Friday, November 30, 2007


Even as I slept it seemed my mind was puzzling over why that darned router hadn't worked first time, and wishing I'd brought the appropriate documents home to read over. Slowly I began to get an inkling of the mistake I'd made. It wasn't enough to get me back into proper sleep, so I got up early, and did some paperwork. I had to be at the church to admit the carpenter at nine, as he had to finish off tidying up a job he'd done on the communion rail by George Pace which he'd brought over from St James' earlier this week. With amazing synchronicity, the Faculty granting us permission to remove and re-install furnishings from St James in St John's finally arrived yesterday. It's more than a year since the formal request was made. Craftsmen carpenters work quicker than church legal processes.

As soon as I'd briefed the carpenter, I went over to the city management office in Southgate House where the business crime prevention team are based, and within half an hour had both computers connected to the internet using the same router, and set up a Google Mail account for the organisation and its night-time worker, PCSO Deb Harvey. An amazingly trouble free and productive time. The achievement made me sail through the rest of a dark damp day as if the sun was shining.

Philip Thomas, our organist gave the last lunchtime concert in the series until after Easter next, to an audience of ninety, undeterred by the miserable weather. Concerts will be on hold after Christmas, as the organ will be 'bagged' in polythene sheeting while the interior of the church is scraped and painted.

At the moment there's a 'bagged' scaffolding next to the north west window inside the nave, and another scaffolding outside. The window is out while stonework repairs are done. A two week job seems to have become four, and we're keen to see it finished and the window back in for Christmas, not least because S4C want to use St John's in ten days time to record the Christmas TV broadcast 'Dechrau Canu, dechrau canmol' chez nous. We could do with space and beauty restored in that small but significant corner of the church, graced as it is with a window of the Burne-Jones school of Victorian church glaziers.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Prevention is the best measure

I've recently found a small supportive role as a member of the Board of Management of Cardiff's Business Crime prevention partnership, and now Company Secretary. It's not a huge task as there is administrative support in the background, but it helps hold the organisation together at a time when it's gone through some significant changes.

It's something I would have found difficult to refuse, as St John's has been indebted to the local Police Community Support Officers, keeping an eye on us in this year when we have been plagued by a persistent and very smart thief. After wreaking much havoc in small shops and churches around the city centre and further failed, he's been caught in flagrante at last, and requested several other crimes to be taken into consideration.

Truth is that scores of thefts in the city are attributable to one man's activity over the past year or so, but he has eluded detection, even though often caught on camera entering and leaving at the time of a crime. Through the partnership, the church has been added to the local security radio network, and has acquired a couple of CCTV security cameras and video recorders - all of which has helped to restore a sense of confidence after another outrageous theft in church.

Today the Board met for a sales presentation from a company bidding for the next contract to supply a security radio network. The sales manager was quite impressive in his delivery of information but yet again (twice in two days for me), hopeless with his technology. He tried to show us a Powerpoint presentation on a twelve inch Thinkpad in a room without blackout and ... no video projector. I think he assumed our meeting place would have one. I laughed quietly to myself. He needn't have bothered, as he was pretty coherenct and well in charge of all the salient facts he had to put across.

It's reassuring to hear educational psychologists criticising the use of Powerpoint as a learning aid these days. I've tried it, but never thought much of it. I want people to listen to me when I speak, follow my arguments, not look at my crib-sheet. If I use it at all now, it's to show pictures or display information I want people to look at properly.

After the meeting, PCSO Ceri Evans our Business Crime Co-ordinator was fretting about not being able to get a new router to work back at the office, to enable both the PCSOs seconded by South Wales Police to crime prevention work in the city to connect to the internet, so I offered to go back with her and see if I could fix the problem. Well, it was a router I didn't know, and I was a bit fed up that I couldn't get it to work either. All I could ascertain was that it wasn't broken, so there was no point in taking it back to the shop. I just couldn't figure it out, and ended up leaving Southgate House after all the office staff had gone home, not a little annoyed with myself.

Ceri is a real asset in her job. The only thing that annoys me is Ceri's official title. Calling her Business Crime Coordinator sounds like something out of a mafia empire blockbuster. She does business crime prevention. The key word gets omitted. Maybe that makes it easier to ignore one key piece of prevention work which she pioneered. I was most disappointed that her work with young graffiti artists last year was kicked into touch by politicians and other petty officials who should have known better. A year of clear up work, followed by doing something constructive with those most likley to offend had minimised graffiti attacks around town. Now it's creeping back insidiously. The south west buttress of the church tower has been tagged recently, and that hasn't happened for years.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not quite in the wilderness

I was pleased that yesterday's South Wales Echo not only reported my bit of rhetoric at last Friday's Licensing committee meeting, but also ran a short ep-ed piece as well, voicing concern about the predominating culture of debauchery. Some people I meet are quick to express appreciation that I spoke out, and express their fears and worries about not being able to go out at night. And this is not to do with fears of violence nor even of crime, but the fact that it is no longer a relaxing and enjoyable experience to share the streets in the evenings, light or dark, with crowds of shouting staggering foul mouthed revellers.

