Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking to the future

All the paperwork relating to the demise of our beloved old VW Golf arrived today, plus a cheque for £265. The procedure required careful reading, a little form filling, and a trip up to the local office of the DVLC in Llanishen to fill in a form to reclaim the unused car tax, after the lunchtime Eucharist, attended by a handful of the faithful, as usual.

The city centre continues to welcome a large volume of bargain hunting shoppers. Clare and I ventured out after an early supper to take advantage of the later opening hours, and have a good look around - not that this resulted in any impulse purchases. Our minds are set on furnishing sales to equip our retirement house with a suitably downsized bed, wardrobes etc. Much of the furniture will have to go, simply because it will not fit in to our modest terraced house. This is one of the un-mentioned penalties of living in grand tied cottages for forty years of family life. Nevertheless it's not yet a matter of squeezing the most cherished possessions into a couple of tiny rooms in sheltered accommodation. We're grateful to have a home of our own to move into on our own terms.

The evening I watched the last of the Matrix trilogy of sci-fi movies on TV, having endured films one and two on Monday and Tuesday. Being sci-fi, all three were a tour de force of special effects and computer generated imagery, as it has evolved over the past decade, depicting an epic struggle in a future when digital technologies which have taken over the world, exploiting humans as fodder to keep 'The Matrix' alive. The remnant of real human beings do battle to reclaim the world, let by a messianic figure, who gives his life to free mankind (for real) in the final scenes of the third episode.

The dialogue was stilted, the acting uninspiring, the whole thing ponderous Fight sequences were far too long and too many, and all based in 'virtual reality' i.e. they looked like endless repeats of either an arcade kung fu or adventure game on a kid's game machine, very stylised generally dull, just occasionally amusing. Much of the the dialogue was, kinda philosophical, resembing stuff that used to be found in text based adventure games. There was a good deal of cinematic homage in the use of shots or visual cliches. All very clever, highly popular, but just overweight, pretentious. Three episodes of two and three quarter hours each, with at least ten minutes of adverts per hour made it a test of endurance. But since all the kids have seen it and said 'Dad you ought to watch it' in times past, I thought I should make the effort. It's fortunate I had leisure time to waste during these chilly evenings.

I understand the Matrix has been subject of some theological reflection. It raises questions about the nature of reality understood from a reductionist and atomistic point of view. It extemporises in 'science fantasy' mode around the theme of human dependency upon technology to uphold the lifestyles we covet. It places a high value on truth, courage and the capacity of love to sustain hope and work miracles of transformation. However, the self sacrificing hero achieves the redemption of the world by meeting violence with violence. This is as far as possible from the Crucified God, whose 'powerless power overcomes powerful power' (the power of those who have it, cling to it), and use it to do violence to retain it) as my wise mentor Bishop David Jenkins used to say.

So, in every sense, it was an innovative attempt to speculate about redemption, reaching a conclusion as boring and predictable as much of the film's action scenes, but it offered only the insight that humanity is as lost as it ever was or ever can be without a Gospel whose entire action is to dispense with the need for violence at all. For me there's nothing new in that. Convincing others is the real battle for survival.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Sunday

There were just a couple of dozen of us in church for the Sung Eucharist, the only service today. Many regulars are still away. We had two visitors staying at the Marriott, who complained of the poor and misleading information they were given about Christmas services, on arrival Christmas Eve, with the church being descibed as a baptist church (as ever). I said that I had taken information personally to all fourteen hotels around the centre. Our vistors, from another town centre church, understood that getting infomration used properly was always a bit of a lottery. They attributed the problem to the fact that most of the hotal staff were foreign with little or no local experience or information, and even less proper training in delivering such occasional services to guests.

At a guess, half the congregation at Midnight Mass were staying in hotels, that's fifty people out of a possible several thousand occupants. I imagine St David's Cathedral might have done a lot better with hotel visitors, with or without supporting information. I really should have put some real effort into getting publicity on to the information systems of the hotels. All the staff at the welcome desks have to use computers, so little or no training is required, other than a reminder that the information is there.

Kath, Anto and Rhiannon left for home after lunch. Tomorrow they fly to Alicante to spend New Year in Sta Pola, including greeting the Three Kings arriving in style for the twelfth night fiesta. It's four degrees in Cardiff today, but twenty four degrees down there in Sta Pola.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing day outing

We had tickets booked for Kath, Rhiannon and I to go skating this morning. It started to rain as we all began to walk down to City Hall Gardens, but by the time we'd arrived and donned skates, it had stopped, and remained so for the hour of our skating session. We even had a rainbow. It was a delightful experience to share, with lots of photos taken, and hot chocolates drunk afterwards. Then we all made our ways into the city centre to sample the delights of the Boxing Day sale. It is the first time I can ever recall having done this. Normally we head off for a country walk, but apart from Owain Clare and I, none of the others had sampled the delight of our new shopping Shangrila.

It was very busy indeed. I took James for a tour of the technology stores in search of a laptop for him, and be the end of trading we'd obtained an excellent Song Vaio at a decent discount. The rest of the evening was spent setting it up, explaining step by step all the useful features, and getting it to work in the safest, hassle free manner. An enjoyable thing to do with an unquisitive teenager.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Morning

I walked down for the Sung Eucharist of the day, under clear skies, with the sun rising from behind the horrible Greyfiars tower. There we no rough sleepers sheltering under the portico of the Law Courts or any outher civic building that I could see. Hopefully that means all are taken care of, and in good company somewhere locally. Just a handful of cars were parked in Edward VII ave, where they are usually hundreds, and hardly a soul in sight. Complete tranquility.

There were about fifty people in church. Several young couples brought their offspring, so it was just lovely to have the sound of children's voices in church. Just the way it should be on this day of the Holy Child. All the family came - a special pleasure for me. By the time I got home after the tidy up, lunch preparations were well advanced. After feasting sumpuously, we sat down with the Christams tree candles lit, to exchange presents, and I fell immediately to sleep, waking up an hour later to a small pile of unopened presents. Everyone else had carried on around me, and I was oblivious. Thanks heavens, not sick this year, but evidently more tired than I realised, and so grateful for all the blessings of home and family, which I know so many to be deprived of.

Christmas Eve - an orderly affair

Another frosty day, and yet another telephone call to the insurers disclosed that the car write off was official. A write-off sum was agreed, and that set the the rest of the procedure in motion which enabled us to insure, then go and buy the replacement Golf, fortunately just a couple of miles away from home. Kath, Anto and Rhiannon arrived just as we returned with our prize. It was all just in time for me to leave for church and the midday Eucharist. This year there were just a couple of dozen people present, but it was still worthwhile, for the sake of those who will be with family or friends for the rest of the festival.

There was time to get things ready for the Midnight Mass before taking Communion to Hilda number one. (I have two Hildas who are home communicants at the moment). Hilda number two is away with family. Then it was time to go and fetch Amanda and James from Bristol. It's the first time for several years that they've been able to be with us for Christmas.

Over a hundred people were present for the Midnight Mass. Only 10% of the congregation were people I already knew. There was a significant number of young Asians (as often happens at this service), also older people enjoying Christmas in one of the local hotels.

Most remarkably, the streets were almost empty of revellers and rubbish. The pubs had already closed when I arrived at 10.30pm. The City centre was beautifully quiet, abandoned to those coming to worship. No trouble with drunken revellers or disorderly conduct. You could attribute this to the cold weather, or to recession encouraging cost cutting overtime saving early closures, or to the termination of bus services early in the evening. Or a combination of all of these. For the streets to be reclaimed by late night worshippers and, most importantly, elderly visitors is a triumph, of social engineering or a happy combination of random factors. But one way or another it felt like a triumph to me, and it put me in great mood for the celebration.

It reminded me of those quiet frosty Christmas Eves in Geneva, when the only people out apart from worshippers would be worshippers and late diners in posh restaurants for 'le reveillon' as the evening meal on Christmas Eve is called.

Now what must be done to ensure this becomes the quality benchmark of a visitor friendly city for festive seasons to come?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A wintry farewell

Forty eight hours pass. We are unable to extract any news from the insurers. However, we have seen the Golf we propose to buy, a bright blue green colour 1995 'Match' in excellent condition. An affordable bargain, but we still have to wait.

After the Eucharist, two hundred people in church - not for anything Christmassy, but for the funeral of the young mother of two who booked me for the occasion just a couple of weeks ago.

Her husband had composed a beautiful moving poetic tribute to their life together, and this was read by his best friend. The children and close family members placed flowers on her coffin and the children offered some drawings which were blu-tacked to the sides.

As we parted from the church at the end we sang '

"You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace,
and the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you,
there'll be shoults of joy, and the trees of the field shall clap shall clap their hands."

