Monday, June 29, 2009

Initiative on addiction

I cycled to Llandaff Cathedral in the sunshine this morning, to attend their patronal festival Eucharist in honour of St Peter. The Dean presided and most of the Chapter was there, along with the two Bishops. With the exception of Peggy Jackson, the altar party was almost entirely an all male affair., not to mention the boys' choir Sally Davies is currently the only female (honorary) Canon. I didn't see her there. She's recently retired. Admittedly there was a women thurifer, and virger in attendance, but that's all. It just felt un-natural to me to be part of such a top-heavy male gathering, given the considerable number of women in ministry and leadership in the Diocese. Hardly the shape of things to come. Does custodianship of diocesan tradition inevitably mean that the Cathedral and its Chapter cannot also be innovative?

After lunch I met up with Wynford Ellis-Owen, Chief Executive of the Welsh Council on Alcohol and other Drugs, who asked if he could appraise me of a project he is working on, and seeking churches' support for. He wishes to set up in SE Wales an integrated addiction therapy and support service, which will help sufferers and their families together overcome the problems caused by substance abuse. It's based on a successful model developed in Stevenage, known as 'The Living Room'. This is well supported by the Stevenage local Churches Together Group, so naturally Wynford wishes to solicit support from CT groups as well as local authorities and health boards in the region.

I hope this is something local churches can really get behind, one way or another. The problem is that the dynamics of addiction - substance dependency and related co-dependency among people - operate not only in the lives of individuals and families, but in communities and society as a whole. There is a political and and economic dimension that touches us all. As Wynford strongly asserts, much of the initiative taken in relation to addiction problems is only about containment - coping rather than cure.

Cure is neither impossible, nor too difficult, but it does require commitment to a path of healing and spiritual development that may be long drawn out, but ends up changing everything for the better. There's every reason for every faith group to embrace this. There's no better place to start than with City Centre Churches Together, since the city centre is where so many of the problems associated with substance misuse come home to roost.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New Archdeacon comes to town

I had a visit this afternoon from Peggy Jackson, our new Archdeacon of Llandaff, just getting going in the job, and wanting to acquaint herself with the role and ministry of the city parish, as well as doing a site inspection in relation to our umpteenth Faculty application. I was delighted to discover that she had been in her previous post a city centre mission 'practitioner', as we say in today's esoteric trade jargon. It's so good to have someone who not only asks the right questions about church in relation to civil society, but has the fire of enthusiasm for what the church can contribute to secular public life. This gives me hope that the kind of thing I've attempted to do in the Parish over the past seven years has some chance of continuing when I retire.

We talked for a couple of hours, and then she came to Evensong. After meeting the crew, I took her on a short walkabout to give her an impression of what was going on in the city centre. It was pure providence that we should run into a couple of the regular street care volunteers, out and about early, as the city's homeless was something we'd not yet got around to. The brief conversations made summarising past and present developments in relation to the Council's statutory social service commitments a lot easier.

Archdeacons have a lot of thankless tasks thrust upon them because of the hierarchical and bureaucratic character of the modern church. I hate it when I hear them described as 'line manager'. Sharing in the Bishop's episcope as an Archdeacon does at the highest level is first and last a pastoral and missionary endeavour. It has everything to do with enabling freedom and confidence, with stimulating intiatives that make the church more responsive to its calling.

The idea of 'manager' is about regulation, control, implementation of the plans of others. Some of that is necessary, so that all holds together safely. However the role of 'giving permission' to do things has become far too closely connected to compliance and anxious conformity, keeping out of trouble with authority. 'Permission' should be more about affirming and encouraging responsibility to do the right thing with confidence. If this doesn't happen today the way it should, it is to my mind because the church has refused to resist the encroachments of over regulatory governance on common sense responsibility.

One example. Thousands of churches could be easily encouraged to take steps towards zero carbon footprint buildings, using solar panels fitted to roofing. Surely this is an urgent national priority if not a vital investment for the economic and physical survival of churches as community buildings and places of worship. However, this initative is effectively vetoed by quangos like CADW and English Heritage, as they will approve no such changes to the appearance of Listed buildings they contribute little if anything to maintain.

