings together people from the most senior management levels to consult on an overview of the plans and policies that bind together every aspect of life in the city and county borough. It was hard work for the first hour. Too abstract and technical for me to take in. In fact I was quite absorbed by the occasional glimpses I got from my seat of the expanse of water beyond the ground level conference room, with five cormorants all roosting atop concrete pillars jutting from the former dock now converted into a lake.

Things livened up in the second hour with a presentation on Eastern European migration into Cardiff over the past three years - this is the largest group of recent incomers. Having so many people from a language group not normally catered for is quite a challenge for all public services. The strategic development plan for the next couple of decades, involving land use policy was also introduced in outline. A lot of hard homework reading there, but important long term stuff for the common good. One small fact that impressed itself upon me - despite all the building and conversion work that has raise lots of new apartment dwellings in the city over the past few years, the actual proportion of apartments to houses is now the same as it was twenty years ago. Housing has increased, but there's still a shortage, and up to 20% more new housing will be needed in the Borough in the coming decades to cope, not only with the influx of new people, but also with the tendency of more and more people to live longer and/or live on their own. Headaches for someone in power!

While I was out at the meeting, preparation had started in church for a second important event of the day. For the first time anyone can recall, a non-Christian religious speaker given the platform at St John's. This was Lama Yeshe Losal Rimpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist Abbot of Samye Ling monastery in Scotland, whom I met two years ago when he last visited Cardiff and spoke at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre. This time I was in a position to invite the local Buddhist community to hold their lecture chez nous. They were very pleased, and the Abbot spoke delightfully, with great wisdom and simplicity.

After the lecture had started, four young lads came in, already drunk at 7.30pm. One was evidently more curious than his mates, and signed the visitors' book. When told that there was a charge of £7.00 to attend the lecture (to cover the expense of the occasion), the lad piped up. "Jesus wouldn't charge seven quid." "Yes", said the doorkeeper, "But this is Lama Yeshe." Not knowing who Lama Yeshe was put him at something of a disadvantage, and he allowed his mates to pull him back out of the church on to the street.

Anyone listening to Lama Yeshe would have found a great deal of the attitude and teaching of Jesus alive and well in his down to earth joyous simplicity. He'd lost both his parents when the Chinese annexed Tibet, compelling him to flee the country, but harboured no bitterness or anger for the invaders. He told us, with gusts of laughter how cave dwelling hermits were sought out, arrested and accused of idleness. In prison, when they were given their meagre daily ration of food, the hermits responded with huge appreciation at the luxury of being fed - there being nobody around to treat them like this in their mountain solitude. One person's punishment is another person's feast. He also told how Buddhist monsteries (whether in Tibet or North India, I'm not sure) now found they had wealthy Chinese benefactors supporting them, which they never had before. He mused on how things might turn out differently from what might be expected in the longer term in Tibet.

I wonder what he might have to say about the demise of institutional Christianity in Britain?

What a great day.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sikh and you shall find

It's 25 years since we lived in Bristol. Despite all the changes in roads and townscape I still find my way about without too much hassle, but I find it curious how it takes a while for feelings and memories about particular places to propose themselves. And yes, it's feelings that seem to come first. A Sikh woman, at today's conference, Indar Singh did a simple introduction to the Sikh community for .. well civil servants in their silos, I guess. She proudly wore a great turban to cover her hair, plus the other signs of being a khalsa Sikh. It took my back to my first year as Rector of the Parish Team Ministry in St Pauls, thirty one years ago.

A couple of Sikh men who lived in the area came to ask if they could use St Agnes' church hall for a religious meeting. Being a bit conservative and under-exposed to people of other faiths, I was glad they hadn't asked to use the church as I wouldn't have known what to say. But the church hall would be OK wouldn't it? The PCC were persuaded that hospitality was what Christians should do, and that was fine.

