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.