Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Sunday

Christmas night, feeling no longer feverish, and having nothing better to do, I ventured to watch TV for the first time in a while. I find TV saps far more energy than Radio and only when I'm well rested can I give it attention for anything more than the length of the news. Having only heard the hype and seen the merchandise for 'Pirates of the Caribbean', I thought it might be suitable light entertainment. Well, it wasn't. I'm amazed that a Disney badged product can project as hero a character who is arbitrary, self-centred, amoral without conscience, vain and camp. Is the stuff of family entertainment? Propaganda for all the worst of vices. And, of course violent, playing to the theme of redemption by violence. Waste of an evening. I should have just gone to sleep early.

Yesterday was another day of letting nature take its course, and enjoying the best of Radio 4. There was an outstanding afternoon play "Tom and Viv", by Michael Hastings about the tragic and tortured marriage of poet T.S. Eliot to a woman with bi-polar disorder. The intense dialogue revealed skilfully just how impossible a relationship can become in the face of this mental illness, whose diagnosis and treatment was far from adequate until the late twentieth century. I was a bit surprised that the broadcast didn't conclude with that characteristically bland Public Service announcement "If you have been affected by any of the issues raised by this play, please contact this number..." But then it is Christmas. I hope it gets repeated.

Today, I was relieved to feel well enough to get up and go to church, although the virus is far from defeated - it's one of the strains which recur when you think they're done. I just caught the end of Clive James' masterly 'Point of View' essays before the nine o'clock news. It was a wonderful testimony to Jesus, from a self-confessed atheist and unbeliever, considerate and insightful. We heard the whole thing on iPlayer when we got back from church, and I read the text - what a marvellous information service the BBC provides. It deserves much reflection. His account of the rise of humanism and the decline of belief in the afterlife was interesting, if flawed but his account of the centrality of Christ for all humankind is impressive. It shows how a deep thinking secular man engages in wrestling with the question first posed by St Mark in his Gospel: 'Who is this man?'

It was good to return to leading worship once more. Everyone was so kind and understanding, also proud of having continued to offer worship and welcome people without their priest. All I could say was how much I appreciated being part of them. We came home, and Clare prepared a special Christmas dinner for me, with turkey leftovers from Kenilworth. Owain came over and joined us. A very special moment to savour. Then, it was back to church for a wedding rehearsal in preparation for a lunchtime ceremony tomorrow. After that, I was ready to curl up quietly for the rest of the day and continue with the recovery process.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day already

Christmas Day in all its manifestations was for me a non-event, just a matter of lying there and enduring, letting my body fight the battle against the virus, rather than my ego. I just had to accept that if I'm too sick to walk without stumbling, with my voice reduced to a feeble croak, there was nothing to do but accept the situation and trust the St John's community to deal with a 'no-priest' crisis on one of the year's holiest nights and days. Too late to call upon clerical reserves - what reserves? We're in the middle of 'down-sizing'. It will only get worse. Only churches which understand the priestly nature of their faith-community - being a people who hold themselves before God in prayer for and with others. They just know what to do at the right time. So, I'm confident the remaining services all went off well, and look forward to the detailed reports. I'm reminded of the RC liturgical folk hymn of the '70s which starts

'In this sacred mystery, we praise the Lord of history
in the Eucharistic feast, we all are priests'

Being too woozy of brain to read the Divine Offices of the day since Tuesday (a feast of lovely poetic texts at this time of year), I found that not too many other words of prayer came to mind as a substitute. But, I had plenty of silence and solitude in my quarantine, and the consolation of wan sunlight bathing the peaceful Square outside with bright patches and long tree trunk shadows. All I could do was continue to entrust myself to the Divine Life at work as ever and be patient.

Just writing this reminds me of Celandine, my lovely godmother, whose anniversary falls just now. One of the treasures she shared with me in her last year was the poem which St Teresa of Avila had inscribed in her breviary. Celandine had found it on a bookmark and treasured these words, occasionally writing them on the back of a Christmas card to encourage me when she sensed from my Christmas missive that I was finding things a bit tough. Longfellow's translation from the Spanish runs

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.

It doesn't take much to point people back to God. It's amazing how few get around to it, even those with faith. I was most privileged to have her to remember, on this day when we say 'heaven and earth are one in rejoicing'.

Enough. Time to rest.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

O Emmanuel

Two rather unpleasant fluey days have passed in rest and quietness, with only small improvement to show for it. I've to cancel my plans to take communion out to Hilda, Angela and Peggy tomorrow, also the early evening Eucharist at school. I've also postponed a wedding rehearsal until Sunday, leaving me with just three big services to survive. That will be possible because of the help and support of regular ministry team members. The individual communion are less easy to arrange cover for at short notice, but at least I can get messages to the people concerned. It just remains to be seen how much voice I have tomorrow - all the more reason to be sure to pick up re-chargeable batteries and get them 'cooked' in good time.

Today's news reports that reported incidences of 'flu are up 75% on last year, first jump in 8 years. Not epidemic, but the pundits say we're overdue for a pandemic, and that global warming is one of the cocktail of factors that will make this inevitable. With more than half the world's population living in crowded urban conditions, poor and rich alike will be caught up in a pandemic almost as quick as the news spreads around the world - because of our high speed mass mobility. How much we all love our jaunts by 'plane to far-off places. Yet, this adds to global warming as it does to disease transmission. It's like we're sleepwalking to our doom.

Aleem Maqbool has been spending the past ten days walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the steps of Mary and Joseph, with a succession of donkeys - it's recommended reading on Palestine and Israel from the inside by an outsider documented on the BBC website. Aleem is a Brit. Muslim? Not sure. He hasn't really declared himself, which is probably just as well, as his blog, pictures and video footage are there for every nutter or both sides to view. So far the Israeli security forces have looked after him, albeit with a degree of curiosity about his mission, and he is telling stories from every angle, either side of the security divide. It's been a journey through lonely difficult places with encounters on the way, before arriving at the commercialised heart of it all. Where's Emmannuel now? We may well wonder. Still in the quiet and lonely places, still ready to welcome those whose hearts are open, and ready to receive power to become God's children, born of the Spirit. Everything else changes, but this much doesn't.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

O lurgi horribilis

It's not one of the antiphons of the week before Christmas, but a not uncommon experience about this time of year - 'flu, cold, bronchitis. I don't get sick all that often but when I go down, I go down hard. It started in the night, and I managed to get through till lunchtime, then went to bed for the afternoon, cancelled the school service and went in for the nine lessons and carols service, knowing that I could just about cope with the few things I had to do with my voice rapidly becoming inaudible. It would just be tonight that the wireless microphone batteries delivered less and less of anything audible to add to the situation. Time to buy some new re-chargeables.

I've got two days to get over this, then it's Christmas Eve. Not sure that I'll re-charge in two days. This is what I hate about working on my own - nobody to hand over to quietly and smoothly if anything goes wrong, just a lot of fuss and inconvenience for others having to arrange last minute cover, already an increasingly difficult thing to do with months of notice.

The new baby Jesus has survived so far. The figure has a black face and swaddling clothes that resemble an old romper suit. An image of a poor child. Just think, if there was another outrage, one could add race hatred to religious hatred as charges against the perpetrator. By the time the investigating officer contacted me about the first assault, the second had occurred. At least I had the pleasure of delivering the 'evidence' of the bottle and can thrown into the stable on the two different occasions, along with my own photos. Just to let them know that we take these things seriously even if they don't. The CCTV camera 50 feet from the scene is steadfastly pointed down Trinity Street away from where evidence might have been gathered.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Radix Jesse

Yesterday started well enough with both Fr Roy Doxsey and I arriving at Tredegarville school in plenty of time to set things up for the end of term school Eucharist. It was when we took out places at the altar to begin the service in fron of the assembled school that things unravelled. I'd sent the order of service to school for photocopying in an emailed .pdf file as I have done many times before. This time, however, it had been incorrectly photocopied and the pages were so much out of order that it was un-followable, and this threw us both. It took what seemee like an age, probably ten minutes to reduce two copies to single pages, number and staple them back together in order to obtain one fair copy for Roy to lead the service from.

Meanwhile, the children and staff were wonderful, and some children sang nicely until we were sorted. The moral of the story is - always be sure to deliver a hard copy well in advance, with full copying instructions appended, or risk the worst. Everything went smoothly once we were ready. Staff and children know most of the texts used off by heart anyway, but the leadership needed to be fully in control of the ordering of components or everything falls apart. As clergy we use a lot of familiar texts, and even the seasonal texts are hardly unfamiliar, but when combined into a special service, there has to be a clear navigational map or else ... ! It sheds a new light on why God's first creative act in the first chapter of Genesis is to bring order to the watery chaos.