This was approved at my final meeting with the couple. Philip drove it along nicely on the organ. The first verse was a bit of a struggle, but it picked up in the second. I'd reached to door by the time we finished, turned and started a round of applause, quickly taken up by the congregation, although it was not perhaps what they had expected in their moment of sadness, until they realised that they could make it as their own tribute to a remarkable woman who's shown such honest and courage in the face of her own death.

The traffic was congested and slow driving to the crematorium in heavy sleet, but enough time had been left to ensure we were punctual, and for once we needed that extra because of the poor conditions. After the brief committal, there was a long slow departure. The children cried and dad comforted them, and the entire congregation attempted to comfort them all as they went past, a community of family and friends embracing them with sympathy and compassion. People at their best.

There was a reception afterwards at the Llandaff Rowing Club clubhouse, overlooking the weir above the Cathedral. It was the first time I'd been there. Views from there are excellent. As everyone relaxed, the children began to discharge some energy, running around, and then settled back into play, encouraged by some thoughtful adult family and friends. Drinks were purchased, and people began to unwind, catch up with each other and share their recollections. Then it was time for me to head off home by bus, and start setting my mind towards finishing the necessary preparations for Christmas celebrations tomorrow.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The shortest day

With the temperatures hovering around zero, and the streets icy, we felt quite nervous about taking to the roads in our posh hire car, and went out everywhere on foot. As many organsations seem to have shut down already for Christmas, the on street car parking was as quiet as a Sunday until late morning, when it filled with shoppers' cars.

We heard from the insurance repariers that the cost of the damage is more than four times what our ancient car is worth. It's a certain write off, although we will have to wait to be informed of that. The insurance call centre was non-committal on how long that would take, although he did say vagiely that it should be about 48 hours. Thankfully, when Clare rang our garagist to ask his opinion, about the possibility of him taking on the car for repair, knowing his ability to do things to the same high standard but much cheaper. But it would still be more costly than the compensation we'd get, because of the age of the car. He was able to put us in touch with someone wanting to sell a car he'd serviced for years, of a similar age, substance and price to the one we have to part with. I wonder how long we'll have to wait to get clearance to move on buying this? It is after all the season of office parties.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Young witnesses

The Sunday before Christmas closest to the end of term is an occasion, before families start going away for Christmas, when church children present the nativity story to the congregation in a play or a tableau, often in a liturgical setting. Purists can argue for all their worth that this detracts from Advent or dilutes Christmas just as 'the world' does (from mid-November), but this is an occasion all regular churchgoers want to share together. Contemporary patterns of mobility mean that the worshipping community is more likley to be scattered than to gather as usual at the festive season. Midnight Mass will again be attended by a majority of worshippers I don't recognise, visiting from elsewhere. This development has occurred during my forty years of ministry.

When I was young, Sunday Schools were big organisations with a life of their own, sometimes quite separate from the life of a church's congregation. The Sunday School arranged a Nativity spectacular and the rest of the church was invited to attend and observe. Adult worship services remained as they ever had been - segregated and formal. Children attending were expected to 'behave', meaning 'be seen and not heard'. In the 1970s, the pressure of declining numbers led to a complete re-think of what worshipping community should be. The idea of All Age worship and Family Services, gained acceptance in some places and worshippers generally began to get used to having children not only present but contributing to acts of worship.

This hasn't always been an easy or comfortable arrangement for all taking part. The needs of children and adults are different. Yet, people of all ages are united in the loving embrace of the same Christ, and that leads to occasions in worship when all, regardless of age, find themselves united in a shared experience of prayer. As congregations have grown smaller and older on average, the presence of any child has come to be appreciated by many, as adults realise that children are not just the future of the church, but part of its present.

In the ancient church, children often read scripture to the congregation, their innocence being regarded as contributing purity of spirit to worship. In third world churches where population growth means the majority of church members are under 21, witness to faith by children contributes significantly to the church's evangelistic initiative.

St John's is unlike an averagely mixed suburban congregation, since it is mainly comprised of older people. However, this is not the whole story. We do have several young families, and over the past decade, a new generation of children has emerged, brought to church since infancy. They are known and cherished by the elders, valued as hurch members. The Sunday before Christmas is an occasion when the children, with lots of adult encouragement and support, tell the story everyone cherishes to the whole church, at the Parish Eucharist.

After the Scripture for today, Alex and Bethan delivered a rap version of the nativity story, which I wrote and first used for Sunday School adolescents in my Geneva days. Then, our little handful of under fives sang 'Away in a Manger', we blessed the Crib, and the congregation sang 'Away in a Manger' again with them. All very simple and unpretentious, but bonding us together, across generations, recalling our Lord's birth. A special memory of St John's that I will cherish in years to come.

There were nearly a hundred of us for the Nine Lessons and Carols service this evening. Clare read a lesson perfectly in Welsh. Bethan, ever enthusiastic also read, for the second time today, and opened the service, playing 'Once in Royal David's city' on her flugelhorn. Half of those who were present I didn't recognise as being among our regular or irregular attenders. This says a great deal about the potential of St John's to offer a celebration that appeals to people who are not committed but searching for an experience of worship to help them discover where they are in relation to God.

One couple said they'd come down from Treorchy, at the top end of the Rhondda train line, thirty miles away. Another young man had crossed the city to join us, his second visit, as he sets out on a journey to discover what his own relationship with God means for him in practice - he came in on Friday as well. This morning we were joined by a man of Mauritian origin from the far east of Cardiff, who'd set out to reconnect with the faith of his youth, and started with us, as a place that was similar to the worship that shaped his early experience back home.

The fact that St John's keeps the faith and maintains its traditional expressions of worship may not be exciting or attractive to everyone in these restless and critical times, yet its constancy does speak to the hearts of some seeking to renew their relationship with God. or wanting to start somewhere accessible in asking questions about God. Not just at this peculiarly 'religious' time, but all year round. The challenge for us for whom this place is a spiritual home, is to be ever awake and ready to engage at a level of faith sharing with the strangers in our midst, regardless of where sowing the seeds of God's Word will lead.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christ in the centre

An Advent tradition, better known in Europe than Britain, is a meditative walk, taken along the arm of a spiral pattern laid out on the floor, either in a sanctuary or a garden. It has symbols decorating the way, associated perhaps with biblical prophetic verses or images, pointing to the coming nativity story, and at its very center is a lit candle. The whole represents the journey within, to meet Christ at the heart of all things, Word made flesh in the Christmas mystery, soon to be celebrated.

In the week before Christmas, since I've been here in Cardiff, I've devised my own Advent walk. I go from one hotel to another in the city centre 'square mile', to offer leaflets publicising any special seasonal events at St John's, and above all the Christmas services. The city's hotels are filled with visitors from near and far away at this time of year. Some of them will be enquiring about locally accessible Christmas services. My little walk takes the information to those who are looking after visitors while they are here, and gives me a glimpse into the smart hotel foyers of the city.

Since I began, seven years ago, the number of hotels in the centre of Cardiff has risen by four to fifteen. Two have had a complete makover, several have changed hands. Demand for hotel rooms in the centre still outweighs supply.
A couple more new hotels are still on the drawing board, to be built when the economy picks up again.

Today, the weather was perfect for brisk walking; bright, sunny, clear and dry, with a persistent frost. Starting from St John's with a couple of hundred freshly printed leaflets, my journey went as follows :-

The Angel Hotel, Westgate Street
The Holiday Inn, next to Canton Bridge
The Sandringham Hotel, St Mary Street
Travelodge, St Mary Street
Sleeperz Hotel, Saunders Road, by Central Station
The Marriott, Mill Lane
Radisson Blu, Bute Terrace
The Big Sleep Hotel, Bute Terrace
The Park Inn Hotel, Mary Ann Street
Hotel Ibis, Churchill Way
The Holland House Mercure Hotel, Newport Road
The Thistle Park Hotel, Park Place
The Park Plaza Hotel, Greyfriars
The Hilton Hotel, Greyfriars

I ended up by dropping off leaflets at the tourist information centre and the new library - other obvious places where people might enquire about Christmas services.

Each place has its own character. All are spruce and welcoming by nature. The newest hotels replace a long check-in counter in the lobby with a series of swish looking desks with computer terminals, emphasising the personal service being offered. In none of them was the lobby empty of guests going or coming, nor of staff to receive my little offering with courtesy and sometimes appreciation. It's a ritual they probably go through many times a week with people bringing in publicity material for a thousand and one different events.

Over the years I have dreamed of getting a churches promotional page into circulation on all the cable TV setups in the hotels. Whilst the concept is simple enough, it would require time for research, and an effective PR campaign and on-going management of the resource to make a long term sustainable difference. Desirable, not impossible, but still a dream, because there isn't a churchgoing insider in this industry to help steer the idea into realisation.

