Saturday, May 30, 2009

Jamaica revisted

In spare moments recently I've continued the task of reviewing photographs taken in my travels over the years. Syria, Jerusalem, Bosnia, Mongolia, by digitising photographic slides and I've now re-visited Jamaica. In 1982, I spent six weeks travelling around the island enquiring into schooling practices and attitudes with a travel scholarship from the Commission for Racial Equality. At that time I was governor of several multi-racial schools, sharing the concerns of teachers about the challenge to engage with black students. Their parents had high expectations, they didn't understand why their kids didn't get on well in school. There were cross cultural communication problems in all directions - children, teachers, parents, management, politicians, the public. As an inner city parish priest, I was well placed to do some investigation, with parishioners who could give me family contacts to visit in both urban and rural areas of the island.

My slides were much used in talks I gave when I returned, so many are scratched. New digital scanning tools fortunately make repair and renovation possible, though it's hard to get the pictures to look as pristine as they did when first used. Jamaica was beset with economic and political crisis when I was there. It was before it became a U.S. cyber sweatshop for the outsourcing of administration. There was plenty of poverty, but my photographs reveal more my nervousness about taking pictures conveying the horror of that - but then I wasn't a professional photo journalist, only a travelling parson - trying to tell a broader story about life in cultured hard working communities in a third world country. Memory can still supply most of the story sub-titles. Travel notes and letters fill in the detail. One of these days I will transcribe all that I wrote. Then maybe I'll save up and see if I can repeat my trip, revisit the places and see what kind of economic and social development has happened in the meanwhile.

It's already 28 years since I was there. How long before I return I wonder? When I do, will the situation there mirror that among afro-caribbean Brits today - some remarkably successful and far too many still losing out, not fulfilling their great potential? I see far too much evidence that despite efforts to counter racism, and superficially liberal attitudes, not enough has changed in Britain or the wider world, not enough lessons learned from the sufferings of the past.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Congestion hindrance

Another quick exit from the noon Eucharist to get to the Castle for the Transport etc Focus Group meeting. I say 'etc' because Public Ream and Wayfinding concerns seem to be on hold at the moment. Traffic congestion problem solving dominates. What happens immediately around the city centre is affected by what's happening on radial routes into the city. The problem is exacerbated by the absence of an inner ring road structure offering easy transit for those not going into the centre, a legacy of development failures a quarter of a century ago. All sorts of tweaks to the present road system can make traffic flow more efficient and predictable, eliminating parking near key points of constriction on bus routes, traffic light synchronisation to favour bus lanes, for example. but these don't eliminate the basic problem.

The future is bound to be with public transport, given the inevitability of rising costs of personal mobility due to fuel scarcity and carbon reduction neccessities, but in the meanwhile the numbers of cars is still set to increase and make things worse. The city could do with far more investment in public transport and a master plan that integrated trains and buses into such a competitive and efficient system that priced private vehicles out of the mobility market. Rather it came sooner than later.

Our Churches Together meeting this evening decided to abandon Sunday's Pentecost picnic lunch at St John's, in the absence of any firm commitment on numbers attending from the various churches. Not exactly easy to know how many to provide soup for when the total could be six or sixty. Disappointing really. The desire to meet and share across denomination divide is certainly there, but it is weak in contrast to the forces of self pre-occupation that bog down the life of all churches without exception. The same is true of relations between different faith communities also. Sad to say, it's only genuine crisis that brings us together, and calls forth from us the capacity to collaborate. City centre redevelopment has been an opportunity rather than a crisis. Sadly, one that has been missed so far.

The least we can do is mark the end of the process with a celebration, with a thanksgiving for work safely completed and well done. I really hope we can pull our fingers out and contribute something constructive to this end.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bank Holiday Big Pit

Clare's been on at me for years to pay a visit to Big Pit Blaenafon, but I've been reluctant. My miner father said to me when I was a teenager that here's be hell to pay if I ever went down a pit. He'd spent three quarters of his working life underground in order that I might never have to. As we queued up to join a party, I told him mentally that it was OK now there was no prospect of a job in a pit - I wouldn't even qualify to become a mine tour guide, now would I? I could just imagine him saying that the last place he'd want to go on a Bank Holiday Monday would be back down a pit.

Like the slate museum in Llanberis, Big Pit is one of the crown jewels of the National Museum of Wales, every bit as precious as its Rodin and Renoir collections. It's superbly organised, and run by a team of enthusiastic ex-miners. There was also an excellent, engaging audio visual walk through simulation of a working underground coal face, which somebody on wheels could visit. Access for them undergound would be far too difficult to manage. My first ever trip underground was reassuringly familiar. I grew up with the slang, the engineering terminology, photos and films about the coal face. It wasn't my story, but it was certainly a full part of our family story.