Much chastened by the experience, I went on from school to St John's for the noon Eucharist, followed by the 'quiet' wedding of a couple, new to Cardiff, and without any friends or family in their adopted city to support them, apart from their toddler son. The groom was from the Caribbean and the bride from Eastern Europe. I arranged for a couple of members of the church congregation to act as witnesses. Another couple of members also attended. Pauline hunted down a bottle of bubbly and some goodies, so that we could toast their health after the service. They were not expecting this and were a little overwhelmed at the unsolicited attention. For them getting married was a time commitment that had to be inserted into their busy business day, processing internet sale orders. They are working hard together to make a new life, and marriage was a part of this endeavour for them. A brave move. And we wanted to encourage them, be their church substitute family. It just seemed so natural to those who rallied around. I felt very proud of our 'little flock'.

The BBC rang up and asked for a brief interview for their tea-time radio programme. They had a reporter with portable studio gear plugged into the landline they installed decades ago in one of the small churchyard enclosures at the east end. I found him standing in the enclosure, furnished with a brolly in case it rained, feeding live interviews occasionally into the studio. Nick, the chair of Cardiff Licensed Victuallers Association was about to be interviewed when I arrived to check things out. Like so many others, he expressed his sympathy and concern about the crib vandalism. This, and the ransacking of Santa's Grotto on Churchill Way on Wednesday night has touched a raw nerve. Mothers at school this morning were talking about their childrens' dissappointment at the prospect of not seeing Santa. Happily, all those involved in running the Grotto succeeded in getting things up and running again the following day. The good news takes longer to percolate through however, because of the emotional fog raised by the bad news.

Both these assaults on places in the public realm were aimed at things concerning the world of the child. Whoever the culprits are, their actions were calculated to cause outrage and reveals something about them. Anyone whose actions threaten, injure or deprive children, whether in the real or virtual worlds - destroying images of childhood is akin to destructive effect of images of children being abused - is projecting their own experience of childhood suffering on to others. They must be stopped. They also need help.

After my brief interview, I returned home for supper. I was pleased to discover the the switch from Tesco to Talktalk broadband had gone seamlessly, and that I now have a faster service for less total outlay. The only thing I am not impressed with is the alliance of Talk Talk with AOL for webmail services, with its busy crowded inelegant home page, and inability to download mail to my third party email client, Thunderbird. Helpful instructions to download mail using Outlook Express are provided, but the forums carry complaints that this only works inconsistently, which ties one to webmail and the constant nagging and flashing of adverts and superfluous news bytes accompanying. No doubt, this subsidises the cost of the service. It's a service I can do without. I'll stick with Google Mail, which doesn't flash at you and is nag free.

At ten o'clock, I went back into the drizzle soaked city centre to see how Black Friday was working out for the police and ambulance services. " 'PC rain' is on our team tonight" said Inspector Tony Bishop, grinning broadly when I passed him on the Kingsway. Queues outside clubs seemed to be quite short, and there were few outdoor drinkers. Those standing in the damp were either queuing for taxis or puffing at cigarettes. There were lots of police and their vehicles in evidence, and several ambulances on standby. I was impressed at the fiery demeanour of a diminutive young Woman Police Officer, who charged across the road shouting a 'cease and desist' order at a man who had unzipped his flies in order to urinate in a doorway. He was a good head taller than her, and standing two steps above her at the time. His compliance was meek and hurried. There were too many other policemen standing within earshot, watching, to plead his incontinence.

The St John's Ambulance HQ under the Stadium was not especially busy, so the atmosphere was relaxed and cordial. I was greeted like one of the family, undeservingly - I don't give nearly enough quality time to supporting the first aid teams. They are a marvellous bunch, and so good with people and their ailments, injuries, for the most part alcohol related on a night like this. People in fights, people poisoned by the sheer volume of drinks consumed, losing control of all bodily functions, as someone so dryly puts it while mopping up. One of the ambulance teams coming in from St Mary Street for a cuppa said that there were already queues outside A&E up at the Heath Hospital - presumably from those around the city making their own ways there.

It was quarter to one when I finally wound my way home through streets. Pubs were closed and cleaning up, but the clubs were still going strong. The hour after they close, things will get busy again and the casualties surge. Gaggles of men or women were wandering between venues. A notable number of them were in sodden Santa outfits. Most guys were in shirt sleeves, and the girls bulging out of standard skimpy attire. Superman was on his mobile in a shop doorway, and a legionary strode passed me as I went into Greyfriars. One of the big selling fashion outlets was brightly lit up and taking deliveries from a huge van. In front of an empty shop next door, a team were doling out soup and sympathy to passers by. A down and out with a dog was stationed in close proximity to Lloyds' cash machines, taking advantage of the fact that the police presence was focussed a few blocks away.

Another night of 'leisure' in the life of a city.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

O Adonai

I arrived at church for the Eucharist this morning to discover that baby Jesus was missing from his bed of straw in the outdoor nativity scene. No further damage done, but an empty Carling can was parked carefully at the feet of one of the Kings - another message of contempt from the worshippers of alcoholic excess who are allowed to rule our city's streets at night.

During my commute to Kenilworth I heard a radio programme about a Scottish experiment in selected cities which monitored weekend crime before during and after a period in which the sale of alcohol in all local retail outlets was restricted to over 21's Friday and Saturday nights between 5.00 and 10.00pm. There was apparently a very significant drop in alcohol related youth crime during the ban. More permanent measures along these lines are now being contemplated by the Scottish government. Is this anti-youth? Well, it appears that alcohol related crime is disproportionately high among young people, over and above under-aged drinking. It's only a minority who behave like this, but they have significant impact. They behave like this because they are suffering, often from a lack of healthy family support, suffering from the spiritual vacuum created by a world in which consumerism and materialism dominate. Loneliness, low self esteem, lack of interest and appreciation shown by elders towards the younger. - how easy it is to fall back on alcohol or drugs as the only reliable remedy for the aching void within.

It's black Friday tomorrow. The Friday before Christmas. Office and works parties all across town, thousands drinking to excess, going wild, being sick or misbehaving. It only remains to be seen whether the credit crunch tempers booze spending, or whether it's business as usual.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

O Sapientia

I took time out yesterday evening to go up to Kenilworth and watch my grand daughter Rhiannon take part in the Reception Class nativity pageant, dressed as an angel this morning. The Parish primary school is the nearest school, just a short walk from where they live. My daughter Kath remarked how glad she was that Rhiannon had been able to get a place there, and experience the church's story telling as part of their learning. Rhiannon's friends in state schools don't have nativity plays or carol services like this.

It was an enchanting experience, worth the journey - both ways in the dark, but it was just slightly strange to me, as the children in a middle England middle class church school are less diverse than those in our Tredegarville church school - not a hijab in sight. Having worked in multi-racial and inter-faith settings for thirty five years, this is what I'm used to and take great delight in. The standards of teaching and pastoral care are similar in both schools, thankfully. But, there's something special about children growing up in an environment where experience of the world outside the local community starts, not on the classroom walls, but in the faces at desks around you.

There's no doubt that it can be challenging and difficult teaching children to live together with their differences, especially where one of the key differences is the deprivation some experience, where others don't. How good it is that there are so many church schools, well placed in multi-cultural settings, to be at the forefront of building community in diversity, open to the world. In a way that's what the catholicity of the church is all about in real practice

Monday, December 15, 2008

At church on the street

After the main Eucharist this morning, at which Ben preached his second sermon, creditably, there was a hundred strong gathering of worshippers from the City Temple outside St John's in Working Street. They'd decided to hold their main service outdoors among the shoppers as an act of public witness, and had obtained official permission to do so. The occasion was just right, as the sky was blue and the sun shining brightly in the still crisp late morning air.

We arranged for them to have a power supply form the church boiler house for a keyboard and public address system, and this worked well without being overbearing and intrusive. Musical accompaniment was jazzy and the carols went with a swing. Stewards distributed carol leaflets, and gave out little chocolates to passers by, sharing the good hearted cheer. It introduced an element joy and festivity to the streets, as they grew busier with the arrival of shoppers.

Ben and I went out and joined them, when we'd finished in church. It was interesting the see the mixture of reactions from passers by - from joining in, to outright rejection and annoyance. The 'animation' of the event was affirmative, full of genuine confidence, nothing tentative about it. It included a gritty testimony from a converted ex-drug addict. I felt they succeeded in addressing ordinary people with tone of the event, demonstrating that living a committed Christian life does make a difference. Chatting with their leaders afterwards, happy at the turnout and the way it had been received, I discovered that going on the streets en masse was something they did rarely. I'd like to think that they were encouraged by this initiative to repeat the event.

There was no doubt that this community was there promoting the blessings of a life of Christian faith for ordinary people. It was so different from every other kind of promotional activity that is hosted by the city centre streets - driven by the heart, rather than by the bottom line of the balance sheet.