Meanwhile, I hand over my pieces of paper, conscious that they have a shelf life of less than a week, and may well get misplaced or binned. I always say "Just in case someone asks you about Christmas services in the next few days". Actually I'm hoping God is listening too. It's a kind of prayer in hope that St John's will have another festive opportunity to share faith in Christ with people the city welcomes as visitors and tourists. As I walk, I pray that the city centre, despite its reputation for debauched festivities, will be a place both of hospitality, peace and revelation in coming days. 'Christ in mouth of friend and stranger'.

At tea time, we had parishioners in for carol singing, mulled wine, mince pies and much convival laughter for a couple of hours. Tomorrow morning, the children will take their turn to tell us the Christmas story. It's Advent Four, and we have Nine Lessons and Carols in the evening. We have no compunction about jumping the gun, liturgically speaking, because these are all things we love to share together. Many of our community will be travelling elsewhere to share Christmas with their families. One who stayed last year said that when she arrived at Midnight Mass she was surprised to discover how few people she recognised were present, and yet there was a crowd of about a hundred - visitors mostly. That's the nature of the place in which our bonds of affection are rooted.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Home visit

Our poor injured VW was taken away to the repairers this morning. We were warned that it is likely to be deemed a write-off, because of the low market value of the car - meaning we won't get anything like what it's worth to us, not to have to change cars before it's absolutely vital. and the car is completely worn out and. Up until the moment of impact it was completely reliable, safe to drive, with several years worth of life in it before the scrapheap beckoned. Now the cost of replacing the front suspension is likely to be as much if not more than the sale value of the car. Such a shame. We now have a few days to wait and assess our options.

After the lunchtime Eucharist and my usual washing up stint in the tea room, I was given a lift up to the valleys village to visit at home the bereaved family whose mother's funeral I am preparing for next week. I was most grateful for this lift, as it would have been exceedingly difficult to find the house first time on my own. It's the first opportunity we've had to sit down and talk together since her death. The family has really worked hard and pulled together to get to grips with the last few months of terminal illness and death. I've got to make sure that the funeral is a real positive turning point for them all, just as she wanted it to be.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A city centre walk through with a difference

One of the Focus Groups formed to prepare the city centre for the opening of the new St David's shopping complex continues in pursuit of its remit, and that's the Disability Access Group. As the Faith Focus Group also addressed itself to access issues questioning the impact of pedestrianisation on congregational access to places of worship in the city centre, I was also invited to join a walk around city centre this morning, to inspect changes in the public realm and assess their impact on disabled people. Two blind people came with guide dogs, another two were on wheels, and there were several access specialists among the dozen of us that made the walk.

We met in sunshine for a change, and air more seasonable than it has been for many months, outside Santa's Grotto on Queen Street. We then inspected the re-vamped disabled parking bays nearby on Churchill Way. Several are snagged by Telecoms junction boxes and lamp posts, positioned on pavement's edge. There are no big signs to identify the existence of special bays from a distance. The biggest snag remaining, however, is other road users, queuing around the block to get into the Capital Centre car park, or stopping to drop off or pick up passengers without parking properly. These can obstruct if not occupy the special bays. Traffic can only be kept moving if a traffic warden is permanently present. It's the kind of headache that's constantly there for those trying to keep the centre free moving and accessible for all.

We walked Queen Street, observing the number of sunken or broken paving stones It's only four years since that whole surface was re-laid. Four cyclists rode through the crowds during the five minute walk, despite the return of the cycling ban during pedestrian precinct hours. There are 'no cycling' signs up, but words to that effect in plain language beneath them are absent. Underneath a coat of silver paint, the panel is still visible which was erected in the experimental period when cycling through the area in commuter hours was tolerated. Beneath that, no doubt is the original legend 'no cycling'. Since when was application of a screwdriver cheaper than a coat of paint?

We then inspected the new Kingsway pedestrian crossing, a wide and unobstructed brick path on an elevated 'table' set in the road tarmac. We were told that the lights were set to permit the maximum time of 30 seconds for pedestrians to cross. Fine if you can walk at fifty feet a minute but some disabled people find that a bit of a struggle. It's not so easy if your vision is restricted either, and you rely on there being tactile surfaces or kerbs to alert you to boundaries between pavements and roads. There's not meant to be a refuge in the middle of the road, although in the middle oddly enough there are lights and pedestrian buttons, but no tactile surface to let someone poorly sighted and slow on their feet know that they can stop there safely if they've run out of time crossing the road. Good to have had this insight into the complex problems involved in making the city totally user-friendly.

We then went into the Castle, to receive a presentation about the pedestrianisation of High Street, opposite the Castle front entrance. There was plenty of discussion about this as the Disability Access Group is a key consultation partner in finalising appropriate plans. We were also given an insight into the problems the Castle management had encountered, at great cost to the public purse, by the rejection by CADW of proposals and plans to install a lift to allow access to all three levels of the main building by disabled people.

CADW has a rigorous policy of conserving listed buildings at some theoretical point in their history without much reference to their present use and evolution. The intention is not to let what's left of our historic heritage be eroded by degrees, but it risks ending up disregarding that old buildings still a current life, and need adaptation to changing circumstances. Buildings are for people, not people for buildings, after all. Well, except in Wales.

Worse still, CADW is accountable to the WAG. It's not an independent body like English Heritage, whose decisions can more easily be challenged. Having CADW as an arm of devolved government is a peculiar political decision, as it gives a bureaucratic institution effective power of veto against the continued development of an old building and its use. This affects churches every bit as much as castles and stately homes. This symbiosis is not good for the health and credibility of regional governance.

By way of contrast, this evening Clare took me to a carol party with friends and supporters of the Steiner School. It was a very traditional affair, quiet and reflective, around a tall Christmas tree with real lit candles. Several people read poems or spoke. One woman showed and talked about two icons she'd painted. With another woman, I discovered a common acquaintance with Father Nicholas Behr, priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, whom Clare and I got to know 45 years ago as students in Bristol. Our first ecumenical encounters were with Orthodoxy, both Russian and Greek. It was in dialogue with Father Nicholas, curious about Anglicanism as I was about Orthodoxy, that I realised how much teaching I'd absorbed unconsciously as a teenager, singing in the choir and ringing bells, from my own Vicar, Alun Davies. Father Nicholas, I learned, died seven years ago, after a time in which he had withdrawn from public ministry and become a hermit.

I'd love to know more about his life since our paths diverged in the seventies. I tried googling his name, but found very little. Nothing I didn't already know. As befits a man who ended his days as a hermit.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Meeting of minds

Back to school this morning for an pre-Christmas Eucharist with staff and pupils for Fr Roy Doxsey and I. There's so much going on in the last fortnight of term with several Nativity presentations for the audience of parents, plus carol singing in the community by children for the school's neighbours, that it's not easy to ensure the end of term Eucharist is really special. What's wonderful is the effort staff put into ensuring it is the way it's meant to be. It's their expression of value for something that's at the core of the lives of many of them at home, but which they are also glad to take into their professional world with them.

I just wish that we, as clergy could do their faith better justice, perhaps by spending more time with them, drawing out from them what they'd like to be receiving from us clergy, rather than the formulaic 'business as usual' we deliver.

After the lunchtime Eucharist in St John's, a return to school for me, for the first of the school's two presentations of the Infant nativity play, attended by a huge host of parents, eagerly taking pictures or videoing the event on their cameras or phones, proud of their offspring's contribution, as I know I am when I get to see my grand daughter Rhiannon perform, although not this year, because she was poorly and unable to take part.

After school I went over to Shand House to the Novas-Scarman Trust offices, to meet a team of three people with whom I hope to be working as a volunteer after my retirement. Eventually I hope that my fascination with technology will be turned into something at least as socially useful as creating church websites. Novas-Scarman is hosting a Digital Inclusion project whose aim is to teach and train people in using information technology, who've been left behind by education, age ability or social deprivation, and enable a generation of people lost to technology to find their confidence, tell their stories, pursue their enthusiasms, link up with their peers, in whatever way they feel able to cope with.

I really enjoyed this particular meeting of minds, and look forward to working with them in times to come. Not the usual kind of pastoral work assumed to be the m├ętier of a retired priest maybe, but something that will be both a challenge and pleasure for me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Car values

Tredegarville School Juniors were doing their Nativity play in St Germans first thing this morning. I had to walk there, as Clare needed to car for shopping and other activities. Twenty minutes into the enchanting presentation, I had a text message from Clare to say someone had crashed into the car on the way back from the supermarket, so I had to return home as swiftly as I'd left it, to give her some comfort and assess the situation.