The collapse of social courtesies and controls plus the relentless commercial exploitation of alcohol driven 'leisure' aided and abetted by, I won't say over-tolerant, but rather over-indulgent city policies - 'value-free' secular policies - has unleashed a kind of chaos that will be difficult to pull back from, unless it's possible to re-build a consensus based on what is health and good for all citizens without exception. An economic recession that bit fiercely enough to curb drinking to excess would also cause much suffering in other areas of life. Would it ever get that bad? I wonder.

Meetings that matter

Inter-faith Wales and the Community Development Foundation arranged a meeting today for those in receipt of CDF funding, bringing people together from West and North Wales. It was held at the officers of Women Connect First, a local cross cultural womens' empowerment and education organisation, led by a dynamic Egyptian woman called Soad Hamdi.

There wasn't a great deal that was new in the meeting content, but it was good to hear what a different group of grant recipients are up to. Most memorable was a woman from Penllergaer called Pam Evans who founded an organisation to educate young people about religious and racial tolerance, focussing around the wearing of a simple multi-coloured bead bracelet, representing fourteen different world religions with a common essential teaching and message about peace. The bracelet is called a Peace Mala. Their website is worth looking at.

One thing that annoyed me however was that speakers wanted to use a laptop and projector for presentations, but full mastery of the technology was absent, so the wall used for a screen behind the speaker flashed distractingly with images that didn't connect with what was being said. Totally pointless.

It's wonderful to meet people who are passionate about reconciliation and diversity, who see these things as real good news, and constantly look outwards to engage with others. So much more cheering than people who struggle to remain stuck in their chosen rut.

I had to slip out of the meeting and pedal in the rain over from Riverside to St John's to offer the midday Eucharist, and then return for the rest of the session. I should really have peddled in the opposite direction, over to Roath for the Deanery Chapter meeting following lunch, but sad to say it was in my diary but not in my field of vision. More often than not I come away from our official gatherings with fellow clergy feeling frustrated and depressed. But there was enough at the other meeting to draw me back to it, laptops notwithstanding.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Time warp

Today, another Match Day, the weather not being good enough for a decent walk, we ventured out to Nelson to visit Llancaiach Manor, a sixteenth century dwelling, which I recall as a shabby old farm house, growing up, and going hiking in that area as a young Boy Scout in the fifties. Since then it has changed hands, and is no longer owned by a farmer. It has been well restored as an historic visitor attraction by Rhymney Valley District Council, and is open to the public.

It's an impressive venture, and the place is well used, with a varied programme of activities, some of which exploit its reputation as one of Britain's Most Haunted houses. Apart from its posh tourist shop and its scenic modern restaurant, it has an excellent visitor interpretation programme. The place, after renovation was restored to represent the house as it appeared in 1645 equipped with period artifacts.

The tour guides are in the period costumes of household servants and speak in period English. You are invited to imagine that you are invited to the house of Colonel Thomas Pritchard, Lord of the Manor, and at that time co-incidentally governor of Cardiff Castle.
The Colonel and his family are away from Llancaiach, but the servants welcome visitors and show them around, telling the story of life in their times as they go, in fascinating detail.

Pritchard was a Puritan and prominent local Baptist, initially loyal to the king, then to Parliament, eventually taking a more independent stance seeking to shield Glamorganshire and the neighbouring counties from being sucked into the Civil War - was his armed militia a kind of prototype Free Wales Army, I wondered?

It was good to see such creative imagination being applied to bringing an historic monument to life for the modern age. It reminded me of 'Brother' Thomas, the Cistercian costumed guide to Tintern Abbey, seen during our Parish Pilgrimage back in the summer.

Will there come I time, I wonder, when St John's visitors will be shown around by a role-playing guide emulating the last generation of active believers to have served God in the heart of a totally secularised city?

Friday, November 23, 2007

On reflection

Strange to find myself doing battle against the sale of alcohol. I've enjoyed buying and drinking wine most of my adult life, and appreciated the growing variety of choice from all over the world. Now I find myself wanting to challenge the complacency that seems to surround the habitual debauchery which is damaging the health of young and old alike, leading to increased crime and disorder, and generating a great deal of damage to family and social life.

The controls that local Police implement have resulted in a some improvement in public order over the past two years, but with no real change in personal behaviour. Excessive consumption of alcohol by the masses, like 'bread and circuses' is a sign of the deep dysfunction arising from the way society works today.

The pressures of work, debt, competition exalted over co-operation, the cult of celebrity, obsession with image and appearance, consumer materialism, confusion of spirituality and sensuality - all conspire to leave individuals anxious, struggling with loneliness and self acceptance, with a huge inner spiritual void, painfully unsatisfied. People go to extremes with drink. drugs, sex, or risk dangerous pursuits to work around their real lack of fulfilment.

Until there a major crisis affecting general well being, whether a natural disaster or a disastrous economic recession, I don't suppose there's be much change. Sadly, all this weakens society's ability to respond and overcome great tribulation. How long, I wonder, before the bubble bursts and reality penetrates the world of illusion we have made with the wealth we think we have created?