In the later services of the day I got to re-read the Bishops' Advent Three letter appealing for vocations to Ministry and support for training. It was also striving to motivate members to recognise what vocation is all about - but it was all aimed at the intellect - you could say that it's what we Anglicans do best. But does it have to be the only thing? Would that we were as good at telling inspiring stories of faith as our pentecostal neighbours!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Repeat performance

Tesco has been 'upgrading' its services - or so we were told at the end of last month. What this has meant in practice is unreliable, intermittent broadband access, particularly poor often non-existent in the evenings. It's felt more like down-grading, which is perhaps more a reflection of my impatience with something I rely on for easy communications. After a week, sheer frustration convinced me to finally make the effort to ditch Tesco and switch to free broadband with my Talk Talk phone account. What will I do if that turns out to be just as unreliable? All these marketed services make inflated claims for themselves. It's a matter of finding out which has the least disparity between promise and delivery.

Talking of communication, the BBC website yesterday reported that Archbishop Rowan was to be the guest of Solace pub church late Saturday morning, talking about God, just 200 yards around the corner from St John's. It was the first I'd heard of it. Managing media expectations of church leaders these days seems to take priority over ensuring that local followers know and understand what's going on. This makes it hard to give a helpful account to anyone asking about something happening in their own vicinity. It confines everyone apart from the 'in-crowd' to being passive consumers of church 'news'. It's the second time in two years that I've learned about Rowan's pastoral activities in 'my patch' from public media sources. As one of the faithful said with familiar resignation : "Just typical isn't it?"

Archbishop Barry is not obliged to tell me when he's working on 'my patch'. First and foremost, it's his patch. I'm licensed to share his 'cure of souls' where I am placed. However, it would just be nice to know, personally rather than from public propaganda machines when something involving any prominent church leader is happening on the doorstep. It's less embarrassing than having to say "I didn't know..." and sounding like an idiot to those who don't really know what the church is like. My seventy six year old sister said she was shocked to learn that I too had found out about this visit from the BBC. It's not how she thought church operated.

When I talk about 'my patch', I acknowledge such a notion has lost meaning today, despite clerics with eclectic congregations who still speak as if one can consider oneself has having pastoral responsibility towards everyone who lives in 'your parish', whether they accept it, like it or not. It doesn't work like that. We can only serve those who will gather with us, and minister to those who accept what we offer.

The Bishop licenses a cleric to be his representative and delegate in a geographical area. This has definitive clarity in relation to anything involving legislation - the cleric's role as Officiating Minister at weddings of anyone living in the parish, or managing churches and churchyards. No cleric can oblige parishioners to attend their Parish church for worship. The faithful are free to choose where and how they will exercise their allegiance.

However, there remains in Anglican pastoral ministry tradition a strong sense of place, of a cleric being planted sin a place with a duty to serve community building in all its forms, to know and be known by people as a familiar point of reference, as someone knowing the history, remembering the stories, people and events that have shaped the place and its personality. At one time the local police constable, the schoolmaster, the GP, the chemist and the postmaster fulfilled a similar role and were part of what bound community together. Nowadays, most of these professionals on whom community cohesion relies don't live where they work, and move jobs more often. Clergy move more frequently, and serve clientele from far and wide, but still feel a sense of ownership in relation to affairs in the area where they are based. What good does it serve the church, to leave locals committed to a place out of the information loop on special occasion involving our leaders?

Living alongside each other, knowing and being known over long periods of time builds community, builds church from bottom to top. We have to work at this, be aware of and uphold all new community and faith building initiatives in every context. Good for Rowan, for taking an interest in Cardiff's pub church. But not so good that it's packaged by his entourage in ways that fail to take into account the rest of the faithful out there on the ground, striving to maintain the witness to God in the same area.
It's not much of a way to unite the church behind the successors of the Apostles.

Friday, December 12, 2008

'Then the poor man came in sight ..'

This morning before the Eucharist thirty children from Tredegarville school came over and sang carols in the churchyard, much to the pleasure of people passing in the streets or entering the church. It was a cold and damp morning, though not as cold as the same occasion last year, as I recall. It took the opportunity to take some video footage, including a 'Wish you a merry Christmas' greeting to add to the collection I'm now posting on Google video. I've done an easy access web-page of links to the videos.

Raymond appeared in the Tea Room first thing, looking ill and smelling incontinent. He'd been absent since last Friday, save for a brief appearance on Tuesday. Last Friday he was also feeling ill and I urged him to go to hospital, and seek treatment. On Tuesday he said he'd quit hospital out at Llandough "sick of lying about waiting for something to be done" as he put it. In reality, he was penniless and took a taxi into town to pick up his weekly over the counter benefit payment from the DHSS. With nothing to pay for his ride, the driver had taken him to Central Police Station, which somehow dealt with it without locking him up.

On Tuesday he was shorn of his top coat and not carrying his usual bag, suggesting that he had walked out of hospital without discharging himself. Tuesday and Wednesday were so cold, I wondered what had happened to him. He was kitted out as usual this morning, suggesting he had returned to pick up his belongings and discharge himself, but after a night back in Tresillian House he was evidently worse for wear. He's a quiet surreptitious spirits drinker, who doesn't eat properly and is making himself sicker and sicker. He has a damaged knee which may need surgery and refuses to let this be treated if it involves anaesthetics, of which he has an instinctive fear, and flees whenever this is proposed to him.

I spent half an hour with him, again urging him to go back and get treatment. He's a man who only bows to extreme necessity. He said next Friday is his 60th birthday and invited me to the Prince of Wales pub for a drink. I wonder if he will make it. He is sick, needy, and stubbornly determined to live his meagre existence on his own terms. He can be shrewd and even smart playing the system on times, but is otherwise his own worst enemy.

How would I be, if I was in his situation, with so much sadness and betrayal underlying his air of resignation and quiet despair?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Community bonding

It was such a pleasure to pop into Tredegarville School this morning to see part of the Infants nativity presentation, with lots of singing, dressing up and jigging about. The kids just looked so happy and natural to be up on stage in such a playful mood together. It says a great deal for their teachers that 4-5 year olds are so secure and confident, especially when some of them have a great deal of difficulty settling into school, from home backgrounds which are not quite to secure and confident.

Pedagogy increasingly has to compensate for poor parenting, and grasping the need to do this on the part of schools is indeed laudable and makes teaching so much more demanding. What will improve matters greatly will be the extension of community social education facilities in and around the school. Language and parenting classes for adults are vital add-ons in many urban schools. This stretches the physicial resources of the school to the limit. However, it looks as if the school will be able to make a deal that will release the now empty caretakers house on site for development as a community educational centre on-site, using Communities First Funding. he plan is in its early stages, but to a hard pressed and crowded school team, there is light on the horizon after a long wait.

We had over 250 people in church for a carol service this evening, the second time this week. Tonight it was the turn of the Priory of St John Ambulance to welcome friends and members. It got off to a somewhat shaky start, as the Prior and one other named as lesson readers were disappointingly absent, the chief executive was home with 'flu, and Wyn Owen our star tenor soloist sent his apologies - not voiceless, but with a broken arm after a fall, since his appearance at the GTH concert last week. He was replaced by a young operatic soprano, with a fine voice who amonst other things sang Racine's 'O Holy Night' with the 'Cwm Ni' choir, much favoured on occasions like this with flawless beauty. It's the first time I've heard it sung other than by a tenor or baritone, and her singing made it very special. She was also quite modest about her considerable talent, so that I failed to register her name from the programme change announcements.

Also impressive was the childrens' choir from Garth Uchaf school, the second Welsh school choir to sing in St John's this week. The standard of both these groups, aged 6-11, was high, their behaviour and discipline impeccable, all of them a tribute to their parents, teachers, and the quality of education which is a much a hallmark of Welsh language medium schools as it is of church schools. It's the sacrificial commitment to give the very best to children, to show them what they can be and become, through praise, encouragement and much stretching, which admits no room to time-serving place-holders in the world of pedagogy. Long may they continue to be exemplary to the wider world of secular state education.

Despite the setbacks, good will and humour from all the subsitutes meant that the evening turned out to be happy and successful, an important occasion for bonding amongst members and supporters of such a substantial organisation - and in many ways, that's what that counts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Inter-faith report launched.

The Wales Inter-faith network launched its report on the Welsh scene - work funded by CDF, as was the Spiritual Capital research we did earlier in the year. The launch was held in the Senedd, with a lunch on the Lightship afterwards. I took Ben with me to give him the kind of experience of city ministry which he might not otherwise obtain elsewhere. We were welcomed by Mohammed Asgar AM, and Assembly Minister Brian Gibbons Spoke, as did Cardiff's Mayor, Kate Lloyd, and Robina Samuddin, an impressive young Muslim member of Cardiff Inter-faith.

I guess the purposes of such an occasion is to promote the value of building a community of understanding and interest between different faith communities and their members. That's a valid thing to do in its own right, as long as that's not seen as an end in itself. Faith communities all have important insights into life in the modern world drawn from the teaching and spirituality, and these need to be shared, not only among the religiously enquiring, but with all those who share in shaping the policies and directions civil society is taking into the future. Our local Spiritual Capital venture flagged this us, but simply hasn't been able to go far enough to sustain the process so far - but then I am very impatient, aware of how much I would like to have achieved by the time I retire in about eighteen months from now.