Another motorist had driven out of a side street and hit the front wing and wheel. Clare had driven home in a state of shock with a wobbly wheel. I guess that's the front suspension gone. Lots of phone calls followed, and as it wasn't her fault, by six were were in possession of a replacement hire car. Our own was certainly not safe to be taken anywhere except on the back of a tow truck. Will our beloved 19 year old WV Golf ever work again? We both wondered.

Both of us felt in awe of this new modern Vauxhall Meriva with 3,500 miles on the clock as opposed to our 199,900 mile Golf, worth a tenth of the new car we'd just been loaned. So light and airy, slick and efficient with its digital displays, electric locks and windows. Just a standard modern car, easy to drive, comfortable-ish, safe and easy to handle, apart from brakes which seem too powerful and aggressive after seemingly laid back but always accurate efficiency of our ancient German masterpiece. Yes, we're both nervous of making a mistake with such a new car, So expensive, compared to what we're used to.

We drive the Golf without being nervous of it. It's sturdy and safe. Because it's un-glamorous and old, it doesn't attract attention from thieves or jealous souls. We don't have to worry about the odd bump or scratch because it's so well constructed that it hasn't and won't readily rust into holes. Bumpers may dent but won't shatter expensively on impact. We don't have to worry about depreciation rates of one or two thousand pounds a year. It has a catalytic exhaust and is quite economical for car of its age. Having this as our only car means we're both attached to it. And, it's identical to the model we drove untroubled in Switzerland for eight years. That's why I bought it on sight, paying slightly over the odds for my enthusiasm, when we first arrived back in Cardiff.

From our viewpoint, having limited resources, the total cost of ownership of the Golf over its life span in our ownership is pretty frugal. Why even think about changing it? But, what if, what if it's a write-off? One big dent in the wing, and collapsed front suspension. How much to repair? More than the car's market value? But it's worth a fortune to me. It works the way I want a car to work in my world of frugal economics. We've a few days of uncertainty ahead of us, until we know the verdict on the Golf.

This afternoon, the Tuesday group gathered, there were nine of us altogether, for an Advent devotional service, based on the special seasonal liturgical texts, giving me an opportunity to reflect with them on the business of preparing for Christmas in practical terms, exploring the link between memories we have and food we eat, remembering people, and remembering God, present in our lives as much as we are prepared to awaken to His presence with us. For me it was some fresh thinking arising from the stimulus provided by last week's radio Four Food Programme. I was pleased to have something new to say for a change. I hope they were pleased to have something new to think about also.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tale of two carol services

Two regular annual carol services were booked in for today. The Welsh Assembly Government at lunchtime and Quadrant (a Cardiff P.R. company) this evening.

A month ago I had a call from an official at WAG informing me that the booking was cancelled. No explanation offered. Last year saw a change in Permanent Secretary, appointed to the WAG from Whitehall. Her predecessor always attended and read a lesson. For one year only this was repeated.

I learned from a colleague that a second WAG carol service customarily took place down the Bay. Government institutions are distributed between the Senedd complex and the former Welsh Office in Cathays Park, close to where we live. The service in the Bay had lately moved into the Senedd building itself, and continues this year.

Well, I guess this is a time of recession and some evidence of spending cuts has to be made visible, so why not carol services? They may not cost a fortune to run, but as the old saying goes: 'look after pennies and pounds look after themselves'. I wonder if the audit of small things evaluates the additional cost of staff time and expended in getting staff from Cathays Park to the Senedd and back for one carol service?

Or is it a matter of death by incremental cuts? Next year will there be no employee carol service, in the interests of strict equality between all government employees, regardless of their religion or lack of it? If so, will anyone notice? Apart, that is, from the few who are eager to welcome anyone for whatever half decent reason into the house of God.

There were 150 people present for the Quadrant Carol service this evening, an event laid on for their employees and business partners, raising funds for the Marie Curie Hospice in Penarth. I'm glad St John's serves such initiatives involving voluntary charitable causes, generating social capital, just by being there, welcoming those organisations that seek to connect with worthy causes.

It will be interesting to observe what happens next year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A shrinking profession

Today, as is customary on the third Sunday of Advent, the Archbishop sent us a letter to read out at services, appealing for prayers and donations in support of the church's ministry candidates. You can read the letter here. It flags up a significant moment in the life of the contemporary church. For the first time in his sixteen years as a Bishop, no candidates have been presented for ordination to full-time ministry. Across the Church in Wales this means a shortfall of eighteen clerics available to supply a rapidly growing number of vacancies caused by the generation of clerics my age now retiring.

Decline in vocations, especially among younger people looking for a lifetime of service in ordained ministry, has been going on for several decades in churches all over Europe of all denominations. The average age of those offering themselves for ordination is now higher, leading to a reduction in average length of careers in full time ministry. While there are still a fair number of people offering themselves for self supporting ministry, earning their own livings, or early retirees, the lack of people available to take incumbencies as full-time ministers is leading to an urgent need to re-think the way in which parishes are led and managed.

There has been a drastic shrinkage in the number of people attending church and supporting its work financially, but this has not led to a parallel reduction in the number of churches and parishes. When there are vacancies, efforts are made to group churches and parishes to work together under remaining leadership to keep as many of them as possible open and functioning, even if on a reduced scale. Real closures, real mergers of parishes are a last resort.

Whilst rationalisation of resources for the sake of effective mission is a reasonable aim, it is all too easy not to recognise the real significance and social impact of closing churches or merging parishes. Church buildings are community assets, often undervalued by a wider population whose affiliation is either casual or minimal. A small number of committed faithful people struggle to keep them open in order that they can remain part of what I am now hearing called 'social infrastructure'. Only when church buildings are no longer available for their traditional function, or disappear altogether is the loss widely felt, and then it's too late. Having endured the closure of St James' church three years ago, and witnessed the impact of this locally, I am convinced that losing a church must remain a last resort wherever possible.

Awareness of this responsibility is a terrible burden, not least on the full time professional clerics, often unwillingly cast in the role of resources manager or entrepreneur. Not to succeed, not to be good at it, can damage a cleric's health and sanity. It can also deter vocations from those who may have sufficient piety, learning and interest in people to want to do the job, but fear they aren't up to the responsibility and challenge of both supporting the faithful few and tackling the role of the managing the church's material assets in a time of crisis.

So many lay people have been lost to the church who would at one time have relished the task of managing and developing every aspect of church life, with the result that the pastor could just do pastoral work. Nowadays the cleric must be a jack of all trades and know how everything is done, either to fill the gaps, or teach others how to. Far too many aspects of church management still have to be processed via the Vicar. Far too much communication and administration is centralised in the role of the office holder by the top down way the church is managed. Clergy are conditioned for this by training, by the expectations they meet, and by acquired habit. Delegation is a vital skill, but not every incumbent has this ability well developed. They can easily become a throttle to a church community running itself effectively.

I believe that nothing short of a complete re-design of the way the church runs, from Bishop downwards, is going to strengthen the capacity of lay people to take total responsibility for the life of parishes, pastoral, educational, administrative, and the management of their buildings. This has been happening in recent decades in places where priests are really scarce - across Europe and in rural tracts of third world countries. The few priests there are in such demand for liturgical and pastoral functions that everything else has to learn to run without them or die.

It's also worth noting that successful missionary evangelical church plants of the past quarter of a century often grew out of lay led initiatives, born of frustration with traditional church structures and methods. These have understood the danger of over dependency on 'professional' leadership, and the need to share responsibility for all aspects of running the church. These new communities grow their own pastoral leaders sometimes leading them to ordination if the community thinks this is needed, although this is not always the case.

Maybe traditional church members are being deterred from offering for ordination because of prospects which daunt all but the bravest or craziest. On the other hand, maybe God is also at work inspiring restraint and reluctance leading to a dearth of candidates, so that things cannot just continue as they always have done, so that Anglicanism, with its call to be church in and for all people in a locality, will reform itself rather than die.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In the midst of life ...

I had a text message when I switched on my phone first thing from the husband of the mother in hospital to tell me that she'd died at two in the morning, seven and a half days since I first went to see them.

We went out shopping for kitchens to have installed in our house, ready for when we retire, and then took off for Bristol to see Amanda and her son James, who has recently chipped his elbow and is in plaster.

While we were there, my mobile phone rang. It was Pidgeons the funeral directors, checking out the possibility of a funeral date, the day before Christmas Eve. A husband's grief expressed in practicalities, before he crashes with exhaustion. I doubt if he's slept much this past week, needing to live every moment with his soul mate, in case it proved to be her last.

So much love, so much pain, which God alone can assuage.

Friday, December 11, 2009

An uncertain journey to take

Yesterday evening St John's welcomed the annual carol service of the Order of St John, Priory for Wales. There were over 300 people in church, sixty of them choristers from a junior school choir plus a male voice choir. We also had a baritone soloist who also read a poem, and a violin soloist contributing, making the event a little longer than may have been comfortable for some. It made the event slightly less of a popular carol service and a bit more of a performance, to my mind. It'll be interesting to see what feedback there is about this.