The only thing missing was the dust filled atmosphere. It's one of those childhood memories that persist. The exhaust air blowing up the pit shaft is dust laden. Every coal laden tram raised to the surface was covered with and exuded dust when it met the surface wind. No matter how often everything is painted, it soon acquired a fresh layer of dust, just like the workers, above and below. My cream linen summer jacket was as clean as our tour guide's fresh overalls after our visit. All of the museum's pithead is cleaner than any pithead I remember visiting with my father when I was a teenager, and he a representative of a wire rope haulage company.

It's a great experience and worthy of its World Heritage Site status. It left me thinking what it will be like in generations to come when there are no longer veterans of the 20th century coal industry to bear witness to the life and eventual death of their industry and their culture of cameraderie, which left its stamp on community life and men's sense of dignity and worth. In a way it reminded me of visiting a battlefield museum staffed by old soldiers. Eventually, we'll only have the videos. The noise and dust of industry, as of battle, comes and goes. And at least for the time being, nature reclaims with its beauty what man has despoiled.

The trip to Blaenafon, up through former mining valleys was a feast of Springtime greenery and flowers all the way.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Barrage walk

Caught the bendy bus down the Bay this afternoon. Preparations for this week's Urdd Eisteddfod have filled the area in and around the Millennium Centre with show tents, stands, fairground kit and crowds of people. We circumvented them all and went for a walk across the Bay barrage to Penarth and then caught the bus back home after a brief glance in a few estate agents' windows - eyeing up the prospects for re-locating next year, as we do from time to time. The view from Penarth Head across the Bay is one I could live with, both on a bright day like today, and in all the other damper, darker varieties of weather we have to put up with. I still find the flatlands of the city a trial to live in when it's overcast.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thinking big on Severn Barrage plans

With Fr. David Lee covering for me at today's lunchtime Eucharist, I was free to attend a meeting of a group called Churches Action on Sustainable Environment at the R.B. offices to hear a couple of expert presentations about the Severn barrage project options. These focussed on the assessing the varied environmental impacts of the different proposals.

I was disappointed to learn that the prospect of a road or rail link across a full barrage was no more than a dream, not only given the cost, but also the technical difficulties of achieving this given the gradients involved. The one possible combination of road plus barrage would not deliver that much value in terms of power, carbon footprint savings etc., in comparison to its cost. The longest and most costly option isn't even subject to government feasibility study at the moment, (the Aberthaw to Minehead proposal) although, this would deliver most of Wales' electrical energy requirements in one project.

What doesn't seem to have been taken into account is the fact that such a barrage would also serve to enclose and protect the Bridgewater Levels area. This is an economically important area, most of which is only just above sea level. It's going to suffer not only from tidal surges but also from overall sea level rises. Being inside a barrage with sea locks for shipping would mean long term stability for the agriculture and shipping trade of this area, as well as its housing and roads. The greater cost would mean savings on protecting the Levels. The expert view is that the further down the estuary a barrage is located, the less the inevitable environmental impact all round.

However, the present global financial crisis means that there's no queue of investors wanting to sink fifty billion pounds into future-proofing the region's economy. Even if the feasibilty study for the biggest option is costly, it deserves full consideration. I suggested that the Welsh Bishops get together with the Bishops of the dioceses of Bristol and (already watery) Bath & Wells, to make some useful representations. Doing nothing or failing to go for a more ambitious option could prove far more costly in the long term.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A right proper Ascension Day

How nice to have a bright, sunny, Ascension Day even if the temperature was more like early Spring than late. Fr Roy Doxsey and I shared the school Eucharist first thing before going our separate ways. He had three more Eucharists to do during the day, and I just two more.

For both of us, I think, this gathering of two hundred children of different faiths and nationalities with a couple of dozen parents and teachers could be no better way to start of day of celebrating our belief in the universal value and relevance of Christ Jesus our Lord for all humankind.

Later, as I was getting ready for the Midday Eucharist at St John's, two young men of middle Eastern origin approached me with questions.

First - how old is the church? (Easy, thirty second potted history)

Second - what sort of church, Catholic or Protestant? (Thirty second introduction to Anglicanism)

Third - do you worship the Virgin Mary like Catholics? (One minute on the difference between veneration, as opposed to adoration of God alone)

Fourth - do people here believe in God without obeying God's laws? (Well, sort of, but it doesn't do them much good - 30 seconds)

Fifth - do you believe people who do wicked things go to hell when they die? (Two minutes - You don't have to wait that long. Guilt, shame, fear in the face of wrongdoing means you've put yourself in hell already. Things can hardly improve later unless you do something about it?)

Sixth - but didn't Jesus sacrifice his life to forgive wrongdoers, whether or not they pray to him and believe? (Two minutes - yes, the point of him showing such love on the Cross was to defeat evil, stop it making people suffer hell, but wrongdoers still need to claim that love, learn to live by it, and change their ways to end their own suffering.)

