Saturday, January 31, 2009

Getting started with computers

Back before Christmas my sister June enlisted me to buy her a laptop and prepare it for everyday use - meaning - getting it registered, updated, set up with permanent anti-virus software, and putting Open Source free software on it, to replace all the commercial rubbish (aka 'crapware') installed on new computers by vendors looking to subsidise their cost overheads. By installing Firefox, Open Office and Thunderbird, all of which I use daily, troubleshooting over the 'phone should be a lot easier with the benefit of free TalkTalk calls between us replacing costly helpline converations to distant operators with unusual accents.

Over the six weeks since I purchased a Sony Vaio for her I guess have put in a dozen hours of leisure time to get it functioning in a way that is low on nagging prompts to make decisions a new user doesn't understand or panic over. Once you get get your machine functions properly under control so that it's easy to use, you quickly forget just how much trouble it took to get it up to standard, how much time you spent machine minding, to get it the way it ought to be. If cars were as demanding and high-maintenance in their first 1,000 miles, as computers are in their first month of regular use, the rate of turnover in car sales would be much lower. Consumer products have to be far more user friendly.

Apple Macs and well set up Linux driven machines are far more user friendly from scratch, though less so if you're switching from Windows, as you have to unlearn ingrained habits before you can benefit. Even so, these systems too have their times of unproductive machine minding to be endured before free and easy usage is guaranteed every time. But such is the desire to be able to communicate, or access information via the internet, that even the most reluctant will invest money, time and energy to enthrall themselves to these strange machines. I've always enjoyed the challenge, though from time to time I get frustrated and fed up with them. Getting a machine up to scratch for my sister was a salutary experience - all the time having to put myself into the position of someone who hadn't touched a computer since the days of Windows for Workgroups in the early nineties, pre internet, pre-email.

Yesterday evening, I took the Megabus up to London, to deliver the laptop, connect it up to her newly commissioned broadband service and wireless printer. TalkTalk broadband was easy enough to manage, as it's identical to mine at home. The printer only took two tries to establish as part of a nominal network. I gave her a brief introduction to using Google search through Firefox, and walked her through Thunderbird's emailing procedure, having set up a file of family contact addresses she'd find useful to get started.

Then we went into the city to visit the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy - a wonderful treat. Much of the material on display was icons and liturgical items were familiar to me from art books and backpacking trips since college days, so I was able to enjoy just gazing, without a guide, with minimal need to read the exhibit labels, which was just as well since it was very crowded. There was enough time for tea and cake in the RA restaurant, then it was back to Victoria Coach station for the journey home.

I wonder how long it will be before I get my first email from June?

Future of mission in the centre and the Bay

A City Centre Churches Together meeting last night. We welcomed Peter Trow, Ecumenial officer of the URC in Wales. He wanted to sound us out about the possibility of being a sponsoring body in support of the Bay Chaplaincy project, which is up for review and possible revamping next year, when Monica Mills retires.

The Chaplaincy, based at the Lightship, was born as an industrial missionary response to the Cardiff docks regeneration initiative. Since the Cardiff Bay has been up and running as a district for tourism, commerce, arts, local and national government, the Chaplaincy's focus has naturally shifted into these new areas.

In 2010, the enterprise will need to be re-funded for a further period. At the outset it was meant to have an inter-church support base, but due to the collapse of Cardiff Churches Forum and the stillbirth of its successor Cardiff Christian Council, formal ecumenical backing has always been thin on the ground. In fact, the chaplaincy has survived. both materially and spiritually because the burden of responsibility has been borne by the URC, possessed of an ecumenically visionary stance. All the churches owe more than a debit of gratitude to the URC for this reason.

Now a time of change approaches, and it's time that other denominations make an effort to give material and spiritual support to the re-equipping of the Chaplaincy for its present mission. Tonight's meeting was being asked if CCCT would become part of an advocacy and support mechanism, which demonstrates that churches in Cardiff truly own this unique mission project. It is indeed up to the City Centre Churches to give a lead in this because we also exist to serve in the same area of the city that houses its central business district and government institutions.