After the service, I learned from a St John's senior staff member that Andrew, a long standing St John's Ambulanceman who was on placement with us when he was a student at St Mike's three years ago, has resigned his curacy in order to become a Roman Catholic. He'd remained a Deacon after ordination and assignment to a Parish, as his request to be ordained by one of the remaining 'flying bishops' had been refused. He accepted that the Church in Wales ordained women to the priesthood and respected them as colleagues, believing it might be possible to live together with differences and be part of the same church. He conscientiously dissented from being priested by a Bishop who ordains women. With the retirement and non-replacement of Wales' only flying Bishop last year, the possibility of him being priested locally on terms that respected his conviction ended.

I emailed him as soon as I got home, and this morning's reply was evidently written in the small hours. He spoke of agonising about his position in relation to the leadership of the Church in Wales. His departure is an expression of no confidence, but his acceptance of the Pope's authority will put to the test his vocation to serve as a minster of the Gospel in a new way. There's no certainty there'll be a place for him in the ranks of Rome's ordained, despite the much published recent initiative of the Holy Father to accommodate ex-Anglicans. Rome is every bit as rigid as Anglicanism in retaining its hierachies, traditions, dogmas and its decisions about how to adapt to changing times. The individual who finds it hard to compromise their heart felt convictions and ideals is destined to have a tough time wherever they make their spiritual home.

This makes me sad, and to some extent I take refuge from painful issues like this, by immersing myself in the everyday life of a congregation about its business, where there is much kindness, mutual accommodation, patience, tolerance and humour to compensate for the disappointment that our leadership seems to be losing the struggle to inspire everyone to hold together despite our differences.

The tea room was hectically busy after the Eucharist, and everyone was under pressure. Just as I took my place for an hour or so's washing up at the kitchen sink, chaos broke out when a cup of hot tea spilled across the counter and into the open money drawer, soaking all the notes as well as coins. In seconds the sodden notes were fished out and transferred across to the sink area for drying out with paper towels. In the confusion I dropped a clip containing twenty pound notes into the soapy dishwater, whereupon jokes about the Vicar's money laundering erupted and had everyone laughing. Heaven only knows what visitors made of this craziness.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Thinking ahead

There were over twenty of us for the annual Tuesday Group Christmas lunch today. It was a pleasant occasion in our usual venue, a large pub with a restaurant carvery serving turkey, ham or beef with a choice of half a dozen different vegetables. Ours was just one of several groups enjoying a seasonal lunch and relaxed conversation together. The staff were working amazingly hard to ensure client turnover at a reasonable rate, so that nobody had to queue for too long. Despite the down turn in eating out as a result of the recession, this remains a popular eaterie, but it must be tough to stay profitable. Everyone has to work harder to stay in work.

After lunch, I went back into town on the bus for a meeting. After I'd sat down, the driver a young Irishman, called me forward, asked me what religion I was. He settled for me saying I was Christian and then asked if I'd pray for a friend of his who was on the bus and wasn't very well. It's not the kind of thing that normally happens to me when I wear a clerical collar, but when it does, it's heart-warming, as it goes so directly against the secular tide of indifference about things religious.

The meeting in City Hall was of a Vision Forum work group, attempting to identify the key components for shaping a 20 year development plan for the City. So-called 'blue skies thinking' exercises like this seem curious at first sight. However, the world is now changing rapidly, in ways not envisaged when the last long term plan (on which the City's recent success relied) was formulated in the early nineties. It's necessary to look at what has changed and is changing, to ask what difference this makes in making maps to guide us into the future. Recession, the question of how to recover from it, and ensure continued appropriate development sums up the main preoccupation of the discussion.

This kind of exercise is laborious and complex and will last many months. It starts vaguely enough, but it has to conclude with a specific set of aims and values that a wide range of participants in shaping city life can own and act upon. I was pleased that Archdeacon Peggy and Gweini's Paul Hocking were present and taking part. I doubt that the churches played much of a part in shaping the vision of the Cardiff's development back in the nineties. It's been far too long since the churches took a serious interest in helping to form the social vision that enables the city to live and grow in healthy way. I hope this meeting marks a change for the better.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Wrestling the detail-devil

I tried loading a Church Guide master file copy. It worked fine, and I was able to edit it. But I was lacking a picture of the organ that needed changing. I'd lost it. So went off to church to take it, but was thwarted because the console case was locked, so I had to return home, close up quickly and then head off disgruntled into the rain towards Abergavenny for another hospital visit. This soon restored my sense of perspective.

I was back in time for a late lunch before heading off to God on Mondays in Tredegarville school, via the church, for a rendezvous with Philip, who'd opened up the console, so that the instrument could 'pose' properly for me to photograph.

I got carried away story telling and combined the annunicaition to Mary and the annunciation to Joseph in a dream into one narrative, when I had intended to do the latter next week. I think I'll tell them the other dream story about Joseph. Not a bad idea really, as the flight into Egypt doesn't get much coverage in the usual Nativity narrative. It belongs with Epiphany really and this can get easily overlooked since it falls at a time when school re-starts after the vacation
.

On return home, Publisher once more refused to open the file I had modified earlier in the day. So it was a question of opening a fresh unedited copy, which thankfully it did first time, then doing all the amendments and producing all seventeen files for the printer to use, in one sitting, to be sure of completing the taks before any file error crept in (straight from hell, I suspect). This meant letting supper go cool, but in the end, all was complete and ready to send, unless Richard spots anything amiss in the file I sent for him to check, that is.

Owain rang up enthusing about WordPress blogging software, encouraging me to try it out, so I registered for an account, and spent an hour or so setting up a new blog to experiment with and maybe develop as a retirement sideline. This particular blog will expire the day I retire.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Devil in the detail again

The family of the young woman dying in hospital came to the Eucharist this morning. This was to give me an opportunity to meet her daughters ahead of the day they're all dreading. The people of St John's, not to mention the building itself, enfolded them and offered them a little peace and respite from their grief. She's changed her mind and now wants the funeral to be from St John's. I think that will be a blessing for all.

After evensong, much to my distress, Richard presented me with a list of proof corrections. I had secretly hoped this was all behind me, but his experienced eagle eyes trapped the flaws. The real worry for me is whether or not my edition of Publisher will load the necessary master file, as it has proved most unreliable installed on top of the hated Windows Vista. If it won't behave, I'll have all sorts of hassle, and will have to book time of my son's home computer, where it still runs flawlessly under XP with less memory. Will this nightmare never end, I wonder? And mroe importantly, what will the printer say when I beg for a second try?

After this bitter blow to my ego and complacency, I want to an Italian restaurant in the Brewery Quarter to share a meal with a group of colleagues to say farewell to Bay Chaplain Monica Mills, who is moving to a new 'retirement' job in Lymington. It was a pleasant occasion, although it was hard to concentrate of being convivial with the prospect of having to sort out these corrections haunting me. I hope this is not going to be the last straw that breaks the camel's back.

There are times when computers drive me utterly mad, and I wish I'd never bothered with them. But only some times.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

On stage, for a change

This lunchtime, I joined the Oriana womens' choir for their lunchtime Christmas gig performing at St John's. My role was to narrate Dylan Thomas' poetic prose essay 'A child's Chistmas in Wales'. It's a delight to read aloud, boh beautiful and funny. It also reminds me of the same world in which I grew up as a child - the world of imagination and larger than life grown-ups.

I ran the first piece of narrative into the second by a careless accident brought on by excess of enthusiasm, as I was having such a good time getting into character. This force the choir to do four pieces on the trot, plus a solo item, but after that, everything went smoothly. I really enjoyed reading aloud a script that wasn't a sermon. It reminded me of the poetry and jazz recitals which Clare and I took part in one summer when I was studying at St Michael's.

The proofs of the new edition of the church guide book have arrived. It's time to get someone else to do the checking. My brain can't concentrate on so many set words and pictures for so long. It's so much harder than performing a script out loud.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Pastor reminded

I did an hour of washing up in the tea room after the Eucharist to steady myself with a bit of holy normality before setting off for my hospital visit to Abergavenny. The roads weren't too congested, but the rain was unpleasant. It was dusk by the time I arrived there.

Abergavenny signage is so behind the times that I was at a loss to find a big 'H' logo on any big green roadside panel I saw on the journey in. The only sign I found was a pre-1960 black and white finger panel a quarter of a mile before reaching the hospital campus. The hospital is a new one on an old site. There's no excuse for presuming that every service user in the whole of Monmouthshire can navigate by guesswork. I refuse to believe that one of Wales' richest counties cannot afford a few new signposts. It must reflect the kind of town council membership Cardiff wouldn't vote for.

