Saturday, February 28, 2009

A walk through Bristol

Over to Bristol by train for lunch today in the Clifton Gorge Hotel, overlooking Brunel's landmark suspension bridge. It was an 80th birthday lunch for my sister Pauline with a dozen of her family present, a happy occasion and opportunity to meet great nephews and a niece I'd not met before.

There was sufficient time on arrival to walk from Temple Meads station to Clifton, through the newly opened Cabot Circus shopping centre. I've been meaning to visit and have a look around for some time, and this was the perfect occasion for a walk-through inspection, camera in hand.

I was impressed by how few empty shops there were in the complex, given these difficult times for retailing. There are shops on several levels, optimising the use of vertical space, and providing balconies from which to survey the surrounding scene, with huge 'geodesic' canopies filling the air space above, though not enclosing it fully as a roof might. The central crossing area is big enough to permit activities which can be watched from above. On this occasion a large trampoline enclosure had been set up, and an athletic demonstration given.

The new open street area centred on the 18th century Quaker's Friars buildings where the Registrar's office was once housed is pleasantly arranged, integrating old and new. The old buildings have been transformed into a collection of prestige restaurants.

By way of contrast the Bristol Mall shopping centre, along the street ffrom Quaker's Friars is an astonishing disappointment. It is set behind an eighteenth century suite of almshouses, restrained and elegant to the eye. Behind them the Mall looms, with a wall of windows framed in white modern materials and arranged in several geometrical patterns reminiscent of the start of a migraine. The contrast is simply horrid. The interior is light, airy and multi-level, in white and stainless steel criss-crossed by moving staircases, resembing the backdrop of Fritz Lang's film 'Metropolis'. Not bad, I suppose, apart from the insulting juxtaposition of its exterior with an ancient building of far superior quality.

Walking through Broadmead on the way up towards Clifton was a bit of a shock to the eyes. When Clare and I were undergraduates, this shopping centre was brand new. It has aged badly, and looks dirty, and downmarket. Like or loathe the new development, the difference in appearance between them must be an embarrasment to the retailers, if not the city planners.

Park Street, also stylish in our student days, also looks tired. Clifton Village is, as it ever was, a mix of scruffy and well maintained buildings whose quality is pleasing to the eye nevertheless. It's still full of small smart shops of every kind, reflecting all the current trends in an attractive and interesting way. Not a bad place to retire to I mused until I saw the price of housing there.

Altogether we lived for eleven years in Bristol. It's changed hugely, but still has many of its old attractions about it - not least places as elegant as the Clifton Gorge Hotel for summer lunch or afternoon tea on the terrace. But it's not Wales. It's not Cardiff - a far friendlier city to call home.


Clare's brother Eddie and his wife Ann came to spend the weekend with us, and last night we went to hear Donizetti's comic opera 'Elixir of Love' at the Millennium Centre. It was a wonderful performance, not only because of the superb lead singers, but the marvellous acting of both the women's and men's choruses - a feat of organisation, with so many people on stage. In many ways it reminded me of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and it was only when I bothered later to read the programme notes that I realised Donizetti pre-dated G&S by half a century. I guess the former was an inspiration to the latter.

The opera's love story pivots around the idea that a magic potion can make someone seeking a lover irresistible to others. A showman who purveys cure-all potions comes to town, and is taken seriously by a love-lorn young man, who buys half a bottle of Bordeaux in the scam, drinks it all and then finds all the girls in town except the one he wants are pursuing him amorously. They know (he doesn't) that he has just inherited a fortune, and this makes them all (apart from the one he wants) overcome their indifference towards him. His belief in the power of the 'medicine' is confirmed, and he goes begging the showman for more. The showman in turn is surprised by his accidental success, and this emboldens him to continue his scam with conviction. Needless to say, all ends happily, and true love triumphs over illusion - just.

It was great entertainment, but also thought provoking. Belief in a cure-all remedy, belief in the power of wealth to give a man worth - great illusions, still pursued a hundred and eighty years later. The world has used freely available credit as a cure-all to give the illusion of wealth where little in reality has been created. And our illusions have made fools of us, and sadly much more than fools. Will love be allowed to triumph, even if we genuinely believe in it? The other illusion of our age is that some measure of violence is always going to be efficaceous in solving our problems. Although there are many who voice their disillusionment, there is no sign that this most pernicious of beliefs is losing its hold on those who hold power anywhere in the world.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

City transport concerns

An interesting meeting this afternoon, bringing together representatives of several of the Countdown 2009 focus groups, with the purpose of moving forward on the infrastructure strategy for the city centre, and linking together with other projects in the city centre. We were meant to be reviewing matters under the headings of transport, public realm and wayfinding, but so much came up under transport, we spent the entire meeting on that subject alone.

From all sorts of spheres of interest, transport problems seem to dominate - problems relating to the control of taxis, legal and illegal, road closures to do with large public events, congestion on routes into the city centre, goods deliveries into a pedestrian zone, parking security, pedestrian safety, especially for the disabled. My small contribution concerned the lack of buses early enough to bring in worshippers and retail workers on Sunday mornings. The instant reaction was 'not enough demand', but I felt confident enough to point out early public transport for Sunday workers had the potential to remove their cars from the congestion equation. What's good for retail is also good for the church. We may be different businesses, but the same needs are there.

