Monday, June 30, 2008

Holiday 3

Explored neighbouring villages, in search of a shop to buy a picnic lunch, then took the shorter 'Quarry trail' around the Dorothea Quarry site, closed in the 1950s. There are several large and deep lakes on the site, and some huge slate constructed walls that looked like bastions to an ancient citadel, plus one huge long ramp at a 45 degree angle, looking like a rocket launch-pad from a boys comic of the fifties. Scattered around the site were the shells of many small buildings, offices, workshops possibly even workers' accommodation, but difficult to guess as any components of metal or wood had long been extracted, and most of the site overgrown with trees and even grass here and there. When we returned, full of questions, we were glad to find a copy of a newish book by local resident and consultant industrial archaeologist David Gwyn entitled 'Gwynedd - Inheriting a revolution', well researched, beautfully written, offering insight and according great value to all we had seen on our hike.
The slate inudstry of Dyffryn Nantlle dates back over two centuries, and in its day was a world leader in technical innovation and exporting know-how. Today it is a quiet domestic rural backwater with no shops or Post Office. Villagers must all travel a couple of miles to Pen y Groes for these needs. There are a couple of craft startup businesses in what used to be a workers' barrack building, but otherwise anyone with a job other than farming, or helping out with hospitality at Plas Baladeulyn, must travel away from the locality to earn their keep.

Today's Guardian re-iterates all that the GAFCON press circus in Jerusalem leaked on Saturday. No comment or reaction from others so far. I find it all quite disturbing - how often church history is riven with claims from different groups to be truly 'orthodox' believers. Amongst the big 'O' Eastern Churches little schisms, are as much a feature of the landscape as they were among Protestant non-conformists, and it has done nobody any good. Although I suppose it might have served in the long term to help sustain the more moderate alternatives.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Holiday 2

Attended a nicely bi-lingual Parish Eucharist at St Peter's Machynlleth on their Patronal festival day, and shared in their welcome to a newly ordained Deacon. A retired cleric preached to the moment about the significance of ordination and Apostolic Succession in a very traditional way. I parted company with him when he spoke of ordination imparting authority, as opposed to simply authorising the recipient. There was a time when it seemed like that because most people tended to treat the ordained person with reverence and respect, and take seriously their pronouncements. But there came a time, in his life time, and certainly during my childhood, when Paul Tillich stated prophetically that the time had come when people who need to 'earn the right to speak of God to others'. To my mind, that time has been with us for the last quarter of a century in relation to the general public, and as time passes, even within the community of faith. It's a good to be reminded that authority is not a property in its own right, but something one person has when another person is willing to value and respect what the other says or does.
We called at the Centre for Alternative Technology on the way out of Machynlleth, but the heavens opened and that discouraged us from spending time on a visit. We travelled further north on the coast road through Dolgellau and Barmouth up to the edge of Porthmadoc before heading into the heart of Snowdonia to Beddgelert and Rhydd Du, where we turned down into Dyffryn Nantlle to discover the Trigonos residential centre at Plas Baladeulyn, a Victorian country house with a glacial lake down the garden, just above an historic slate quarrying village. Such a beautiful setting, with the rain easing off and evening sun revealing the great and simple beauty of this valley, at the east end of which looms cloud festooned Eryri five miles away from where we stay this week.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Holiday time 1

Yesterday afternoon we started our summer leave driving to Llandovery via Brecon, to stay overnight with Tom & Marilyn and catch up on several years' worth of news. Tom is just retiring from his job at Trinity College Carmarthen, and looking forward to a more relaxed way of life with his touring caravan.We enjoyed a long slow delicious supper and this morning breakfast and conversation before setting out north to Aberystwyth via Lampter. Visit to the National Library where we accpeted in invitation to a book launch event in The Drum, a new lottery sponsored film and lecture theatre. The book, 'Coalfaces' is a photographic essay in the life of the Afan Valley since the death of the pits and the old mining way of life. Drove on to Machynlleth and booked in for the night at the Wynnstay Hotel - eighteenth century charm with wi-fi internet access. We dined out at the Taj Mahal Bengali restuarant, whose charming young staff all seemed to have Lunn'un East End accents and ease of style.

Read the pre-publication GAFCON final report and statement (issued before it was agreed) on the Thinking Anglicans blog. What do they all think they're up to? They're organising their own exclusive 'Communion within a Communion' of people who will sign up to their 'orthodox' principles, and in doing so, effecting a schism. A great double-think to my mind. They act as if there is a common mind between the conservative evangelical and the anglo-catholic participants upon an undefined view of scripture, whose general tenor will be defined more as a denial of liberal and radical thinking than a clear traditionalist affirmation. Not least because there isn't one complete view of scriptural authority and its interpretation that has ever been universally accepted. The church has always lived with diverse possibilities and approaches, and has shied away from making a general dogma on this matter, perhaps because of the difficulty if not impossibility of doing so in a growing changing world. What a hole they have dug to appeal to the Christians worldwide to jump into!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Variety is the spice of ministry

An eventful day, starting with a school assembly on John the Baptist, followed by a Eucharist at St German's for class three, then down to St John's for our midday Eucharist. There was a enough time to do a little housekeeping on the literature distribution rack - folding dozens of tourist and enquiry leaflets - before cycling over to Roath Church House for a Deanery Chapter. It's the first I've managed to attend in many many months.

At the end we were shown a video produced by the Church in Wales' ministry and mission team entitled 'Renewable Energy'. It was not, as I imagined environmental conservation focussed, but a series of video case studies of a series of Parishes which are experiencing a missionary renewal in the most enterprising and creative of ways. It was encouraging and informative. It was also very well produced, and made Chapter a cheerier meeting than usual.

Before supper, a meeting of the Conservation Consultative Group that advises on planning applications in the City Centre. It's the first since the local government elections. I was pleased to learn that Simon Wakefield, our local Lib-Dem Councillor in Cathays is available and willing to chair the group again. It's always interesting to look at what plans are being proposed to build or adapt buildings around the city centre, and hear from the experts what they think about the ideas presented.

On this occasion we looked at drawings accompanying a proposition to re-open the mill leet on the west side of the Castle Wall. The leet is a watercourse which, at least in Victorian times was adapted to drive a small mill-wheel, long gone. It was fed originally by the dock feeder canal that runs through the castle grounds and out along Stuttgart Strasse. There's an ancient well by the north west corner of the Castle, which apparently has some interesting Victorian hydraulic control mechanisms relating to the leet. All in all this restoration project promises much more than a water feature to enhance the Castle and parkland considerably. It has the engineers archaeologists and historical conservationists excited and keen to promote it - which is just as well since the plan is part of Heritage Lottery funding bid. I hope this comes off.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Feast Day

On this Patronal Festival day of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, we were delighted to welcome the Grangetown Corps Salvation Army Band to share in the musical accompaniment of our Eucharist. A fine way to celebrate the completion of the internal re-decoration. We were joined by Don Stokes, the head of the decorating company that did the job, and our architect Martin Killick.