Their meeting lasted from Friday to Sunday. Over a hundred people gathered, daily to pray, eat and listen to devotional addresses from a visiting Sikh teacher. I was invited to attend, and I went in my black cassock. It was hot with all those people packed into the hall. I made a small welcome speech, and was greeted by the teacher, in traditional robes, seated on a dais and radiating generosity and love to everyone.

They prayed and sang, and I sat there wondering if this was OK for Vicars to do - it was my first year as a Parish Incumbent. I didn't angst for long, as the atmosphere of peace, love and prayer was as true and beautiful as anything one might find in a church where you had just to listen because you didn't understand the language. By that time I was already used to sitting through long hours of Orthodox worship in Greek or Russian - so why not Punjabi? It was my first inter-faith encounter.

I can't remember when I last thought of that occasion until today. Those Bristol years were an education in cross-cultural encounter and dialogue which it would be hard to match on any academic course. Not least because so much of it was among ordinary working class immigrants, who would end up feeling very proud if their offspring made it through to Higher Education. Yet their values, their aspirations, their solidarity, their encouragement were all formed by being part of a faith-community living by prayer and service to others.

Oh yes, the church hall .... the parish was too poor to afford to run or repair it. It was part of an innovative community complex built by a pioneering radical Victorian parson, T J Harvey. Half of the building was already in use as a gymnasium frequented by world class weight-lifters. In the end the Empire Sports Club bought us out. The hall became a weight training gym, and as Vicar I was an honorary member, and trained there with others up to marathon standard running in the years after I gave up smoking - half a lifetime ago.

Within a couple of years of their visit the Bristol Sikh community bought, refurbished a redundant non-conformist chapel as a Gurdwara over in neighbouring Easton, which I visited when it was open. Bristol now boasts four Gurdwaras, and Cardiff three.

Including faith-communities

I had a day out of Cardiff today, at a seminar in Bristol, run by the Consultation Institute, which specialises in training people in local government and public service in the art of consultation - now such an important aspect of all political and governmental processes. This one was about Best Practice consultation and Faith Groups. As our 'Spiritual Capital - Cardiff' research project is concerned with relationships between faith-communities and various aspects of civil society, I felt it important to get some idea of the professional formation on offer in the public sector. I found it most stimulating, and found myself happily agreeing to ideas being put across. You can read my report for the Project Steering Group here.

There were some arresting contributions by speakers. One called Amer Salman was an English Muslim convert of about seven years standing, who realised a life of faith could do something about the inner emptiness of his life. He studied Islam before becoming involved, and reckoned that was just as well, because his mental conviction defended him from being put off by some of the strange and difficult things he found about insiders in the House of Islam. There are surely Christian converts who'd willingly say the same about church members too. He now specialises in cultural and religious awareness training for professionals from a Muslim standpoint. His website : 'Islamic Understanding for the West' is worth looking at.

The other speaker who had me buzzing was an English Buddhist, Kyle Hannan, who manages a Community internet Radio Station in Bristol called 'Salaam Shalom'. There a great video article to see on YouTube . Leadership which can inspire such creative interaction and dialogue across or within cultures is something very special. It's one of the better uses for such amazing technology that we're only just getting accustomed to use as 'tools for conviviality' (remember Ivan Illich?)

I was quite conscious that within the church - and I dare not speak for other faith-communities, standards of consultation vary on different issues and in different situations from Best Practice to Shameful. Some times recommendations can be put forward, acknowledged, and then not implemented, without any explanation. Even the very best of apostolic leaders can foul up completely from time to time. However well arranged are the the checks and balances of synodical government, the top people, whether in parish or episcopate feel that, in the end 'the buck stops with me'. Particularly in times of crisis. It's sad how readily we lose that sense of being 'members of one another' (as St Paul would say) when really we most need it.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

St John's Brigade awards

Despite a messy start to the day Sunday had a special highlight. After lunch I attended the annual St John's Ambulance Divisional awards ceremony at City Hall. For once I had no part to play, as I had been unable to commit to the event timetable with certainty, due to my need to get away for a service at 4.00pm at Tredegarville school. I was able just to turn up and sit at the back and enjoy proceedings.