It's clear that thinking about the broader picture of urban transport infrastructure in the Cardiff area is now taking place, with additional pressure from the re-launch of the city centre's shopping amenities this autumn. To my mind this is ten years too late. Now it's driven by necessity, and the solutions will all be compromises. Infrastructure is boring stuff, not exactly the most alluring thing to invest time or energy in, until it's too late and you realise you don't have enough capacity. Congestion has always been a problem in Cardiff. It's got worse as the car owning population has expanded. Will the ambition to become a carbon-lite city lead to few vehicles on the road, less congestion in the long term? I doubt it. We not good at thinking ahead, despite all the visionary rhetoric and ambitions of the moment.

The meeting took place in one of the recently restored tower rooms of Cardiff Castle. That was an experience in itself. One of these days I really must do a full tour. With a wife who works as one of the casual guides there, you'd think I'd have done it by now, but not so.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


It's good to stop. Ash Wednesday has been quite a busy day for me. First a school assembly, sharing with Fr Roy Doxsey in a penitential service, ashing children, staff and parents. Then the first of three home communions in different places. Then three quarters of an hour at home to write a reference ready to deliver to County Hall this afternoon, then the midday Eucharist at St John's, followed by the second and third home communion. Then a trip down to County Hall to deliver the reference, and home for supper before the evening's Sung Eucharist. Over 250 people received the ashes, and 37 people made their Communion. And I preached three times.

It would be interesting to find how how many colleagues would say that this level of liturgical activity was also typical for them on Sundays and special days. We willingly make an effort to reach out to people in different circumstances and offer God's gifts to them, and I believe it's appreciated, for the most part. What does concern me is the whole issue of quantity versus quality. It's not easy to give of one's best when there's so much to do.

The late Dean of Monmouth Gareth Lewis was a great friend and supporter of my ministry in the days when I was U.S.P.G. representative in Wales. "What people need most from you" he'd say, "is your freshness. You can bring a new perspective and a different energy to them in their routine parochial lives. We all need a little bit of freshness from time to time."

If there was anything new or different about what I brought to parishes at that time, it was a fruit of the freedom I had from the grinding tasks of parochial routine, freedom to visit and learn from many different church communities in the course of doing my job representing mission in the third world, freedom to understand what was developing in other countries, either through reading or personal encounters.

I never travelled abroad with USPG. Just as my turn arrived, I left for another job. But I know what a difference travel makes, because of how much I gained from journeys made while I worked in Switzerland - not only into neighbouring European countries, but also the Balkans, Syria, Jordan, the Holy Land and Mongolia. Nowadays my travel is confined to holidays, which have more the character of recovery than discovery. Books and TV are not enough. I need to go to places and interrogate them for myself in order to be refreshed in a way that makes a difference to what I can give out. But there's not much chance of going far again before I retire.

Although I'm settled, and accept the demands and routines of pastoral life, there's still a restlessness below the surface in my dreams and imaginations, a longing to drink from wells again in distant places. For now I just have to live with the desire and not stifle it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Silent witness

We had another Faith Focus group this evening, comprising three Anglicans, one Sikh and a Hindu, sadly a third of the people on the invitation list. Our agenda always starts by looking a bit thin and unattractive, but it's what emerges from the meeting and its discussions that makes it worthwhile, once we've managed to bring up to date those who have not been present at the previous few meetings!

Sure, people may read minutes, but always require the courtesy of an explanation of their content, making progress somewhat slow. However, there's generally a new item of interest brought to the table by someone. Tonight Cllr Jaswant Singh raised the topic of Community Radio, and how it might be possible, in the context of the new shopping centre and library, to have a city centre broadcasting project that could enable many different local community groups to share their music and their stories, in their different languages as well as in Welsh or English. So, the group now wishes to enquire if broadcasting facilities are planned for inclusion in the new centre, and if so, how faith groups might be included as contributors to establishing them.

Next meeting we are hoping to hear from the shopping centre architects about their proposals for the inclusion of a 'quiet room' for prayer and reflection. It's part of the plan, but so far nothing tangible has been proposed. Each faith group will have something different to say about this, possibly incompatible things to say. The need to express the spiritual dimension of one's faith we all have in common but we do so in different ways. Everyone has their habits and their 'wants'. Are these reconcilable in one facility? It's a facility for everyone to be able to use, not just some. It's a test, not so much for the architect as for the faith groups.

The developers are making the offer of accomodation to the spiritual needs of some among the consumer public. If there's no possibility of compromise, of mutual accomodation, the redundant empty space for a 'quiet room' will bear silent witness as a reproach to all believers.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Another side of Cardiff

Half term week has been a time when not much has been going on apart from routine worship. With Rhiannon's fifth birthday (already!) being celebrated over the weekend, Clare went up to Kenilworth and spent the latter half of the week with the family there, leaving me to a time of solitude and reflection and home. It's given me time to work on writing an account of my experiences of ministry over the past forty years, examining what sort of story about myself I tell to myself. The richness and diversity of my journey is something I want to record, not only to remind myself, but also, perhaps, to leave behind a story which my descendents might at some time cast a curious eye upon.

I find it takes time to get used to being on my own. It's not always a comfortable experience, and having such a writing project helps. It allows me to adjust to living with my sense of dissatisfaction with life, my inability to make things the way I think they are meant to be. In the end, when I look back I realise I have so much to be thankful for, even if I shall never be cured of my idealism, and sense of disappointment that only fragments of the social and spiritual vision we saw in our youth have ever been realised.

