Friday, July 31, 2009

God in the details

Preparing for the Wednesday Eucharist this week, I was much put out to find that the weekday lactionary book was missing. I searched high and low for it without success, and used the Green Book readings instead. I rang around people who had been there last Friday in my absence, but none could offer any clue to the disappearance. I spotted it on Thursday, just beforehand, lurking on top of a pile of similarly coloured hymn books on a shelf I'll swear I'd examined the day before.

After the service Mary who'd been there the previous day, popped into the sacristy and said: "There you are, God answers prayers. I could see you were bothered yesterday, so I asked God to help you find it when I said my prayers last night. I'm so glad it turned up."

She was there again on Friday, still in good form. Again after the service she popped in to the sacristy with a mischevious smile on her face. "Just thought you'd like to know I said thank you to God last night for you finding your book - "Don't mention it", He said; "It's all part of the service.""

That just made my day.

Hussars on parade

Just before noon today, the 1st Queen's Dragoon Guards exercised their freedom of the city and marched out of the Castle, down Westgate Street and back up St Mary Street, headed up by the Guards band and preceded by a police motorbike and two police horses. Following the officers and men, were several armoured vehicles including a tank on its transporter. Prince Charles took the salute. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the regiment's foundation, plus celebration of their return from Afghanistan. The streets were thinly lined, with a mixture of family and friends plus Friday shoppers. News of the occasion had been published in advance but the timing was imprecise - this presumably was an anti-terrorist precaution, given where the regiment had just come from, and the presence of Prince Charles.

I knew a couple of days in advance because our bell ringers had been prompted by one of their associates to turn out and ring to mark the occasion. By asking around beforehand, I established that the march began just before midday. I left a note on the chancel screen door to apologise for a late start on this occasion, and went out on the streets with my camera. The march started at ten to twelve, and I was back at the altar by ten past. The pictures are here.

The reception for the troops was warmly enthusiastic. If the time had been publicised, roads into town would have been gridlocked with spectators travelling in while soldiers and their machinery were themselves assembling. Thanks to the publicity Britain's military activities have received in recent years, there's much sympathy
regardless of political opinions, for the young men who enlist in the service of their country.

The parade was different from usual, as the saluting base couldn't be in its normal place in front of City Hall. The entire civic centre being given over to the stage and funfair for the 'Big Weekend'. Thus the focal point for the parade was switched to the Castle. Grand marquees were erected in the grounds for lunch. Our bell ringers started their festive offering at one, just as the assembly would be sitting down to lunch. I hope this was noticed by the troops, and was understood to be in their honour.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cycling dilemma

After the midday Eucharist today, I had, once more, to dash over to the Castle for a meeting of the Countdown 2009 Transport group. The entire session focussed on the thorny problem of how to accommodate cyclists in the scheme of things. The experimental opening of the Queen Street pedestrian area for limited periods to allow bike commuters to use it for east - west travel was an unfortunate concession, attracting many complaints, though fewer bike related accidents than feared.

The street surface is treacherous for cycles when wet or subject to other splillages. There's no means to separate users designed into the street layout, and no useful signage - the old 'cyclists dismount' signs are still there, and bike users pass to and fro at all hours, not just officially tolerated times, as the chance of being stopped are limited, if they can see no police about to catch them. The main problem of abuse relates to those who hang around the city centre streets daily, rather than those commuting to work, and chaining up their bikes on the racks at either end.

The same problem will also persist in St Mary Street once it has been fully pedestrianised, as it's clear cyclists needs have not been designed into street improvement schemes, despite the high profile, vociferous cyclists' lobby. Although bike use is on the increase, there's still not the critical mass of users to have an impact on the way we design our street layouts. When cars become unaffordable luxuries due to fuel costs and public transport strains to accommodate additional users, cycling numbers will swell, I'm sure. The time to plan for the future is now.

What I heard at the meeting was just how difficult a problem it is to reach a satisfactory conclusion on the best measures to take. Street Pedestrianisation Orders ban cyclists, or maybe restricts them to clearly designated routes. On the highway, cyclists are subject to the same Highway Code as other road users, save exceptions to do with not being motor powered. Even this is now under review as a new generation of electrical power assisted bikes appears on the road (definitely an improvement on the French vélomoteur in terms of noise and smell).

Bikes are allowed in bus lanes, and some can and do use them, as well as the roads, but it's clear that many bike users are nervous of riding on roads or in bus lanes for fear of being unseen and knocked off. This is particularly a problem when buses are going at speeds above 20mph producing a gust of air behind them. No wonder many cyclists opt to ride on the pavements risking the wrath of pedestrians, or being pulled over by the police.

Careless cyclists are a danger to themselves and can cause problems for other road users. A cyclist on the road can be ordered to dismount and walk at the kerb if they are going so slowly and erratically that they are obstructing or causing a hazard to other road users. Some road users think cyclists hinder traffic flow, but this is less of an issue around the town centre when ambient speeds are restricted by congestion of traffic lights.

I often wondered why I see cars parked in the red coloured cycle lanes across town. It turns out that these lanes have no force of law behind them, they are only 'advisory', a route marked as recommended by the Council's Highway Department. They could all be removed as more cyclists share the road, the more other users will be aware of them and compensate for their presence, then the 'advice' of painted tarmac will be far less necessary than it is now.

Once the new free bus circulates around the city centre in its designated bus lane, there will be a route commuting cyclists will be able to take, rather than walk or ride illegally through the pedestrian areas. Rogues will do what rogues already do, but what of conscientious green commuters? Will it be asking too much of them to extend their daily travel time by five minutes?