I would like to see faith communities in Cardiff and in wider Wales establishing new ways to express whatever consensus they can reach on tackling issues like climate change, poverty and deprivation (at home and abroad), and social inclusion (challenging racist, and anti-religious elements attempts to hi-jack the secular social agenda). The question of how to break new ground, when people involved seem to believe that enough is being done, is something of a preoccupation for me these days.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A partial picture

This afternoon I conducted for the Tuesday Group a special Advent service of reflection on the Great 'O' antiphons and the scriptures behind them - the images and poetry of hope in the coming of the Messiah. Taken from the riches of the ancient Divine Office, and woven into our Advent hymnody by Victorian divines with a deep cultural awareness of tradition, this material is part of what gets lost as common public memory of bible and hymnody weakens and fades. Tuesday Group members are of a generation brought up familiar with the Bible in a way that was already beginning to weaken when I was young. It would be good to find a way to deliver the same material to a much younger audience.

This evening was taken up with the annual Kidney Wales Foundation celebration of Christmas, This year we had a full house because the much media exposed choir 'Only Men Aloud' were taking part. And not only these fine guys, but also CF1, another local mixed choir with a fabulous way of doing spirituals and Gospel songs that really rocks the roof, and a thirty strong Welsh Primary School choir who not only sang well but were beautifully behaved and disciplined in a way that did nothing to inhibit their enthusiasm. It was otherwise very much a traditional lessons and carols event, with hymns and readings taken at a brisk pace, rather too brisk for me, but clearly to the satisfaction of everyone else present.

It's good that people are still willing to take part and hear the stories connected with Christ's birth read publicly, but inevitably the rich diet of scriptural material is reduced to seven or eight much repeated substantial narratives. The way things are nowadays, the story told is divorced from its foundations in Christian scriptural teaching. So it's no wonder that opinion poll surveys reveal a level of ignorance and imcomprehension about the deeper meaning of the message. What we do is better than nothing, but not really good enough.

Roy and Lynne, recently back from their first visit to Jerusalem presented me with a finely embroidered white Jerusalem stole. I shall wear it for the first time at the two December weddings I have coming up. Roy and Lynne were married two years ago at St John's on December 1st, and celebrated their second anniversary with a blessing in St George's Jerusalem - a place full of special memories for me. Even more so now that I have digitised all my photos from visits there in 1998 and 2000.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Day of resurrection

At the end of the morning Eucharists, there had been no visit to the scene of crime by anyone from the police, even though I met two local Community Support Officers yesterday and told them what had happened. They promised then, when we met at two in the afternoon, to check that an investigating officer had been assigned to make a visit. After all, we wanted to clear the damage and make things look presentable again. Faced with the mess, Pauline and I were bothered about doing nothing at all, as it looked so distressing to passers-by.

Brief discussion convinced us that it was right to get on with the job, carefully bagging the 'evidence' of the discarded alcopop bottle, to pass on if anyone did bother to contact us or just showed up from Central Police Station some time, and collect in the broken pieces to see if anything could be done with them.

One of Pauline's spare time interests is collecting Beswick china horses. She often buys damaged ones from eBay and does effective repairs on them. She was keen to see if she could do anything with the scores of tiny shards and bigger pieces, which had laid unexamined on the ground in the locked churchyard for thirty six hours.

When I arrived for evensong, she was there already, grinning with triumph. "Easy, all done and back in place", she said "Baby Jesus was only decapitated. It was the crib that shattered and took the force of the blow." I went to inspect, and was delighted to see that the figurine was resplendent on a bed of real straw lining a small brown papier-maché tray, such as supermarkets use to sell food products. If anything, it looked even better like this. Everyone at church shared the pleasure of the moment. "We couldn't let them win, could we?" She added, before we turned our thoughts to prayer.

You can't tell that the figure of Jesus is broken, lying there. But the story of the last 36 hours adds something extra, powerful and symbolic, to the meaning of this image of His birth.

I texted Steve from City Centre management when I got home from church to tell him the good news. Since we last spoke yesterday, he'd been in touch with Norman Sayer, Cardiff and South Wales' eminent local providor of roundabouts and big wheels for special occasions, to see if he could help with an emergency figurine. It turned out that Norman employs a professional model maker, as there's always repair work of this kind needed in fair-land. He was happy to offer to get a replacement figurine made. Someone else emailed me overnight in addition, and offered to pay for a new figurine. How quickly evil can be overcome by good!

There are times when it is impossible to see how any good can be drawn from evil situations. A small experience of this kind is what keeps the dynamo of hope turning over and shedding light in darkness.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Nativity vandalised

As I was preparing to leave for church to have another go at sorting out the office computer, prior to the lunchtime 'Oriana' concert, I had a phone call from Pauline to say that the nativity scene in the north tower churchyard had been vandalised overnight. The figure of baby Jesus in his crib had been wrenched from its mounting and smashed into smithereens against the step. A half drunk bottle of alcopop had been discarded on the ground in front of the crib - a calling card? I wondered. This bottle was the first piece of rubbish discarded in this churchyard in the three weeks since the crib was erected, contrary to pessimistic expectations of some people around the place. Well, we'll see what the police have to say about fingerprints and DNA on the bottle in question. I reported the incident immediately, with just this in mind. And then I emailed the Media Wales newsroom.

That the figure of Jesus had been smashed and all other figures left intact is disturbing. This wasn't an arbitary attack by someone out of control. The culprit had to make the effort to climb over five foot spiked railings to get at the crib, as the gate was chained. Not easy, and a risky thing to do on one's own. Earlier in the day the 'Echo' had reported on Denzil John's 'Prayer for Binge Drinkers', and mentioned the service of crib blessing on Thursday night at which it was first used. Was this act a response to the article from someone reluctant to express their opinion and debate openly with Christians expressing their concern about the culture of excess and debauchery?

We're rather used to passing off such acts as being simple minded yobbery and high spirits. I say it bears the marks of a religious hate crime. Christianity is routinely mocked and derided in public. Advocates of the abolition of all religion do well from book sales and media appearances. Attacks on clerics and others, also places of worship of all faith communities are on the increase. Government legislation introduced on religious hate crimes is applicable across the board in relation to all faith communities. It's not a crime to think. But when alcohol or drugs loosens inhibition, hostile attitudes turn into actions, and outrages happen.

One thing was evident to me as a stood and surveyed the scene. Passers-by of all ages were shocked and angered. Regardless of the offence intended to religious people, there is something particularly offensive about smashing the image of an innocent helpless child - coming as it does in the weeks following the 'Baby P' case and the trial of the abductors of Shannon Matthews. This is not childish or adolescent naughtiness, it is much darker, revealing that just under the surface of our popular happily permissive tolerant culture, dangerous elements of ill-will are breeding, contemptuous of anything that seeks to nuture good-will, trust and respect.

When discussing all this with people in church before the concert, it was clear that this wasn't the first time in their long experience that something like this had happened, and been recovered from. "Never mind", said Dr. Percy, expressing his happy anticipation of the coming feast; "He'll be here again before long whatever else happens." That gave me an idea. Having managed to sort out the computer, I printed a notice to hang on the stable gable.

"Despite his enemies - Jesus is coming again very soon."

Meanwhile, the city centre management team has been informed of what happened, and will be on the case, acquiring a replacement figurine when business opens on Monday. Pauline will have a go at piecing together the broken bits of the baby pro tem. Already this is taking on a symbolic life of its own. These anti-religious fools just don't seem to understand - you can't kill a real story, about a real person, a good story, a story of good overcoming evil. And at a time like this, we need to remember this.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Nativity blessing

Yesterday, my good neighbour Pastor Denzil John of Tabernacle Baptist sent me a copy of a prayer he'd written, a prayer of intercession for those caught up in binge drinking. It was opportune to include this in a brief order of service devised for tonight's blessing of the outdoor nativity scene, along with prayers for the homeless. Then, this morning I emailed a copy with explanation to one of the 'Echo' reporters who takes an interest in city centre affairs, and soon got a positive response, with a request for Denzil's contact details. The thought of getting a little publicity for our brief ecumenical Christmas act of worship and witness was irresitible. And Denzil, as it turned out, was pleased to be asked.

When it came time to leave home to go to church, I couldn't find my backpack with my bike lights in, so I had to walk briskly, being unwilling to risk riding unlit on an evening when there were hundreds of cars and people in the avenue between home and church, assembling for the start of the Wales stage of the GB Motor Rally. Such a miscalculation made me late, and the band was not a little fed up at the delay in getting into church to warm up and have a cuppa, but we were able to start on time nevertheless.

About two dozen people representing all the churches, thankfully, arrived to join with the band of Grangetown Salvation Army Corps. No press - but I didn't really expect this at such short notice. I just want people around the city to know what we're doing, and take encouragement from it. As we began, the rain fell and the wind blew, so after the opening hymn and crib blessing, we retired inside the church tower base, which was just sufficient to accommodate the band and the congregation, for the remainder of the service.