Young men 'see visions', says Joel the prophet, and 'old men dream dreams'. I'd love to know what we're supposed to be dreaming about, and whether or not it's meant to have any impact on the rest of life.

Today was beautiful weather. I walked up the Taff Trail as far as Radyr, risking life and limb with so many other people out on bicycles. I caught the train back, and discovered a rail route around the West of Cardiff I hadn't travelled along before, a route along which a significant number of new houses have been built in recent years, along the west bank of the Taff. It gave me a sense of just how much the City has grown, not only down the Bay area, but also in the hinterland below the M4.

Further south, the mile long ex-paper mill site below Ely Bridge has now been cleared for another new development, not only of houses in an eco-village, but supposedly a new hi-tech business park, if the youthful visions of strategic planners come to pass. However, at the moment recession is shackling the ambitions of our 'proud Capital', and the only growth in sight at the moment is colonising shrubs and trees. So in a way it's less of a wasteland than when it was all one big empty industrial site. I wonder if the natural haphazard greening of the site will survive the bull-dozers, as and when they (hopefully) arrive?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grave matters

Just as I was about to set off for the Eucharist this morning, I had an anxious call from Matt the project engineer overseeing the street paving, amongst other things. The contractors, in the process of removing the tarmac from the final section of the Victorian churchyard path had found a brick vault, covered with stone slabs. Another had been identified at the east end of the path, but it had been filled in with earth a long time ago. This was not the case with the second. Underneath the slabs was still a void containing "three bodies" he said ominously. Work had to be halted until a decision could be taken, and time to complete the path was already in short supply.

After the Eucharist, I met with Dylan the foreman and his team to inspect the site. They had returned the single slab moved to its proper position, but opened it up again for me to see. I took a few photographs in anticipation of having to send pictures to Evan, our PCC secretary who is also an archaeologist at the Museum of Wales in Cathays park. Much to my relief, he'd received a message and came over in his lunch break. His opinion was to do nothing further to disturb the vault but simply re-seal and cover with a concrete slab. The skeletal remains of three people lay at the bottom, to all intents and purposes undisturbed. There were no coffin remnants to be seen, so presumably the inhabitants were buried in shrouds.

The testimony of Canon Charles Thompson to a Llandaff Diocesan Consistory Court in 1897, was that the churchyard, closed to new graves in 1855, witnessed its final interments in old graves or vaults by 1875. The path was created in 1898, at which time monuments over graves were re-sited either side of the path. For the most part, remains were removed and reburied elsewhere. One vault had been filled in, whether or not the inhabitants had been removed, but the other was left undisturbed. A puzzle worthy of speculation.

Possibly there's an answer in church records. But my best guess is this. Proper legal permission would have been needed for exhumation and re-location of remains. All it would require to do nothing would be for the family buried there to have no traceable next of kin to seek permission from. If that was one of the last churchyard burials, from less than a quarter of a century previously, the people interred would perhaps have been remembered too well for anyone willingly to bother with over-riding normal legal procedure to move the remains. No doubt there were time pressures on the builders in those days too.

Fortunately, churches are used to living with complex awkward and unanswered questions over long periods of time. They are in this regard far superior to governments, which are always re-inventing or forcing solutions on intractible situations. By tonight, the vault will have been sealed again, and within days, one of the two dozen slabs engraved with numbers replacing the old brass grave markers, will be the only reminder of the burial beneath. The only reminder, that is, apart from the historical puzzle which emerged with the opening of the vault.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sad news

Just eight months ago I attended the fortieth anniversary celebration of my friend Patrick Rosheuvel's ordination to the priesthood. It was an event at which he shone, radiating joy, fun and a sense of occasion proper to this milestone in his life, despite being badly disabled by the stroke several years ago. His wife Judith had emailed me a month ago, mentioning that his health had got worse, and that he'd been in and out of hospital of late. Tonight Edwin Ward, a colleague from USPG days rang to tell me that Patrick had died at home last Sunday morning, just before dawn.

Edwin told me that the Sunday before, having been housebound for a while, Patrick had felt well and strong enough to attend church, and concelebrate the Parish Mass with the Vicar, and acquitted himself well, blessing all the children at the communion rail, as he loved to do. Then after a quiet week at home he slipped away peacefully, without any fuss, to be with the Lord, on the first day of the week.

In our time together at USPG, we did a missionary roadshow, with a small band three or four of us, singing songs, telling stories about the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the church in lands both near and far. The songs were either Patrick's or Gospel music, which we both loved. I still recall them well. The double album of his own music which he recorded back in the eighties shortly before we first met, called 'Special Feelings', long out of circulation, travels with me still, one of the first of my vinyl collection to be transferred to the mp3 player which keeps me going on long distance journeys.

He was such an inspirational loving man, in whom earthy holiness and hilarity strolled hand in hand. His good cheer, wisdom and sense of the absurd pulled me back from despair many times - even thinking about him in the years when we were both too tired or busy being clergy to get together, was enough to make me smile with good memories. A rare great soul - and apart from this blog, not a mention on Google. Both John and Golda his kids are musicians. John composes, Golda is a rising show biz performer, getting the hits her dad would have deserved, if he hadn't been so modest and self-effacing about his own creative gifts.