The church seems to lack vision and/or courage to confront on this matter, to demand open policy debate, to question whether preserving architectural appearance matters more than climate stabilisation initiatives. It thus gives no public witness to this real moral concern for the future at this time when radical solutions are needed. Moreover, as long as there is no huge demand to cover the churches of Britain with solar panels manufacturers have no incentive to make aesthetics a strong component of design development.

Sadly, cozying up to authority rather than questioning it is what churches have too often done. When will we learn this does nobody any good?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Limits to comprehension

Singer Michael Jackson's untimely death touches the inner life of the generations brought up on his music - including all three of my children. His audio-visual innovation in the presentation of his music transformed the late 20th century pop music scene in the most remarkable way. His creative genius is undoubted.

I'm not sure I ever worked out what he was really wanting to say about life, except that whatever he was staying seemed to be stated in a frantic if not anxious tone, perhaps characteristic of an insecure age.

The reason for my ignorance is that I've always had trouble about memorising, let alone making sense of musical lyrics. Watching TV news reports of crowds singing together Michael Jackson's songs in his memory made me realise how much I failed to connect with the mind-stream of modern pop culture.

Stand alone poetry I can grasp. Music I understand, as well as visual art. But I've always had trouble with pop songs, no matter how poetically conceived. I attribute this to having learned to accompany on guitar in my early teens others singing the lyrics, leading me to pay more attention to doing justice to melody rather than absorbing the meaning of the words.

Quite a handicap really, in striving to engage with contemporary culture.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

St John's Day

As Father Roy was off to Caldey Island to lead a retreat today, I stood in for him and celebrated the Class Six Eucharist at St German's. Members of the class read lessons, prayed the intercessions and sang a couple of hymns, while the summer sunlight streamed into the church and lifted our spirits. This was the first of my three Eucharistic celebrations of today, the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist.

There were nine of us at the midday at St John's, and eleven for the Sung Eucharist at seven. It's as much as we can expect in these times when the majority of committed Christians are at least partly disconnected from the traditional liturgical observance of the passage of time. Even in 'Catholic' Spain, on holiday recently, we found that the Feast of Corpus Christi was translated to the nearest Sunday from the traditional Thursday after Trinity to ensure optimum commiunity support.

The one thing the churches won't dare to do is to debate how we might sustain a common witness to the passage of time in the light of changed circumstances in the way times and seasons are themselves regarded today in the world we say we want to evangelise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Faith Focus finale

This afternoon the Countdown 2009 Faith Focus Group met for a session, with six of us present. Two Christian, one Hindu one Sikh plus the two Council officers, who have supported the work of the group over the past fifteen months, met for the last time, having contributed to the preparations for the re- launch of the city centre after redevelopment with feedback about matters of concern to faith communities.

It's been a worthwhile exercise at one level, in that the partnership between City and developers has seen fit to open, in an exceptional way in these secular times, a channel to hear voices from city centre worshipping communities offering feed-back about the implications of some aspects of the whole process. The group has registered concern about access to places of worship, signage, parking, public transport, alcohol and public order, littering of places outside the realm managed by the City or developers, care for the homeless, and the dearth of public toilets in the centre.

At another level, the level and consistency of support for the group by its members has been disappointing, as if the opportunity has not really been taken at all seriously by those involved to participate. It's really part of the story of our times in which churches and other faith groups have become increasingly passive in relating to social concerns, largely because they are preoccupied by their own internal affairs.

Well, if any religious community complains about the way things work out in the on-going development of our re-furbished city, our civic leaders can say with a clean conscience, that it wasn't for lack of an opportunity to state their case.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Longest day

The shortest night was made even shorter for me by a nose-bleed, a persistent little problem I've not yet managed to sort out despite medication a few months ago that reduced frequency and alarming output. Even so, I was functional for the eight o'clock service. Afterwards, Marion suggested that recurrence might be to do with dry air causing surface capilliaries to crack open - it came back in Spain. She suggested a regular anointing of nasal cavities with vaseline, something I shall try for sure.