Just as Captain Eric Smith began to read the nativity Gospel, that 'prehistoric garbage truck' (to quote Mark Knopfler) arrived for its noisy evening round, and stopped right outside while the wheelie bins were brought to it. Then a food delivery truck arrived and there was a fair amount of annoyed beeping and manouvering that went on, just twenty feet from where we were singing and praying, almost, but not quite, drowned out.

Then to crown it all, a lady in the corner fainted, came around, carried on singing, fainted again, and so on. I was hardly aware of this until someone called out during the singing of 'Silent Night' indicating the need for a chair, which meant going into church and hunting for one - they're all kept as far away from the door as can be - so it took longer than it need. Must remember to ensure an emergency chair is kept at the back in future. As we were nearing the end of the service, I thought it better to continue although distracted, to conclusion, rather than stop and have a situation where nobody knew what to do next or what was happening. There were several women supporting the afflicted lady, including a teenage first-aider among the Salvation Army members present - we shared their pride in this. A few minutes after we concluded, an ambulance showed up and she was taken off to hospital.

Even so, despite all the calamities of the night, we all toughed it out in a way the Salvation Army are more used to than the rest of us. We made our witness, and I managed to get some video footage to edit into another little record of a moment in our 'Season of Good Will' project. A lot more work is needed on the footage, but the rough cut is again posted on the project web page.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Encounter in faith

The Countdown 2009 board met this morning to receive updates from Focus groups. Some of them are now to be wound up have achieved their objectives. I feel as if we've only just begun to get into our stride as a faith focus group. There's so much more we need to do and progress is slowed down by the fact that many prominent faith community leaders are involved in initiatives relating to the Assembly Government, and are unwilling to give priority to city based initiatives which have a different focus and purpose.

The meeting received the draft report on city centre transport and the future of St Mary Street to be presented to the council tomorrow. The basic ideas remain unchanged - bus transport hubs distributed around the four points of the compass, linked by a free shuttle. It's a concept that meets with governmental favour. Raising the funding, especially nowaways, will be a challenge.

At the end of the afternoon I welcomed a group of sixteen women of the BME educational organisation 'Women Connect First', which came to us at the end of a day's tour of six places of worship belonging to Cardiff's faith communities. My task was to give them a brief introduction to Christianity and its practices. For many of them it was their first ever visit to a church, so lots of explanations of the many things social as well as religious which distinguish a church from a Mosque or a Temple were necessary.

All had noticed the outdoor nativity as they arrived and expressed their appreciation and delight to have it explained to them how Christians use images to tell the stories contained in scripture and tradition. The Muslim women of the group all knew about Mary, as he's in the Qu'ran, and also about John the Baptist to whose honour our building is dedicated, also in the Qu'ran. Even though the stories we have to tell about them are different, what we have in common is that we have stories to tell that are all part of God's story. They were a lively group, interested and full of questions.

I hope they enjoyed their session as much as I did.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tech break

The office computer has been giving us some grief since both its RAM chips died on us last week and needed replacement. A few dysfunctional days of attempting to start the computer properly in order to diagnose a problem which didn't show up at the outset resulted in killing the link with the printer using Windows XP. After replacing the RAM, despite correct procedures followed, nothing would persuade these dumb beasts to converse, under XP.

Fortunately I'd set it it up as a dual booting machine with Ubuntu Linux as an alternative, operating system. The printer works at treat in black and white, under Linux, and apparently there are colour print drivers somewhere out there in cyber-land awaiting discovery. In fact the machine flies under Linux, and is much slicker and quicker to use from start up and to surf with. There's no hanging around waiting for Windows upgrades or anti-virus updates to finish hogging resources.

Why bother with Windows? Because it's what others are used to, and nobody wants to think too much about new uses and habit changes, even if they make life more manageable. At least until I can fix XP and re-marry it to the printer, Ubuntu use in the office is obligatory for both Philip and I. I'll be happy until I need a colour printout. Poor Phil is not happy with the extra effort required to learn to navigate the different desktop layout. There's not enough time for this, especially now at one of the busiest times of year.

It was super to take a break from all this, going to the Tuesday Fellowship Christmas Lunch at the Whitchurch Toby Carvery, and relaxing in good company for three hours in the middle of the day. It makes a change from queuing alone to snach a cheese and onion pastie at Greggs.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Piano launch

I had a meeting this morning with people from the school of media studies at Glamorgan University's Atrium to discuss collaboration on filming faith community events. I had hoped that by now we would have had a team to record some Christmas greeting videos for posting up on the BBC big screen, but neither part of this arrangement has worked out. There is, however, the future possibility of working with a student researching spirituality and the media, which should be interesting. As a result I've just got on with learning how to handle a video camera and how to edit footage. I've posted a few learner's rough cut examples on Google Video. They're accessible here

We had our first charity concert of the season tonight, in aid of the George Thomas Hospice, with about two hundred people present. We were treated to some fine singing, and some unusual modern harp music, played by Catrin Ffinch. The harp sounds wonderful in church. It's as if the place was built to cherish the sound of stringed instruments.

It was also the first outing for our new electric piano, a top of the range Roland, acquired through the generosity of a musical donor in the parish. It's an instrument of some substance, able to fill the building in the same way a grand piano does, making it very appropriate for accompanying choirs and soloists. For my taste, nothing compares to the sound of a living piano, but this instrument has the twin advantages of being portable and saving on the cost of tuning - which it never needs. In fact, the piano's tuning can be adjusted to match that of the organ, which differs from modern concert pitch. Anything that's low maintenance in church is a distinct advantage.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The new year begins

I love Advent Sunday, and the sense of a new beginning it conveys through the scriptures we read, the hymns and the prayers. We had a good turn out, around fifty adults and children for the Sung Eucharist, and by the end I felt filled with energy by the occasion, as opposed to drained - which makes a nice change.

Before the evening Carol service I took Communion to Hilda and Angela, patients in the Infirmary West Wing, and then went up to take Communion to Peggy in Cyncoed. It was dusk when I arrived and her house was in darkeness, but the front room curtains were opened and I guessed that as on other occasions when I'd calle din the afternoon, she'd gone to sleep by the fire. I was right and caught a glimpse of her through the sitting room curtains. I tapped the window and she awakened immediately, and then let me in. She's another Advent lover, and was delighted that I called. When I read to her the Gospel for the day (Mark 13:24-37) we both started smiling and ended up in laughter. It ends

Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

We were around eighty, counting those who left early, for the Advent Carol service. Philip's hard labour in putting up advertising signs for the latter interestingly brought in a dozen more young adults than we usually expect at such an event, all faces I'd not see before, and maybe just people passing through. But it's part of our vocation and mission as a church in the heart of the city to be there and welcome all who want to share in our worship, for whatever reason, as often or a seldom as they wish to come. Community grows among those who see the value of this kind of openness and sharing as a way of witness to the Good News of the One who comes.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Capturing the moment

A nice email this morning from The Church in Wales Press officer, Anna Morrell, flagging up that the Western Mail had published a supporting letter I wrote the day after last week's press launch of the 'Enough is Enough' campaign.

In this time of great caution over investment I am concerned that the dysfunctional social environment created by the binge drinking culture will deter Big Money players from moving businesses to the city region. Maybe saying it loud and often enough is the only way to get policy makers to think a little harder about the quality of life and social values which need to be embodied in the kind of public life we foster. This is not advocating repression or a neurotic puritanism, but rather recognising just how unhealthy any excessively consumptive lifestyle really is - and how bad for the business economy that can be.

The City Centre Churches Together group met tonight, and it was time to report back on all the recent developments around us. I took the video camera with me and recorded the ensemble all singing 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' and shouting 'Nadolig Llawen' together. Filming was a lot easier than getting everyone to sing and speak together, so the end result was a bit of a shambles really, but very good humoured and in the spirit of the moment. Now I've really got to set my mind to editing and web publishing this material.

If the BBC can't stream our stuff the the Big Screen, we can put it up on the web and point the world towards it. Watch this space ....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Faith and the civic agenda

We had another Faith Focus Group meeting yesterday, early evening, which for the first time brought to the table two Muslim women from the 'Women Connect First' organisation, which does great adult education work with black and ethnic minority women in the city. There was a discernable sense of delight in the meeting. We have Christian, Sikh and Hindu members, and now Muslim members, and have doubled the female representation in this 80% male group.

It was mostly a meeting to report on progress and setbacks in our publicity profile raising efforts. The Council being supportive, and the BBC failing to deliver streamed user generated video content to the big screen outside St David's Hall, as promised months ago. We agreed that it was most important to keep on making a video of photographic archive of faith community material that can be drawn upon for publicity uses in the coming year. An act of faith in the opportunities that will emerge, I guess.