Rest in peace bro. See you up there hopefully.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unfinished life story

The streets had been relieved of most of the burden of post- international match festive detritus by the time I arrived for this morning's eight o'clock celebration. I was neverthless bothered to count a dozen glass beer or spirits bottles (three of them smashed into the pavement), plus other mess, in the sixty yards from car to church door. City by-laws permit only the use of plastic drinks containers on match days. This is ignored by people coming on coaches who stock up at local supermarket bargain prices before setting out, and later discard their empties on to the streets for others to fall over, or sweep up. The law has persuaded coach drivers to be enforcers of new coach seat belt regulations. No doubt it would be possible to persuade drivers to ban the transport of alcohol in glass containers from out of town into the city on match days, if there were spot checks to weed out offending coaches, with banishment to a car park with a five mile journey into town on public transport unless they comply. A touch of zero tolerance here would help make the city a safer place.

Friday evening, a 17 year old lad was murdered, his head kicked in during an unprovoked assault by two others just around the block from the church. I'd be willing to wager that strong drink, if not drugs as well, was the driving force behind this crime. Last time there was a murder in town the killer was a mad woman who should have been cared for in hospital. Excessive drinking is the source of much commonplace madness and violence on our streets. Sooner or later it will have to stop. Few people genuinely want to live in such a dangerous and unstable environment, even if there is a whiff of excitement to go with it.


I was glad to listen, and not to have to prepare a sermon today, as Ben was preaching. It meant I had free time yesterday to add to the 'spiritual autobiography' I have started to write.

The impulse came from an email conversation with another local evangelical Christian blogger. Paul contacted me to discuss blogging as we are both part of the Cardiff Street Carers' Forum Steering Group. Recently I set up another blog to record the meetings and decisions of the Forum, to help those whose duties mean they cannot attend every time, but need to know what's going on. Such a brilliant tool, so easy to use. Better than filing cabinets full of minutes, especially if you need to tell an on-going story rather than catalogue precisely the transactions of a developing group. He mentioned how the need to write a self-description to accompany his blog stimulated him to think about his faith journey in a special way, as he is an evangelical Christian who understands the need to give a positive witness to his faith.

My blog self description is lean and factual. The statement that I am a city centre Anglican pastor covers the present phase of a spiritual journey lasting three quarters of a lifetime. What would the outline of my story of ministry look like? I began to write, but the outline expanded. I have just got half way, and have written more than ten thousand words in my spare time in recent weeks. Who's this for? Nobody's asked for it, but not infrequently I ask myself what this life in mission and ministry has been all about.

It's a way to review where I am after nearly fifty years of seriously seeking God, in order to consider what the next step might be, once I am freed by a pension from the duty of earning my keep. To what good use might this freedom be put? A question requiring answers, rather than the telling of my story, but maybe reminding myself of what I've been privileged to experience over the years will open my heart and mind more completely to whatever comes next.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Geneva in mind

This evening Clare and I had the rare pleasure of dining out with friends. On this occasion the friends were from the Pays de Gex, across the border from Geneva, both international civil servants, still active, doing consultancy work a decade after retirement. Michael and Barbara had come over to gather English friends for a weekend to celebrate Barbara's birthday. As their hosts lived in the Vale, Cardiff, with a banquet plus a night at the opera next day was all part of the plan. Twelve of us sat down to supper at Manor Parc Hotel Thornhill. Apart from a couple we met at Michael and Barbara's wedding five years ago, the rest were strangers to us, but all shared the experience of having been expatriates in more than one place. Very much a reflection of the mobile world we now inhabit. A lively evening, full of laughter and anecdotes, reminiscent of times past in my Geneva chaplaincy days, and the convivial life we learned to regard as normal in that kind of environment. Our lives are much quieter now, with lots of time for reflection. It's not the lifestyle that I miss, but so many conversations with special people, glimpsing the world from the vantage point of the much travelled working to make this a better world.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I attended Fr Ken Jordan's funeral Eucharist this afternoon. St German's was nearly full - over 300 people there at my guess. There were a score of clergy concelebrating, and almost as many again scattered among the congregation. Having been 20 years as Vicar of St Mary's, a leader in outreach to Cardiff's homeless people, and Scout Chaplain, he was a well known public figure, and a priest held in high regard by colleagues.

Diocesan education officer, Edwin Counsell, who had served his first Curacy under Fr Jordan at St Mary's gave the eulogy which, whilst it was most respectful and gave due honour to the departed, was also very funny, and provoked gales of laughter in fond recognition of the man. Edwin is a bright spark - a hard working quick intellect, and also a very capable comedian. This I discovered for the first time when he presented a potentially stolid report reviewing church schooling in the Province to the diocesan conference last autumn, and had the audience in fits of laughter. His tribute was a ray of light in a sad day under covercast skies.

We sang 'Thine be the glory' as the coffin was carried out of the church by Fr Ken's four sons.
The last line of the last verse inevitably raised a smile.

"Bring us safe through Jordan, to thy home above."

At exactly the same hour, the funeral of Edith Cowley was taking place at St Saviour's Splott a mile away. A much loved local eccentric, her eulogy was given by a former Curate of St James, Nick Sandford, one of the clergy Edith liked to spoil. According to those present his tribute was also hilarious, and there were lots of people there to say a fond farewell to one of Cardiff's memorable post-war characters, a devout churchgoer to the end of her days.