Seventh - what about people who don't believe, or who came before Jesus? (A minute and a half on spiritual solidarity, harrowing of hell, and the righteous who obey God's law but cannot accept God as portrayed by religion.)

Time up. Sorry guys, gotta go say Mass now. Where do you come from? Kuwait. Are you Muslim? Yes. (Smiles all round) Ma'as sala'ama'. (Go in peace)

I enjoyed telling the congregation of eleven all about this eight minute interfaith encounter. Interfaith? Come to think of it, I didn't know their religion when they asked their questions so keenly. If I had, some of my explanations would have been more concise, as I've learned a little over the years about the commonalities, differences and the language terms that would have rendered my answers more concisely.

After the evening Eucharist, in which I recounted this exchange during my homily, Richard, my Vicar's warden recounted how he'd been quizzed about the church and its faith practices by a young Asian couple, just as he was about to depart after last Sunday's Evensong. They'd never seen an organ before, and wanted to know if the slots in the organ pipes were for posting letters into (presumably prayer texts - a not unfamiliar practice in some Buddhist parts of the world). He took pleasure as a good Christian engineer should, in explaining how this great device made music to accompany worship.

It turned out that the couple were Parsii (Zoroastrians).

Yesterday we had a return visit from a couple of young Cuban women, asking for prayers on the anniversary of the death of their Grandfather and Uncle. They were probably Catholic, but evidently they felt at home with us.

Such a privilege, to welcome the world into God's house.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Family matters

I went back to sleep, woke up late and had a struggle to lively myself up in order to take Auntie Daphne back home to Crediton. Despite the rain, it was a good journey and by the time we reached Somerset it had just about stopped The Devon countryside with its rich red earth is abundant with spring flowers, buttercups, dog daisies, small daisies, lilac bushes was a feast for the eyes. On the way home I paid a surprise visit to my sister Pauline and brother in law Geoff in Bleadon Hill. It's possible to look across the Severn Estuary at Cardiff Bay, and the Beacons from their bungalow. Their street's not called 'Brecon View' without good cause. As I arrived home Clare was outside and waving a phone excitedly at me. It was Owain on the line, announcing that the British Council were offering him the job he'd really hoped for.

There was a message awaiting me to tell me of the death of Muriel Davies, the widow of Canon Edwin Davies, my predecessor but one. Later, her son Neil rang about her funeral. It was her express wish for this to happen 'among friends' in St John's, not in the Cathedral Parish where she'd lived until she finally had to move into a care home. Nothing against the Cathedral, but those who've belonged to St John's retain that bond of affection with the heart of Cardiff's holiest and most venerable place. All those of the St John's 'family' who remember her will be there, for sure.

Dream time

I awoke early this morning from a low level anxiety dream. Familiar yet different. Since before I was ordained I've dreamed of being in front of a congregation and being ignored, or not being able to communicate, or being so disorganised and unprepared that I just can't get the service started. It happens still, every now and then, after forty years.

What was different this time was that I was in a vast church building, full of people. They were all praying, waiting on God, not waiting for me to get things started, as they were already worshipping. They were waiting for me to teach them from the Word, lead them in meditation, offer them something that would take their worship to a new level. And I had no trouble about what to say, or about being listened to, only about being organised and getting myself to the place in this vast throng from where I could feed all these spiritually hungry people.

There's never been a vast crowd like this in any of those previous anxiety dreams. It's been rare throughout my working life that I've ever had that privilege - even the full church in Geneva was only 150 people at festivals. Mine has been a ministry through the generation of decline - perhaps that itself has been a source of perennial anxiety.

I don't know what to make of this.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Opera talk (2)

Paul Hocking and I had a meeting this afternoon with Paula Whittingham of HANR to firm up some of the details of the planned induction course of Street Carers. We hope the initial pilot training evening will take place on 9th July. It's taking an age to put together, simply because of the difficulties of co-ordinating the timetable sof those involved. It should have taken place by now.

Afterwards, I met up with my cousin Lindsay, down in Cardiff to visit his mother, my auntie Joyce now in a care home in Cyncoed. We sat upstairs in one of the market's snack bars and chatted until closing time. We talk mor eoften of the phone than we have met since his father died a couple of years ago. Whenever he comes to town, he's busy with mum, or I'm busy with work. I wonder if it will be any different when I retire? Or will there really be more quality time for people?

'La Boème' was beautifully produced and sung, and Bethan in stage costume was easy to identify by her willowy movement - she is also tall for her age. She really looked at home, and enjoying the experience. She's performing with WNO in Brum next week.

'La Boème' is a real tear jerker, for its tragic plot and emotional music. Doubly so for me, as my mother and sisters used to perform its great arias at home when I was a child sixty years ago in Ystrad Mynach. When I was too young to stay up, I used to sneak out of bed and sit on the stairs if it was warm enough, in order to hear them singing better.