We were also joined by an intoxicated man who behaved in a bizarre fashion, walking up to the front just as we'd started, but he sat quietly, right through the sermon until the last few sentences, when he got up quietly and left. I'm amazed he lasted so long actually, and relieved he didn't interrupt, as happens from time to time.

The presence of the band almost double the congregation, which was good. It's quite hard to get a number of our regulars to come out in the evenings, even on light summer nights. Uncertainties of gianing access by car, with all the work that's going on around is, must be a deterrent.

A good two thirds of the paving in Working Street, St John's Street and Trinity Street is now complete, and work moves on at a pace. Some of the trickiest portions remain to be tackled - in front of the Market and the Church, with consequent tight restrictions to traffic flow, let alone parking. None of this is made any easier by the work being done to restore O'Neill's pub opposite the churchyard, although that work seems to be progressing very quickly indeed.

The new lamp posts have now been installed and wired around the north side of the church. Oddly, only one of the old lamp posts was removed when the paving was being done around there, so old and new stand there side by side in two locations at the moment. Not such a good idea really as old and new can be directly compared. Frankly the new are not nearly an enhancement to the area around the church as were the old iron Victorian replica posts. But there is apparently no consultation about this through the usual planning process, since this is maintained furniture in the public realm - so presumably, if they don't work, or get hated enough the new stainless steel lamp posts will change again. All very strange really.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A memorable missionary celebration

A visit to Streatham Parish Church today to join the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of priesthood and marriage of my friend Patrick Rosheuvel with whom I worked and often sang in the days when we were both USPG Area Secretaries twenty years ago.

Patrick and his brother Terrence, born in Guyana both trained for ministry together at Codrington College in Barbados, and were ordained deacon there before being sent home for ordination to the priesthood, to undertake work that embraced both town and country mission stations deep in the rain forest, all within the same parish. Patrick gave one of our Lent lectures five years ago when he was still Chaplain of Brixton prison.

The Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler preached. Patrick and Terrence concelebrated the Eucharist. After several years working between the multi racial towns, and jungle mission stations with nomadic amerindians as parishioners, Terrence went to New Jersey in the USA to minister among afro-Caribbean immigrants there, and Patrick came to England, to a different sort of curacy at Worksop Priory in mining country.

It was after this that he and I met in USPG and made music together, telling stories about the world church and singing songs which Patrick, a gifted composer, had written. Nearly forty years as a missionary priest, then just as he was about to retire, Patrick had a stroke which left him paralysed down his right side, rendering him virtually speechless, and dependent totally on others. Such a blow, to such a gifted pastor.

Bishop Tom said how much there was to give thanks for in their forty years of ministry but instead of referring to Patrick's stroke as a tragedy over which to sympathise, he said that in many ways now was the most outstanding period of his fruitful priestly life. And all those present knew and understood what he meant.

Smartly dressed, Patrick had greeted us as we arrived at church from his wheelchair, accompanied by his wife Judith. He was radiant with smiles, embracing everyone with his one good arm, filling the air with his characteristic laugh and whoops of joy and delight to see his friends again. His usual old uninhibited self shone out from his broken body - spirit unbroken, joyful as he ever was, welcoming the world to come and worship.

The Eucharist was a lively catholic celebration accompanied partly by a string quartet and a horn player, with a dozen priests surrounding the bishop - women and men, black and white - with the two Rosheuvel boys leading from the altar, supported by their Vicar. Patrick, fully vested was able to stand for periods alongside his brother, and join in with actions and say such words and phrases as he could master in unison with his brother.

It was too much for him to distribute communion, but his place was taken by a Guyanese woman priest who had been a young girl in Patrick's congregation when he was first a curate. What a journey that represented for both of them. Guyana forty years ago was still a tough call served by celibate missionaries - priests of zeal and integrity who awakened faith in people and places that surprised even them.

It was such an outstanding witness to the Gospel that someone as handicapped as Patrick could be the centre of attention with full dignity as the priest gathering people to worship, this being taken in stride by all who made it happen. Two brothers, priests sharing and united in active prayer, overcoming the practical challenges of the moment with ease, because for them Christ was the centre of attention, not them.

Patrick has been robbed of some of his gifts by his stroke, but in his weakness, God's love shines from him, stronger than ever. And not least, because of the love of his nearest and dearest, determined to give back to him what they've received from him. There's not much he hasn't experienced, when it comes to racism, sexism, power games in the church and in public institutions - now physical powerlessness.

The burden of the Cross to be carried can take many shapes. But he has learned to accept everything with love and laughter, and with joy to say 'Yes' to everything God throws at him, convinced there is going to be a blessing in there for others somewhere. Such faith, from an individual set in a faithful community was a real inspiration.

It was good to meet up again with a couple of former USPG Area Secretary colleagues in the feast that followed (curry goat, rice 'n peas, taking me down gastronomic memory lane to my days in St Paul's Bristol). As is customary at such re-unions, we lamented at the down-sizing of The Society from the way it was when we remembered it thirty years ago. It's still doing a good job channelling funds to third world churches, and publicising this in a credible way. While there is still a modest sized team of 'mission advisors' maintaining the links around UK, it's not quite the same as when the Home Team had something of a missionary role on its own doorstep. People like Patrick, early practitioners of 'mission in reverse' were fine examples of this. I'm proud to have worked with him.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Christians and Muslims witness to faith

I attended a conference today in a hotel down the Bay, organised by the Provincial Church and Society officer Robin Morrison, under the title 'Fear, Democracy and Religion'. It brought together a good mix of Muslim and Christian participants - fifty in all. We listened to Western Mail chief reporter Martin Shipton speak first on media perceptions (for which read stereotypes) of Christianity, and then in the afternoon, on Islam.

Round table conversations were warm, lively, interesting and insightful, revealing the extent to which both Muslims and Christian both experience the same sense of assault, recognising what is being alleged about them, but again, not recognising this as the whole of their experience of their faith or each others' faith. Inevitably the question frequently arose about whose interests were being served by the popular press in particular, in their often inflammatory and anxiety driven sensationalist reporting. The shared experience indicated that the truth lived out by people in their faith communities was significantly different from the perception. It was also recognised how much better both Christians and Muslims have to be at communicating with outsiders about their real values and experiences, and learning how to set the agenda instead of always reacting and being on the defensive.