It's a bit un-nerving preparing to take a service if you don't know if you're going to be susceptible to a nose bleed or not during the course of the action. So far, however, most of the outbreaks have been at night, or bending down to push a plug into a low socket. It's small things like this which make the necessity of working alone as a cleric into a low level nightmare. I don't hesitate to repeat - it's not what I signed up for! What if I wasn't so fortunate in being surrounded by so many kind and caring laity?

This Sunday morning's worship was somewhat out of the ordinary. The regular congregation gathered a quarter of an hour before the usual start time of the Sung Eucharist to listen to a 38 strong mixed choir Vos da Locarno from the town of the same name in the Ticino (Italian speaking Switzerland). The choir had been travelling and performing on a tight schedule. Their last morning included a tour of the Senedd and shopping before flying home, as well as a half hour visit to sing in St John's.

Their programme was a selection of choral arrangements of folk-songs from their region, beautifully performed, full of rich harmonies, evocative of the Alps. It was a wonderfully refreshing opportunity to sit, listen and savour the quiet beauty of our church, bathed in morning sunlight, before starting our Sunday celebration of the Mysteries. For once, I didn't preach. We simply sat in silence for a while, after the Gospel, bathed in light. It was an exceptional experience, and somehow it inspired lusty singing from choir and congregation during the Eucharist following, I'm tempted to do that a bit more often, but it would feel a bit like dereliction of duty, unless I could devise a more stimulating and attractive way of getting a traditional congregation to engage in reflection upon the Word. I feel we should employ the beauty and stillness of our oasis at the heart of the city, as a resource to make our worship more transparent to the presence and power of God.

Whether because of the choir visit or because it was a genuinely summery day, the congregation was on the high side of average, and included a new member from Uganda, visitors from France, Germany, Malaysia and the United States. The time it took me in between services to re-stock visitor leaflets and Christian enquiry leaflets, after my fortnight's absence, gave me an impression that our visitor numbers are well maintained this year, recession or not.

Afterwards over refreshments a visitor butted in to a conversation I was having with two others, and insisted in giving his testimony, recounting how he'd been through all Jesuit schools in childhood, plus full priestly seminary training, and that as a result he had become a lifelong atheist, and this hadn't done him any harm. Searching for something constructive to say, the best I could come up with was to say that faith grows where there is real loving community, and that institutions don't always succeed in their task of nurturing people in love because they can easily become divorced from community. But he didn't seem interested in conversation, and bade us farewell, leaving us bemused.

You never quite know what's going to happen next in St John's.

I had a snooze in the afternoon to make up for last night, then posted my holiday pictures to the internet, where the family can share them. I also posted some pictures of Santa Pola's traditional Corpus Christi procession. It's something of a local public fiesta, secular as well as sacred, inspiring to watch as well as to photograph. Those photos are to be found here

After Evensong we had a briskly paced Friends meeting, and I was home with two hours of daylight to spare.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Parish Pilgrimage

We began as usual with Morning Prayer in Tredegarville School Hall - three dozen of us. It gave everyone a chance to see the newly completed mosaic of Noah's Ark on the wall of the hall, serving as a permanent backdrop for the altar taken from St James'. It's an excellent choice for a Church School with people of different faiths as part of the learning community, seeing as the story is one that all People of the Book hold in common.

By the time the bus set off there were 41 of us on board for Croft Castle in Herefordshire. It's a National trust property for over fifty years, with a history of occupation by the Croft family going back nearly a thousand years. This stately home, on the site of a mediaeval castle, with a chapel of ease standing right next to it, dedicated to St Michael, feels lived in - present family members have their own quarters hidden away on the top floor, and one of them takes a special interest in managing the superb walled garden with its own vineyard. There was so much to absorb that one visit, many agreed, would not be enough to benefit fully. After lunch, a tour of house and church, an historical talk and a stroll around the gardens nearest the house, it was time to move on, missing out many pathways laid out through the lush grassland with its 350 mature and ancient trees.