Sitting there listening to 'Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi' in the Millennium Centre auditorium, beyond soloist and orchestra, my memory echoed with the sound of mum's piano, and contralto voices singing in English 'They call me Mimi', transposed for lower voices. It was more than making our own entertainment. It was also an education in its own right, for which I am immensely grateful and also very proud.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Opera talk (1)

Last night, Clare and I went to hear the Welsh National Opera's performance of Tchaikovsky's work 'The Queen of Spades' - three deaths in three acts. In essence it's a Russian moral fable about the futility and dangers of indulging the passions, money and gambling being the targets on this occasion. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it, but the music and the singing were superb.

Before the main Eucharist this morning, Bethan (10) was telling me enthusiastically about her involvement with WNO as a crowd singer and actor in Puccini's 'La Boème'. As it happens we have tickets. Clare and I are taking Auntie Daphne. It's impossible not to be thrilled by the way WNO and the Millennium Centre involve children and adults in all sorts of activities in and around their principle mission of putting on Opera. When we arrived last night the area outside the Centre was filled with tents erected in preparation for the Urdd Eisteddfod this week.

Urdd, for non Welsh readers, is a Welsh language youth organisation with a superb record in nurturing all sorts of performance skills and creative activities in the Welsh language cultural scene. It has its home base in the Millennium Centre these days. That's what Opera in Wales is on a par with Rugby, when it comes to pride and lifting the spirits.

Actually, I think Opera is more successful in this endeavour more often. Long may it be so!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


I got down to church to let Steve and Mike into the sacristy to finish off the window installation job, to discover that someone had climbed the scaffolding, ripped out the top section of board covering the window light awaiting the return of its glazed panel, climbed through the narrow opening and dropped down over twelve feet into the sacristy, to snoop around. Finding all the doors securely locked, the intruder moved a ladder and climbed back out the same way.

Thankfully the miscreant's precarious decent in darkness didn't result in damage to the new glazed panels. Nothing was taken, nothing disturbed, except the well being of those of us who discovered the intrusion. Annoyingly, the office phone was not working, and the internet connection down, as the junction box came off the wall recently and got filled with dirt and water, so I had to go over to the City Centre manager's office and beg the use of a phone to report the incident to the police, and alert the phone company to our need for an engineer's visit.

By mid-afternoon the window job was complete, and the new guard installed. Now the whole thing looks great. both inside and outside. It's amazing what a difference having all new guards properly fitted has made to the external appearance of the church, a real face lift. The have one left to do now. The Comper High Altar window needs a good clean, and a new window guard that'll cost several thousand to make and a few more to install, given the price of scaffolding hire. But it will be worth it.

Thankfully too, by the end of the day, the phone was working again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Biking Bishop and bendy buses

An early start this morning to be down at church to open up for Steve and Mike Haskins, the glaziers, who'd come over from KIngswood Bristol, to re-instate the sacristy window removed for repair and renovation before Christmas. It meant I had a great opportunity to photograph them at work. The results are here

At a few days notice the venue and timing of our Deanery Clergy meeting was changed to make possible a meeting with our new Assistant Bishop, David Willbourne. I had to arrange someone to cover my midday Eucharist, in order to attend the one celebrated by the Bishop for clergy, at St Luke's in Canton. Fortunately, Canon Holcombe from the Cathedral was able to take my place, so I was able to be there on time.

At the Eucharist was was impressed with our new assistant Bishop's way with words, his thoughtful turning of well worn phrases. He's a Yorkshireman and brings some original freshness to us as part of his engagement with his new ministry. If he can get us all thinking and shed new light on our contemporary malaise, the welcome he gets will be far more than courtesy demands. I was delighted to learn that he's a committed habitual cyclist, already discovering that he can commute by bike to the Llandaff office as quick if not quicker by bike than by car.

Getting to St Luke's meant catching a number 17 bendy bus plying the route out to Ely, the third day in a row for me to use this service. One thing struck me on the outward journey. The bus was about half full, but seemed more crowded as there were three people with wheeled trolleys doubling up as a zimmer frame; three mums with push-chairs; another two with wheeled travel cases; all crammed into the first section of the bus designed with wheeled passengers in mind. This made it hard for passengers without whelled appendages to get on and pass up the bus.

Rather than go to the back of the bus to get off, those in the front part of the bus walked forward, using the same exit as passengers getting on. Are the numbers using wheeled appendages rising, or peaking at a certain time of day? Or is there simply not enough space to accommodate this change, even though the bendy bus is designed to take wheelchair passengers. I must find out if anyone's doing homework on this. One factor in keeping buses running to time has to be time spent getting passengers on and off. If there's congestion in the buses as well as on the road, that's not going to help much.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Believers and unbelievers in dialogue

This last two mornings, I've been up early, out of the house and on my bike into town, to catch a bus out to Ely for a 9.15am start at the Jasmine Centre, where I've participated in a training workshop on Anti Discrimination and Religious Diversity Awareness, along with fifteen others who work in public sector or voluntary organisations with an obligation to implement policy shared by the new Equalities Act. My participation in this dates back to an interesting invitation received from Terry Price of NovaScarman Trust and Charles Willie of the Cardiff & Vale Coalition for the Disabled back in January, to participate in the pilot project which they were planning, as part of a Europe-wide initiative.