I was particularly impressed by some of the young Muslims participating, born and bred in the UK and seemingly untroubled with questions of identity - comfortable in maintaining their faith and lifestyle - taking the same permission as their contemporaries in daring to be different, but choosing to do so by not following the herd, but rather rejoicing in being what their faith was helping them to be.

One man, about my age recounted how his daughter had grown up as the sole Muslim child in her mixed peer group at school, quite at ease living with the differences among them. There was no compulsion at home for her to wear the hijab, and eventually she went off to university not accustomed to wearing one. When she returned home, however, she was wearing one - her own choice, and without pressure from anyone. What had changed? Well, I can speculate, reflecting on my experience, growing up as a conventional church attender and going off to university back in the swinging sixties.

It was a world of questioning, and freedom to experiment, of getting to know worlds other than the one I'd been brought up in. Every day seemed to pose afresh the question 'Who are you?'. I certainly got teased for being Welsh in an English university, just as others were teased for being Greek or Scots or ex-public school. I also got teased for getting up and going to church on Sundays, whether or not I'd had a wild night out on Saturday, and was often challenged to defend the Christian position in a context where most people were fashionably atheist.

This was where I really discovered how much sound Christian teaching I had absorbed from sermons at the Parish Communion, how much it all made sense, and how much fun I had, not merely defending myself, but asserting the faith I held as a young scientist who had mercifully never entertained the literal fundamentalist beliefs that the 'cultured despisers' insisted I must believe in. Within a year, my lifetime's vocation to be an advocate of the Gospel of Christ, and a minister of religion into the bargain had emerged tentatively - much to my own surprise.

I don't imagine that the university world of challenge and debate has changed much in forty years. So if young people arrive with a sound and healthy grounding in their faith and find themselves challenged, and find their identity is questioned deeply, there is a very good prospect that they will rise to the occasion, and come home stronger and more confident and willing to stand out for being who they are. Thus, the donning of the hijab, rather than being the sign of 'radicalisation' or 'extremism' beloved of media neurotics, is an affirmation, an assertion of confidence in what a person has received from family and community. Some people from religious backgrounds, whatever their faith, don't grow up in a healthy loving environment, experience oppression and find their ideas of faith too brittle to sustain criticism. They may abandon faith completely, or succumb to the suggestions of the violent and become a danger to themselves and others, but this is exceptional, and not that hard to spot.

Thank God we are not handicapped like our gallic or turkish euro neighbours to want to enforce 'equality' by refusing people the right to show who they are in the signs of faith they wear. Yes, it may well be cultural, but this is about a culture of confidence in the gift of faith received and affirmed. But the freedom and tolerance we enjoy is precious, it needs protecting by recognising when it is in danger of being abused by sick and manipulative people, whether they are religiously or politically driven. Freedom means debate and challenge - challenge to anything that devalues humanity, that advocates violent short cuts to solve deeply difficult problems. Easier said than done, but always worth the effort.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Measured subjectivity

The Wales agent of the Bank of England attended today's Retail Partnership Board meeting to give us a run-down on the latest statistics on the economy.

There was nothing I hadn't already heard on the BBC 'Today' programme, on my way towards full consciousness in the mornings over the past few months, except for one thing. The question of whether or not the economy is in recession.

It was worse twenty years ago, everyone agreed. Things are difficult now but it isn't all bad, as the weak pound is good for export revenue. How do the bean counters measure recession?

Apparently, this is a 'look and feel thing'. So someone in the Bank keeps a watching brief on the newspapers, and logs the number of times the word 'recession' gets used. Confidence to trade and take economic risks is ultimately a subjective thing - how you feel about the figures, on which you have a judgement to make.

Is this science? What happens if you don't trust the media?

How often the Church is written off by the media. Decline is a fact, yet we still keep going, still enjoy a degree of goodwill, even from those who no longer invest their time and money in upholding the faith.

The story told about us may not be our story at all.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mass for Peace at Millennium Centre

After another 'God on Mondays' followed by a school Governors' meeting, another visit to the Millennium Centre - the second in a week - for the performance of 'The Armed Man : Mass for Peace' by Karl Jenkins, and conducted by the composer himself. The auditorium was packed, and we heard at the beginning that Rhodri, First Minister and Barry our Archbishop (both Morgans! That's Wales for you) were among the guests of honour. I don't know how often the First Minister and the Archbishop find themselves together in the social spotlight, in Wales, any more than their English counterparts do. The life and role played by leaders of large established public institutions is no longer what it was in former generations. Such moments may be much rarer than in times past. But whatever the case, music was here the cause.

Fezeka High School Mixed choir of eighty singers took the stage to perform with Salisbury (UK) Community Choir, and Salisbury Cathedral Youth Choir, three hundred or so singers in all, and just a tad under-rehearsed to my mind, given the scale of the works performed - Rutter's 'Mass of the Children' and Jenkins' 'Mass for Peace'. The event began, however with the Fezeka choir singing their on their own, with four part voices in harmony every bit as powerful as the WNO chorus, singing and swaying with huge disciplined cohesion, and abundant joy.

What was even more remarkable was that their singer conductor Phumelele Tsewu took the stage knowing that his son Tebogo had been killed the night before in a car crash in South Africa. He would not leave his wonderful choir to take the stage alone for such an important occasion. Bless 'em, they rose to the occasion, singing for and with him, and later singing together with the rest of the singers, giving it everything they could muster in Tebogo's memory.

One of the choir supporters told us this at the beginning. The choir sang, then a most moving prayer for Tebogo was offered, ending 'through Jesus Christ our Lord'. The 'Amen' voiced was thoughtful, gentle and rippled from around the auditorium. This may say something about the social conditioning and religious beliefs of the largely grey haired audience, but may also say something about a response drawn from a usually secular audience, faced with the utterly simple, non-sentimental sincerity of the pray-er, and those young people on stage who bowed their heads. For them, prayer was a normal expectation, no room for doubt or ambiguity. It awakened a response in the hearers, whether forgotten or familiar I do not know, worthy of the faith expressed by the choir.

Jenkins' music was accompanied by a video track of newsreel clips all about preparations for and fighting war, the victims and depredations of war and celebrations of victory. There was even a notice on the door to the auditorium to warn us that some the scenes shown might be distressing from the 'look away now' school of video journalistic reporting beloved of the BBC. The video ran the full length of the musical score, and I found it distracting rather than disturbing.