Standing up to be counted

A new swish Spar convenience store has opened on the corner of Queen Street adjoining St John Street. A few weeks ago a notice went up on its outside window advising of an application being made to the City licensing committee for permission to sell alcohol from 8.00am until midnight - the opening hours of the store. Local social workers have frequently spoken about the problems surrounding other liquor selling stores in the city centre, and the substance abusers from nearby hostels or sleeping rough, who tend to loiter there, so this notice set alarm bells ringing in my head. Aggressive begging from passers by, fights and quite disturbing behaviour by intoxicated people in such a public place does nobody any good. Just the refusal to sell alcohol to known troublesome customers can create uproar and conflict. It's hard to control, let alone to provide help for the needy in such a setting. The City centre still lacks a suitable place where street people can get help.

With the impending demolition of the central bus station building in the New Year, I could foresee such gatherings being displaced from that area, to the street around Nye Bevan's statue, and carrying on as they do outside the station. There are still no bye-laws in Cardiff prohibiting on-street drinking or litter dropping, and the whole environment suffers despite efforts to keep it all under control. Whenever I clear litter from the various enclosed spaces surrounding the church, there are alcohol bottles with the soft drinks and fast food containers tossed over the fence. The arrival of a convenience store in the vicinity threatens to add to the mess, because so many eat on-street and throw containers away regardless.

So, I decided to lodge an objection to the application, and obtained support from all present at the Churches Together meeting last week. My letter of objection was passed on to the Police, who were also making a case for refusal, expressing their concerns about public order issues associated with booze sales at convenience stores.

The hearing took place in City Hall today.
In addition to elected members and officers, there were a dozen people attending as observers present, including, I noticed, the Leader of the Council.

After the Police presented their case I was invited to speak in support of my letter of objection. I took the opportunity to remind the committee of the city licensing policy which had recently been agreed by the Council, which recognised that a saturation point for licensed premeses in the St Mary Street area had been reached and that no new licenses should be granted. The applicant's shop lies a hundred yards outside the zone of restraint, in a place where there could be new concerns about public order, particularly in the evenings, when people arrive to go clubbing. Doesn't this undermine the principal of having a policy? I asked, going on to point out that the policy, good though it was, had been written without consulting and religious communities that might have views about alcohol abuse and the culture of debauchery that gives Cardiff such a negative image. If they had been asked, they might have proposed restraining or even reducing numbers of licenses, moving towards changing a culture which many are not proud of, which does little to promote the declared vision of a Proud Capital city.

Sure, I said more than I should, and was an embarrassment at what in the mind of many was no more than a routine hearing. But it's clear that religious communities of all kinds have been left out of the social equation, ignored by those who run the city. Maybe when the intentions of the new Equalities Act have been articulated, there will be grounds for challenging policies which disregard the ten percent of citizens who have an active religious affiliation, and calling elected representatives and officers to account legally. So much better to be able to do this, than to let the frustration and resentments of powerlessness build into a reactionary political backlash for nurturing by the extreme right.

The applicant from Spar and his lawyer defended their application reasonably, stating that they had in place all the necessary checks and balances to ensure nothing gets out of control. The store's policy is to be an up-market resort for passing trade, eliminating the poor contingent by over pricing what they sell, including their small range of 'fine wines', the list of which remains undisclosed, as do the prices. They promised there would be no cut-price promotions on bulk purchased booze. All these good intentions would keep out the riff-raff, they anticipate. Well, time will tell whether they get enough high spending custom to pay their £100k per annum rent. The shop is not very big, relatively easy to control. They seem confident of success without resorting to fast turnover special discount offers. They have 16 CCTV cameras in quite a small area - who are the looking out for? Do quality clients need to be watched so closely?

Needless to say, their license was granted. That makes five establishments in the quarter mile of Queen Street with alcohol take-away licenses, quite apart from clubs and pubs in the vicinty. I didn't really expect to succeed, but without taking part in the debate, without a measure of protest on social issues, religious communities shall continue to be marginal to the functioning of civil society. I shall be watching developments closely. No doubt the Police will be also.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Real Comedy

Tonight, Clare and I went to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company perform 'A Comedy of Errors' at the New Theatre. The production was hilariously funny, fast moving, and very physical. The 'commedia dell'arte' influences were strong. It was presented more like adult pantomime than classical theatre. I was amazed at how the use of movement really helped make sense of the text.

We were also treated to a couple of North Country accents, a strong Italian accent and a right-on Jamaican yardie accent from various characters, alongside the expected Received Pronunciation Shakesperian Delivery of the rest of the cast. All this made the point that the characters portrayed were themselves a multi-cultural bunch, and the speeches lost nothing. If anything this device made one pay more attention. The youngsters in the audience, including primary age children clearly loved it.
I have no doubt the Bard would have approved with this vigorous, engaging, entertaining interpretation of his work.