The two days were carefully planned and executed with perfect attention to timing, without this feeling in any way contrived. Terry and Charles are experienced trainers and very relaxed in their work of facilitation, without ever losing focus. It's an admirable skill to have. There was a good mix of participants in terms of age range, gender and ethnicity. There were two Muslims, one Sikh, and apart from me, several churchgoers, although it never became entirely clear how many active committed churchgoers there were, as opposed to people identifying with Christian faith but not involved in any faith community.

What was good about the process was that it gave participants a change to air their views about relgious matters and be listened to, without ending up in argument or diatribe, knowing that all exchanges were governed by 'Chatham House rules'. So really there's not much more I can say about the participants or the detail of discourse. For me it was a rare opportunity to listen to the stories of people who had been raised completely outside the influence of any faith community, and to listen to people who had been raised in a faith community but have rejected all that they grew up with.

It was difficult, almost distressing at times to realise how far their experiences of other people's faith differed from my own - not that I haven't had enough negative experiences of religion to keep me closer to the edge than the centre as a religious professional - it's the never ending search for the truth of God that keeps me going, I guess. Could I give up, as some of them have? Sometimes, I think that's possible, but the feeling passes.
I wish many of my colleagues could have had the privilege of sharing in this exercise. It would perhaps help us to re-think how we approach proclaiming the good news and living the faith relevantly and attractively today. All of us, me included, need to get out of the religious ghetto more.

One small delight was getting to know a young man who arrived at the workshop on Monday, having flown back from Saudi Arabia over the weekend, where he'd been making the Hajj, after a visit to Jordan and Israel/Palestine with a group of young muslims. His iPhone was packed with pictures which he shared with me, taken by himself as a pilgrim, circulating the Ka'aba, and visiting Mecca's Grand Mosque. The prize for me was seeing his photos inside Al Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City. One of the photos was a view from the side of the Dome of the Rock across the valley to the Mount of Olives. He wondered about one of the ornate building on the hillside, whether it was a synagogue. He was intrigued to learn it's the Church in the Garden of Gethsemane - familiar to me from my visits there. Oriental style churches with domes and cupolas were unfamiliar to his eyes.

The fact that he and the group he'd been with were all young, and had been allowed into the Al Aqsa complex told me something I hadn't seen reported
. People under forty were for some time banned from entry, in case they started a protest and caused affray, but now visits are possible. A small sign of hope maybe?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

One small step in the Holy Land

The Pope's in Jordan, and that's newsworthy enough. His next stop, Jerusalem. On the BBC Sunday programme this morning I heard an encouraging news report, which re-connected me with the last week of my stay in Jerusalem during Advent 2000. Sabeel hosted an iftar (ramadhan post sunset breakfast meal), at which Christian and Muslim leaders with pastoral responsiblities for the churches and mosques of the Old City, sat down at table and ate together for the first time ever - I believe. In that same month the top regional Jewish Christian and Muslim leaders met in Alexandria, Egypt for a first ever conference. This led to an unprecedented declaration about the incompaitbility of violent resolution of conflict with the teachings of the three faiths. Words are one thing, practical outcomes are another, and effective timetables even fewer.

Eight and a half years since then, Israel now has a council of three faith community leaders who had special responsibilities for the sites that are sacred to some or all of them, a meeting in whch problems of responsibility, ownership, security, and visitor care can be addressed. This is a real break through in recognising that the needs of each has an impact on the others, and expresses a desire to do something about common concerns. No doubt progress will continue to be slow. We'd all like a miraculous win-win resolution of all the Holy Land's problems. A commitment to meet and share practical issues, is as likley to be bureacratic as it is diplomatic. But it's in keeping such commitments that can lead to effective and peaceful transformation.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Mission endorsed in principle

I was pleased to hear from Father Graham Francis this evening that Thursday's review of the work of the Lightship and Bay Chaplaincy ended with resolve to pursue the continuation of this mission project with increased ecumenical involvement and support. There was no doubt about the value of what has been achieved up to now, after the presentations and endorsements received. The only way forward that can strengthen and build upon these achievements is a broader base for support, so that we get nearer to having someone representing the interests that many Christian denominations in the working life of the Bay area.

The challenge is now to move from good participants' good intentions to a financial commitment from denominational treasuries to pay out over the next three to five years. It shouldn't again be left to one denomination (the URC) to foot the largest part of the bill for a post that has value for all Christians and their communities in the city.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Order, order

Yesterday afternoon I met Mike Parfitt in Church Street. He works as part of the city centre management team to ensure the night time economy functions legally and safely, by reminding everyone doing business of their obligation to ensure an ordered, stable environment. If they get it right, violence and social chaos at night reduces. In fact, that's what is happening. Several years ago Cardiff drew national and international media attention due to problems arising from nocturnal binge drinking in clubland. Cardiff has got right both policing and regulation of legal commercial night-time activity. Crime and disorder in the city have dropped, though it's far less well reported than earlier problems.