I mentioned last Friday the familiarity of music in an opera I didn't really think I knew. Almost every newsreel clip featured in the video I had seen before over the past 52 years - we got telly when I was eleven, and I was glued to it when documentaries about the War my parents recounted to me from their personal experience were broadcasted. So it was like a game of 'Snap', especially as it was far from clear what the criteria were for assembling and juxtaposing collections of video clips were, outside of the main beginning-middle-end stuff.

This aspect of the performance made me wonder if Jenkins had intended his work as a sound track to the video. Clare, after re-reading the libretto, decided that the music was meant to be stand-alone. I wish I'd shut my eyes. But if I had would I have stayed awake all the way through? For me the work was good in parts, some strangeness, some stimulation, some evocation of powerful feelings, but not enough to shake me deep down, in the way that for example Britten's 'War Requiem' does, or some of Taviner's prodigious output.

Nevertheless, it was an evening to remember for its ambitious assembling across continents of culture of people from different worlds united by their lvoe of singing. Heaven knows what it cost to bring the Fezeka choir over from Cape Town, but it was worth every penny. Thank you, to whoever paid.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Away with purpose

We had our annual Parish Outing today - forty one of us taking the coach, and three more following by car - to visit Newton House and Dynefor Castle, a National Trust property outside Llandeilo in verdant Carmarthenshire.

Despite clouds punctuating the sky, it remained warm and sunny all day, which added to the cheer which everyone in the fellowship sems to raise whenever they are together. Enjoyment of each other's company, whether they've known each other sixty years or six months, is one of the best characteristics of our extended church 'family'.

We started with Morning Prayer in Tredegarville School Hall, before boarding the coach. On the way West along the M4, we stopped off in Port Talbot for an hour, for coffee and a visit to St Theodore's Parish Church to pray and inspect the High Altar reredos, removed from St James' Church after it was made redundant, and re-installed, after a good cleaning in the sanctuary of the church. Both visitors and the home team who've already become familiar with it, were delighted with the outcome. "It fits so well", said the visitors; "It feels already as if it's always been there." said members of the home team.

Yes, it just fitted perfectly. No modifications were needed. It doesn't intrude upon the fine modern stained glass windows which rise perfectly above it. The triptych fully open fits against the east wall with sufficient clearance around to frame this great ritual art work properly.

St Theodore's has undergone a major restoration and clean up which makes the most of its pale coloured sandstone interior. A classic 'high Anglican' building, it is blessed by being uncluttered, plain and simple with bursts of restrained beauty and colour in its altars, Marian shrine and windows. The reredos was a reject from the un-remembered London church for which it had been commissioned in the early 1920s. It looked beautiful and imposing close to in St James', but it hand't been designed with St James' sanctuary in mind.

Colonel Bruce Vaughan, architect of St James' - he'd been an engineer with the Indian Army - was a master of mediaeval church design. Thw church he built cannot be identified as a copy of any known 12th century French Gothic church, but if it sat in a market town across the Channel, it would be presumed ancient from its look and feel.

Now that the reredos and altar have been removed from Vaughan's sanctuary, it looks like the space he intended it to be, uterly simple. The reredos originally may have been a liturgically fashionable 'must-have' items for a thriving church. I'm not sure Vaughan would have approved as much as the congregation did of this innovation. But by then, he was in Adamasdown cemetery.

St James' hasn't survived as a place of worship (we wonder when the new owners will start work on redeveloping the building in the present economic climate), but that fine reredos, whose historical origins have not yet been traced, looks like it's found a home worthy of its magnificence eighty five years after it was first fashioned. For me, this was a moment of closure, of sorts, though the sadness of loss endures.

We arrived in good time to lunch at Newton House and have a good look around the house and grounds, including spectacular views from Dynefor Castle ruins, before moving down to Llandeilo to see what they've done to adapt their church building to serve contemporary needs - with some excellently designed Parish and community rooms in their spare North Aisle, and use of the space at the base of the tower for a cyber-facsimile exhibition of the eighth century Llandeilo Gospel manuscript which lives in Lichfield Cathedral. The way it worked out so positively spells 'regeneration' in a rural community. It makes a change from new shopping centres, that's for sure.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The sound of music

Clare and I went to the performance of Humperdink's 'Hansel and Gretel' at the Millennium Centre this evening, beautifully done by WNO. Having not heard it for many years, we were both struck by the familiarity of several of its key melodies. I guess when you've been listening to music of all kinds of the best part of sixty years that you can remember, all sorts of musical memories are lodged in the deeper recesses of the unconscious mind. If heard many times, either on BBC Radio TV or live performances, no single place, time, feeling or memory inevitably attaches itself to the sound you recollect. As a cleric, I suspect that's even truer of certain pieces of liturgical music and organ music. The music simply becomes part of who you are.

That's fine, so long as there's still an input of new music, stretching awareness. Our generation has been fortunate with the kind of access we have to music via TV and the internet from all over the world, whether ancient or fresh and new. The hunger for new statements in sound breeds a certain impatience with a vast amount of contemporary commercial production. There are so many parts of the planet whose music is different from what is familiar to satisfy some of the need for the new, but this has its limits. Music that fuses traditions from different cultures is often exciting and refreshing - representing genuine conversation between creative cultures.

The amazing innovation of our era is electronic music - amazing for its potential to explore so many different worlds of sound and rhythm. Depending on your personal taste this ranges from the exquisitely refined to the downright disturbing, from the ethereally abstract to the banal and concrete. It's a new form of musical language, but one has to remember that it issues from the humans behind the machines - strange indeed, because it rarely has the 'edge' - i.e. whatever it takes to make you sit up and take notice, which accompanies much 'fusion' music.

I love the way opera makes such powerful use of visual imagery to create a frame fo reference for hearing the music, often it seems to me - at least with WNO productions - very attentive to the cultural layers and textures that can evoke the setting of the drama. Such thought and preparation, just to allow music to speak for itself. Would that in the church we were in the habit of giving the same level of consideration to the presentation of our familiar liturgical actions! But having said that - would I know where to start in the place I am called to produce an act that makes worship possible in such a familiar context?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On writing your life

I think I've mentioned here before that writing a journal is something I've done on and off during most decades of my ministry. The first ever was a travel journal of our first visit to Greece in 1967. Most of those journals were intended to focus on the changes and chances of my inner life, as I came to grips with my vocation, went on retreats and pilgrimages, and so on. I can hardly bear to sample them retrospectively because they are full of agonising introspection, with occasional lines of insight and poetry, and all too rare narrative. But, well ... not nearly as interesting as the travel journals I kept on trips to Syria, Bosnia, Mongolia, when we lived in Geneva.