I was pleased to see how much appreciation there was for Chaplaincy work in the Bay, among Churches Together members. There's a general interest in careful exploration of the nature of what is being asked of us as a sponsoring body. If together as churches we become stakeholders in this unique venture in mission, it will, I'm sure, help us in thinking about the missionary role of all our churches in the emerging new commercial development of the city's heart. Our service of God's kingdom in this setting must involve more than pastoral care for each other. We must learn better what it means to have a pastoral heart for lives of people devoted to economic activity, governance, public security and safety, and those who are socially alienated. If we are able to do this well, it could well inspire other Churches Together Groups across the city to move towards each other with fresh interest in the welfare of the city as a whole, and who knows, maybe lead to the re-birth of a city wide community of communities. A Cardiff Christian Council may yet rise to life from the ashes, if we at the centre get our mission vision right.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Back into full swing

Yesterday was so full, it was a kind of fitness test after the 'flu. First a school assembly on St Paul at Tredegarville, followed by the Year 4 'Class Mass' at St German's, as Roy being on holiday at the moment. Then a quick trip home to park the car, check emails and drink tea before going into St John's for the midday Eucharist. Then, after lunch, a meeting with colleagues at Deanery Chapter in Roath Parish House for a couple of hours of catching up on local church affairs.

Then, a late afternoon meeting down the Bay with Mike & Paula of the Council's HANR team, to report on the last Street Carers' meeting and discuss the draft of a Term of Reference for a future Forum which will assemble volunteer and professional Street Carers in an effort to move in the direction of a real partnership in meeting the needs of people who are either 'insecurely housed' or sleeping rough in the city. The former group is many times larger than the latter, and comprises all those who either because of their poverty or personal insecurity have no safe title to accommodation of their own. I have high hopes that patient dialogue will result in a boost in the capability of all involved to address matters which, in the present economic climate, are only likely to get worse. Finally, a mercifully short early evening meeting of the City Planning's Local Conservation Consultative Group, to take a look at recent proposals submitted for the city centre area, and consider their impact upon the environment - generally a stimulating meeting, seeing the townscape through the eyes of the professionals.

After supper, a few hours to catch up. First further revision of the Terms of Reference, then the creation of a new blog to record the development of voluntary Street Carers collaboration with the professionals. This meant extracting material from my 'edgeofthecentre' blog and editing it to make it fit for purpose, then posting it tot he web in a suitably new format. I'm quite pleased with the result, although it was a rather fiddly task, once the Google spam sniffing software decided that my efforts were suspect and required vetting. This was probably due to my back-dating all the posts except the most recent one - and the first post in the series originated with a piece I wrote over two years ago. It meant that every edit, and every entry posted had to be verified by typing a 'captcha', some of which were hardly legible. I must have done it a score of times for just seven posts, which slowed me up no end, so it was midnight when I logged off and turned in. I don't think I could do too many days in a week as intensive as this one any longer. Age is catching up on me, or catching me out.

You can view the blog and follow the story here in 'Cardiff Street Care Chronicle'

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Marking time

It's barely twenty months since the main building site excavation started, and in that time a huge complex of buildings has risen in the city centre. This morning was the last of the 'four topping' out ceremonies which have taken place marking progress in the reconstruction of the city's new main shopping area. First the new library, next the John Lewis Store building, then the extensions to the existing St David's Centre Mall, now finally SD2 itself, with its Grand Arcade snaking over five hundred yards in length from north to south. Apartment blocks rise on both the East and West flanks of the Grand Arcade. For this constructors' ritual of reaching the structure's highest we were positioned up on the sixth floor of the of the East side apartments, with a handful of speech makers press and photographers overlooking us from the seventh floor.

We assembled in the foyer of the CIA to be kitted out with safety gear, gloves, goggles, wellies, hard hat and hi-viz vest, before being led, in a long flourescent crocodile, across the road past the job centre, and into Hills Street, where an opening had been made in the security fence to bypass the delay of getting 120 plus visitors through the security check-in gates. Then there was the long climb to the sixth floor, about a hundred feet above street level, to assemble for speeches, the unveiling of a plaque, and the capping of a pillar with a few shovels full of fresh cement, to make the occasion something more than words.

After the chief project engineers had made their thankyou speeches to the team leaders, Council Leader Rodney Berman added his own words of appreciation, and then joined Mayor Kate Lloyd on the floor below for the plaque unveiling and topping out rituals, photographed by the press and scores of others with cameras - you can see my photos here

On the way down from the roof, we stopped off at the first floor level to view the Grand Arcade from the inside. The scaffolding has all been removed from the northern section of the Arcade, so that its impressive scale could be appreciated. Ground and first floors each span two storeys, so that the retail areas on ground and gallery levels have upstairs areas, for display or storage. After discarding safety gear back at the CIA, there was a festive drink in the hospitality suite. A time lapse video made up of webcam taken of the demolition and reconstruction up to date was playing contrinuously in the background. Project workers gathered to watch and sip their Bucks Fizz, expressing their amusement and fascination, seeing the evolution of the project unfold before them at high speed - quite awesome in its way. "The only thing missing is the rain" someone joked.