Mike talked to me about introducing bollards as barriers in Church Street during pedestrian hours to deter people from slipping in with their cars and making life unpleasant in a zone which, by nature of the vast majority of its businesses is going to be serving food and drink inside and on the pavements (most have permits) during pedestrian hours. Bollards are flavour of the month around the city centre, used everywhere to delineate spaces and keep vehicles of all kinds from intruding upon pedestian space. If only we had been able to invest in underground parking, the equation would have been so different.

By the time I arrived in church this morning, Robin Samuel had arrived, set up the Christian Aid Week publicity display in the north aisle, and left. I'd like to have been able to sit with him and have a cuppa, but anxiety about removing his car before parking restrictions start, drove him out early. One of the side effects of inevitable regulation at the heart of the city.

After the Eucharist, I spent some time in the tea room, as I often do on a Friday. This week as journalist with a photographer was in, taking pictures of home made cakes on sale, and interviewing Margaret for her recipes for a food page in a forthcoming weekend newspaper supplement. A very nice piece of indirect marketing for our little social enterprise, that provides a convivial space for all sorts of people, centred on simple good food and a warm welcome.

Welcome of a different kind early evening, when St John's served as host for the annual investiture ceremony of the Order of St Lazarus. One of the Orders of Chivalry with a charitable interest in those suffering from leprosy, its members are drawn from all churches. Members came from all over Britain to take part. It's good that they wanted to come to us, and that we were able to welcome them, even though it mean that Philip and I were late arriving home for supper.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Reviewing mission in the Bay

Another early cycle trip down the Bay this morning. First, to County Hall to pick up the video camera loaned to me, to record an interview for use in the Street Carers' training programme next month. Then, on to the Millennium Centre for a meeting with church representatives with an interest in the future ministry of the Cardiff Lightship.

Mission to Cardiff Bay's regeneration project began twenty years ago, and the Lightship became its physical as well as symbolic base. Although established as an ecumenical enterprise, the burden of responsibility for the ministry of the Bay Chaplain and the presence of the Lightship has fallen mainly on the region's United Reformed Church. Monica Mills, the present Chaplain retires just before me in 2010, and URC Wales thought it appropriate to review the achievements and changes of recent years, and pose questions about the future of this excellent initiative.

The meeting was well supported, not only by ecumenical church stakeholders, but also by the CEO of Cardiff Council and the deputy Speaker of the Assembly and the Millenium Centre's assistant director, all expressing their appreciation of the presence of a ministry to them that was outside the confines of their professional frame of reference. I hope this made the church representatives sit up and take notice. You don't get this kind of support unless you pay proper attention to the realities of your local environment.

I was unable to contribute anything to discussion about the future, as I had to slip off at the crucial moment to celebrate the Eucharist at St John's. I had to confine myself to emailing thoughts to its organisers later in the day. The occasion was well organised to encourage all participants to think about the meaning of mission in today's world of everyday work, outside the usual framework of involvement in the local domestic community.

The Bay is a crossroads for many communities of interest which are not based on geography but on opportunity, initiative and institutuons. The church is still learning how to relate to this melange of meetings and concerns. The desire to care for people pastorally and share the Gospel with them is a driving force that leads in all sorts of unexpected directions, as the Spirit moves. It's different in many ways from the accepted conventions of ministering in residential settings where the bulk of the church's present ministry is located, and exposure to it can make people feel nervous, out of their depth.

There's so much that the settled church has to learn about its own local mission from the existence of ministry shaped only by opportunity and initiative. Both need each other to express the full authenticity of service to the Gospel. I can only hope that today's meeting will help generate fresh support for the future of the Lightship and Bay Chaplaincy. The former is unique. The latter is typical of the church at the frontier of society, doing what it should be doing. Listening, reflecting, helping others to understand: 'What is the meaning of this City?'

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Keeping Cardiff moving

Another meeting of the Countdown 2009 executive board this morning, reporting back on all the different components of preparation to re-launch the Cardiff as 'capital of shopping' this autumn. Much of the meeting was devoted to transport concerns - inevitably given the inadequacy of road infrastructure to cope with growing demand, and the need to make the centre as accessible as possible for workers and shoppers - worshippers as well.

Public transport won't be able to benefit the public if congestion from cars and taxis make punctuality impossible. Since de-regulation came to the taxi world, the numbers plying their trade has escalated. Regulation of their competing efforts to provide a public service has not kept pace with growth, despite the best efforts of Council and police. Those who issue taxi licenses in the Borough don't seem to understand the impact of their actions on other road users, nor the meaning of sustainability in a city which is paying dearly now for failure to implement far reaching infrastructure changes thirty years ago.