I finished my time there with a ten week sabbatical living and working in Jerusalem. I may well have written a journal (I must hunt through the dusty boxes and see), but more importantly, as I worked 'back office' for Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian NGO during those weeks, I had access to email, and wrote to family, friends and congregation about my daily life as the second intifada was tragically unfolding. Just doing that changed my relationship to keeping a journal and what I wanted to express through it.

Anyway it was really an early initiation into blogging. But, it was no longer the restless agonisings of a spiritual diary. It was a matter of telling the unfolding story, reflecting on it and my reactions to it, as much as I could at the time. Blogger was a twinkle in a programmers eye in those days. I guess I discovered it when I was ready, with the story of city centre ministry in a time of large scale redevelopment to tell. This is now my third year with this blog.

One day I'll get around to raiding my digital archive and re-reading those stories I told from Jerusalem which so deeply moved me and re-aligned me for the part of the journey which was about to unfold when I returned to a new job, which in itself brought me back to where I am now.

I started journalling before there were 'experts' giving courses on doing this as an aid to spiritual growth. So I never got around to attending and probably did it all wrong. Who are you writing a spiritual diary for? Well, it's true that it helps you to work out what you think, maybe to find some truth about yourself that you're hiding from, revealed as you write, or even as you edit and correct, as I have discovered since using a computer for this purpose, rather than a plain hardback exercise book in longhand.

Sometimes you write for yourself, sometimes you're writing to God, for God, as your inner focus changes. Perhaps the product is so cringe-worthy when revisited because it's obvious just how much or little one thinks about God let alone talks to God in 'spiritual' exercise. So, I learned how good I am at kidding myself, and trying to impress myself. So what?

The change came when I was telling the story to my email recipients, trying to be a genuine, compassionate, faithful witness, often angry and bewildered in the face of what was happening in the streets of the Holy City, while I was there. It revealed my prejudices. It revealed how easily I can be swayed, how quickly God can be left out of the picture painted, and yet, how useless is the language of religion and piety to articulate the first hand experience of the moment, yet how paradoxically that same religious language can emerge from seemingly nowhere within to crystallise accurately a small impression on the reality.

When I started blogging here, it was to tell this particular story, and to try and be the story-teller that I am, with my unique background a calling, struggling to work out what it means to be unashamedly a Christian in this very secular and materialistic environment, and how to live that and communicate that to my audience ..... audience? What audience?

I know there are people around the city, around Europe and other continents who dip in here from time to time - those I've known before and worked with, or am still working with - thanks for taking an interest in what I'm up to. It certainly helps to focus conversation when we get around to 'catch-up' time. My life is so full and varied, not least my moods and reactions during this final period of my public working life in an institution in which I think I know my place, but have never been sure that I really belong. Through this writing and reflecting, never terribly pious, not as pious as I am in my deepest privacy, for sure, the story I tell is about what's going on around me, that I'm able to engage with. God may not get full-on mentions, nor get addressed directly too often in what I write. But what makes this situation writeable about for me is that God is present in the hopes and creativity and caring that are the warp and weft of daily life.

Rudolf Steiner's mantras offered to teachers (told me by my wife) - "I am peace - I am in God : I am love - God is in me", for use night and day, underwrite my desire to tell this story the best I can, to value this situation for all that it is worth.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Truth and fiction - common ground

Yesterday I had a conversation with a young non-European couple hoping to get married soon. One was of Buddhist background, the other making a journey towards Christian faith with a family member who attends a local Pentecostal Church. On Sunday they'd gone to that church and heard a guest preacher. In conversation afterwards about their martial intentions, the preacher had declared with conviction that their relationship could have no future if they were of different religions, or in this case with different religious backgrounds and inclinations.

I don't quite know how this squares up with St Paul's teaching about inter-religious marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 Yet again, I found myself doing damage limitation on people's impressions of the Gospel and Christian faith as a result of ideas propagated which simply don't bear scrutiny from the perspective of generous and long standing Christian tradition.

I wonder what impression this gave the young Buddhist, whose good will was evident in being willing to seek a Christian wedding because it would mean something important and affirming for the partner's spiritual quest. It reminded me of the story-line in BBC's radio 4 soap opera 'The Archers' at the moment where Alan the country Vicar has proposed to his long-standing Hindu lawyer friend Usha, a rural refugee from Wolverhampton. Alan, a widower is getting reproaches from his West Indian pentecostal mother-in-law, who is praying they'll see the light and not do the deed - plus there's the odd rural fascist poison pen letter in the mix as well. I'm amazed 1 Corinthians 7 hasn't yet come up in discussion between other church-going characters in the script, even more amazed that Allan hasn't argued this out with his bible bashing in-law citing Paul. The script writers have missed a trick here, unless of course Alan's fictional theological training didn't cover eventualities of this kind.

Marriage between people with identical faith and cultural convictions must be increasingly a rarity in such a mobile world as ours. The amazing thing is that people do love each other and want the best for each other and a life together in the face of their differences, and not ignoring them. It's tough, risky, and it goes wrong, particularly when one's nearest and dearest are unsupportive. But it's not impossible - simply because the foundation of mutual love is a gift from beyond, a wonder not to be taken for granted. The hard work comes in sustaining this deep appreciation in the face of years of familiarity and intimacy - and with it, an ever greater reward.

Faith focus unfolding

We had our fourth Countdown 2009 Faith Focus Group this afternoon, the best attended so far, with the UWIC interfaith Chaplain, two Hindu community representatives, three different Welsh language church representatives, the Vicar of St Mary's Butetown, and myself, as well as Paul Mannings and Sue his scribe, representing the Council.

It was a positive affair with a lot to cram into an hour - we didn't quite make it, but the vital thing is that some bonds of mutual interest are forging into what I believe can become an engine of activity to celebrate and promote the cultural and religious diversity of of city - particularly our city centre. This is just as important as being able to offer a commentary from a faith communities' angle on the development vision as it unfolds.

Having done a lot of homework on the city's faith communities for the Spiritual Capital research project, I feel now as if I should start drafting a tourist guide book to the faith communities of the City Centre and the Bay. We really have so much going for us. But where will we find the funding for a suitable publication?

Monday, June 09, 2008

Rubbish and the Media

Twice last week I had calls from the Media Wales newsroom from journalists with questions that arose from their reading of this blog. One was concerned with the churchyard public art project, and the other with my last inventory of the rubbish left behind by big match day fans, and the invective I aimed at those who litter our streets and bring such disgrace to our City.

Sadly, the journos at 'Wales on Sunday' personalised the issue by naming the victorious Munster team, as if their supporters alone had been responsible for the mess, as if there had been no French or Welsh fans contributing to the rubbish in the streets and in the churchyard. Nothing that I wrote invited that conclusion. Anybody who can't make the effort to help keep our streets clean, no matter what their loyalty, race or religion, merits censure.