By contrast, the hospital was easy to navigate within. At the end of a working day I was lucky to find a parking place nearby. Husband, brother and sister in law were waiting around mum's bed. Children were being cared for by friends, on rotation. I reckon this lovely couple are receiving the kind of love and support which they have given out to others in the ten years they've made a new home and raised a family in an old mining village. Mum is radiant, defiantly cheerful but realistic, knowing her time is nearly up, living her end to the full, cherishing every moment. She has good and bad days. With a mobile phone to hand, she texts her regular visitors to tell them when she's unable to cope with seeing them.

They praised the hospital, and the support team from the Hospice of the Valleys. It was clear they were being helped and guided in a wholesome way, right down to thinking about the funeral together, and how to involve their children and family in the whole process of dying and death. Hence the call to me. Mum remembered me from the last Christening, hoping and believing I could help them make it as positive a send off as possible. Whether they had other experiences of clergy ministering to them to draw upon I dared not ask. It's such an honour to be thus remembered and trusted.

With St James now closed, it would be necessary to find another funeral venue. Mum had school and youthful links with Roath, so I promised to look into this. Mum said she didn't regard herself as being brave. Indeed there were several flashes of their shared grief and sadness. No rage. Just acceptance - much more than resignation - a positive kind of determination not to squander existence on regrets or remorse. A woman who had I suspect, always known the secret of abundant life, even if this didn't always spell itself out in conventionally accepted religious ways.

I've been reflecting on this since. There are many in our secular modern world who live good and moral lives with integrity, spiritual lives one might say, but they don't go to church, don't seem to have any explicit faith, or else not much need to express it with religious talk and ritual. Could this be a result of sound nurture in faith? A nurture which teaches those who hear the Word of life to go out and live it completely, with such integrity that the conservative mind-set, so typical of much religious behavour, actually gets in their way, so they avoid it? Was this what Boenhoffer meant when he talked about the development of a new 'religionless Christianity'?

To be saved is to live, to act entirely by the grace of God. That means being gracious inspiring graciousness, kindness in others, being a person for others as Christ was man for others. God may not be in the conversation as such but God is often hidden, present but not obvious. I witnessed much love being tested to the full in this family tragedy.

'Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est'

I wonder if we really mean what we sing or say?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pastor remembered

This morning's funeral at Thornhill was quite a big one, with around a hundred people present, and a good atmosphere was created by the tribute that was given and the poems that were read, all apt for the occasion, and making my role all that much easier to perform, for someone I didn't know personally. I had to leave all the mourners milling around the widow and make a prompt departure to be driven back in time for the midday Eucharist.

Walking home after the Eucharist, I was stopped in Queen Street by a woman who said she recognised me. I couldn't quite place her, but she explained that she came occasionally to services at St John's, and also used to attend St James' occasionally as well. She recalled me performing a Christening there five years ago. She'd been a friend of the family, and not unusually these were people who'd lived locally but moved out into the Valleys. They still had relations in the area and brought their children back for Christening to retain their sense of belonging and family identity.

It's the kind of thing I have been pretty tolerant about over the years, feeling that usually it's better to trust the instincts of those who ask, rather than take a hard parochial line. After all, such censure will do nothing to halt the dizzying progress of a mobile society, only make it harder for people to feel good about belonging somewhere special to them. Anyway, I must not go off the point.

The lady told me she was still in touch with the family and had recently received a message to say that the mother of the two children was seriously ill in hospital and not expected to live long. I promised to remember them all in my prayers, and went on my way, trying to recall names and faces.

After lunch I had a phone call from a man who'd been married in St James', one of the last couples I'd prepared. Sadly I'd had to hand the wedding over because 'flu intervened at the wrong moment. It was his sister who was seriously ill, and he was unaware that I had learned of this from a stranger in the street an hour before. He was commissioned by the couple to find out if I would conduct her funeral when the time came.

Unhesitatingly, I said 'yes' and asked if she was well enough to appreciate a visit. He said he'd ask. Half an hour later he was back in touch, saying she'd welcome this. My digital photo database of the St James' records in the meanwhile had delivered all their names, and given me some reminders of their earlier story. I'm glad I made the effort to compile this kind of information for ready access at home or office, thus eliminating the need to go hunting through register cupboards. I wonder what tomorrow's visit will bring?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Being prepared

A visit to the GP surgery this morning for a couple of 'flu jabs, and a check up with the doctor to follow. It's the first time I've accepted the offer of seasonal vaccination on offer to 'vulnerable' people. I still can't get used to this referring to me, but after last year's devastating 'flu which put me in bed from Christmas Eve to New Year's Eve, I feel determined to be in a fit state to enjoy my final Christmas as Vicar at the heart of the city centre.

This evening, St John's welcomed the Cardiff Magistrates' Association for their second annual Carol service. Last year this was arranged and run by a priest among their members, but this year she was too busy with other duties, and I was asked to fill the gap. It's good that a small link between the judiciary and St John's has been renewed after several generations. Seasonal Quarter Sessions services at St John's stopped over thirty years ago. Many of the hundred participants appreciated having their own event. For St John's it's a fulfillment, not so much of that old institutional role which the Established church once occupied, but of the church's support for volunteers in public service organisations.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

First of the season

This evening St John's welcomed 250 people for the Kidney Wales annual carol service. Three choirs took part, accounting for more than 70 people present, plus a fine young Welsh tenor soloist, Alun Rhys Jenkins. Marvellous uplifting music for the most part, although I felt for the children's choir that sang 'I orwedd mewn preseb' (Away in a manger), in a key that was too low, so their little voices disappeared as they struggled to find their bottom notes. Oh dear.

After the event a young Asian man came into church asking to speak to the Vicar. He was homeless living in a hostel, following the break up of his marriage, feeling utterly demoralised, having no contact with his children. His wife and children had deserted him. There had been no legal separation, no visiting rights agreed. A solicitor had been appointed for him, and from what he told me, his solicitor's approach had been less than sensitive - telling him, a homeless unemployed man in a state of desperation, that he should get a job and somewhere to live before his application to see his children would be taken seriously, is outrageous. On the spot there was little I could do apart from promise to talk to the city centre outreach people, whom we both know, in the morning, and give him a spare pack of mince pies to tide him over until the morning.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard times

Today it was time to say goodbye to Rachel, Jasmine and John after their fortnight's stay with us. In another week's time they'll be on their way home to Canada. Maybe this time next year we'll be on our way to Canada, to enjoy a real winter, while they are still to be had, in the Rockies.

The first of the Advent 'God on Mondays' services at Tredegarville School followed in the afternoon. Sadly numbers are dwindling. I suppose this is inevitable as families are aware that I won't be there for them until the end of the school year. I hope my successor will consider it worthwhile to continue a family service in school and bring something that's fresher, more attractive and relevant to a new generation.

When I got home, I had but a brief time to draft an order of service for a funeral this week, to prepare for a visit from a woman whose husband had dropped dead in the street outside their apartment the previous week. He was the same age as I am. This made me ponder. Life is so fragile but how can anyone ever be prepared for their own sudden demise?

In the evening the Street Carers' Representative Group met in Thornhill Community Church, and I went along to be scribe, as usual. We had quite a lot to do, reviewing the recent training evening, and planning both follow up sessions and new trainings for 2010, and discussing the matter of i/d cards for volunteers - a matter which has emerged as a priority to push us forward. On top of this we discussed the streets.

Two homeless people have died in the past month, both Eastern Europeans. There's notably an increase in the number of destitute Europeans around these days. They are different from destitute asylum seekers, who are mostly isolated individuals and vulnerable not infrequently hiding from authority. For a start, European migrants have some rights, and aren't hiding from the police (unless they're on the run for a crime committed). They associate with each other on the basis of their language and homeland and in that they have some strength to cope with hard times.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent beginnings

The Advent call to wake up took a strange turn for us last night. Having gone to bed early, I was not finding it easy to settle. Our house is in a quiet setting with mostly remote background noise, odd sounds from outside closer to home are just a little bit unsettling. I heard a man talking outside into a mobile phone, and a dog barking. I peeped out of the window and saw one of the neighbours down below. His sturdy white hound was standing on our drive, barking into the dark corner of the Square, just beyond us. I returned to bed, then minutes later, there was the sound of a car and raised voices. A silver Merc that had been parked down the road a little was driving at low speed, headlights full on illuminating a man walking in front bearing a riding crop, lashing out at another younger man, driving him on with dark threats. This turned into a chase the length of the Square.

From time to time there have been burglars and prowlers in the vicinity. I think younger more agile guys take a short cut across the neighbouring convent garden, climb over the wall and slip through one of the houses opposite into the back lane exiting on to North Road. Such occasonal pedestrian traffic may not all be mischevious in nature, but it sure does annoy some folk hereabouts. "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." I thought to myself, bemused, as I tried to relax back into sleep. I heard most of the remaining hour chimes until the alarm went off to get me up for the early service.