There's some uncertainty about the groups future, some consideration being given higher up of bringing this focus group to an end. Members seem keen to continue to meet anyway, having found the opportunity to share on matters of common interest about public life worth the effort to maintain. Paul Mannings, our convener is convinced that group has already inputted enough of value to justify retaining it as part of a slimmed down Countdown process, right through. Well we have picked up on a few issues - notably toilets, and access to places of worship, street carers, and the place of faith groups in the public self image of the city's cultural diversity. Some of it elusive to start with, but not everything is cut and dried in something a complex as the life of an urban centre.

It's marvellous to see people of different faith convictions beginning to share a common interest in civic issues. I was reminded of the World Council of Churches missionary theological reportage back in the 1970's asserting that "the world (It's God's world) determines the agenda for mission". It turns out to be true as a basis for interfaith encounter as well.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cardiff's sense of place.

I attended an interesting workshop put on by Cardiff and Co in the Norwegian Church this afternoon, given by tourism consultant Angharad Wynne, on the subject 'A sense of Place'. She explored with us questions about what makes any place unique and special for those who visit it. Those working and living in the place may need a little exercising to focus in on how others coming in from outside experience a place in a way that makes it different from all others. Identifying this is important in any marketing strategy, and also significant in this globlised commercial culture where shops and shopping centres look the same and have much the same content in many part fo the planet.

Everyone needs a degree of familiarity in order to feel secure when they're away from home, but in order to make journeys to other places worthwhile and memorable, there has to be some sense of what is distinctive. That's the bit you tell your friends and gives them the incentive to follow in your footsteps.

This was an exercise in relation to St John's, which I did quickly and easily in my head, for we we have the evidence of visitor book comments about the beauty and peace of the building with its lovely stained glass and peacefulness in the heart of the city. We also have the evidence of people from far and wide queuing to consume home made soups, cakes and sandwiches, and welcomed by the friendly Tea Room volunteer teams, often being sent by friends, or bringing their friends to enjoy the place. We also get positive comments about the 'rogues gallery' of a century's images of former clerics, photos and art works over 200 years depicting the church from different angles. Absolutely unique. A great tourism asset, and missionary tool.

Trying to look at Cardiff objectively wasn't quite so easy. Many recent buildings looking much like others, shops like you'll find everywhere. But, the Bay Barrage has created a unique waterfront, and a new civic centre of landmark buildings, matching the Edwardian civic centre, and some of the city's Victorian buildings. The same is true of the new library, now gleaming bronze and blue in the winter sun. Memorable. SD2 is still under wraps. But when you've been around in the open topped bus and videoed them for posterity what other experience will linger?

How about, the singing during a match at the Millennium Stadium? How about a stroll through the arcades, the Castle, Bute Park? What about the municipally undervalued city market? Ashton's Fish stall? The City Arms. The Vulcan? Just a handful of places serve really indigenous food, and I'm not talking about 'chip alley', Caroline Street. All these were mentioned in discussion of the Cardiff sense of place. St John's too. But interestingly, Cardiff accent and lingo were mentioned, and also the spontaneous way in which people converse with strangers at bus stops, and are warm, friendly and helpful. Cardiff character - and it knows no ethnic divisions among the older generations. The younger tend to be more tribal. Hopefully they'll grow out of it.

Yes, the city's got a lot to distinguish it from others, as well as more of the ubiquitous sameness of modern trade. Getting the balance right is the big challenge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What if 'Enough' was 'Too much' ?

I'm delighted to report that baby Jesus has been turned around in the outdoor nativity scene to face the Owain Glyndwr. The recumbent figure has wide open arms, to embrace the world, symbolically, in the old tradition of Christ child images. It's not exactly great art - at a cursory glance it looks as if the Babe of Bethlehem is stretched out sun bathing on top of a bird's nest. Maybe that will incite the curiosity of some. I'm also glad to report that the third king has shown up. No doubt I'll hear the story of the late arrival some time in the coming week.

Captain Eric Smith, bandmaster of the Grangetown Salvation Army Corps emailed me in response to my including him in an ecumenical round-robin announcing the 'Enough is Enough' campaign web-site sign up. "I couldn't sign up" he reported wryly; "There was no button to register a total abstainer." A healthy reminder that there are still plenty of people around, Christian as well as Muslim, for whom 'Enough' is 'Too Much'. It's not a fashionable position. It's a bit like conscientious objection to resolving conflict by violence. It asserts the principle that life can be lived pleasurably without this intoxicant. It's an implicit rejection of a type of consumerism, its massive industry and promotion of consumer lifestyle, on which the public coffers rely to balance the books, by taxation.

Just imagine what it would do to the economic crisis if suddenly the entire adult population renounced alcohol and stuck to their resolve. Imagine the juggling of accounts that Whitehall would have to engage in to cover lost revenue from customs and excise, increased expenditure on booze industry redundancies, decreased expenditure on public law & order, and A&E crisis management (although long term health issues would take generations to show savings because of damage to health working its way through the population already). Our lives for better and worse are so totally intertwined with alcohol in all its forms, that 'Enough' is as much as it is safe to advocate. Renunciation would, in its way, be admirably subversive of society if it ever caught on in a really big way.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Getting moderation on the social agenda

Today the Anglican Bishops and Chief Constables of Wales press launched a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers and cost to society of binge drinking. Wales is apparently the worst place in Europe for binge drinking. "Enough is Enough" is the slogan. The aim is to encourage people to drink moderately and responsibly, not to renounce booze altogether.

About seventy people gathered in the University Students' Union for the launch. We were addressed by Archbishop Barry, Barbara Wilding, Chief Constable of South Wales, Michael McCabe Chief A&E Consultant in Morriston Hospital, who spoke about the health dangers, and some measures to remedy the problem. Nick Newman of Cardiff's Licensed Victuallers Association bravely defended precautions taken by alcohol retailers, the President of the Students' Union spoke about responsible Union bar policy.

Wynford Ellis Owen, the new Chair of the Welsh Council on Alcohol and other Drugs too the platform last, with a moving and eloquent personal testimony, in which he spoke about his youthful alcohol abuse as a means to fill the spiritual vacuum in his life. He issued a quiet challenge to the church leaders present to work on filling the vacuum as well as trying to campaign on social issues. It was too quietly received for my comfort. I think he's right, but we've somehow lost the ability to address the widening gulf created by ideologues like Richard Dawkins and others, devaluing any common sense understanding of what authentic spirituality consists of.

The major common concern expressed was about supermarket cheap drink sales and the propensity people have for 'front-loading' themselves with alcohol before hitting town for a night out. We had a representative of Morrisons supermarket chain on our discussion table, who told us about their changes in alcohol retailing policy, designed to cut drastically this deadly kind of opportunism. The event launched the promotion of a website where people can register their commitment to moderate their drinking. It can viewed as a barometer of social concern, and people present were encouraged to sign up, and tell people in their networks to sign up so that the message of numbers expressing concern might speak for itself. It's if any readers in Wales want to sign up.

I had no misgivings about taking part in and giving practical support to this event, have lived with the clearing up after the mess of party nights and match days in the centre for the past six years. I was, however, disappointed that it wasn't made into as ecumenical and inter-faith event as possible. Anglicans may be (on a par with Catholics) the largest historic denomination in Wales, but the Evangelical Alliance umbrella covers equally as large a numerical combination of protestant, independent and pentecostal member communities, which are equally making their contribution on this matter.

It's also not a good idea that other faith communities weren't given opportunity to make visible the concerns some members express privately. It would have been a much more prolonged and difficult exercise to prepare - but lack of unanimity weakens the cause and risks division and disarray creeping in. We simply don't have the means to achieve this in the city, and on times I wonder if we ever will, without a major crisis creeping in to threaten us all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Imaging the Holy Land

A couple of friends are soon to visit the Holy Land, talking about it with them gave me the urge to re-visit the photos I took in Jerusalem and the West Bank during my ten week sabbatical there at the end of 2000. This drove me further to dig out my photo digitising scanner, and start transferring them to my computer. It's a little while since I've done any work on extending my digital archive of old photos, and what struck me was that even the best and cleanest of well stored negatives didn't produce as fine a quality (as opposed to size of ) image as a newer digital camera. The scanner can only reproduce what's on the surface of the film. Maybe it's better with highest quality negative, but it just made me realise what a powerful tool has been placed into ordinary peoples' hands by modern digital photography. Content of pictures and camera skill is as it ever was a matter for an individual to work at. It's easy to take high quality looking rubbish photos.

Anyway, it was a good experience to go through the 105 pictures I took and to recall places I'd visited and people I'd met. 105 photos in ten weeks, as opposed to the 300+ I'll take inside a week when travelling these days. Three rolls of film and development costs, that was what I could afford on sabbatical in 2000, I had to select my shots sparingly. I have more vivid images of Jerusalem in my head than I do on film.