A dozen of the cast stayed behind afterwards for a Q&A session with members of the audience. Although I was tiring by this stage, it proved a very worthwhile half hour, encountering the personalities behind the
personae of the actors. We've spent so much time at the opera since we've been back in Cardiff that theatre visits have become quite rare for us. If there are productions of this quality around these days, we should change out habits and get out more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Rubbish - keeping on the case

Since Friday last, a large un-emptied wheelie bin with a Council logo on the front, has stood at the north west corner of the church tower overflowing with rubbish on to the street. In fact, it was joined in that position by two bins from the Owain Glyndwr, and left there, after they were emptied and not put away in their bin store. Sunday Evening I rang the Council's 101 problem solving referral unit to report the bin, and was told it would be emptied on Monday morning.

Monday passed. Tuesday morning came. On my way to the City Centre Retail Partnership monthly meeting I took a photo of the bin to show to Steve, the operations manager, to see if he could get it cleared away on the fifth day since its arrival. He was not un-surprised at my report, as Waste Management seems to be fraught with management problems at the moment, such that the boss is on sick leave. He kindly printed out the picture, so we could get a better look at it and show it around the office. Then it occurred to me that I was about to walk into a meeting with the Council's Chief Executive Byron Davies. He's always friendly and considerate towards me, and when I saw him he came over and shook my hand and asked how things were going. I just couldn't resist showing the picture and telling the story. He calmly took out his phone and exused himself while he spoke to some poor soul in waste management. He returned after a few moments promising it would be removed straight away.

He spoke at the meeting, addressing retailers' concerns over the impact of pedestrianising St Mary Street, the inadequacy of shoppers parking and public transport issues. He announced the set up of a weekly forum of all involved in service delivery, presided over by himself, to ensure every problem was spotted and tackled, during the next two years of reconstruction and major change to the appearance and running of the city centre. When I returned to the church two hours later, the wheelie bin was still there, and it remained there all night.

When I arrived for the Wednesday Eucharist, it was still there, half emptied. And this obstructing part of the very busiest pedestrian thoroughfare of the city! Not even the city's CEO can work miracles. For all the rhetoric about partnership working, there remains a protectionist proprietorial culture in which section bosses don't always take orders willingly. You'd think they'd all want to work for the good of the city all the time not some of the time, but so often it seems this is not the case. The next couple of years will be a real challenge for the city's elected members and local government officers. Can they deliver the vision of a 'proud capital' which they proclaim? Will the world want to invest in it?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fresh air

At last a completely free day, with a week's work well done in time, and the possibility of a day away from Cardiff. This is generally a good idea when there's a big Saturday match on at the stadium, as the city gets over-congested with cars and pedestrians, and is no fun for shopping expeditions - noth that I'm good at these at the best of times.

We drove down to the Gower and made our way out to Rhossili where we walked before lunch along the cliff top, and after lunch along the beach. The weather was perfect, mild for the time of year, though the wind was strong. We returned with glowing cheeks full of delight and much refreshed. A photo of Worm's Head now decorates my computer desktop, to remind me more often of the world outside of my workplace.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Changing how we imagine God

I took time out to attend a lunch at the United Services Mess today, to which I'd been invited to listen to the St Athan Methodist Minister, who is one of the RAF station's long serving chaplains, and had been invited along as guest speaker. The other guests were all well retired military personnel and their spouses. The speaker himself, I guess, was in his seventies, and he opted to speak about the measure of change he had experienced in his lifetime and ministry. It was quite amusing for me to learn that his moment of media fame back in the eighties was due to him being the first Methodist Minister in Wales to learn to use a computer. Another enthusiast ahead of his time!

What he steered his audience's thoughts towards, however, was changing ideas of God - something which he found himself still working on, due to the contact he still had with new recruits who most often had no concept of God in their lives, and even no clear code of values to work from. He explained a little about how he sought for new images that connected with their experience, and then took us back to a 1950's book by J B Phillips with the title 'Your God is too small', one I remember well, although I came across it in the late sixties after the publication of Bishop John Robinson's landmark book 'Honest to God', which was also about perceptions and images of God, the first book to lead me to the discovery of mystical theology. It was hated by the evangelical fundamentalists I know and grew up around in the South Wales Valleys. Our speaker challenged his elderly audience to remain open to change in the way they thought about God, to relate this better to their whole experience of life.

For me, as for him, this is at the very heart of what evangelism today must be.

This evening we went to the Millennium Centre's studio theatre to watch a contemporary dance performance, a collaboration between a Polish group and Wales' Earthfall dance group. It was loosely based on Aristophanes' 'The Birds', containing a mix of very energetic physical theatre, challengingly dissonant a capella vocal music, and bizarre humour. We weren't sure really what it was tying to say or achieve, but the energy and seemingly effortless athleticism of the performers were most impressive and engaging, even if it left us a bit puzzled about the message.

Perhaps this is what Christian liturgy is like for the uninitiated.

Reindeer in Working Street

This evening the city's Christmas lights were switched on, and the open air skating rink launched with much festivity, including family entertainment on an open air stage in front of the law courts for a crowd of a couple of thousand, mostly parents with small children who'd come to see the live version of the kiddies screen favourites.