Yesterday the third international rugby match of the autumn season filled the Millennium Stadium with 70,000 spectators yet again. The streets were impressively clean by the time I arrived at church for the eight o'clock. There was relatively little rubbish dumped in the area either side of the steps leading into the west porch. The same was also true on the occasion of the other two matches. Admittedly lots of rain probably kept fans indoors more than usual before and after, but everywhere was much cleaner.

Maybe our re-furbished streets and the Council's efforts to provide additional bins, and rubbish clearance are finally paying off. Certainly the cleansing team should be praised for their zeal and effectiveness. The theory is that better a place looks, the less likely visitors will be indifferent to its condition. Theory will be put to the test in earnest when the spring season of home internationals arrives, hopefully in better weather, and large numbers will be standing outdoors drinking before and after the match. Will cleansing services get overwhelmed by public slovenliness then?

The day's miserable weather undoubtedly helped diminish numbers by 20%. The casual drop-in attenders were missing - the first to be deterred by rain or cold. This evening's Advent Carol service went very well. Most of the regulars were there, plus lots of bell ringers. At the end of the service, I felt content, with no sense of regret. What struck me was not that it was my last Advent Sunday at St John's, but rather that sense of continuity which occasions like this give to the life of the church. I am glad and proud to have taken my place in the long stream of public witness that flows here from century to century.

Where I'll be next Advent, heaven only knows. It's all part of the adventure which faith proposes to us at every stage of life.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ojos de Brujo again

After the Friday lunchtime Eucharist, and an hour's washing up in the tea room, Clare and I headed north to join Kath and Anto for another Ojos de Brujo concert in Warwick Uni Arts Centre. It's already two years, and another album published since their last visit there. It was yet again a marvellous experience of theatrically presented music - a mix of Spanish hip-hop, funk and flamenco. We spent most of the concert down the front by the stage, rhumba dancing joyously.

Clare noticed that apart from the large number of Spanish student fans present, there were a very significant number of 'silver surfers', the fifty plusses, out in force. Why? Quite simple really.

We bought our first Ojos de Brujo CD at the Malaga Airport shop, recommendation of the manager, the year I did a flamenco guitar course in Granada, autumn 2004., and we all became instant fans. A lot of older Brits must have made the same journey and tasted the thrill of innovation that their marvellous music represents.

When are they coming to Cardiff? I want to know

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Blurred vision

Sally came to see me at lunchtime today, to talk again about her ambitious project to stage a public nativity story telling in the centre next Advent. I encourage her as much as I can because she is able to inspire and motive people across the denominations to work together. A big success in getting people to work together on something that matters could be a huge fresh boost to getting churches working together, not only in the centre, but across the city. Sally would like St John's to be the venue, but as we're so busy in December, this is not very practicable, unless the whole thing takes place under covered staging in the churchyard, with supporting facilities also outside. She's thinking on an ambitious scale, but I have yet to convince her of the need to draw up a specific proposal for a venue that could be discussed. And that has to come first. It's a long long trip from vision to reality.

Our City Centre Churches Together meeting was held at St John's this evening. Its name has now changed to 'CYTUN - City and Bay'. Most of the meeting was taken up with making arrangements for a farewell supper with Bay Chaplain Monica Mills, and discussing the programme for the Unity Week ecumenical meal and act of worship at the end of January. We learned that Ebeneser Church is to leave the City center in the coming year, proposing to re-establish itself in a building located somewhere more accessible and easy for parking. Their building is to be sold to a developer, I'm not sure what for. Such a pity, when the Street Carers' so desperately need a central place to shelter day and eveninng activities with the homeless. This loss of this building is an enormous set back to Christian enterprise in the city centre. The deal was done without reference to ecumenical partners, no concern for the impact on others. It reveals the absence of any truly relevant progress in relationships between churches.

The meeting avoided discussing reasons behind the failure of support for several recently planned ecumenical group activities. Everyone involved seems to be so busy. and makes excuses or just forgets. Several members came to the meeting and left during the first hour. Ecumenism has dwinded to nothing more than the annual act of fellowship. We don't study, nor do we do anything else together. Fellowship between Cardiff's eight Welsh speaking churches is much stronger and more active. They have a common cause. Attempts to give Engish or bi-lingual ecumenism a common cause on which to act comes to nothing. Without a vision, people perish, but blurred vision can lead to inertia and loss of confidence.

Modern ecumenism became a popular and public element of church life in my student years - and there were many achievements. It's not enough that we are on friendly speaking terms, and no longer locked in conflict over doctrine or discipline. We have not succeeded in establishing a common way to engage ecumenically in public life, except for the odd protest, usually when it's too late to matter. It's a cause of disappointment and regret to me as my official public ministry comes to an end, something to say 'Sorry' to God for. Now I can only hope things will improve when I have left the scene.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preparing handover

The PCC met tonight in Tredegarville School staffroom - our first midweek meeting for some years, to accommodate the Archdeacon, and those uncomfortable about driving into the centre in the night. Peggy took them through a mapping exercise to identify all the various components of ministry that need to be maintained and owned by other during an interregnum.

I felt they all did me proud, showing their awareness of the unique and rich complexity of the church's everyday life, and its ordinary and special occasions. In thinking about what needs to be handed over, however, I became aware when I arrived home of one huge and glaring omission. We'd all forgotten to think about the Parish website, who will keep it up to date in future?

About a third of our regulars, I would say, are I.T. users, and maybe they don't have that much need of the website, when up to date information in print is so readily available in church. However, the website is a component of our interface with the rest of the world. It gets consulted by visitors from all over the world, I'd say around a thousand visits a year, although I haven't done any proper analysis of this.

Fancy me, of all people tech obsessed, forgetting that!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Strategic Transformational Change in view

This afternoon I was invited to attend a meeting in County Hall presenting the new Strategic Transformational Change programme. This initative proposes a new way of working between the public and private and voluntary sectors that manages the procurement of all kinds of public services in order ensure best value through competitive tendering for good and services. It's a complex idea to grasp. Local Government and big public service bodies, hospitals and emergency services, for instance, serve the public on so many different fronts - land, buildings, roads, social services, leisure, education, social services. All have evolved in different ways in managing their own assets, and any grand overview will spot areas of duplication - use of road vehicles is one instance. Different bodies have vehicles that are not in use constantly, some spend a lot of time parked and idle, when they could be time shared with other organisations.

The use of state of the art information technology can assist in managment of highly complex administration. We've seen this well deployed in the re-construction work in the city centre, and the efficient way new shops get fitted out and readied for opening while everything else around continues as usual, without getting in the way. Getting whole sections of large organisations to change their way of working and enter into new working agreements with others is an immense challenge, entailing a complete change of work culture and an end to the self-contained 'silo' mentality often identified as an obstacle to change in big organisations with many departments.

The process starts with the Council doing a deal with the Indian Tata Corporation to manage all its I.T. services. Tata not only does steel, cars, investment etc, it has its own stake in the world of computers, with a huge consultancy business. Council I.T. is not being 'outsourced' to India, but Tata's I.T. experts will become part of the City's home team, and assist local experts to develop new administrative systems in situ, if I understand things correctly. Most contracts for services and supplies run on a three year basis, but this deal is set to run for up up fifteen years, with built in reviews en route. This gives an idea of how long it is expected to take to bring about change on this scale, that will touch upon all the Council's communications and information infrastructure. There's a lot more at stake here than changing hardware and updating software. It's about a re-design of ways of working with far reaching effects and cost benefits.

I just hope that a piece of recent research published on the use of computers in American hospitals will be taken into account

The name of the programme is deliberately a bit way out, one might say pretentious. Rolling out a programme that is destined to span decades that will inevitably include changes of political leadership is ambitious to say the least. To have obtained sufficient cross party support to get this far is quite something. No doubt, when it comes to change, the devil will be in the detail - as we have discovered at St John's in attempting to achieve a transformation of the building that moves beyond making it all shiny clean and bright, to opening up the West entrance in ways that will make it safer and more visitor friendly. Q. How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? A. Change? What change?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning from yesterday

I wish I could remember everything I heard at yesterday's conference from the two web designers' hasty presentation. There were several things that I found immediately challenged me to reconsider what I've been doing in the past seven years of building parish websites here. The present one is the third incarnation to develop from the original material I put together to publicise parish information in the first year of my ministry here. Unfortunately questions fired at us thick and fast prompted reflection straight away, rather than making a note of them for later. I wish I'd got my camera out at the start and photographed the slides of text displayed, but I felt embarrassed, a bit too geeky, and didn't want to draw attention to myself. So it was only when the last slide repeated the first that a managed to take a snap.
Well, I can say, hand on heart that St John's is a seven day a week church. How much 'fullness of life' is expressed in our missionary 'offer' to the public? It's a place of peace, where people come to seek the presence of God, a place of welcome, kindness and compassion because of the people who've made it their spiritual home. In what ways can we better express that interest in life in all its fullness which is at the heart of the Good News of divine truth witnessed to by Jesus? It needs some more creative thought.