About four hundred Brigade members were present to hear speeches and watch presentation of awards to family, friends and colleagues. It was a moment as the Prior said: "To honour those who serve." Two of the senior volunteers were honoured for each having served 52 years since enrolment as St John's Ambulance men. Scores more were honoured for lesser periods of service from a dozen to four dozen years, often spouses and their children.

Among those awarded were three young people honoured as young life savers of the year. All three had newly been trained in First Aid. One fifteen year old had helped save the life of a mate who had gone into toxic shock from a nut allergy on board a cross channel ferry. Another fifteen year old had helped save a mate from drowning who'd been trapped in a sinking canoe in some river rapids.

Most amazing was a ten year old, who had saved his grandmother from choking to death when a pill lodged in her windpipe, just a few weeks after learning what to do in a school First Aid class. Even more amazing was the fact that the child in question suffers from cerebral palsy. St John's has a number of people in its serving ranks who have some measure of disability, but this counts for nothing. Everyone who needs help gets it, and everyone is equally valued, no matter how much or little they are able to give. All involved are valued for having a go, for being willing to be there among the 'first to care' as the organisation's strapline declares.

It's pure Gospel in action - day after day after day.

I'm very proud that our church has such strong links with St John's. And I think it shows in the esprit de corps of the congregation.

Match day aftermath

The Rugy World Cup match between New Zealand and France brought 800 coachloads of visitors into the city on Saturday, to add to those already arrived early for the weekend. Clare couldn't work out why everyone taking public tours at the Castle seemed to have antipodean accents - she wasn't aware of who was playing whom.

The sheer volume of traffic added an extra hour to the journey time of our weekend house guest arriving from the North Midlands. An evening kick-off time of 8.00pm (for the sake of TV audiences world-wide) meant that revelling after the game didn't begin in earnest until after 10.00pm. On this occasion, with both teams playing far from home, there wasn't the usual rush out to the city to the motorways, so the streets were more crowded than usual into the early hours.

One consequence of this was that the streets were still rubbish strewn as I made my way to St John's at 7.45am to start the day's worship. After a normal match day or dissolute Saturday in town, the streets are completely clean before 8.00am. It's one the routine things that gets done well in Cardiff. On this occasion, the difference was quite remarkable.

It wasn't that the street cleaning team were absent. There was evidence that the cleaning machines had already passed through streets around the church at least once, but there was so much litter, their wheels had crushed plastic beakers, glass bottles, and fast food wrappers as they passed, leaving glass and plastic splinters everywhere. We could hear the noise of the cleansing activity throughout the morning services. Those guys really earn their money.

One of the two only rubbish bins within 50 yards of the church entrance had been picked up and tossed over the fence into the churchyard, complete with content. I've been asking for more bins now for four years, and am constantly fobbed off with excuses to do with redevelopment plans. I wonder when 'manĂ£na' will become a word in our local languages.

The stairwell into the church tower entrance was ankle deep in paper, bottles and beakers, the fence spikes decorated with beakers, and paper cups, and entire lengths of railing ornaments had been carefully stuffed with Cornish Party food bags from the shop opposite - dozens of them. Macdonald's, Burger King and the Cornish Pasty shop do a huge trade on match days, and the City clears up most of the rubbish left by consumers, but not all by any means. For a few hours during clean-up time, it's not very safe to walk about.

I would like to see a refundable deposit on every consumer food and drink item traded on days like this. Consumers could then save themselves a little by returning empties to where they could be dealt with tidily - or, if discarded on the streets, the city's drug addicted beggars, many of them out all night looking for money anyway, could collect and return empties and earn themselves the price of a fix. Since there is clearly insufficient political will to provide any serious help to the growing numbers of addicts, and policing efforts are constantly frustrated by the policies of the courts, why not convert the problem into an opportunity to make the city cleaner and tidier?