May they both rest in peace.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Knowing and being known

Diocesan Missioner Canon Val Hamer dropped into St John's for lunch and a brief but much appreciated chat today. She's in the process of reviewing last year's 'Back to Church' Sunday promotion, and wondering how best to proceed with it in future, given the mixed responses to it in different places. It's not as easy as it looks, because a phrase like 'back to church' carries with it all sorts of assumptions about what people want from church and get from it, or would like to get from it. Indeed, in a secular culture such a phrase may hardly be intelligible, if you've not been there before to go back to it. Or if you have been before just enough to be thoroughly deterred from returning. It has to be thought through in every different kind of social setting, and that's a big undertaking.

Lunch concluded with an interruption from a gentleman enquiring somewhat imprecisely about the location of a memorial stone belonging to an ancestor, which had been mentioned in an inventory of the churchyard taken in 1895, and published on the British History online website. I was unable to help him, and the time it took to eliminate the possibilities inside and outside the church made me late arriving for David Lees' fourth CACEC lecture. This week he revisited an interesting social study undertaken, forty years ago, as part of a review of his time as the first chaplain to the Abbey Steelworks at Margam. This was executed by an independent professional researcher with statistics and evaluation of the varied responses to the regular presence of a priest in a heavy industrial environment. These were broken down, department by department throughout the works, from managment through the steel mills and furnaces to the coke ovens. Questions were asked with a view to establishing what proportion of the workforce a) knew there was a chaplain; b) had seen the chaplain about the place, c) knew the chaplains name. d) had spoken to the chaplain. There was axiliary questions about subject matter for those who had spoken to the chaplain.

David could account for variations from one department of the Works to another by the amount of time he spent in free social interaction with workers. Some environments, where a degree of slack or waiting was intrinsic to the activity, made interaction easy. In others, the sheer noise and intensity of the activity was the limiting factor. He explained how he understood his role there as being essentially a pastoral one. He was not a welfare officer, nor did he represent the interests of workers, nor management, but the stranger in the plant, the Church, interested in people, and what they did with their working lives - knowing people, being known for this.

He found that the most difficult people to relate to in the world of work were church members and officers, who found his presence an embarrassment, whereas non-churchgoers, after incredulity and curiosity to start with, were more able to accept him and understand his mission. How readily men compartmentalise their lives - religion and domesticity on the one side, work on the other. But which bit is real life? Especially when there's a priest around crossing boundaries. Why does he do that? Can't he find enough to do in the domestic zone?

I can relate to many of David's industrial observations from my own experience of taking an interest from the margins in both retail and local government. The difference between now and then is a) how much fewer people have a place for religion in their lives, either at home or work; b) how much less an idea anyone has of the 'real' work of a priest in a secularised multi-cultural multi-faith social environment. The latter is one of the reasons why I write this blog. And at the same time, writing helps me understand better what it is that I 'do', and a part of.

How interesting it would be if a similar independent survey was conducted these days of a cross-section of ministers and clerics working in different spheres, community pastorate, gathered congregation, chaplaincy work, to see what awareness there is today of those whose work begins with knowing and being known, which takes them wherever that may lead. For all its routine stuff, a great deal of ministry is still about following up the unexpected lead.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Retail courage

It was good to be able to take Ben along to observe this morning's Retail Partnership Board meeting for the first time. It was a lively one, with the usual updates about the state of the redevalopment, and discussion of the impact of riding the recession, backed as ever with up to date facts and figures. We heard about the Millennium Stadium's programme provisional plans for its tenth anniversary year. Ten years already!

I hope Ben enjoyed the meeting for the insight it offered into the world of work in the commercial sector. It remains for me one of the important features of each working month, my window into the lives of all those who make 'the retail offer' which is Cardiff city centre. It's one piece of input without which the quality of my ministry as a city centre pastor would be limited and superficial. I hope Ben sees and understands. I'm not sure how far the notion of the world's affairs determining the church's missionary agenda figures in the realm of ministry training today, as it did back in '68, when I was in Ben's place.

There's a passionate commitment to doing business in the heart of Cardiff, despite hard times and in the face of sometimes misleading and pessimistic media coverage. There's a belief it's a good place to be, with so much future potential. So it's good to consider that there's some energetic hope, even in the dark face of economic bad news. A belief that the quality and values of the city will indeed commend themselves and increase its attractiveness as a place to visit and shop in for years to come.

After all the speculation about the non-completion of the Hayes apartment blocks, we learned today that they will be built, even if they are commissioned and filled with occupants in stages. It's encouraging to know that big investors like Land Securities have a sustainable long term perspective on their holdings in the city centre. The world has suffered so badly from short-term speculation and the volatility which is thereby induced in market trading. Profit has been taken greedily as if there were no tomorrow, and now the consequences are to be faced. Nevertheless, there is a future beyond today's recession, and thankfully there are plenty of people in responsible business positions already working hard, with great commitment to secure it. It's faith, of a kind. Perhaps it has something to teach believers. After all, we believe in a God who believes in us and invests in us, long term.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The triumph of 'Figaro'

We had the pleasure last night of attending the premiere of a new production of 'The Marriage of Figaro' at the Millennium Centre. Instead of being set in the 18th century, it was set in the mid twentieth century, with a minimalist set in the southern European style. This was a surprise for half a minute, but quickly the different mis en scène made you look at the whole thing with different eyes. It made the messages about fidelity and double standards delivered by the story line seem a lot more relevant to a contemporary audience than might ordinarily be the case. The singing was superb, and the energetic comic interactions drew out the farcical element in a fresh way.