In the afternoon, the St David's Centre marketing team ran their own accompaniment to the main event. A free Santa visit and give-aways for kiddies in the main mall, plus the sleigh and half a dozen real life reindeer in a pen under an open marquee out on Working Street. I was approached by the organising team a week beforehand to ask if the reindeer could stretch their legs and be fed by their handlers in the churchyard, something I was delighted to agree to, if only for the photos I could take.

An animal transport vehicle with huge advertisments for the Cairngorm reindeer herd arrived with the creatures around three, with a couple of handlers - not from as far as Scotland, I believe, but from Kent, although one of the handlers said he was looking after a herd in the Vale of Glamorgan. They were in the churchyard until dusk, quietly feeding. I got my pictures, and so di lots of others, who were forming an orderly queue along the churchyard railings in readiness for a closer look when they went on show.

I sent the best of my pictures to the Western Mail as soon as I got home, but none appeared, and the coverage of the evening's launch had nothing to say about reindeer in the churchyard, let alone reindeer in the street outside the shopping centre. I can't believe they didn't get the press releases. I'm prepared to believe that there's some hidden agenda at work here on the part of the sub-editing team, because the lights switch-on article seemed mainly to be a whinge about energy conservation, as if the city doesn't daily waste unimaginable amonts of energy as a result of an inadequate public transport policy that fails to give incentives to people to forsake their cars.

Anyway, I'm sure Richard the editor of the church magazine will find room on the front cover of the Advent edition for one of my photos - some of them are presentable.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Churches and change

City Centre Churches Together meeting tonight at Tabernacl Baptist Church, right opposite the huge hole that contains the SD2 construction site, amazingly changing from day to day as new structures if steel and concrete reach up to join the forest of giant tower creans in the late autumnal sky. Tab. is a lively church, but has been caught on the hop by the invasion of its world by the many changes being imposed upon their domain by redevelopment which takes away from them free access rights, and overshadows their building with this massive shopping mall and pedestrian zone designed around entertainment and leisure of a decidedly non-church nature.

I was rather disconcerted and disappointed to discover when I reported on the research project that my colleagues present were quite unclear about whether or not they had received, let alone filled in the questionnaires sent to them. I know how clergy get overwhelmed by mail, but really, had we got all the addresses wrong? Fortunately I was able to had out spare copies that I had taken with me - just in case. It makes me wonder exactly who are the 30% of questionnaire recipients who have returned their forms by the deadline, and how we're going to get more responses, and how useful the final outcome will be. At the moment the research team are being rather un-forthcoming on the outcome so far. Is all this work worth it, I wonder?

Tonight we received a letter from the Pastor of Tredegarville Baptist Church that they no longer intended to be part of the City Centre Church Together. A previous Minister has encouraged the congregation to look towards the city centre, and his successor a conservative evangelical, has led them in the opposite direction. It was brief and
formal. There was no quarrel or policy dissent expressed, just disinterest. Sad to say, there are really deep unspoken disagreements between church communities struggling with similar issues in a similar context about the nature and purpose of the Gospel in the modern secular world. It's easy enough to agree about the need for witness, service and proclamation, the need for compassion and reconciliation and forgiveness to fill the world, but little common understanding about the real nature of authority, partnership and how living together with differences.

One crumb of comfort. At yesterday afternoon's meeting, I met the son of the former Tredegarville Baptist Pastor, who told me with great enthusiasm that he and his family had all been received in to the Church in Wales and were greatly enjoying a measure of stimulus and spiritual fulfilment in a suburban parish which they'd not been able to find in the conservative evangelical congregation they'd previously been part of.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Farewell John Morris

Today Clare and I said goodbye to an old friend, a quietly radiant man whom we had first got to know forty years ago when I was a student training for ministry at St Michael's College Llandaff. John Morris, dying at eighty-seven was mourned at his funeral in Llandaff Cathedral, where he had been a worshipper for many years, by a congregation of about 150, which included as many as a dozen clergy, male and female, and both our Bishops. He was a life-long layman of spiritual intelligence and learning. He was modest and humble, always enquiring, exploring and discovering wonderful new things about life. You could say he was typical of that breed of teachers who leave a lasting influence on one generation after another.

He came from a non-conformist farming family in Caerphilly, where I served my first Curacy, and had become an Anglican, like his elder brother, in his youth. Although from a radical Christian pacifist background, he served right through the second world war and survived, to complete his higher education and become a teacher of English and Scripture. After his first job, he returned to the Grammar school which had educated him, and remained there forty years. An unspectacular career by restless modern standards, but one which left a lasting impression on generations of students.

John and his wife Mary met Clare and I at St Mike's one evening when they were out looking for some musical students to recruit to take part in experimental liturgy in the Parish of Llandaff North, where they were worshipping at the time. We got on well and kept in touch while I worked in Llandaff diocese. John referred Martin one of his troublesome sixth formers, to me when I was Curate in Caerphilly. Martin caught the faith which shone from John unassumingly, but I was entrusted by John with the challenge of dialoguing with him about the relevance of the Gospel and God to his concerns as a young political activist.