When a reporter from Munster radio station rang up the church today to ask for an interview, I explained that I couldn't be held responsible for the desire of the Media Wales editorial team to pick a fight with the Irish. Also they only published half my 'message to (all) fans', they requested a quote: "Please put your rubbish in the bins provided", omitting the other half of the 'message' "Or, if the bins are too full, take your empties and wrappings back to the place of purchase." Was that all too complex for the average reader to grasp?

Come on news gathers - help us on the front line out there to influence opinion and build consensus, by reflecting the real difficulties of the situation, and what this city is trying hard to achieve but not getting the support it deserves. I speak as one swift to criticise what isn't working for the benefit of all citizens.

Well guys and gals, if you're still reading me this week, here's a few more tid-bits to make you think.

Number one: Putting out giant additional rubbish bins on Big Match days has been deemed a no-no. They're a fire risk. No consideration given here to the frequency of rain on Big Match days. How comforting it would be for the rubbish collection crew to have most of of their material pre-gathered in targeted spots. It's 'health and safety' as an alibi. We have enough local CCTV cameras to be able to site any big rubbish bin in full view. We know from the speed the fire service responded to the O'Neill's pub fire across the road from the church, that an end can soon be put to dangerous incendiary moments. Streets are far more dangerous when people can slip and fall on plastic beaker splinters, turn an ankle on a can or bottle, or if really unlucky, get cut by a smashed glass bottle in the street - imported into the centre by fans from coaches or from outlying suburbs, unaware of danger they are discarding. The solution must lie as much with the rubbish creators (packaged food and drink providers and their clients), as with City services that sweep up after them. A little common sense wouldn't go amiss.

Number two: Half an hour after I was interviewed about rubbish on Friday afternoon, the City Centre night-time ops manager told me that a recent study by Prof John Shepherd of Cardiff University shows a reduction in reported violent crime at night of up to 30% at night, if streets are clean and clear, compared to streets from which neither rubbish had been cleared, nor day time tables and chairs removed. It's simple. A rubbishy environment encourages rubbishy behaviour. It's not just a matter for our valiant Police force or the City Cleansing team to take note of. They know! The dignity and worth of this City - old fashioned civic pride - matters greatly in my view. It marks the difference between civility and barbarism, between a City safe at night for ALL, not just some citizens.

This message is for the pub and club owners and restuaranteurs to take to heart. Don't keep pushing back the boundaries of by-laws intended to guarantee a stable and worthy environment for ALL citizens. In this present climate of 'tolerance' it seems as if the whole world assumes these things don't matter, that anyone who has no respect for the public realm can just do what they like in the City Centre playground and be anonymous, therefore immune from challenge or censure by day or by night.

The real problem is the lack of energy and commitment to enforce by-laws and accepted standards. If only life offered sufficient time to run through the City Centre CCTV camera footage, and pull out all those images of uncivil abuse, and broadcast them, maybe the indulgent would think twice. They wouldn't do those things at home - toss rubbish into their neighbour's or their granny's garden wherever they come from - would they? So why do it in Cardiff? The Capital City deserves better.

Anyway, thanks Media Wales for acknowledging the importance of the issue - even if you declined to report it 'my way'.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Reclaiming space

I was able to ride into the city centre on my bike for the eight o'clock service this morning, in warm air under a blue sky - the first good day for this kind of Sunday start for ages. It was pleasing to see that Trinity Street was no longer blocked by the emergency works to enclose the frontage of O'Neill's pub before restoration work begins. An excellent start to the day, as it meant that churchgoers didn't have to spend an age finding the nearest point to the building at which they could park - still too few buses to use to get to church on time.

The only spoiler was the appearance of a bright red graffiti tag on the newly erected hoarding around the pub, which had not yet been completely painted white to give a visual lift to the street. If only the city's graffiti artist project hadn't been suppressed last year. That was a big mistake. For a while, defacing scribbles on buildings all but disappeared, now it's returning because the kids who do it haven't got anything more creative and prestigious to do. The devil finds work for idle hands, as my mother used to say.

At the 9.30am Eucharist my predecessor Canon 'Mac' Ellis baptised his grandson, to the delight, not only of his family but all the regular congregation members who watched his children grow up in and around the church. It was lovely to have such a sunny day to light up the newly painted interior of the building. Philip, in the new role as administrator has not only done a superb job liaising with the builders and decorators over the past five months, he has also made it his business to liberate the building from lots of old junk gathering in quiet corners, adding to the feeling of clutter. He uses his gentle diplomatic skills to great effect, even succeeding in getting the support of the one of the Council's key rubbish removal supervisors to take stuff away that would have taken an age to dispose of piecemeal in the back of a car. There is a sense of spaciousness about the building at the moment that reminds me of one of those well kept German city churches. It's a great aid to contemplation.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Building and rebuilding in the city centre

Trinity Street is blocked again today, while scaffolding is erected and an enclosure built around O'Neill's pub, to contain the equipments that'll be needed to restore the building after the fire.

An engineer from the company working on the restoration project, armed with camera called into the church to ask it it would be possible to access the tower to take a photograph. This wasn't such an easy request to respond to, as not all the keys to ascend the heights are immediately available. However, I was able to offer to email him an excellent photograph taken from the tower roof by Richard our churchwarden, on ringing practice night.

Work on the St David's shopping centre this week has now got to the stage where roofing structure for the arcade is rapidly being put into place. Webcam photos from St David's Hall on Monday and yesterday show clearly how much has been done in three days. So, I made a circuit of the building sit and took some additional photos to add to my web photo-narrative, including, finally a picture from the ninth floor of Southgate House, during a visit to the city centre manager's office. Paul enthused to me about the newly opened marketing suite for apartments under construction, located in a retail unit at at the western end of the Wyndham Arcade, so on my way back to church I called in to have a look for myself.

There's a scale model of the entire complex of the 305 apartments being constructed, and linked to it there's a computer simulation, accessed by an expensively large touchpad, linked to a massive LCD screen, which permits a fly-by tour of the apartment site, and the possibility of homing in on one of the five? blocks in the complex, clicking on a particular apartment and floor, and then seeing on the big LCD screen an outside image of the location of the apartment. Added to this, as if the virtual view is not enough, the location of the apartment within the physical 3D model light up, so you know where you are. Impressive!