I've seen 'Figaro' half a dozen times at least, so now I don't have to read the synopsis beforehand to follow the twists and turns of the plot. I have to resist the temptation to hum along, as so many of its great melodies seem to have lodged themselves in corners of my brain, as they echoed later on in my dreams. It was a delightful refreshing evening. There were empty seats, probably due to the threatening weather. I hope there are good reviews to encourage those who missed out to make the effort to see it later in the run.

After lunch I found an email in my in-box announcing the appointment of Canon David Wilbourne of the Diocese of York as the next assistant Bishop of Llandaff, to be consecrated on 4th April, along with Gregory Cameron for St Asaph. It's good to think that the leadership of the Province will be up to full complement once more. Two senior diocesan leadership appointments this month from over the border. New blood equals fresh stimulus - always to be welcomed. I hope we won't disappoint them.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Frustration and bemusement

Another horrid day with snow and ice in different places causing travel problems. I was meant to go and fetch Auntie Daphne for the weekend and a trip to the opera from Crediton in Devon, but her area had a heavy snowfall overnight. Both Severn Bridges were closed due to ice chunks dropping from gantries and smashing car windows. So my afternoon excursion down south west was impossible on both counts.

The morning started with a meeting in the cold damp churchyard with representatives of the Diocesan Advisory Committee, a planning officer, and two people from Parks, to talk about our request to replace the existing ash tree which is pushing up our paving, with something smaller and contained which will not provide us with the necessity of re-laying the paving to accommodate tree roots every three years. It's something we want to get sorted out before re-laying the paving. The answer was 'No'. The experts were not convinced the roots were to blame. We agreed to take up some of the displaced slabs for inspection next week when the church is closed for the floors to be stripped and polished.

The DAC only wants us to have an archaeologist on hand to supervise any stone lifting, just in case there is any possibility that beneath them is a sliver of untouched ancient something worthy of investigation. The history trail makes it abundantly clear that nothing has been as it ever was before since the churchyard was a construction site for the addition of the south aisle 1888-90. Few if any grave stones are in their original position. Tracing where they were originally laid in the absence of detailed grave maps from pre-1855 when the churchyard closed, would probably best left to a clairvoyant rather than an archaeologist. But committees have their pet ideas, and no doubt they have a field day when there's no archdeacon around to inject a little common sense and real information into the proceedings.

I wonder what our new Archdeacon, Peggy Jackson will make of it all. I hope probably in vain that we'll have the old rugged path transformed into a safe, smooth and appropriately dignified church entrance path by the time she takes office. It sends out a negative message to visitors in the heart of the city, inviting them to negotiate a dodgy walkway with unkempt trees, and flower beds often choked with rubbish tossed over the railings, to enter the church. The way in must reflect something of the interior promise, or people simply won't bother.

At least we are lucky that we have a professional archaeologist who also happens to be PCC secretary. He knows the story of God's acre in the city centre better than most, and will happily supervise without asking a fat fee.

After the Eucharist I wondered if we were going to have another outbreak of yesterday's crazy moment. There was a smiling Chinese woman in the bongregation, and she came up and received Communion. She came into the sacristy and presented me with an official looking paper in Chinese script, with no English rendering. She understood nothing I said to her, although she made an effort at sign language. Then she got out a mobile phone and dialled a number and started to speak to someone. Eventually, she handed the 'phone to me to speak to the person on the other end. Fortunately the called spoke English. She didn't know who I was and she was just a bit wary of telling me who she was. I explained what had happened, and then quickly she was able to unravel the mystery.

The woman was indeed a Chinese Christian in search of a community of believers who share her language. The woman on the phone was a friend of the friend our visitor had called, and luckily she attended the Chinese church and was able to convey instructions as to its location. She departed, all smiles, leaving Ben, Ian and myself much bemused.

Whatever next?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A rare occasion these days

After the Eucharist today, the first funeral for me to conduct since last May. I did just one funeral all last year, five in 2007, eleven in 2006, seventeen in 2005. The end of 2006 was when the Parish was divided. People come into the city parish to work, have fun, shop. Occasionally they may die there, but that doens't mean that their funerals will be there. It seems strange when I hear of colleagues doing a hundred funerals a year, and struggling to find time to fit everything else in around funerals. I am privileged to have time for the missionary exploration of working among people in retail and public service bodies, and more importantly, time to reflect on this journey into uncharted territory.

The funeral was of an elderly matriarch with a huge extended family, so there was a congregation of a hundred or more. I was asked to read a eulogy on behalf of the family, as none of her children felt capable of doing so. I was touched by the well crafted thoughtful nature of the five hundred word text that had been written for me. It made my task easy. The writer thanked me for giving voice to his words after the service. I don't think he realised what he had created until he heard it spoken by another. There was a lot of affection around, mixed with the sadness of the moment. Many of those attending trekked out to Western ceremony for the burial, despite the cold and the snow. A minibus carrying a dozen people was late arriving, ten minutes after the hearse and cars. The chief mourner asked if it would be possible to wait. "We're a close family", she said, "We should be united here." It was evident in the way people huddled together and looked at each other, and we didn't have long to wait.