Martin was one of the most original insightful and creative thinkers I have ever known, and made my own critical and rebellious instincts feel quite tame and conservative. He survived the exchanged to be baptized, confirmed and eventually ordained. John was very proud of Martin, and Martin gave a touching eulogy at the service. Only I know how much Martin struggled to say what John meant to him and to so many others. He was on the phone to me several times in the 36 hours before he stood up in front of all those friends and strangers assembled to celebrate a life so well lived.

It was one of those days. Just as I was leaving for the midday Mass at St John's, before going on to the funeral, Martin rang and said his computer printer had died, as he was about to print before leaving his home in Newport to drive over for the funeral. So, he emailed the file to me for printing. It arrived a couple of minutes before the Mass was due to start, and thankfully the office computer system behaved immaculately and delivered to order. That Martin should trust me with this task as an old friend was one thing. That he should trust that my computer system would be able to deliver was a real act of faith.

After the funeral, and before going back to John and Mary's house to gather with other mourners for the funeral tea, I had to go back into City Hall for a meeting of Cardiff Business Safe, to see a presentation on a business crime intelligence data system - a duty required of me as a new Board of Management member. In the midst of death we are in life. Sometimes I wish it wasn't all so crowded.

When we returned to Cardiff from Monaco, we met up again unexpectedly at the local doctor's surgery, the day we were re-registering with the NHS. Then we met again when we went to worship at Llandaff Cathedral, where we found John and Mary in the congregation there, involved in working with others to deepen the spiritual life of the community through a prayer and mediation group. The last time we met was just a month ago, again at the doctor's, each of us getting checked against those troublesome signs of ageing, though he was 25 years older than I. He went fighting through a war at the end of which I was born, yet despite all those brutalising experiences remained meek and gentle to the end, resting calmly in the love of God as his end approached, much in the same way as he had done throughout his life. I could envy faith like his.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Furniture, and 'God on Mondays'

We re-started 'God on Mondays' this afternoon. The first time since before the summer holidays - mostly due to my need for recovery time after my operation back in September. Eighteen adults and nine children - a cheering start. Kelly once more took charge of leading the worship, and I spoke about heroes and villains, with reference to the stories of Saul and David. I do enjoy being a story-teller!

Yesterday, leaving the Sunday service in school, I noticed lights on in the closed church. It turned out to be a watchman 'embedded' over the past week, due to further break-ins by homeless drug and alcohol abusers who end up sleeping rough because they have refused to keep hostel rules. After one weak spot providing a point of entry to the basement had been fixed a month ago, yet another was penetrated last week, and the watchman had been installed until it could be fixed properly. It's a sad desperate situation, which nobody can feel happy about. Unfortunately buildings taken over by such unfortunates become at risk from being burned down - not intentionally, but because intoxicated people can get careless and do foolish things without thought for safety.

Having chatted to the watchman, it occurred to me to take home from the church two brass war memorial plaques which had been taken down for re-installation in St John's, but the watchman wasn't very happy about this, not having been briefed that this might happen. So I returned home and emailed the man responsible to arrange permission for me to pick them up today instead, which I did after 'God on Mondays' had finished. One plaque, containing the names of World War One Fallen was quite heavy, probably 15 kilos. The Second World War one was much lighter in construction, different in style, and contained fewer names. I wondered about the difference in style and substance between the two of them. I imagined that the relative cost of the former was greater than that of the latter, representing the greater wealth of the St James' church community in the 1920's, than in the late fifties, when the latter was erected. Did the difference also represent a change in attitude towards remembering those who died.

Apart from the big plaque, a chancel screen was erected as a memorial to the Fallen of World War One. A Lady Chapel, designed by prominent local architect and artist George Pace, was erected as a Second World War memorial, along with the plaque. Now the church is finished as a place of worship, the chapel fixtures and fittings will be re-used. Some of them will go with the plaques into St John's War Memorial Chapel, as is fitting. The rest will go, as the Church Font has gone, into the school, to be used appropriately there.

The font was re-located just before half-term, in the school entrance lobby. It fits well, and makes a striking statement about this school being a Church School. One of the school's mums is expecting a baby, and is already lined up to be the first to present a child for baptism in this new setting.

Remembrance Sunday

It was pretty tough getting up after a short night's sleep to celebrate the 8.00am Eucharist, but somehow I survived. Thankfully Chris, my student on placement was down to preach his first sermon at the 9.30am Eucharist, and made a very good job of it. Unfortunately his speaking voice did not project as well as it should. If I'd realised I would have turned up the sound amplification in advance so that he could be better heard. So many people complained, it at least indicated how keen they were to listen to him.