You don't get an impression of what you see when you look out from any apartment, mind you. But the 3D model has enough detail to enable you to imagine how each block of the complex will look, with its trees and gardens two floors above street level. You also get a good impression from the model of how the apartment blocks relate to the shopping centre. At last I understand why there's an east-west gap in the middle of the steel structure, seen from the Hayes. It's one of the entrances to the main shopping mall, which itself will be lined with shops. The south end of the apartment complex has a curved exterior face. This overlooks the John Lewis store building. In effect, the design creates a new street between the SD2 edifice and the John Lewis store. All this will become clearer as the external cladding on the building frameworks is put in place.

The scale of all this construction work is still a bit mind numbing, and it's easy for most people to switch off and simply endure until it becomes obvious what's there to be lived with. However, for me there is a certain geeky fascination with working out what is emerging behind construction site hoardings, as well as speculating how it's all going to translate into social interaction between hundreds of people willing to shell out £2-400,000 for a piece of city centre real estate.

The charming young lady who was minding the shop and gave me a tour of its technology said that it was noticeable the number of older people who were taking an interest and signing up for a future apartment in the heart of the city. I understand the attractions and the convenience this implies, but as I approach retirement, my thoughts and feelings are dominated by the prospect of a view of mountains and/or sea, and a small enough plot of land to cope with growing veggies and a site to savour the view. We don't know where this will be as yet, but after a mostly urban ministry, the possibility of something rather different is compelling.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


There was a small team of engineers at work today behind the Heras fencing enclosing O'Neill's pub, and blocking Trinity Street. They were assessing the damage, and discussing a plan of action. By tea-time, I'd received an email from Steve in City Centre Management to say that re-building work is to start immediately, with part of the street shuttered off to provide an enclosure for a skip to collect the fire damaged materials. Re-opening is proposed for August.

That's a nice and positive response on the part of the brewers M&B. I imagine the owners of Piazza Italia next door must be relieved, since the fire ran up to and almost through their party wall. They had some smoke damage, in their upstairs kitchen apparently, that was all. Hopefully they can re-open soon for trade. Just as summer arrives is not a good time to be shut. Howells and the Market were open for business as usual this morning, despite the nightmare of having all the suppliers unable to enter and exit by the usual route, with Trinity street blocked off. All the vans had to enter via Wharton Street and turn around in a narrow space and exit the same way. I guess it was just impossible for larger vehicles to enter at all. Trading losses for yesterday alone will run into big six figures, it's guesstimated. Church folk are just grateful that there's been no damage to the building, and all our fresh paintwork.

Reflecting on the news coverage, with almost every photo frame shot capturing some portion of St John's, so close and dominating the quarter, it's notable that no mention of the church being so close was made in any reportage whatsoever. It illustrates how selective is the perception of the news reporters and editors in narrating their story - and a popular pub figures more in their account of the city than its oldest place of worship. Gone are the days when this incident would have merited a headline such as "City Church neighbourhood pub fire".

I was reading about the post-modern world view recently, with its absence of 'meta-narrative', a commonly accepted account of how the world is, in which religion and religious meanings play a key part. In a secular age, religious meanings are optional, one set of choices among many. I used to regard that as a philosopher's injunction - 'this is how you will see the world form now on', so to speak. Gradually, I've come to realise this is what's happened, this is how the world is for many people today. I'm not sure why even.

Thinking back to this morning's session on signage and map making. Part of the value of the discussion was the mutual discovery that not everyone needs to receive information in the same way, and not everyone needs the same information to arrive where they're wanting to go. The bigger map, the larger picture isn't helpful to everyone, doesn't meet everyone's needs. But the question persists of how you can provide a helpful service to as many people as possible? Maybe a universally useful service can only be a success if everyone has to give and take, and learn a little in order to acquire a common frame of reference. How would you go about this?

Perhaps post modernity is like having sections of maps which are helpful when seen in their appropriate context, and the big general map is there too, but only for those who feel they need it. Yet, everyone needs to learn the sign language of the map, and the appropriatness of the sign conventions is what arouses most debate. Which makes me wonder about religion and post modernity. Are we paying enough attention to the meaning and function of the signs and symbols of the realm of faith. and what they convey? Or are we still lost, trying to figure out the map?

Way-finding - which way forward?

This morning's Countdown 2009 executive board meeting was dominated by a presentation on way-finding connected with the work of the Focus Group which has the task of preparing a new integrated signage and mapping system to assist visitors to the city - initially to the centre and eventually to the Borough.

Recently I photographed the nice cast iron finger post which stood outside the church in St John's Street, sadly lying horizonal across the jaws of an earth moving machine, on its way to the scrap heap. The execrable scaffolding pole with a supplementary brown and white sign pointing the wrong direction to the water bus, erected by the Harbour Authority without consulting anyone responsible for signs in the city, which seemed as irremovable as it was ugly alongside the finger post, had already gone. (That little incident, with the left hand of the council not knowing what the right hand is doing, gave an entirely new meaning to the term 'fly-posting'.) What design information bearing street furniture is destined to replace those uprooted is still in process of determination.

I'm quite used to working with street maps and once I've got my orientation in a place, to making my way around without much further reference to a map unless I can't see any of my key navigational landmarks. By habit I still want to know roughly where the four points of the compass are, and I have trouble on overcast days when I can't see the sun to work out which was is north. I also spend a certain amount of time giving people directions, and from this have realised how hard it is for those who are unfamiliar and disoriented to manage instructions.

So, I was delighted to hear this presentation, and challenged to realise how conceptually difficult it is to try and design an integrated system of signs and maps from the bottom up. There are many conventions presupposed, and they are not all perceived in the same way by those with different information needs from what's on offer. Keeping things simple and legible is top priority, and getting people to the key places where they can shop, travel or be entertained is essential. The challenge is determining how much people need to know when they're in a given location, to enable them to know where they are and get where they want to go.

It was a clear presentation, and if I ended up feeling a bit bewildered it was because I hadn't realised how hard it is to make things intelligible for those who don't find urban orienteering as easy as I do. Out of date SATNAV instructions are still landing motorists in trouble, not only in Cardiff, but in all sorts of places - town and country. There's a limit to the value of instructions delivered in a linear fashion if you cannot also hold in mind an overview of where you are. It's too early to comment on the ideas being put forward, except to say that they are interesting and attractive, and will generate a lot more discussion before hitting the street in physical form. Good luck to the guys who'll ache their heads of this, I say. Pity that this little preparatory task hadn't been started a couple of years earlier.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

O'Neill's on fire

I was confined to the house this morning while a small team of electricians changed the smoke detection alarm system. Just around midday I had my seond call of the morning from the carpenter working on a job in church, hunting for the right keys to gain access to the chancel from among the collection held by Tea Room workers. Almost casually he mentioned that smoke was coming into church from a fire over at O'Neill's pub across Trinity Street from the churchyard.