I wasn't able to hang around at the party for long, as the annual Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration followed at noon up in City Hall, and I wanted to be there in good time. The Mayor and the Leader and a few others also made the journey to share in this sombre act of commemoration, again attended by about 300 people, including Archbishop Barry this year. I found this occasion more painful and perplexing than I have previously, it being overshadowed by the past month's events in the Holy Land. Sorrowful mention was made in the service of post Holocaust genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, but the public open wound of Gaza was not mentioned.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs delivered a profound 'Thought for the Day' on remembering the Holocaust on the BBC this morning. He didn't mention Gaza either. The BBC is being pilloried over its refusal to broadcast the DEC Gaza appeal, yet its fair and balanced reporting, and heart wrenching story telling will do much more than any short promotional film to move hearts to generous compassionate action - providing listeners listen, or read the news blogs.

Yes of course the mention of Gaza in today's event would have been embarrasingly contentious, risky for our fragile community cohesion, even if all faith leaders present had taken counsel and agreed it was necessary not to avoid mention. I don't know what if anything went on behind the scenes beforehand, but everything went smoothly, without a hitch. Addition of anything new to the pain this occasion recalls, didn't happen. The cruelty and violence of war reduces people of good will and intent to silent impotence. I came away from City Hall feeling sorry and ashamed, that we couldn't unite in protest against the iniquities committed by both sides in this latest power struggle in the land, which is holy to three great world faiths. It's no wonder so many modern people are writing off religion as liability in the struggle to be and become human.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A place with a view

As the weather seemed set fair for the day, we drove up to the top of Caerphilly Mountain, donned our boots and headed east along the ridgeway for a brisk woodland walk through Wern Ddu before lunch. The trees are all bare and there's hardly a sign of precocious growth. Last autumn's leaves lie, mixed with mud and the grass is pale, without vigour. We see and hear more birds in our garden at breakfast each day than were evident out here in the countryside - probably because there's more food accessible to them down where we are.

This is familiar terrain from my youth, and Boy Scout treks. It's a lot more pleasant now that it was some fifty years ago, when the collieries in the lower reach of the Rhymney Valley were still active, spilling out their pollution into land, water and air. I grew up in this Valley, and its now green familarity comforts me. The flat terrain of Cardiff's flood plain, and our green corner of Cathays Park I find disconcerting, because I cannot immediately lift up 'mine eyes unto the hills'. I long to live again in a place with a high green skyline, fields and forests to contemplate.

After lunch in Caerphilly, at my insistence we drove through Llanbradach up to Ystrad Mynach, where I grew up, looking at them with the eyes of potential settlers. It's all so much cleaner than when I left home in 1964. Ystrad Mynach looks as if it has evolved without any unifying planning vision. It doesn't even look decently higgledy-piggledy like a Greek village. Some of its shops have been smartened up, some empty commercial spaces have been filled in with houses. The triangle of shopping streets and houses at the centre of the village could look so much better than it does. It's not that it lacks prosperity like so many of the Valleys do. It lacks an aesthetic with any regard for the circle of surrounding hilltops. I have happy memories of growing up in and around this village. It's hard to imagine finding a place there now that I'd be happy to call home. Often I wonder, will we ever find somewhere we're both happy to spend our latter years? For me, it has to be a place with a view.

Friday, January 23, 2009

An invitation to be reckoned with

After the lunchtime Eucharist, an hour and a half at the sink dish washing in the Tea Room, chatting, catching up on the news, enjoying the atmosphere - most enjoyable. Then, a brisk walk to school for an end of day chat with the Head and Deputy, to check out dates for the term ahead, before the meeting at the offices of Scarman Trust to find out more about their project on faith diversity awareness training.