Walking back from along Church Street from where the funeral director's car had dropped me off I was accosted by a middle aged man exiting from The Old Arcade pub, with a fierce stare. He proceeded to demand who I was, then announced himself by various strange metaphors to be almighty God come in judgement on lying hypocritical clergy. He was not poking fun. He was totally serious, without humour, quite off his head. After a few minutes of being harangued, I broke loose from his stare and headed off to church. Within minutes he'd followed me in, and took to shouting denunciations at an unseen audience, before noticing me and continuing his tirade. The fact that I was speaking to a couple at that moment who seemed to be going through some kind of crisis and needed reassurance went un-noticed. Several other visitors quit the church, looking decidedly nervous. The finally, the tirade ended and he too departed, leaving me with this astonished young couple, and another young man who had witnessed it all out of my line of sight, and was distressed by it all.

It was such a strange interlude - a storm of psychic energy manifesting itself in a string of people disturbed, eddying around like leaves in the wind around the church tower outside, and gusting in and out of the tranquility of the place, just for a moment.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fresh food for thought

Another busy Wednesday, standing in for Fr Roy at school assembly and class Eucharist at St German's afterwards. Despite the threat of paralysis by snow, the teaching staff were able to get in to work, so the school was open, where for others it was impossible. The snow didn't stop the regulars turning up for the noon Eucharist at St John's either, although the tea-room remained shut for the third day in a row. It's not that Cardiff has had such a lot of snow. It's more the fear of snow creating problems for getting around, that leads to routine being abandoned.

I learned this morning of the death of Fr Ken Jordan, my friend Graham's predecessor as Vicar of St Mary's, and of Edith Cowley, a long standing attender of St James' church, a well known eccentric supporter of all the Anglican churches in Adamsdown and Splott. Edith was a great supporter of children's ministry, in church and in Tredegarville school, often popping in with gifts of biscuits or sweets. In a sad co-incidence her funeral and Fr Ken's will be at the same time on the same day. It's a pity. I would like to have attended both.

After lunch I went for the first time this season to Archdeacon David Lee's lectures at City Church. This one was on the subject of sociology of religion, and it prompted interesting discussion. It's been a favourite perspective of mine since I was a young curate, learning to look at the world and think differently about it, with men like David and Paul Ballard, then a young post doctoral lecturer in in Pastoral Theology, animating post-ordination training sessions, nearly forty years ago. I'm very glad to be back in contact with both of them, and find them as lively and stimulating as they ever were when we were all a lot younger.

In the evening I had another short walk down to the Temple of Peace, with an invitation from the local branch of the Three Faiths Forum to hear Pakistani British journalist Ziauddin Sardar speak, or should I say debunk the general notion of 'Asians in Britain' as if people from the several nations of the Indian sub-continent, not to mention other places in the region could or should be boiled down to such a misleading identity. He spoke about the long relationship between UK and the Indian sub-continent, and how mutually influential and beneficial that had been. He was most amusing on the re-invention of Indian food for western palates, under brand identities such as 'curry' and 'balti'.

He offered insight into the economics of large extended families, which have proved to be a key means of social support for expatriates in developing their prosperity. He touched on the way women of immigrant parents are emerging as a successful well educated professional class, reflecting the wisdom of their parents in sacrificing much to ensure daughters got as good a chance at education as sons. The men, he remarked, don't tend to be as high achievers as the women. There are many masculine exceptions, but it's clear that the change of expectations and development of equal roles amongst women has also had its impact on men's self image and confidence. But this is the case across society as a whole. What has been beneficial for some has called into question the worth of others, at least in their own estimation. It's an issue which will eventually need addressing across the board in Britain.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Faith encounter, close to home

Last week I received an invitation to attend a day conference at the Temple of Peace, just down the road from where we live. It had as its title, 'The Dilemma of Extremism', and was put on by Race Equality First, and a local grassroots Muslim women's organisation called 'The Henna Foundation', - website is still in the throes of construction, so watch that space. The event took place today, and I joined seventy other people to hear a series of very engaging speakers, packing a lot in to the four hours of sessions.

The first speaker was Aftab Malik, a UN rated global expert on Muslim affairs, former executive director of the Zaytun Institute in California, the West's foremost Muslim theological college, and currently a visiting fellow in Birmingham University. He gave an historical overview of the origins and development of islamist extremism, and the radicalisation of contemporary Muslim youth. This provided a rich context for hearing Shahien Tab, Executive Director of the Henna Foundation, speaking about dysfunction in modern Muslim families, under the heading 'Subjugation of women behind the veil of Islam; the use of forced marriages and family honour in radicalisation'. From her research she was able to equate the mapping of domestic violence to the mapping of places where known extremists come from, and she argued that Islam was being abused to justify ethnic and cultural practices that are alien to the spirit and intention of orthodox Muslim teaching. As if her carefully thought considered observation as a social science practitioner was not enough of an exercise in candour, we were then treated to an audience with Shaykh Habib 'Ali al Jifri, speaking through an interpreter.