Changes there must be, and everyone will complain at having the change their habits of mobility. Unfortunately, current thinking is based on predictions of growth presuming little will change from the trends of recent years, yet already change is on the horizon. World recession could contribute to long term change in spending habits, especially when (rather than if) energy costs, and therefore transport costs make car use and ownership less attractive compared with the cost of public transport.

In my view, the sooner public transport becomes fully competitive, altogether more attractive than private transport (cars and taxis), the better for all - less congestion, less pollution. The City's forthcoming carbon reduction strategy is going to throw down the gauntlet on this issue, sooner rather than later. Yet, I sense that many of those wrestling with problems of today and tomorrow, if they are aware of what's coming the day after, are denying attention to things that could contribute radically to an effective longer term solution even earlier.

In the past five years Cardiff Bus has done well to improve services. A great start has been made. Lots more development is needed to prepare citizens for a different kind of (low carbon) future - more bus lanes and synchronised traffic signals, new vehicle designs catering for those on wheels, and those who don't cope well with being shaken around, by stop-start, weaving through traffic movement that can make bus travel an ordeal for both the very young and the elderly.

If only we could go for a light tram network ... if only.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Now wash your hands

Finally, I got around to buying a transparent plastic mixing bowl from Poundstretcher for use at the altar. Yes, at the altar - something big enough to contain a few litres of water to use for proper hand-washing before the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In common with other churches retaining a tradition of liturgical ritual, custom at St John's has been for the celebrant to wash hands (fingers, in effect) as the last action of the Offertory - the placing of the Gifts on the Holy Table before the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer. The prayer recited during ablution is : 'Lord, wash me from my iniquity and cleanse me from all my sins'. Washing becomes an act to remind the celebrant of his limitations and God's grace, when remembering and re-enacting the last supper during the Eucharistic Prayer.

Contending with a cold on Sunday after my Bilbao visit, as the news about swine 'flu broke, I was struck by advice from the head of WHO, to curb infection by hand-washing. If you have 'flu or are in contact with someone with 'flu, wash your hands. Nothing spiritual about that. Just practical prudence. When I reflected about it, I realised our ritual act belongs to the world as it was before anyone had any idea about how disease was transmitted. Today every food hygiene programm teaches people to wash their hands before preparing food, not after. Amazing to think that the church hasn't yet universally reflected this in what it trains its clergy to do at the altar.

It's a small change to make, but I decided that in future I'd wash my hands every time, before beginning to prepare the bread and wine for Communion and not after as is customary. So last week, after all the potentially cross infecting hand shaking at the Peace during the Sunday service, I slipped into the sacristy and washed my hands properly before the Offertory. Now I have a proper bowl which can be filled with soapy water, to perform a ritual which is both practical and devotional, before preparing the table for Communion.

It's ages since the ridiculousness of the gap between ritual and reality first insinuated itself into my consciousness. Shame on me that I didn't do something about it before now.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Food in the Garden

To start the Bank Holiday, a nice lazy lie-in followed by breakfast. Then an hours trip West down the M4 to the National Botanic Garden. It must be a year or more since we last visited. Today was the second day of the West Wales Food Festival, and there were lines of booths set up in the square outside the Healers of Myddfai exhibition promoting the very best eatable and drinkable produce of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. What a delight.

There was a stage, with some excellent live music, traditional May-pole dancing, bouncy castles, all the usual festive stuff. The weather wasn't up to much, with wind and drizzle on and off most of the time. Wandering away to overlook the lakes and Paxton's tower with the feisty sound of electric harp and bass propelling the music Welsh jigs and reels up the hill behind us was enchanting and invigorating - contemporary Welshness at its best.

Mid afternoon in the lecture theatre BBC's Jamie Owen interviewed Simon Wright, owner of Y Polyn, a restaurant, close by the Garden, one of Wales' finest eateries, on the quality of food alone. Simon is poacher turned gamekeeper, having been a food writer cum restaurant critic in his earlier days. Not only is he running his own outfit these days, but growing his own food in situ as well, recently subject of a documentary series on BBC Wales. The hour long conversation with Q&A at the end was an interesting celebration of values in the realm of things we eat. Having inevitably done school dinners, teaching kids to cook, and rubbish restaurants, I was only sorry I didn't ask my one nagging question. How do we set about restoring to families and communities the desire to sit down and enjoy eating together regularly, as part of the heart and soul of their lives?