It was good to be meeting up again with Terry Price, Scarman's local director, again after three years. He was very supportive of the efforts we made to develop St James' for community purposes. Although that was a failure and a great disappointment, it was also merciful when I think of the scale of running costs that would have followed on from a successful bid for funds to adapt and renovate the building properly. Now we're in the early stages of a plan to adapt the former school caretaker's house for community purposes, with a much greater chance of funding success, and a project that will be sustainable in design from the very start. Terry is fully aware of this because Su West whose community work post is Scarman funded, is involved with the new project. Happily she has recently accepted to become a school governor, which is a great plus in upholding the vocation of Tredegarville to be in every sense a community school.

At the meeting, along with Terry and Charles Willie was Paul Keeping, who is the Equalities Officer for Cardiff Council. We've been promising each other to get together for a chat ever since the Spiritual Capital conference, and now we meet in a common area of interest - anti-discrimination practice and policy. It was good to walk back into the city centre together afterwards, and do some catching up. As for the meeting itself, Terry gave us some background to the work he's been doing over a five year period, with others across the European community. The resource material is at an advanced stage of preparation and there's an opportunity to try it out here in Cardiff in April. The next stage is to recruit a suitably diverse group of 12-15 people from public service bodies, faith and voluntary groups, willing to engage in the exercise. When I got home I found it easy to identify more than a dozen people I thought it might be worthwhile sending an invitation to. Then I had to think out what to say to them to alert them to the arrival of the invitation sent out by Terry. Even if only two or three can make the time, it will contribute to getting a critical number of participants for the test run.

An exercise designed to raise awareness of religious diversity cannot help but be informative, and lead to dialogue about similarities and differences between faith communities. This exercise has an additional function, which I believe is crucial in developing real social cohesion that embraces all kinds of religious diversity and reduces the threat of alienation and extremism. It will get people of different faith cultures exploring different experiences of what it means for them to be part of a secular society in which they are one minority among many, and learn to recognise how this impacts upon others, including those who do not practice religion, or are completely ignorant of it. This will, I believe, prove helpful to those who must make decisions or give a lead to others serving people in situations where religious differences are not well understood.

So often religious differences are seen as problematic, too hard an issue to tackle, better avoided or ignored, when in reality it's a matter of knowing how to take religious people's interests and concerns seriously. If this is done successfully, it makes possible a wealth of constructive contributions from people of faith, for the common good, as we tried to argue in the Spiritual Capital research report. The way in which the Western Mail's reporting of our launch conference diverted attention away from actual findings to the secular humanist agenda of protest against religion playng any part in public life is to my mind a clear example of anti-religious discrimination from the Media Wales news team. I'd love to see the hacks and their editors go through this training exercise once it's fully fledged. It could help them do their job, not only better, but more fairly.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Churches feast together

I had the pleasurable experience of chopping vegetables in the church kitchen for an hour or so this afternoon, along with Pauline and Norma. We are preparing a vegetable soup to feed 60-70 people later on, at the annual Churches Together dinner, down the street, at Tabernacl Baptist Church.

For the past five years we've met for this event at St Peter's Church Hall and have been fed by caterers. In order to moderate the cost - so many older church members across the board being on fixed incomes, we agreed to experiment this year, with a main hot course prepared by Gio's, the Italian restaurant next door to Tab, and other courses - soup, salad, cheese and fruit, brought along by various church teams. This more than halved the cost, and the outcome was very good indeed.

There were indeed seventy of us crammed around tables in Tabernacle Sunday School upper room, and the atmosphere was very good indeed, despite the absence of a bar, and alcoholic drinks. In good company, you just don't need it, and it keeps costs down even further. We may be entering austere times, but our feast didn't reflect that, a modest price tag of eight quid notwithstanding.

Quaker theologian Christine Trevitt was our after dinner speaker, reflecting on the universal significance of humour and jokes told against themselves by all kinds of Christian groups, reminding us of Reinhold Neibur's dictum that being able to laugh at one's own foibles and failings was a prelude to penitence. It was both entertaining, and thought provoking - a nice surprise to conclude our meal, before we worshipped together.

I hope we can manage another event of this kind in the year to come. The fact that there are half a dozen lively and active churches in the 'square mile' of the city centre is soemthing to celebrate. Even with our diversity of traditions, we have a great deal in common in the challenges to Chrisitian witness we all face.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presidential Inauguration Day

Predictably, most Israeli troops had withdrawn from Gaza before American Presidential inauguration day. Israel's stranglehold over all but the Egyptian border crossings ensures that the suffering continues unabated, whether or not accompanied by rocket and tank shell fire. The Israelis want to control all the aid that enters Gaza, with the aim of depriving Hamas of any resources to continue its struggle. Hamas has behaved as cynically and cruelly in its failure to act to preserve the lives of those who elected it to power. Each side has behaved as criminally wicked as the other. Who will call them to account? When?