Some of them, it might not have been prudent to take - soldiers shoving and kicking Palestinian peasant women out of the way as they passed on patrol through crowded street sellers in the holy city. The shopkeeper in West Jerusalem with a pistol in his waistband. Men with locks in civvies with rifles over their shoulders, queuing for buses.... the defiant image of a palm print on a wall of the via Dolorosa, made in the blood of a youngster who had been slain nearby - it gave the Red Hand of Ulster a significance I'd not thought of before.

I'd love to return there now. Three years of profligate digital snapping the transformation of the city centre has strengthened my confidence in looking and capturing a moment, knowing that deleting failures, and cropping badly framed stuff can help shape a collection of images that tell a greater story. My West Bank landscape pictures are not up to much. The Old City pictures are much better, except that there aren't enough of them to represent the daily visual feast I remember having. It makes me wonder - did I lose a roll of film or something? I must check back on my paper journal. 2000 was pre-blogging days. I keep on thinking, I must have taken more than this. But the experience was just so vivid, it lives with me still. I had little trouble recalling and putting captions on all the photos I worked with.

I've posted them on Google's Picasa site

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tentatively encouraging signs

For the past three Sundays since we re-scheduled the main Sunday Eucharist to 10.00am, the numbers attending have gone up by 25%, casual visitors and regulars, and this despite the rather confusing access arrangements while the street outside the entrance is being re-paved. The later hour is making it easier for people to travel in, and that'll be pleasing if it's sustained. I hope this won't lead to a falling our with Council enforcement people because church people will be half an hour later leaving the pedestrian zone in future. Until there's a marked improvement in public transport infrastructure around the city centre, there's no prospect of everyone abandoning their cars to come to church by bus.

Work finished yesterday in front of the West Tower, so the entrance was only out of commission for five days in all. We have seven bike racks installed around the north perimeter railings. One day I counted two bikes using them, a further three still using the railings - cyclists too lazy to walk the extra fifteen yards to use the appointed facility, so long pleaded for. I wonder what we can do that will change habits and deter people? Until we can, there's hardly any point in painting the railing only to see them ruined within days by abrasion from chained up bikes.

It was great to speak with Greg Tricker on the phone tonight, and share with him our appreciation of his art exhibition. He's wonderfully self-effacing about his work, allowing himself to absorb many different inspirations and impulses and gestate them before finally setting out on a period of creative production which even he finds surprising and nourishing to his spirit. How I'd love to afford to mount an exhibition of his work in St John's. Apparently, the opening ceremony was attended by a couple of French people associated with Lourdes, and now there's a possibility of taking the collection over there for a visit. If it happens, it will be marvellous.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Marian perceptions

We got up horribly early and took the Megabus to London, to visit our old friend Greg Tricker's latest exhibition of paintings at Piano Nobile gallery in Notting Hill. This time he's created a couple of dozen works, mostly paintings but also woodcuts and sculptures reflecting on the life of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. We had an invite to the opening night on Wednesday, but were unable to attend. Sister Wendy Beckett OSB presided over the occasion, an indication of how well thought of is Greg's work. He's also published an illustrated book of this collection - his fourth, and from our point of view a must-have, an early Christmas present to each other.

It's a remarkable collection, with only a handful depicting Bernadette's life as a nun, or with any obvious ecclesiastical reference. Mostly Greg portrays her with great simplicity at home with the family in her local sub-Pyrenean community, in ways that are suffused with a sense of spirituality. His work may resemble naive mediaeval illustrations, but spending time with any of his pictures reveals great understanding and depth of engagement with his subject.

His depictions of Bernadette's encounters with Mary are far from standard Catholic ecclesiastical art. They show an intelligent enquiring young girl looking up into Our Lady's tranquil face. Many of the paintings have a pale blue tint or component - a kind of Marian signature or influence. But his painting of the discovery of the Lourdes healing spring is washed in green light, suggesting an encounter with the green goddess, not out of irreverence, but from a deep awareness of the universality of the imagery of the eternal feminine with which he has worked.

I like Greg's artistic vision of Mary far better than any of the standard 19th century images of the Immaculate Conception which I have seen in churches up and down France over the years. One of his key works is painted not on canvas, but on a small wooden door, complete with hinges and bolt, vivid in its colour, iconic in convention. Bernadette wears a pale blue head covering resembling but not quite a halo, but her face is gold. An image of transfigured beauty. This was used on the invitation sent out from the gallery - a real masterpiece. He knows how to inspire a sense of wonder in the depths of simplicity.

We took my sister June with us to Piano Nobile, both the venue and the artist were a fresh discovery for her. It was great to be able to share the experience with her, and to know that she too is much taken with the art works of one of our contemporaries, whose images are an eloquent testimony to his perception of the sacred in the ordinary.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The day the reindeer came

Today, being Guru Nanak's birthday, I went to the Tudor Road Gurdwara to see if it might be possible to film the Sikh community celebrating together. Half a dozen men were busy in the kitchen preparing for the Langar following worship, too busy really for this to be an opportune moment for them to agree, so they advised me to write to them so that they could arrange a better occasion.

I returned to County Hall to pick up the editing software disk that came with the video camera, and then back to church to get ready to welcome Santa's reindeer into the churchyard for their evening meal before going on show in Working Street, as a key attraction linked to the St David's Centre Santa's Grotto opening. Once more the magic of animals from the wild did its trick, and a huge queue of parents with children formed to take a peek at them. Many brought our their camera phones and snapped them while they were grazing in the churchyard. This year a grazing reindeer from last year's event is set to appear on the parish Christmas card. We're still awaiting the return of the proofs from the printer, so we couldn't cash in on the moment.

Fortunately it was a little warmer an evening than last year, if a little damper. The numbers passing through the reindeer pen seemed as many if not more than last year, and everyone was cheery. People may be bothered about the impact of recession on Christmas spending, but I suspect that St David's PR people have done their operations a great favour by not cutting back on this event. Good will is something we all need in times of anxiety. Talking of which ...

Without me realising, yesterday a team of Council workers installed a nativity scene in the north church tower garden. The proposal was made last year, but couldn't be followed through in time. This year, it's happened. Mind you, we only have one cow and two wise men, and no shepherds!
Apparently there's a bit of a shortage of two foot high outdoor-capable figures. So I'll be hunting round ... maybe a garden gnome of the right size would be capable of a makover? Talking of which ....

Long ago one of the effigies of the six knight guardians standing on top of the riddel poles of the sanctuary screen in the St John's chapel got stolen. While discussing the crib figures missing in church, I chanced to look up and realised that a sixth figure had reappeared, resembling the others in shape and colour, but slightly smaller. Closer inspection revealed it to be - a Cyberman from BBC's Dr Who, dressed in knightly garb. Well, St John's did host the filming of the Dr Who Christmas special two and a half years ago, and there is a trade in models of the characters. The figure has been up there for nearly two months. Nobody noticed, until a puzzled tourist mentioned it in the church visitors' book. A nice bit of ephemeral whimsey, devised by Pauline.

I must ask her if she can devise a spare king and a few shepherds for the outdoor nativity.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Recording good-will

Today I borrowed a video camera from the Council's chief projects design and development officer Tony Riches, who's been very helpful and taken an interest in our attempts to communicate with the public something of the rich life of the City centre's faith communities. I'll be using it to record clips of faith communities in action over the next month, especially to film seasonal greetings from faith groups in their places of worship. The first challenge is learning how to use it and get results worth editing.

It didn't take me too long to get to grips with it because it is a Sony Handycam and Sony products all tend to work with quite similar conventions.
I've used my digital camera to make short video clips before. This is the same thing, scaled up, improved quality and capacity to change focus and field of view.

Hmm - getting non shaky images without catching shoulder cramp when you can't find your tripod is a kind of zen challenge. So, I didn't get out of the house in time to see any of the evening's Christmas light switch-on ceremony, just down the road by the Law Courts. Instead I went straight to St Mary's to film the first memorial service held in Cardiff to remember homeless people who have died on the city's streets. It was a quiet thoughtfully prepared and moving event with about 45 people attending.

The church layout made it possible for me to film without being obtrusive, even if it did mean over reliance on the telephoto lens, with attendant shaky tendencies, to replace closeups. Seeing how deeply affected some of the young people present were by the opportunity the service offered them to remember friends and loved ones, made me wonder how sound-byte hungry media interviewers on occasions like this can approach people and ask how they are feeling and what it all means to them. The ritual itself says it all.

Now I have half an hour's film footage to edit, and none of the software tools I have for the purpose seem up to the task of HD video editing. Maybe I should have found out first how to switch to SD footage. Ah well, it's not a bad thing to have a new skill to master, as well as patience to acquire.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The impulse to trade

The Faith Focus Group last week encouraged me to go ahead with producing an inter-faith leaflet describing in an introductory way the various festive seasonal events celebrated by different faiths in the last couple of months of the year. I've been promised some funding support from the Saint David's Partnership to publish a good number of these, and the City Centre Management has helped out with a short initial print run, to permit me to get the leaflet out into the wild (well, into the Tourist information bureau, and the public libraries circulation network) before tomorrow's Christmas lights switch on.