Which reminds me, I must get in touch with photographer Paul V Kelly to find out if he's been able to make any progress on mounting an exhibition of his work themed around the subject of eating together. I was fascinated to meet him two years ago when he exhibited his photos of an African leprosarium at St John's, and ran this idea for another show past me.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Match Sunday

Quite a full day today, with three home communions to do in the afternoon, and a church council meeting in the evening. There was a rugby match in the stadium, so road closures and the ending of the game at five thirty meant that the streets were filled with tens of thousands of people walking away from the centre as I was making my way into church to say Evensong. It was quite difficult, handling a bicycle, impossible to ride against the tidal flow of people absorbed in their own thoughts and feelings. They were well behaved however, as rugby crowds generally are, and the atmosphere was comfortable, even though Cardiff just lost the game in unique circumstances.

Just half a dozen of us managed to make it through the crowds to pray together. The crowds had cleared by the time we came out, so I was able to ride home quickly to get ready for the meeting. A Sunday evening church council could be hard work at the end of a long day, but I find I am blessed by a group that works together well with 'light touch' guidance. I never have to be referee. 'One in heart and mind' would be a suitably paschal way to describe our deliberations. So often over forty years I have found such church meetings hard going, but not so here and now thankfully. Maybe it's taken me most of that time to learn how to let others do together what they excel at when given the chance.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Re-greening the Valleys

This afternoon, Clare and I took ourselves out of Cardiff to explore some unfamiliar places within easy reach by car.

First we headed out of town through Llandaff to visit Llantrisant, which still has the appearance of a hill village, and commands views of both the Vale and the Valleys south and north. The central square of the old village is called the Bull Ring and is dominated by an old workhouse building, converted into a very fine craft centre that not only showcases many different kinds of artists working there, but also offers a base for educational activities and creative workshops. It's a superb piece of social enterprise, under the brand name of the 'Model House'. Worth a visit.

Whilst there are shops in the Bull Ring, selling toys, jewellery, garden supplies, a few pubs, there isn't a grocers, a bakery, or a mini-market, a pharmacy or a doctor's surgery immediately evident. This suggests that the heart of the old village has lost much of its convivial character. On the valley floor below, at Church Village, there's a huge retail park and supermarket. All anyone could want (as long as they are still physically mobile), is there for the asking. But it drains life from a town centre which has been there for seven centuries. The Model House is an exemplary piece of social re-cycling of a public building, but the regenerative vision doesn't appear to have extended far enough to ensure that this hill-top village still works the way the heart of a village still should.

We drove on from there up Ogmore Vale to Gilfach Goch, one of those back of beyond valley villages, which end up in a no-exit cwm. A place which only exists now because it once had its own coal mine. A place defined by its terraced houses slicing inot the rounded hillsides of the landscape. No superstores up here, but still a noticeable number of small shops, serving the local community not only with domestic provisions, but also gathering points, essential places in the social network of the valley. Are such enterprises valued enough by those with grand designs, I wonder.

We walked up the stream, presumably the source of the Owgr river at the head of the valley, through the landscaped zone where one the local colliery had stood. Much effort has been made in re-shaping the contours of land scarred by mining spoil heaps to ensure there is no repeat of the Aberfan disaster. What are in effect storm drains have been constructed in stone down steep slopes to channel rain water run-off to the stream at the bottom, rather than let rain sink into the hillside and risk de-stabilising huge masses of relatively small grained material in flattened out coal tips. After thirty years, the surfaces of these engineered areas are far less bio-diverse than ancient hillsides. Full integration biologically speaking may take centuries.

I was raised in a mining valley with coal dust in the river water, and in the sand along its shores. I'm delighted to return to Ystrad Mynach these days and see a clean water course with small fish stocks in the Rhymney again, and no sign of coal effluent. Shoals of river sediment are the same colour as the South Wales coalfield Pennant sandstone rock from which they were ground by the forces of nature.

Up at the head of the Ogwr Valley, the same Pennant sandstone is also a feature of the local landscape. The river is pure and clean. It leaches a pale red colour from surrounding strata that stains the rocky bed of the river in a distinctive way - the reason why the nearest village is Gilfach Goch (Goch=red in Welsh). As you climb up the artificially landscaped part of the stream, it's noticeable that in the river bed there's a lot more than the expected grey silt, pebbles and rocks of a pristine Pennant sandstone valley. There's a variety of colours, red, grey, blue, black in the pebbles, as colourful as a beach in Corsica. All this represents material washed down into the stream bed from the old coal tips. These are made up of stones raised from a half mile underground along with the coal. The stone ended up making the spoil heaps.

Beaches in Corsica, scree on alpine slopes may be equally as diverse in stone colour and character, representing aeons of geolgical change thrown up to the earth's surface by volcanic and glacial action. What so remarkable about the diversity of the pebbles in the Ogwr watershed is that they are so as the unique result of human enterprise. It's a tiny thing, give the scale of geological events, but nonetheless remarkable.

We drove from there down to McArthur Park outside Bridgend, a lovely scenic journey for the most part, with the aim of getting ourselves a cup of tea and inspecting the famous 'Designer Outlet' shopping mall. It was clean, well presented, well managed, but to me uninteresting, compared to the hillsides we'd just left behind.