Over £215 million a year in alcohol sales is taken in the city. How much of this actually benefits or costs the local public purse is anybody's guess, when you think of the extra policing and emergency health care demands, not to mention the burden of unnoticed costs borne by businesses, churches and others present in the public domain, who also bear the impact of all this unbridled licentiousness.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Il Travatore

Another evening out at the Millennium centre for a Verdi extravaganza, occupying almost front row seats (discounted because you have the extra effort of looking up high to read the surtitles). It's not really my favourite opera, as it's a rather glum melodrama, with a fast paced last act that does little to exploit fully the melodramatic potential of the story. It's most memorable for the famed 'Anvil Chorus', which was taken on this occasion at quite a vigorous Italian pace by Carlo Rizzi and the WNO crew.

Wales' other favoured operatic son, Dennis O'Neill, sang the lead role of troubador flawlessly, with a mighty Italian soprano, Katia Pellegrino, his equal in excellence as the doomed heroine. The set was fashionably drab and minimalist, so it would have been fine just to sit and listen with eyes shut. However, if I'd done that, I would all to easily have slipped into a trance, and maybe ended up snoring - something that wouldn't go down too well sitting just in front of centre stage. So I made the effort and kept my attention on the rather limited action up front.

As a straightforward rendering of storyline in 'historical' context, (fifteenth century Spain) it was adequate but didn't offer a great deal to reflect upon. Transposing the scenario visually to a different context can be stimulating, as WNO has done with a production which sets Verdi's 'Rigoletto' in the world of modern gangsterism.

The bendy bus shuttle from City centre to the Bay worked perfectly for us in both directions. One big niggle, however, is the posh video screens on the bus. When stationary, the display shows views of all the doors and the street by the stop. On the move, sometimes BBC News 24 plays inaudibly, but when the system loses the signal it reverts to a looped promotional video made for the City's centenary in 2005. The new buses have been operational for over a year, and the video pre-dates the introduction of the buses. Far too much of it promotes eating out in Cardiff as if this was the only thing that ever happens. Well, maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to show pictures of thousands of people staggering about getting drunk, but even a visual tour of the SD2 building site would be a bit more interesting than yesteryear's promotions.

Surely Cardiff can do better than that?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Waldensians under attack

My Pastor friend Valdo has drawn attention on his blog to disturbing anti-religious incidents occurring the other side of the Italo-Swiss border, about a hundred miles south of his Vaudois parish near the Franco-Swiss border.

Prominent church buildings belonging to the historic pre-reformation Waldensian community in the Piedmont, in Northern Italy have lately been daubed with threatening slogans. Before Protestantism became a reforming force in Europe, prophetic communities of bible based radical Christians emerged in the Val d’Aosta, as they did also in the Czech speaking part of Central Europe.

Both were persecuted by the established church of the time. Nevertheless the church of the Valdensians survived in their native land, and elsewhere somewhat better than their Hussite and Anabaptist spiritual cousins, a minority, whose very existence in the fifteen century made them heralds of the spiritual and social upheaval that was to take place in Europe.

In this era of ecumenical reconciliation the shadow of the persecutor falls no longer from Rome but from far-right factions of Italian politics, trying to re-set the political and religious agenda. The current bone of contention is the Italy’s recent abortion law, which extremists seek to repeal. Waldensian acceptance of the need for this law has attracted hostility. Or at least this is the alibi.

The decline of the birth-rate in Italy promises future work-force shortages that will damage the national economy. The drift of people from South to North is leading to de-population problems in remoter southern rural areas. This in turn has lead to a policy of encouraging immigration, from Africa, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, to shore up the workforce and re-populate the villages. Poor migrants may be glad of the invitation to settle in rural areas, but a significant proportion of them end up moving North to the big cities.