Then there's the second quotation, inviting us to look at a website as being more than just an information depot, more an extension of the life of the church. I hadn't thought about this until now. This is a time when sharing particular kinds of information can be used as a means to build real communities of interest. This may start in cyber space, but as a following of like minded folk develops, they find the need to 'eyeball' each other, and meet in the flesh. So the web content you deliver can be a channel to community building and development. This is something the Council is already learning how to do with its Social Inclusion Extranet website.

Obviously as church community, we want to tell the story of Jesus, invite people to share in the life of worship and service that has evolved through our life together. Our web information is an open kind of advertisement, an electronic extension of the noticeboards around the railings, if people are interested they can drop in and sample the church for themselves. This may be more true for people passing through, visitors from other parts of the country or planet, than it is for people in the locality. Visitors are very important to us, but so is the continuous task of building local community. Our concert programme brings in hundreds of people occasionally, likewise special services, exhibitions and Cards for Good Causes, but all this is a transient expression of community, with greater or lesser spiritual content, as a component.

Given that so many people today are able to access church information on-line, people who don't begin to know if we have anything interesting to say that would be worth enquiring into, what do we need to do with our web presence that would capture people's interest, focussing on aspects of life which concern them? This is the searching question that is now gnawing away at me since I heard yesterday's presentation.

We don't get a great deal of feedback about our website, except that people appreciate having all the information in one place. We have our web archives of restoration work, parish magazines, art exhibitions, Lent lectures in text and podcast format, linked faith trail, climate change and Christian apologetics web pages. There's a huge archive of photos of past parish pilgrimages, four years worth of web albums devoted to redevelopment photos, and of course, this blog. It is quite a significant output, providing essential information services, for sure, but much of it relates to my developing missionary interests over the years, interests which others may well have appreciated, but not necessarily shared. I get the occasional message that indicates that there are others out there who appreciate and share the same interests, but none of this has generated an on-line community of interest capable of leading somewhere new.

The buzz word is 'social networking', symbolised by the way that so called 'internet natives' the younger generation brought up to take the web for granted, make use of sites like Facebook and MySpace. I have a Facebook account, almost accidentally, due to pressure from my eldest who uses it a great deal to publicise her band Lament but I hate it. Too much of what is deemed to be 'content' is to my mind trivia. I'm not interested in community building around trivia. I can see how social networking is used for political and social action, but that's only about information distribution and maybe marginally about debate. One could use it to share life experiences with others, or to issue a well publicised invitation to people to share a social vision, but to what end? I need convincing.

In yesterday's session, I was taken with two American websites shown to us, which made use of the best of networking, marketing and design techniques for church purposes. One was a video blogging site, presenting the personal testimonies of a score of individuals from the world of creative arts and sport speaking about the transforming effect faith in Christ has on their lives. A minimalist format, with people speaking to camera from a huge white leather arm chair, like you might find on any reality TV set, telling their stories in a very relaxed, warm, straightforward way. It was a well thought out consistent production, devoid of mawkish sentiment and pietistic language, quite compelling to watch. See what you think.

The site is called 'I am second' It is nothing more than a site about people putting Jesus first in their lives. It offers all sorts of opportunities to people to connect on-line, join local groups, register as individuals or churches. What was so evident was the amount of thought invested in the creation of this evangelistic tool, starting from the most traditional of ideas.

The other website promoted Soul City Church, once more a visually attractive site with a variety of interesting content describing the social vision, teaching style and action plan for a church community which has yet to become incarnate. It's not a virtual church, like the one set up here in the UK offering participation in on line acts of worship in Anglican style, with prayer meetings sermons and bible studies, either live or podcasted. Soul City Church is a church plant, aiming to set up a real world base in Chicago, first advertising on-line, promoting key features that target people seeking meaning and transformation in their personal lives. The website sets out the vision of a group of spiritual entrepreneurs wanting to set up in a new situation, with a long experience of church planting and growth in a neighbouring state behind them.

The first stage is to develop a community of interest, and then invite them to a gathering point and publish the story of the church plant as it happens, starting early in 2010. This site is also worth exploring, as it again gives the impression that people have thought carefully about what they want to offer that's unique, and how to set about making the offer.

It may seem easier if you come from a new generation of independent evangelicals, without the institutional ties of historic denominational faith, but the same critical questions can be applied to presenting traditional forms of Christian life to a world decreasingly familiar with them.

I'm not ashamed to admit that much of this is new to me, although I've been aware of the way the evangelical movement has mutated and adapted in recent decades. It isn't by any means all conservative and fundamentalist. There's lots I don't know, because I've stayed tightly focussed on making the most of my own Anglican heritage.

When I worked for USPG I had many opportunities to learn about and share in charismatic renewal, but since then, I haven't got out much. A great deal of innovation has passed me by. It's intriguing to think that it's my interest in technology that has opened a window for me into how the other half of missionary Christianity lives.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Conference at Cornerstone

A car trip to Morriston, Swansea for me on this dark overcast and rainy day with Jim Stewart and Paul Hocking of Gweini for their annual conference, at which Paul had invited to me speak in a seminar about the work we've done together forging a working partnership between Street Carers and the City Council. The conference was at the Cornerstone Church, centre, established in an building that appears formerly to have belonged to British Telecom. As well as a large main hall space, there were plenty of rooms for small group activities, easy to access. It was well equipped with lots of hi-tech presentation equipment, used for the church's extensive teaching ministry. The event was beautifully organised by a hospitable home team, and brouight together people from all over Wales, about forty of them. It a vigorous community worth taking note of. Their website will give you a favour of it.

Conference contributions ranged from work with the homeless and asylum seekers, to food banks, farming crisis, engaging with local authorities and addiction rehabilitation. Wide ranging and most encouraging as evidence of different kinds of engagement in contemporary concerns. Towards the end of the conference we received presentations from two young web design entrpreneurs who were Christians in the realm of digital media. It was challenging stuff, and actually deserved an earlier place in the day, because they were applying some serious critical thought to their creative process. In itself this was capable of being influential on the way we approached other issues of social involvement. Their brief input certainly has me thinking about all my web creations, and what purposes they serve. I need time to ponder properly on this.

Gweini is a body that enables Christian voluntary bodies across Wales and in various localities to find a voice in public affairs that matches their public service and community interests. It's what we Anglicans refer to as our social responsibility mission. There's been a sea change in the domain of independent evangelical and charismatic churches in the past quarter of a century, that has seen them engage innovately in community building mission and church planting in new housing areas as well as town centres and urban priority areas. It's the rediscovery of social gospel mission as practiced by Methodism and the Sally Army in the 18th and 19th century, and reflects renewed creativity and social enterprise that makes them a vital force in contemporary mission, one that goes largely unrecognised by many in established mainstream denominations.

It was a stimulating experience to share a little in this journey into social engagement and a fuller participation in civil society, as it's one I've been taking during the years of my ministry in the city centre, really for the first time in my working life. We're all now learning how to do this afresh as those in government look towards faith groups for fresh energy and inspiration in tackling the problems of different kinds of social exclusion and 'broken Britain'.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nativity challenge

I attended a meeting at 'the Gate' over in Roath (a church transformed into community theatre venue), at the initation of Sally Humble-Jackson a parishioner in Lisvane, with an inspiring vision to mount an ambitious inter-church Advent project in the city centre, to tell the Nativity story, in a public setting using actors possibly in a tableau format, repeatedly at key times, targeting the mass audience of pre Christmas shoppers during December. She's talked to scores of people in the month since she first came to see me about it, and experienced a broad groundswell of goodwill towards the idea. A good two dozen turned up for the first meeting. Realisation will require extensive detailed planning. Are churches capable of coming out of their self preoccupation enough to make a success of something like this? I wonder.

I couldn't stay until the end of the meeting, so I don't know what the outcome of the meeting was. She's hoping it will happen Advent 2010, so it's going to be a project that my successor and other city centre church leaders will have to engage with rather than me. Sally is appealing to people in all 200 odd churches of the city Borough to participate, with huge enthusiasm and faith that invited a response, which is great. Will she be able to forge a unity in this one evangelistic project that will make a difference to a city in which mainstream ecumenism has no structures or instruments of governance to represent any shared interests whatsoever?

Renewal can often begin with a visionary individual. I'm praying for renewal in this quite specific matter.