There's a dearth of local interfaith information in Cardiff, so in addition to the faith trail website which I put together last month, I've now created another for this pupose, as yet un-named, but viewable here. I still have the task of recording some festive seasonal greetings from churches and other faith community members for broadcast on the BBC big screen outside St David's Hall. I sent off some video clips of last month's Diwali celebrations, plus some fine photographs for th e BBC team to use. However, I had a phone call to say that they couldn't at the moment get the feed channel to the big screen to work alongside the input from the main BBC news site. Will it happen at all? I have to presume it does and work to that end. Has the BBC promised more than it can deliver? We'll see.

I had an email of apology today from the outside broadcast team manager about Saturday morning's fiasco, despite my saying that no apology was required, only greater effort at consistency and better management when I wrote in to moan at them. The apology even promised to send me an interview fee which I neither expected nor asked for. Strange behaviour. If only they listened!

Only half a dozen people were present at the Retail Partnership Board meeting this morning. I guess everyone else is busy busting a gut with efforts to stave off the impact of the economic downturn. The meeting was full of gloomy impressions and scary rumours, which I refuse to propagate. I'd rather celebrate the defiant courage of those who just keep on keeping on, who refuse to cut and run now that thing are tough. I guess anyone at the interface between retailing and the public knows how things are unpredictable in times of boom and of bust. They are trained to be ready for anything. Success may come eventually simply from turning up for as long as you can. Paul Williams took us through the pre Christmas publicity campaign material, another superbly conceived job. 'Cardiff capital of shopping' is the strapline. Capital of optimism is how I see it. Why not dare the dark?

Just saying that made me think of the streets of Sarajevo, when I visited there twelve years ago now. Ruined buildings were either being repaired or their sites cleared, and where they had been cleared, people stood along the edge of the road, lined up selling whatever they had to passers by - mostly cigarettes, vegetables and a few small electrical goods as I recall, for whatever currency they could get. The impulse to trade is one of life's most vital signs.

We paused the meeting at eleven for the two minutes silence and Act of Remembrance. Ex-para Mark Knott, manager of Queen's Arcade, led us. It's one bit of the darkness that must never be disregarded.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Undiplomatic communicators

Yesterday afternoon, Philip rang from church to ask if I'd be willing to go down early to church today and be interviewed in the BBC Radio Wales booth, set up in St John Street, for the Match Day special programme. Wales are playing rugby against South Africa. A request from the producer had arrived at the office. It meant having to get up early to get may brain into gear and my body down to St John's by 9.15am, a bit of an effort on what's meant to be my 'day off' this week.

I arrived on time, but the BBC mobile studio looked abandoned, apart from having a security guard on duty. I asked if I was expected. Clearly not. He asked someone sitting at a console inside, who also looked non-plussed and said that the interview team had gone for their break. Just then a young lady turned up, and struggled to remember my name and looked not a little embarrassed.

"There's been a change of arrangements." she said.

"What does that mean?" said I.

She wouldn't come clean with me.

"Do you want me or not?" I asked.

She was vague.

"Are you very keen on rugby?" she asked.

"What's that got to do with it?" I said

I'm here because your producer rang up and asked for someone from the church to come and be interviewed yesterday and here I am, on my day off."

More discomfort.

"E-er, we tried to email you."

"What's wrong with my phone number?"

"We didn't have your home phone number."

"BBC Wales News has my home phone number and ring me if they are looking for a comment or an explanation about something."

"But that's a different department."

"So, what's the problem?"

"Our systems are incompatible."

"But you're the BBC. You have all that technology and your systems are incompatible!
My home phone number is in the public telephone directory."

With that I returned home exasperated, the start to my day off all messed up.

There was no email waiting when I logged on later. No message on the answering machine.
I recalled that previous outside broadcast producers rang me at home, also BBC engineers, occasionally needing access to an ISDN phone line terminal locked behind the church railings, used to provide a direct outside broadcast link to BBC Llandaff studios.

The fact is, these folk are great at finding you and communicating with you if they need you, and drop you when they don't. Changing demand of the moment is the general excuse. In reality much of live broadcasting is made up as it goes along, perhaps to the extent that insufficient attention goes into planning, or managing the team, so that courtesies of communication are forgotten or disregarded.

Now maybe they had second thoughts about using me, having heard the rumour that I'm not in love with the impact of stadium events on the cleanliness and well-being of our city centre. Maybe they were anxious that I might fail to talk idolatrously about our national sport, chill the atmosphere and cripple morale. Now that would be fair enough if they'd changed their minds. But just letting me turn up, to the embarrassment of their minions and annoyance of myself, is not what public service broadcasters should be doing with the Corporation's good name.

A few minutes on the radio now and then is one of those obligations that goes with my job, being an office holder in a public situation. I have no emotional investment in obliging. It's just the discourtesy of not making an effort to spare me a journey they invited me to make for their purposes which gives me concern about the values of the teams that do the broadcasting nowadays. Lord Reith must be spinning in his grave.

After lunch Clare and I finally got out of the house and went to the edge of Cardiff and climbed the Garth, just about the highest spot along the ridge for miles behind the city. It's a favourite walk, with its 4,000 year old burial mounds, close cropped springy turf and invigoratingly chill wind coming off the Severn Estuary. And all the while Wales were battling themselves to another glorious defeat against the Springboks - without my words 'on air'.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hard of hearing?

After the Eucharist, I was out and about taking photographs, when I ran into Dick Geen, whose Council remit is Community Safety. He introduced me to his new colleague Tom. "Meet my new alligator." I thought he said. Well, I've heard heard of people with a security brief being described as rottweilers, but this was a new one on me, so I just smiled and shook hands. Dick said they were both on their way up to the Market to look at a location for a new security gate - one of the features of the new order of things in the city centre to enclose dark corners of service areas and put them out of reach of those with dark intentions in mind. It was a little while before the penny dropped. Tom is in charge of designing and procuring gates to enclose dark alleys. What Dick had actually said was "alley gat-er". Nice one.

No longer just Guy Fawkes' day

The news of an Obama victory in the US Presidential elections dominates everything, and quite naturally causes me to reflect on what I've witnessed in my lifetime - from the days of Martin Luther King and JFK, the liberation of Mandela in South Africa, and now a black president whose campaign has unified people across that great country. Rachel and Jasmine arrived in California from Canada this afternoon, excited to reach her new home in L.A. safe and sound. And on such an auspicious day. I confess that having her in the USA has been something of a fatherly worry for me, having found myself so much at odds with American culture and values for so long. Nothing much has yet changed, except that a majority of people have chosen to invest their aspirations and energies in the possibilities of change for the better. I hope this will give me less cause to feel anxious about the place where my granddaughter is going to spend her much of her childhood.

For me the marvellous thing about Obama is that he's more than a leader who can, with his mixed race and modest social origins, bridge the cultural divide. His poetic gift of speech is able to tell America's many stories in fresh ways that both unite and inspire for the common good.

I read Alistair Mackintosh's book 'Soil and Soul' while on holidays. He's a Scottish community activist, battling for decades on environmental and land rights issues with considerable influence and success, a voice for grass roots movements, and community rooted spirituality. Take a look at his website. He's an ex wee Free Quaker, from the Hebrides who thinks with stories. He's another possessing a great gift with words. His writing shows that poetry has the ability to put inspiration back into politics, because it feeds the heart and captures the essence of what the mind needs to take on board of any argument that delivers the goods. It's not just preachers who need to be poetic. The challenge to us preachers is to keep poetry and praxis together, or we are leading people up in the air and back to nowhere.

This day in UK has long been one to remember the treason of Guy Fawkes, and his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Parliament was not the democracy in those days that it is now, but like many ancient institutions it was evolving. Who knows what such violence would have led to, had it succeeded? Half a century later there was another attempt at revolution with the abolition of the Monarchy and a Civil War which didn't change things radically enough to prevent the eventual restoration of the Monarchy. But at least collective lessons had been learned, so that Britain could then resist the attraction of a revolution, French style, and end up rejected by its own colonies as they for revolution, American style, plodding its own course through the centuries since to achieve comparable democracy by a different route.

President or Monarch? Election or inheritance? Head of State, steering the nation politically? Or representing continuity and values to which every political leader must aspire, else count themselves out of the action? Either way has its benefits and problems. In every case it depends upon the life and soul of the representative person, and how they stand up to the challenges of office.

In the case of a Presidential figure, the results are there for all to evaluate and that very fact is a pressure on the office holder's use of power. The wise Monarch sees leaders and policies come and go, but is there as an influential reminder of who we are as a nation and what we stand for. Ideals are embodied, not in political promises, however inspiring, but in a person representing tradition and culture rooted in its past, but open to the future by persuasion, without needing to resort to violence. Would Britain be quite as free and open as it is, if it had become a revolutionary republic? I doubt it.