Next stop Leominster, a fine ancient market town with some narrow streets, lots of small shops and many half timbered houses. Christian community began here with a monastery in 663AD. The nave of the twelfth century Benedictine Priory is one of three naves this church possesses today. Additional grander ones were added in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The first one is of the same era as the first St John's chapel of ease to Cardiff Castle, so when you look at it, you get an impression of what it looked like before Owain Glyndwr's soldiers burned it down. A splendid tea was laid out for us here, to be shared after first singing Evensong, a task undertaken with great enthusiasm by all four dozen of us, counting in those who'd arrived by car.

As usual, I took photographs, including a couple of Rob and Alison with Katie. It's Katie's fifth Parish pilgrimage since she was born. She figures in pictures I've taken of all of them. We were back home comfortably by eight, heads full of green images of passing countryside, and pleasurable memories of good companionship on the way. You'll find the photos here including one of the Tredegarville mosaic.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Women of courage

First thing this morning we had a phone call to tell us that Peggy Theophilus had died early this morning, following several years of illness. After commemorating her at the lunchtime Eucharist, Pru Mack, one of our regular Friday worshippers told me that Angela Luddy died suddenly yesterday. Angela, a childhood polio victim with osteoporosis had also succeeded in living to a ripe old age.

In twenty four hours, two thirds of my regular list of home communicants have gone to glory. I'll miss visiting them both, because they were both full of faith and courage despite what they suffered, and were an inspiration to be with. They came from a generation of women empowered to take their place in society and in the world of work alongside men, not least because of the war. They were pioneers, who didn't take for granted the opportunities they received to realise themselves.

"Well done, good and faithful servants."

May they rest in peace and rise in glory!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A day of reflection on mission

Back in 1985, when I was Wales Area Secretary for U.S.P.G., I attended a major international conference in Edinburgh on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference which proved to be the founding initiative that led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1945. It was an occasion for me to sit at the feet of a famous Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama. It's so much easier to read the books when you've met the man. He was certainly influential on me.

He related how being missionary in Thailand awakened his serious interest in the value of Buddhism.It connects with my experience of being in mission and being challenged by the values of people whose culture and history are very different from mine - European Protestant, Sikh, Muslim, or secular modernity. Koyama died on Lady Day (25th March) this year, aged eighty. I still recall the inspiring dedication of his book Mount Fuji to Mount Sinaii, which reads :-

'To the memory of George Herbert Brand,
whose preaching in broken Japanese
won my father's heart for Christ.

He'd received Christian faith within his family, as members of a tiny and often suspect minority in his native society, and through his life grown to become a true international advocate of of the Gospel. This idea of 'broken language', as a vehicle for the Spirit who moves people to confess faith in Christ made deep sense to me, in the context of living and working with two languages in Wales, one of which I spoke poorly. It was one of the impulses leading me to seek work outside the UK, and personal experience of immigrant life, learning French and settling in Geneva as pastor in the early nineties. Working on the boundaries of language and culture has been an important component of my vocation since very early on.

All this comes to mind tonight, after a day conference held in Newport bringing together mission practicioners from various South Wales Churches to share stories and reflections about their part in urban mission. This event was part of a process aiming to provide local input into a centenary Edinburgh missionary conference in 2010, which will bring together 200 missionary theologians from all over the world to reflect upon the challenges of mission in the 21st century.

On this occasion, most of the delegates will be non-white europeans, in contrast to 1910 when there were only six who weren't white europeans. It will be a richer, more diverse and complex occasion. Given the conflict of tradition and modernity that has scarred and divided our Anglican Communion in the past decade, it will be more than interesting to see if mission advocates and innovators will be able to express a concensus which inspires and unites people of different Christian traditions to engage in presenting the Gospel relevantly to another century.

It's hard to comment on the significance of what I was part of today, since we were a small cross-section, possibly unrepresentative, of those actually involved in urban mission in Wales. I was rapporteur for a group considering issues about health, healing and spirituality. It was encouraging to listen to people finding common ground in their missionary engagements with others: some suffering as exiles from their homeland, some as families of the mentally ill, some as carers for those on the streets. It was clear to me that traditional Christian values of respect and compassion, giving sufferers the attention and space they need for healing are as important now as they ever were, even if the social and cultural conditions in which mission is done are different from any that have gone before.