After the post-service refreshments we gathered in the War Memorial chapel, where Burma Star Veteran and Reader Emeritus Bill John read out the list of the departed from the two Great Wars, reminding us that many of those names were of people his generation grew up with and went to church with. It says something about our times that no names of post World War conflict victims have been added to the Roll of Honour in the past sixty years, because no young men living in the Parish are recorded as having served in the military and died. Very much a sign of the social changes that have taken place in the city.

We actually have one of the city's main military establishments just inside the north boundary of the old Victorian Parish - Maindy - where Lord Kitchener was quartered for a season during one of his famous recruitment campaigns, earning him a mention on our Parish Roll of Honour. Over sixty years, tens of thousands of men have passed through, or served there for a while. If any went on from their to their deaths on active service, they are commemorated, not by us, but in their home Parish, wherever that may be.

After Evensong, just as we were saying goodbye to each other, two visitors, seeing the lights on and the doors open popped into church to look around. One of them was instantly recognisable as ex-Guardsman, Simon Weston OBE, hideously injured in the bombing of the Sir Galahad during the Falklands campaign, but lived to tell the tale, to triumph over his suffering and then become a public speaker and media personality of renown.

He'd been in town for a re-union lunch following the National Service of Remembrance and parade at the end of the morning at the City Cenotaph in Alexandra Gardens. I'd managed to watch the parade on my way home after church.

Simon said it was the first time ever for him to visit St John's. How often we hear the same said by people who've lived most of their lives in the city. We're always glad to welcome newcomers, especially locals. It turned out that Percy, one of our stalwarts who'd worked in the Rhymney Valley as Medical Officer of Health, knew his mother, though he'd not met Simon before. How often this kind of co-incidence also happens.

At the end of this long tiring weekend that included Remembrance Sunday, such a special, timely encounter with a victorious warrior was refreshing to the spirit.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Marriage of cultures

In the end, I was very pleased with the way the wedding went, although a few unexpected last minute changes dealt me a load of stress I could have done without. The church was nearly full with wedding guests, over 250 of them. I had Ian watching at one door, and Chris my student on placement watching at the other, just in case the thief who plagues us at St John's decided to chance his arm. I was determined nothing be risk. The city traffic wardens did us proud, and let in just the right number of limousines, just at the right time. The bride, much to her astonishment, was applauded by the crowd of well-wishers that had gathered out of the shopping crowds, standing in the sunshine, enjoying her moment with her.

The two scripture readings chosen by the couple for the service (1 Cor 13 and John 15) were augmented with readings from the Baghavad Gita (in English), and a piece of Indian spiritual poetry (chanted in Sanskrit). A poem by Lord Byron, was read, and the long Nuptial Blessing from the C of E Wedding service, translated into Welsh was read by Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Presiding Officer of the Senedd, a family friend. He seemed to take as much delight in the occasion as I did. He was present in Church for the blessing of the British Legion Memorial Garden last Saturday as well, and spoke about that in a radio interview. Nice to have such a good plug for St John's.

Swami Shri Gopal Sharan Ji Maharaj arrived ten minutes late, straight off a plane from Mumbai via Dusseldorf. He got stuck in Cardiff traffic, as did the bride, though not for too long. He entered quietly and slipped into his appointed seat alongside me on the platform, during one of the readings. We greeted quietly and then listened together. He joined me in blessing the congregation at the end, which he did in a curious mixture of Sanskrit, English and Hindi that somehow managed to communicate his thoughts across all cultural frontiers.

The reception, to which Clare and I were invited started with tea at the Hilton at four, and continued with a reception banquet for 300 at City Hall. This began with a procession by the Groom on horseback, accompanied by a marching band, dancing guests and wellwishers (the road was closed for the occasion) from the Hilton. The bride and her mother, having changed into Saris since church, welcomed the Groom Indian style. The banquet started at half past eight and went on until after midnight.

The Hindu marriage blessing, scheduled for midnight was delayed and delayed again because of security staff anxieties about fire safety for the ceremony. Also the ceremonial fire bucket had got left behind in the Mandir and had to be fetched. The ceremony end up taking place in the great Marble Hall, because of the safety problems with the scheduled
Council Chamber venue and started at 01h45. Reluctantly, we left at two. I was exhausted and consumed with anxiety about sleeping through a 7h15 alarm, to get me up for the first Eucharist. I sure was feeling tired, despite mediating patiently for the best part of an hour and a half waiting for the ceremony to start. It was meant to go on for another two hours. Age is teaching me to quit before I collapse!

I'm so glad I was asked to play a part in this marriage celebration. What really surprised me, in the course of the reception, was just how many people, Europeans and Indians alike, came and expressed appreciation to me for the church service. Yet, it was the bride and groom who did the work, putting together the readings, seeking permission and encouragement to make their Big Day into a day of meeting and cultural encounter. As you sow, so you reap. Several people, particularly Indians, said how moved they were to see their priest side by side with me, and my hand in blessing on a Hindu boy's head. I guess this says it wasn't always thus in their experience.