Shaykh Habib 'Ali al Jifri can trace his ancestry back to Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He is an international theological educator from Tarim in South Yemen, trained in the Hadramauwt scholarly tradition which emphasises the middle way of Islam, Islamic jurisprudence, and a spiritual education drawn from the Qur'an and the the Sunnah. His teaching on family life was all based on the supremacy of mutual love between husband and wife, in which there is no place for violence. The essentials are love, ethical morality and patience, he said. He was able to explain that the Qur'anic idea of the equality of men and women was undermined by strong patriarchal cultural influences as the faith spread abroad. Fidelity to Qur'anic teaching posed a profound moral and theological challenge to all who subjugated women, and robbed them of their freedom and dignity.

Some of the women present challenged him about their difficulties in obtaining an islamic theological education today. He said that things were changing, opening up in response to modernity, the rise of feminism (understood in the light of Qur'anic high regard for women) and the settlement of Muslims in Western countries. Women can now qualify as Muslim law scholars in some places. But the big challenge is for Muslims to define their own identity as citizens in the West, and not to have an identity foisted upon them by non Muslims which didn't represent the truth of their existence. "You can recognise scholars of the great Muslim law academies by the kind of turban they wear. But tell me" He said playfully "What would the turban of a British Muslim law academy look like?" Scholars here have to discover how they can root themselves and their learning in context, develop scholarly concensus and an authoritative way to guide the Muslim faithful in changed circumstances. Aftab Malik, speaking earlier was clear evidence that this is far from being wishful thinking. He is so clued up on contemporary culture and powerful in his analysis of the current malaise.

Shaykh Habib is a man confident in his lineage and all it represents across fourteen centuries of learning and prayer. He's a man of authority, relaxed, open to debate, incisive in his ability to put his finger on the right question underlying some of the complex issues which members of the audience put before him in Q&A sessions. How important this is as British Muslins strive and debate on how to assert their identity in the face of those who have hijacked the world's attention with their crimes. He's clearly a much revered figure, unafraid of all the tough questions, able to help his audience rise to the challenges they face, domestically, socially and politically. It felt that I had received a privileged insight into the world of Muslim Britain today.

A leader of the Dar ul Isra Muslim Community centre in Cathays, a University researcher in education, led the opening prayer of the day. We'd last met when he attended the Spiritual Capital launch conference. Shaykh Habib was asked to conclude the day with prayer. Just then, I became aware that attention was turned in my direction, seated half way back at the edge of the hall. I was invited to go and stand with him for prayer. I'd worn a clerical collar as a show of support for this event. After all, the Temple of Peace is in my Parish, so why not? We hugged and salaamed each other, before standing, hand in hand before the assembly for prayer. I was able to tell him through his interpreter what a joy it was to have a teacher of faith who encouraged people to think for themselves, and expressed my thanks for all I had learned. He prayed with humble gratitude for the gathering, for the faithful, for the world, in simple devout phrases, translated for him as he went along. I was deeply moved.

No matter what undiscussed differences might lie between us in matters of faith, God is greater, and we are pilgrims on the same journey into the depths of God. He belongs to a school of thought that emphasises respect for differences between scholars. The Gospel at the heart of the church is teaching me that faith means learning to live together with differences, as we strive to realise, all of us, what it means to be children of God, following the way to the kingdom of God.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Re-starting 'God on Mondays'

We re-started God on Mondays this afternoon, with half the usual numbers. The weather is very cold and the possibility of snow makes people want to scurry off home, but it Candlemass was a good occasion to get going again, with a fresh order of service for the pre-Lent period, and a new song to teach everyone.

Quite a few of the children attending regularly will be moving up to comprehensive school this autumn. I was reminded of this by the pile of school enquiry forms I had to fill in on their behalf as soon as term started. They've been keen participants at 'God on Mondays'. It was easy to recommend them for a place in a church secondary school, where demand outstrips available places. It will be quite a challenge to re-build regular attendance at this service when the next school year starts.

I hope my successor as Vicar will consider it worthwhile to continue holding Family Services in the school, no matter what the format. It may be only a small minority of parents and children that attend, but there are also the teachers who come regularly, and seem to enjoy doing so. They too deserve far more time and attention than it's been possible to give them.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A change of pattern

Last Sunday Jane and Iris, the only regular attenders at the Tredegarville School Sunday Eucharist proposed that we should not re-start it for the time being. The school Eucharist had to stop when I went sick before Christmas. Both are enjoying attending the ten o'clock service at St John's instead. We've not succeeded in attracting regular new worshippers, and maybe we won't until we have a properly set up chapel within the school. This is a distinct possibility as part of the plan under discussion to develop the school caretaker's house for community use. I may be happy to offer the Eucharist anywhere convenient, but I have to admit this is not how most people's hearts are inclined. However modest or small it might be, a permanent sanctuary would be something a new group of people might more easily attach themselves to.

So, this Sunday was my first Sunday with an afternoon free of timetabled services for over two years. It meant that I was able to go out and visit two of the three sick communicants I had been unable to get to since before Christmas. Fortunately, both had received the sacrament, courtesy of colleagues in the meanwhile, but I felt the need to see them, to celebrate my recovery and resumption of duties with them.

Perhaps when the Spring weather arrives, it'll be possible for Clare and I to take a leisurely stroll in Bute Park on a Sunday afternoon, and hear the sound of St John's or the Cathedral's bells calling us to Evensong. For far too long it's been normal not to have time to savour moments like these. There's an art to doing less in order to achieve more. I wonder if I might succeed in learning it before I retire?