In its way, for me it was a day of ressurance. Everything has changed at one level, but at another, effective response is no different.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nice welcome home?

The reds, oranges, browns and olive greens of the Spanish landscape are a wonderfully refreshing complement to the blues and whites of sea and sky. Apart from walking, swimming, eating, sleeping, pondering and praying, I did little else, apart from taking photographs - over five hundred with my two cameras. It was a pleasure to do so, in an environment so aesthetically different from Cardiff.

The Costa Blanca is white, not simply because of its marvellous miles of beach, but because of its 'salinas' - rectangular lagoons where sea water is left to evaporate, leaving behind immense deposits of brilliant white sea-salt, a source of wealth in this region since the time when the Phoencians traded the length and breadth of the Mediterranean.

The ecology of the areas surrounding salt lakes and the sand dunes is uniquely adapted, rich with flowers, insects and bird life. The areas are well conserved, and there's a Salt Museum tucked in by the side of the Santa Pola by-pass, next to a non-working conserved salt lagoon, which explains not only the history and culture of the salt industry, but also the ecology of this unique environment with its indigenous flamingo colonies.

The birds roost a hundred yards from land, and are hard to photograph without a powerful camera. Unfortunately the local seagull colony was also in residence while its latest generation of young grew into flight capability, and were active in deterring visitors from using paths intersecting the lagoon. Nevertheless it was so fascinating to be there that our visit was the one occasion when I got a touch of sunburn.

We returned on an evening flight tonight, and came back from the airport on the 95 bus, which rattled us at high speed through the whole of Barry and Llandough before dumping us on Riverside embankment opposite a crammed and throbbing Millennium Stadium, just as 60,000 people were starting to spill out on to the streets after the first of two nights of 'Take That' pop concerts. The Bus Station was closed for these events.

For us it meant a mile an a half walk home trundling suitcases along broken pavements, since road closures had displaced usual public transport services. Streets were choked with taxis, eagerly waiting, legally or illegally, to take passengers leaving the stadium on more lucrative trips. Unless you're a fan of what goes on in the stadium on any given occasion, your need as a citizen for reliable transport is ofrced to take second place.

Big events are supposed to be beneficial for the city. A lot of money may be taken in the course of them, but how much of it works to improve the city? What is the additional cost to the city of managing them? How much of the money taken on the night is exported for use elsewhere? These are figures I'd like to see available to help establish the true worth of the stadium to the city. Far too much, in my view, is decided on the basis of sentiment.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Free time

On holiday for two weeks in Spain, flying out from Cardiff to Alicante, to stay in the fishing port and holiday town of Santa Pola del Este, where son-in-law Anto has a small apartment inherited from his mother. It's seven years since my last visit there. Thankfully, the flight is from Cardiff Airport in the afternoon, making the transition from work to leisure as painless as possible.

Two weeks without internet, phone or car. A real chance to slow down and soak in the beauty of a Mediterranean environment. I feel very grateful for this opportunity.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Farewell Muriel

Today St John's people welcomed into church the body of Muriel Davies, wife of Canon Edwin Davies, who was Vicar of St John's during the earlier period of city centre redevelopment. She had loved St John's and insisted that her funeral should be held there, among friends.

He son Neil conducted the service, and our full choir turned out to sing Mozart's 'Ave Verum Corpus at her request. Neil spoke eloquently and admiringly of his gifted mother, a musician and teacher. So sad that over the last five years of her life, her memory deteriorated to the point where she found it hard to remember who most of her visitors were. Hard for her many friends too. BUt this was a day to remember the rest of her life, and all that she meant.

Pauline laid on a superb lunch for the mourners afterwards. Fifty per cent of them were members of the regular congregation, and many stayed a talked well into the afternoon, reflecting on the passing of another of Muriel's generation era. May she rest in peace.