There's a disappointingly fanciful account of the event published on a BBC web page and heaven knows where else in the realm of cyber hype. The reality was far more exciting, joyous and lovely than the media drivel suggests. I know, because, as our Max says 'I was there'.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dressing for dinner

In my role as Chaplain to Cardiff's United Services Mess, last night I attended the annual dinner, given in the Angel Hotel for around 250 mainly ex-service personnel, with a sprinkling of active servicemen among the invited guests. Prince Andrew was chief guest last year and protocol obliged invites and attendance by several women, including the Mayor and the Chief Constable. This year reverted to the default position - men only. Many are open to the change, but there's no real concensus for the need to change as yet. So the Mess is still a gentleman's club.

The annual dinner is a stylish formal black-tie affair, medals are worn. It's always jolly and exuberant, always well mannered. The serving staff are superbly organised and strive make the whole affair the success it deserves to be, as a commemorative banquet for those fallen and continuing to fall in armed conflict. It's been notable how the score of young people waiting on table have changed over the past five years I have attended. Fewer now have black skins, many more each year have Eastern European accents, something that draws comment from diners. My role is to say grace, and to speak a commemorative sentence in deep darkness before the toast in homage to Fallen is offered. I know it off by heart now, and am not nearly as nervous about it as I was the first time I did it, four years ago, when I fluffed my lines terribly. Bless 'em all, I wasn't teased too much about that subsequently.

The evening finishes with many diners returning to the Mess, weaving their way through the hordes of drunken revellers on St Mary Street, to top up their own post prandial alcohol levels before heading home. Last year, I missed out on this because I was still far from getting my blood pressure stable. This year I had to miss out on account of today's big wedding. So I was home and in bed by a quarter after midnight, well fed, and quite tired, having done a full day's work before dressing for dinner.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Wedding preparations

Rehearsal tonight for my last wedding booked for this year - and it promises to unusual, as the groom, is of a Hindu family, born and bred here, but with ancient family roots in the Punjab, and more recently East Africa. The bride-to-be is a farmer's daughter from the coastal plain to the East of Cardiff.

Lots of people came to observe, practice, give advice, or ask questions. It was a bit chaotic and quite hard holding it all together, full of good humour and excitment. I hope they remember what they need to for the ceremony.

Certainly they've worked very hard on making their wedding ceremony reflect the marriage of two people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They've created an impressive wedding booklet with explanations of the different traditions and customs involved, to guide people through both the church service and the Hindu marriage blessing which will follow the reception at midnight.

Best of all from my point of view is that his family have invited a Swami to come over from India - a family friend and guru - for this blessing, and he will be present for the service in church as well. It's not so unusual for me to share the wedding platform with another Christian cleric, of my own or a different denomination, but it will be a first time for me to do so with a minister of another faith!

Forty one years ago, newly wed myself, I attended two college friends' wedding, in Bristol University's Catholic Chaplaincy. He an Anglican, she a Catholic. Such thing was quite unusual in those days, an ecumenical innovation, in the light of Vatican II, recently finished. Both were devout. The Chaplain offered a Nuptial Mass as part of the service, but neither of them received Communion, because at that time the new pastoral directions offering such a concession were not in place. And she wouldn't communicate without him also being able to communicate. But they both wanted a Mass to take place, and this was the compromise that was acceptable.

Here we are a couple of generations on from there. 'Ecumenical' now comes naturally, unless hard-line fundamentalist Christians are around. Nowaways, interfaith is becoming less of a novelty, but for the most part inter-faith marriages made are celebrated in a secular context. So this particular occasion is unusual, and something of an innovation. I never did anything like this in seven years of ministering in multi-faith, multi-cultural St Paul's Bristol.

Neither of the couple would consider themselves to be regular worshippers in either tradition. They value religious custom and tradition, but they have their own take on spiritual heritage and making their vows in religious ceremonies is of utmost importance to them. It's not Communion they renounce faced with an inflexible authoritarian institution, like my friends did, but the demand religious communities and institutions make of constant commitment.

I wonder what it will be like for this young couple when it comes to raising children to share their different cultures and values? What kind of community will they make, or want to belong to?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Seen from space - last year

It's not hard to be a fan of Google Earth, but it was embarrassing to check out Cardiff as I did when the program was first distributed, in the summer of 2005, and find that much of the Bay was still a building site - no Millennium Centre, and brownfield sites where I knew there were apartment blocks. My esteemed predecessor's car was shown outside the Vicarage, and he'd already been retired and moved away three years by then.

I enquired of the Council if anyone knew why Google should show Cardiff as it was in 2000 during in its centenary year. Nobody knew. Did PR and Marketing know or care? Strange in such an image conscious city.

The 2000 Cardiff Google image persisted until a couple of weeks ago.

When I re-checked following a fresh install of Google Earth on a new computer on 16th October, There was no change. But, when I looked again tonight at last I found there'd been an update!

Now the Millennium Centre and the Senedd, as seen from space are visible for the world to see. However, if you move north to the city centre, Oxford House and the central car parks are still standing. Only the Ice Rink buildings have been demolished, dating the images to the last week of September 2006.

Why did it take so long to get Google's images of Cardiff up to last autumn? Will it ever be (nearly) up to date?