Each side has declared its unilateral cease-fire ahead of the inauguration, perhaps so that the conflict would not attract critical comment from Washington when the attention of the world is focussed there. But when will something be said? When will the call to account begin for both sides? The Secretary General of the UN is already calling for an investigation of the shelling of UN compounds, as an illegal act. I can't help wondering what President Obama thinks of the reports from Gaza over the past weeks, and how he will address the situation in days to come, given how quiet he and his team has been on this affair during the past month.

The election of a black American president is an extraordinary moment in world history, but will it result in a change in attitudes and relationships between America and the people and nations of the Islamic world? Can change, of which Obama is such a passionate advocate, heal the deep wounds inflicted by western racism and injustice on the Holy Land and other countries in the region over the past century? This is what preoccupies me most at this end of this day of new beginning. The BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen has a thoughtful posting on his blog today.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Anti-discrimination initiative

I attended the Council's Vision Board meeting this afternoon, reviewing the efforts being made by senior management in local government and statutory bodies to work together with shared strategic aims for the benefit of all citizens and aspects of life in the Borough. It's difficult dry technical stuff to follow on times, but an effort is made to keep an overview on the many and varied components of public life and organisations in response to changing times and circumstances.

Concern for the environment and the need to reduce carbon consumption is one feature slowly infiltrating itself into all agendas, health, transport, education, planning, development. Social inclusion and equality is another. Every organisation will have to react to rapid economic recession in terms of its own plans and budgets, but today, Council Leader Rodney Berman posed the question to the meeting of how responding to the recession might become a key issue for collaborative working and strategic planning. It's a much more difficult matter to address, but surely worthwhile.

Afterwards, I was able to give to the head of S E Wales Environment Agency, John Harrison, a copy of the Church in Wales' new document 'Caring for God's creation' - a Parish Green guide, launched at the September 08 Governing Body meeting, which I received in the post yesterday. Two years ago, I attended a presentation John arranged for faith groups on global warming, challenging us to consider what we have to contribute to debate and action on the subject. It was good to have something both of substance and quality to show him, and he was pleased to take a copy away with him. It's got me wondering what other denominations and faith communities have published by way of advice on green issues to their followers. I might just do a little investigation ....

Also after the meeting, Charles Willie of the Cardiff and Vale coalition for the disabled asked me if I'd be interested in a project he's engaged with on the social inclusion / anti-discrimination agenda. The project is a religious diversity awareness training programme, aimed at all sorts of people who work in public service organisations, addressing commonplace ignorance of other faiths and cultures, and aspects of discrimination rooted in religious issues, which are all too easily overlooked. I was delighted to be asked, and also delighted to think that a matter on which I have had increasing concern in recent years is being tackled in a purposeful way.

Back in the 1980 when institutional racism was first highlighted as an unacknowledged feature of public life in Britain, I recall the emergence of racism awareness training. In my limited experience, the lead was often taken by people with Christian roots. It seems that for this project the driving force, alongside the strong interest of Coalition for the Disabled in the rooting out of discriminatory practices, is the local office of the Scarman Trust, founded by Lord Scarman of blessed memory as a response to the enquiry he chaired into the Brixton and Toxteth riots. Both of these are secular organisations now addressing the issue of the marginalisation of religious communities in public life and attitudes. A fascinating turn of events in the light of my own experience.

The St Paul's riots in Bristol, which preceded both these events, had its own 'enquiry' in the form of a visit from a Parliamentary Select Committee, which achieved little, apart from making St Paul's issues a footnote to other incidents. Social conditions in all three areas were much the same, and took an age to heal and restore after the inquests. For me being Rector of St Paul's Area at that time was a most formative period in earlier ministry, teaching me the importance of engagement between faith communities and institutions of governance. It was not easy then. It still seems difficult today, except that growing diversity of Britain now means that more people rooted in faith communities are either politically active or working in the public sector. Yet somehow there's an inhibiting pressure that leads to a kind of shyness about engaging as people of faith on the full range of public issues - hence the poverty of response to our Spiritual Capital initiative last autumn. Perhaps this shyness is attributable to discriminatory pressures against people of faith. I certainly look forward to learning more about the project, when I meet with its leaders this Friday afternoon.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hopeful times

This morning, it was quite pleasing to be able to produce my recently shed kidney stone to show the consultant, and then look at the CT scan image of it sitting in my bladder prior to expulsion. There was no doubt, from the comparison of shape and size that it was the same object and hadn't broken up in transit. Still, there's always a possibility of bits and pieces being left inside, although nothing was evident on the scan. So, the doctor was happy to dispense me from the operation, and book me in for a follow-up check in six months time. It's good, because it means that I can plan a holiday abroad now.