When Clare returned, I was able to pop down and see the chaos for myself, but couldn't get close because there was a security cordon right around the area. The Market, Howells store and all the neighbouring shops had been evacuated. The Tea Room workers had gone home by this time, obliged by the police to leave. However, the carpenter continued his tasks within the building, and conscientiously locked up after him, as I discovered later.

It seems as if as fire started in the kitchen at the back of the building on the first floor and spread upwards into a small apartment on the third floor, and thence into the roof space. By the time I get there, around two, the flames had ceased leaping through the void where the roof had collapsed, but water was still being pumped in to bring down the temperature and suppress smouldering beams particularly around the chimney stack shared with Piazza Italia next door.
Piazza Italia has its kitchen on the second floor, and apparently suffered some smoke damage, but was otherwise saved by prompt action on the part of the fire brigade.

It could have been so much worse, as Steve Barrett, City Centre Ops manager commented. At 11h50, the pedestrian zone regulations were already in force and so it was possible for the fire tenders, a water bowser, mobile platform and a mobile control room to get into Church Street anmd Trinity Street unhindered. It could have been worse if the re-paving work had been a bit more advanced and the street in front of the pub was being excavated. It could have been worse if the pub had opened for trade. As it is, there were no casualities apart from the day's takings for all the businesses in the district forced to shut down and evacuate, leaving behind a fair amount of food which will be unsaleable tomorrow. Will insurance cover all of that loss of income I wonder? It would be difficult to imagine - not least as there is still no organisation that unites all the traders in the quarter to represent them on issues of common concern, whether it be on traffic management or matters of redevelopment. How quickly the old motto 'unity is strength' seems to be forgotten.

I went down to have a second look this evening. The pub and Piazza Italia are cordoned off temporarily with Heras fencing. If that's there in the morning, it's be bedlam with all the various food supply lorries arriving. It doesn't look as if the fire damaged building is about to collapse into the street, as the burning went on mostly at the back and upstairs. Most of the windows on the street side are undamaged, the doors are intact.

Ironically, there's a notice in the unbroken picture window on to the street.

'Kitchen staff required'

Monday, June 02, 2008

Lies, damned lies and statistics

I rang the R.B. this morning to explain the problems we have putting a reasonable population estimate down on the required annual return forms. I asked gently for what the purpose the statistic was required - did anything important depend upon its accuracy? I received a slightly disconcerted response. "It's to complete the return." I was told. For no other purpose? Who ever uses these statistics? I wondered. There was no point in arguing. I gave my guesstimate (2000 people in 2006-7, 2,500 in 2007-8), and warned that the figure might only be 50% accurate, because of the characteristics of the area, but I could tell that my inquisitor had already switched off, having filled the required blank on the computer database.

I've long been interested in why God should have punished King David's people with plague after he had taken a census of the people. Well, David wanted data which he could use for military and economic assessment of his citizens. Knowledge is power. He wanted to know as much about his subjects as God knew, vain and sinful as the pretensions of the men of Babel. The more you know, the more power you have the more you're faced with the complexities of handling what you know. In Hebrew story telling God is cause and effect of everything.

So, when there' s a plague, it's an unwelcome 'god-send', pereceived by David has being less of a risky option than three years of famine or a season in flight from his enemies. One way or another David regards his fate as punishment for his pride. It is also punishing to him in another way, since once he had exact population numbers, it meant he'd be in a position to know the death-toll, and the damage that would do to his military and economic pretensions. Sometimes it's better not to know how weak you really are, else you lose heart altogether.

Life was cheap enough in those days, considering the numbers expended in battle. As long as more enemies died than one's own kin, and power was retained, there was victory. In an epidemic there are no victors only survivors, and the chastening knowledge of one's vulnerability re-sizing ambitions. David had once more to re-learn how utterly dependent he was, both as a man and king, upon God.

Nowadays the church imitates society in its preoccupation with numbers. Laws that govern the way we organise ourselves charitably make exacting and costly demands on our 'accountability' in every sense. It means that the fluctuating fortunes of the church are rather too closely documented and pored over for trends and meanings that really don't tell us much about what's going on in people's hearts or relationships.

It seems people aren't disinterested in religion nor in things spiritual. What they're not interested in is sustained commitment and support for religious organisations, as expressions of community. That's something one doesn't need statistics to demonstrate. Active expressions of faith, personal or share, are as difficult to chart as city centre population statistics. Numbers, as David discovered carry with them their own woes. The real life and blessing consists in those human stories of which numbers are an abstraction bearing little meaning in the real world.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The challenge of sustainability

This Sunday was also World Environment Day and World Refugee day, giving us plenty to consider on top of the liturgical material for the day. We were able to use the nave and the chancel again, as the scaffolding was all taken out on Friday, and three quarters of the nave cleaned up for use. Just the temporary storage space now needs dismantling to restore the nave to normal. Some of the scaffolding has been re-erected outside to enable minor works to be done on the gutters and roof. We're getting as much done as we can, all in one go.

Everyone's very pleased with the results of the redecoration - a job that's cost £100,000, and which has been paid for out of the earnings of the Tea Room over a seven year period. This is a very impressive testimony to the long-term hard labour of our volunteers. On top of this a further £25,000 has been raised to pay for replacement window guards over the past two years, and a further equivalent sum spent on remedying structural cracks caused by subsidence. It's a huge amount of money to spend on bricks and mortar, but it's such a beautiful structure and so well loved by the thousands of people who pass through and pray each year. It's a place where many can reconnect with the mysteries of life and faith, a special staging point on their spiritual journey.

Given the small number of people who regularly support the life of the church in the heart of the city, these are remarkable achievements. The practice of being 'church for others' is embodied both in the ministry of hospitality, and in the maintenance of such prestigious bricks and mortar.

Because there are so few committed people involved in the long term, the question of future sustainability is one that constantly overshadows us. Despite relative financial success in coping with such huge demands, rising energy costs are going to pose a real challenge for the years ahead. We can't afford not to heat the church to a modest degree, as this helps to conserve the fabric and furnishings and prolong the maintenance cycle. The bigger picture is now challenging us to think differently. Heating such a large space means a large carbon footprint, a church that is part of the problem of global warming, not the solution. Practicing hat we preach is not going to be easy.

Mulling over these things in preparing my sermon for today led me to say that our next project to enhance the church must be to face the challenge of making the church a zero carbon foot-print building, using geothermal heating and photo-voltaic cells on the roof. There's a real danger that archtectural conservationists in CADW will be obstructive to these aims, and that doing battle with them on matters of princiciple may prove as difficult as fund-raising. I get the impression that members of the congregation understand the task, and know them, they won't shirk from it.