As a result, the rate of the ‘cosmopolitanisation’ of Italy has soared in the past decade, and parties of the far right see this as a threat which undermines traditional ways of life. For Waldensians in their mountain border valleys, hospitality, tolerance and justice are treasured values - because of their history of persecution. It’s no wonder they are targeted, scapegoated by those who want to roll back the clock to another era.

Like Muslims and Jews, who are also under attack, Waldensians are ‘different’. There has been deep change in Italian family and social life, which has lead to many people turning their backs on raising large families let alone raising them as Christian. These are challenging times for everyone, not least for those who accept as a Christian vocation the necessity of change, and strive to make it meaningful and worthwhile. As Cardinal Newman said : “To be good means having to change. To be holy means having to change often.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Meditating on the Majestas

After a day spent mostly working on administrative aspects of our Spiritual Capital research project, I went up to Llandaff Cathedral in good time to attend the re-dedication service at the end of the diocesan Day of Prayer. I had nearly an hour just to sit quietly, enjoy the arrival of evening, and just look at the building, with its dominant Epstein 'Majestas' statue which has been there at the centre of the building since I was in short trousers.

If I value awe and wonder highly as elements of my spiritual journey, it has to be in some way a result of this immense figure being part of my field of religious imagery since early adolescence. It's as mysterious to me now as it was then. I am drawn to it, and treasure it as part of my faith-experience, and the memories attached to it over half a century. But it doesn't excite sentiments like affection or hatred in me - just wonder.

Who is this man? Such a key question in Gospel narration. Epstein's figure poses this question. It is indeed as majestic a figure as the title 'Majestas' suggests. But what kind of majesty is here portrayed? I still ask myself this, and am still rehearsing answers.

If it's meant to be Christ in majesty - a kind of 20th century pantocrator equivalent - how can anyone be certain of this? The hands and feet are very prominent, very alive, but do not bear the wounds that would identify this as the Crucified One. So it's not meant to be Jesus risen and glorified.

The head is of a man truly awake and alive, looking up and ahead searching in the distance - could you say communing, communing with his creator?

The attitude of the figure's hands is open, but not in welcome, nor raised in priestly prayer. Just sufficiently spread open to suggest acceptance, surrender - 'here I am, I come to do your will'.
It could be the attitude of any man of living faith towards his creator.

Yet, it could still be Jesus, the Christ, in every sense. Regardless of lighting, artificial or natural, there is something numinous about this figure. It could be Jesus at the transfiguration on Mount Thabor, minus Moses and Elijah - well, you're free to imagine them if you like, as did witnesses Peter, James and John.

Or, it could be Jesus at that moment, just before his transfiguration when he asks the disciples: "Whom do men say the Son of the Man is .... and whom do you say?" The answer given by Peter is: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

If this conclusion is correct, then the sculptor's purpose was not to proclaim the faith of the church, but to take the beholder back to the mystery of the Gospel. "Whom do men say the Son of the Man is?" Jesus elliptically refers to himself as 'Son of the Man' in the Gospels, a way of saying 'this man', 'me' - ever reluctant to draw attention to himself as a human being, always pointing beyond himself to the divine Father, to the point of being one with the Father, being the image of the Unseen.

But, that's my conclusion. Epstein's Majestas poses the open question to us, 'Who is this man?', and calls us to make our own response. He was a Jewish agnostic, who wrestled with the text and its question in his own way. His conclusion is not part of the record, but this great image of the Gospel question is a lasting contribution to Christian mission.

I appreciated the energy, sincerity and commitment which went into creating the prayer vigil and dedication service, and the fact that over 150 people turned out on a damp evening to take part in it. However, it couldn't move me or inspire me the way it intended to, once I'd spent the best part of an hour pondering as I have many times before my perception of Epstein's masterpiece.

'Who is this man?' How can I identify with him?