This afternoon we had the Tredegarville School Parent-Governor annual meeting, followed by a Governors meeting. It was good to be able to go into school for these, my first visit of the new year. The really good news is that the old school caretakers house is empty and can be made available for adaptation and development as a community education resource. There's a real possibility of available funding for the work that's needed and community groups around with an interest in becoming stakeholder partners in making the project happen. In a strange way, it's a repeat of the process by which we sought to develop the church, without success - but then we needed five times the amount of money we're now thinking about to be able to mount a viable project. Developing the house, by way of contrast, is a sustainable prospect.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday pleasure

We were awakened this morning by Rhiannon, beaming with delight and climbing into bed with us accompanied by her soft toys. Kath brought her down by train to stay overnight, a special pleasure for us, compensating for our visit to see them being shortened by my kidney stone incident on New Year's Day.

Although my voice-box is still not back to normal, I have been feeling much better this past few days, so I went into church for the Parish Eucharist and preached to see how much I could handle of being back in public. Having such an invasive 'flu was more of a knock to my physical confidence than I was prepared for. I'm used to being resilient and bouncing back from illness, but I haven't been like that on this occasion. Archdeacon David Lee was there to celebrate, supportive as ever, and everyone was so kind and welcoming, it felt good to be back.

In the past few days, with plenty of time to spare, I have been able to prepare my series of Lent talks - 'Faith for hard times'. I've been thinking a lot about the priority of evangelism - 'in season and out of season', and drawing upon the work of a French Protestant theologian, Laurent Schlumberger, whose short tract 'Sur le seuil' (On the threshold) I was given on my ski expedition last winter by my friend Valdo. The book gives a penetrating analysis of modern culture and advocates a vigorous and disciplined examination by the church of its raison d'etre. Rather than just skimming it in French as I did the first time I read it, this time I properly translated key sections of text, to ensure I really did understand his propositions. It's been helpful in shaping what I want to offer as Lenten fare this year.

On a lighter note, Clare and I watched a classic 1960s French comedy movie on DVD after supper, about RAF air crew escaping France after being shot down over Paris, and featuring the inimitable Terry-Thomas speaking French with his wonderful accent Anglais - always source of amusement to the French. It had elements of the classic Great Escape movie about it, though the French title, la Grande Vadrouille translates as 'the Big Stroll' indicates it's a send-up of this genre of war movies.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Street Carers conclave

This evening I attended the fourth in a series of meetings of people who arrange soup runs for Cardiff's street people. This was the first meeting to be held in the absence of Council officers, and felt to be important as part of the bonding process that's been going on as these meetings have progressed, between disparate people with common concerns for the poor. They also wanted to meet, aware that all known to be involved so far are practising Christians, motivated by their faith, so this was also an opportunity for faith sharing - something which might stretch the patience of public officials used to functioning under the veil of secular neutrality.

Mine was the privilege of opening the meeting, with no need to remind anyone of why we were there. I simply selected half a dozen brief but appropriate patches of scripture relating to Christian ministry and its core values, from the writings of Paul, James, the author of Hebrews and the Gospels. It was a task which gave me pleasure, and I'd like to think gave the participants pleasure also, from the appreciative grunts and Amens uttered around the room. Each of the differing street caring groups present spoke about what they did and how they went about it. There was a remarkable congruence, and also a remarkable sense of gratitude expressed by people for what they received from their encounters with poor people on the streets.

Many echoed the words of the redoubtable Elizabeth Perret-Atkins, founder of Cardiff's 'Rainbow of Hope' coalition, which organises the best part of a hundred volunteers into rotas spanning the month, when she said : "Essentially its not about feeding or clothing needy people, it's about the people themselves, making community with them in which they can experience Christ's love at work." That's a lot more passionate and compassionate a conviction than the administrative idea of 'service provision for homeless rough sleepers'. It takes a lot of extra commitment, of going the 'second mile' with those in need. And we heard lots of small stories modestly told, about what volunteers get up to, over and above feeding and clothing people.

Elizabeth been applying herself to street ministry for sixteen years, as have several others. One man present, Andy, has been ministering on the streets for thirty years. Two people present were unashamed to say that once they had been out there on the streets on the receiving end, and had been helped to move on by people of faith. It was a joyous occasion, which gave some remarkable insights into an evangelical spirituality grounded in practical service of others. I wish I could have recorded it all to play back to students for the ministry.

My involvement in this process has arisen out of my ministry on the other side of the equation - the concerns and problems experienced by city council workers and management in relation to the poor on the streets and those caring for them. It's been marvellous working with Paul Hocking, Pastor of Thorhill Community Church, and Chair of Cardiff Gweini, with oversight of activities in the Christian voluntary sector, himself a member of a soup run team. He steered the conversation with great sensitivity, ensuring all had a voice. This gave me chance to listen and appreciate all that was being said.

I was pleased that at the end of the evening, the meeting, with 36 attendees endorsed the idea of a Street Carers' forum - a small group of representatives of the wide range of those involved, charged with facilitating good relationships between the voluntary community and the City's officers. This is, to my mind, involves interpreting the Council's intentions to Street Carers, and interpreting Street Carers intentions to the Council, for there is a huge culture gap between the administrative discipline of 'service provision', working within budgetary parameters, making funding bids, allocating resources with the highest of aspirations, and the 'organic' approach of Christian pastoral and missionary outreach, attempting to centre upon the whole person and not just their presenting needs, working with a vision of what it means to be a whole person, saved by grace, rather than managing an 'individual care plan'.

Fundamentally all parties want the same thing : well-being for those in need. However, statutory service provision is guided by the head, voluntary pastoral care, by the heart. Both are needed. Each can achieve in areas that the other cannot. There's no sane alternative to partnership and dialogue.

Now that we have the beginnings of a representative instrument for Street Carers, I believe more constructive moves can follow. There's a long way to travel, and I'm hoping and praying that such a joyous beginning will be characteristic of the journey together.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A special passing moment

Recovery from my Christmas 'flu has proved a much longer process than expected. The symptoms seem to fade away, and then return a few days later but much weaker, and I'm left with a physical energy deficit. Thankfully my brain seems to have overcome the inertia that accompanied the first couple of weeks of 'flu, and I've had enough energy to start drafting my series of Lent Talks. So, it's not been totally unproductive time for me.

This morning I went for a brief visit to hospital for a CT scan, cheerily and efficiently dispatched in under fifteen minutes from walking in. The man in the queue behind me had travelled the 25 miles from Merthyr Tydful for his scan. Presumably they don't have a scanner unit at the hospital here. It's a huge piece of capital investment, after all.

This afternoon I had the surprise I've been hoping for. I passed the offending kidney stone, with a little discomfort but almost no pain. I suppose it must have been sitting in my bladder looking for the way out since whenever it shifted out of the ureter duct where it had been lodged. since last Summer I just hope that today's fresh CT scan shows nothing where a partial blockage was detected back in July's scan. If that's the case, there's no need for an operation, nothing doubtful hanging over me.

I can only feel grateful that my body has done me this favour. As Allan our Parish Warden often says : "We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made."

Thursday, January 08, 2009

War vigil

The rate of recovery both from 'flu and from the kidney trouble seems very slow to me. I potter about the house, deal with emails, then snooze like an old man - heavens, I am an old man. Just a century ago I would not have lived so long, faced with such nasty bugs.

My daily routine includes a lot of listening to the news from the BBC, and reading up what it publishes on its websites, particularly about the distressing situation in Gaza. I have rediscovered Ma'an news, an independent Palestinian news agency, with people reporting from the inside of the conflict, just like the BBC. It's good factual objective reporting, with some interesting opinion pieces of the kind you simply wouldn't find without digging through the Western media.

When the UN school in Jabaliya was shelled Ma'an reported 42 dead while the BBC was giving the figure of 30 dead. It was a good 36 hours before the BBC revised its figure to 42 without comment. And how much we assume the BBC gets it right! We hear their statements discussed more than we hear what Hamas leaders actually have to say. Ma'an will give you texts to read in English so you can make up your own mind. Why their military people think they can achieve anything meaningful by provoking the greater might of Israeli forces to even more extreme acts of violence remains a total mystery to me, but the Hamas analysis of Palestinian oppression and injustice merits careful thought.

Admittedly it's almost impossible to get all the facts straight in any war situation, especially when violence to the truth is one of the key weapons used on all sides. According to technology news sources, there have been cyber-attacks on websites belonging to both Israelis and Palestinians, involving things as crude as defacement of web pages, re-routing them to other sites, and attempts to stop them functioning altogether by overloading them with false demands. As information and mis-information are all so critical in any power struggle, it's not surprising that technological dominance has become an important affair.

Anyway, as the days pass slowly, I read, watch and wonder. Sometimes my mind seems as empty as a desert. Words of prayer seem almost un-natural, unrelated, ineffective.

I have relied on the liturgical use of Psalmody so much over the past 45 years, but when I consider it in its raw un-filtered state, so much of its poetic imagery is of dominance, violence, retaliation. What am I doing? What are we filling our heads with?

I guess the sight in a BBC video clip of a small group of Israeli soldiers reciting prayers together (probably Psalms, like generations of Christian soldiers before them) out on the battlefield of Gaza shook those questions out of the shades of my mind into full consciousness. I'm sure I could write a tome that covers all the traditional rationale for these things, but none of that seems to be working for me at the moment. Why should I or anyone else bless God for the ability to wage war? (Psalm 144)

How will we ever rid the world from the worship of violence? Or cease to find glamour in vengance and retaliation?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Gregory for St Asaph

How pleasing to hear the news this evening of Gregory Cameron's election as Bishop of St Asaph. I got to know him as a young priest serving in Monmouth diocese twenty years ago, through the common connection we have with the sisters of the Holy Cross at Ty Mawr convent. No doubt there will be rejoicing there tonight, at the news that one of their Companion Brothers is to be a Bishop of the Church in Wales.

He is immensely capable and learned, and has served the Anglican Communion well during the past five years of politicking and disputes in its London central office. Sooner or later he would have ended up as a Bishop somewhere in England or maybe even abroad, because of his valuable contribution to the thinking of the Communion and the handling of its conflicts. It's a credit to the St Asaph electoral college that they have recognised his qualities and called him to leadership.

Like Monmouth diocese, where he grew up and started his ministry, St Asaph is a border diocese, with an interface between English and Welsh cultures as well as churches. He is well fitted to preside over the church in such a context, and after his time in the ACO astride the cultural differences of global Anglicanism, he has a special kind of experience to contribute to the leadership of the Church in Wales, that will help to ensure it doesn't turn further in on itself, in the struggle for survival.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

New Year surprise

I was glad to feel well enough to travel up to Kenilworth to spend New Year baby-sitting grand-daughter Rhiannon while her parents played a gig in a local restaurant. On New Year's night we had a splendid festive meal together, but before the evening was out, kidney stone pains had started up with unusual ferocity. By midnight I was vomiting, and by 1.30 in the morning, I was on my way to A&E in Warwick hospital, as there were no pain killers in the house. Fortunately the calm and cheery staff were able to bring things under control, and were comfortable with the idea of releasing me to return to bed at home, having been made aware that I'm due for more scans and treatment next week. We were back in Kenilworth by 4.30am, and I was able to get some sleep without the analgaesic wearing off.

An early morning X-ray had shown no new stone, and the existing one is hiding out of x-ray range. The radiologist had said that they'd only recently acquired digital x-ray equipment, years after the building of the new hospital facility, and that it would soon have to be replaced as it was't the right kind. He also said they didn't yet have the facility to send an image file electronically to the UHW database server. I was nevertheless surprised at how quickly my personal details had been retrieved from the big GP database once they had my name and date of birth. Some things work, others don't.

When we'd all recovered from our disturbed night, Clare and I decided to return to Cardiff, to be within easy reach of UHW Heath, just in case. There's been no return of the really severe pain since then, just a dull ache, surivivable with the occasional anti infammatory, rather than the really aggressive crisis management analgaesic offered by A&E. But, it's left me groggy and in need of lots of sleep, as if I've been beaten up. So I won't be doing too much for the next few days until I can get to see my GP, and have that long awaited CT scan to find out what's left of the stone supposed to be part-blocking the duct from kidney to bladder.