One thing is certain, cyclists are still a headache for traffic managers. Some seem to wish would go away so that they don't have to deal with it. Transportation planners failed decades ago by not being able to see that a time would come when providing enough parking for cars and dealing with vehicle congestion was no longer the totality of their work. Only a dozen cities or towns in Britain rate as cyclist friendly enough to have development plans to ensure the needs of bike users are taken seriously - first among them, our regional rival Bristol.

Generally, city politicians have to drive Council officers to tackle difficult issues in fresh ways. As long as the majority of employees and politicians remain car users and commuters, rather than cyclists, it's going to be a struggle to cut through the gordian knot of complexity, and go for the kind of plan that is affordable and sustainable for all citizens and their different needs. Sadly, as long as our dependency on the car remains so high, motivation will be less than zealous, and cyclists an unwanted headache.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Delays and delays

I just had a phone call from my sister June, on her land line - finally working again, sixteen days after it went dead, following letters and phone calls from me, and more significantly from cousin Di, a TV journalist! Somewhat bemused, June said that her first call had been from a BT engineer, stating, though not apologising, or offering any explanation, that her line had been switched off. Presumably this was during the first few hours of down-time, when the automatic voice recording announced that there was a problem at the exchange. So, it was not as simple a matter as TalkTalk's customer interface being unable to cope with the needs of a non-mobile phone owning customer with hearing problems, BT was also in on the act, for reasons unexplained.

It was great to hear the relief in June's voice, at getting her ordinary phone back. Her acute hearing sensitivity means that the output of the mobile phone I bought her last Friday makes it painful to use. Like the Queen, I told her, you only have to use it to call out in an emergency. Otherwise, don't give anyone else your number. Thank heavens that's over for the time being. I can stop worrying now.

St John's churchyard is looking a lot less unmanageable this afternoon. Two mornings running, pouring rain notwithstanding, a crew of tree surgeons have removed a eucalyptus tree which hung over the main path in a threatening way, cut own a self seeded ash, cut back huge bushes, and thinned out foliage on remaining trees. It's possible to see in and out of all areas for the first time in years. It's lighter, and looks cleaner. The grass gets mowed regularly, but it's now much more evident with the bushes and trees all neat. It's taken ages to arrange to get this done as our trees are subject to Council protection orders and cannot be touched without prior agreement with the Tree Preservation Officer.

Finding out the right person and getting him to make an inspection visit took a while. Philip was marvellously diligent in finding out the right person, and making all the contacts. The TPO wouldn't let us take down a tree we were most concerned about because its roots were pushing up the paving, although he did agree to allowing the roots to be cut back and the insertion of a barrier to prevent them spreading under the path again, as part of his overall recommendations to manage the trees. It's cost a fair sum of money to do the job, but it all adds to the 'uplift' of the church in the midst of the centre's only green space. All that's needed now is to get that path re-paved. And we're having problems sourcing the exact kind of stone which the diocesan advisory committee specified as a condition of giving a faculty.

The PCC resolved to renew the paving and prune the trees three years and two months ago, as its precarious state was giving rise to Health and Safety concerns. We were obliged to take up a few paving slabs for the Tree Protection man to inspect roots, and in doing so made a effort to level them up temporarily until the full job could be be done. But with all the delays, I wonder if it will be complete before I retire?

Monday, July 27, 2009

A feast of images.

In August St John's will host an Exhibition of paintings by one of our members for a week, and an exhibition of marvellous photographs of people drawn from several USPG exhibitions of recent years. The light is so good in church when it's not cloudy, and the tranquil atmosphere makes it a great place to view pictures. I am preparing text material to accompany the photos. The artist, Keith Hall will be hanging his own pictures - all to be sold, proceeds to charity of the buyer's choice.

After yesterday's morning services, during afternoon and evening, I designed some publicity material for the painting exhibition, and ran up a promotional page on the Parish website to whet artistic appetites. I was pleased with the material I produced, and for once without a technical hitch. It gave me such a buzz, and cheered me up following my disconcerting arrival home last night, and failure to secure my sister's re-connection. Despite getting off to sleep all right, I awoke after a couple of hours, and lay awake for another couple of hours, my mind buzzing with thoughts to compose into a letter for the CEO of TalkTalk. The letter took me two hours to compose when I finally got around to it during the morning. No wonder I feel tired today.

This evening Clare showed me the website of an artistic project in which Jane, a long standing friend of ours is a key participant. She's a contemporary dancer and Steiner school teacher, with a wonderful spiritual eye for the mystery and beauty of life. I was much taken by what I saw and read on the website, describing a series of events involving a real physical art installation that embraced light, music movement, puppetry dance, and active participation by audiences whether children or adults. It's an original take on the idea of multimedia events, but without overwhelming electronics or 'virtual realities' attempting to stimulate or overwhelm the imagination. Rather, their projects use the senses in a way that frees the imagination to play freely - a gentle enchantment and initiation into the world of wonder.

Take a look at this - the
Dome d'Ombre website. Looking at it, I was struck that there are some ideas here which would work wonderfully in a meditative liturgical celebration. Then I realised that two of the events described were located in churches taking advantage of unique places to awaken participants. How I'd love to see something like this going on at St John's, already a feast of visual beauty, so easily taken for granted. The freshness of an artists contemplative eye would unlock new vistas on to the Good News for our time.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Communication and Communion problems

My 24 hour stay with my sister in London was a part success. I was able to do some shopping for her, buy her a mobile phone and program it with assorted essential numbers. She has the instruction booklet and can learn how to use it at leisure. I was unable to make any useful contact with TalkTalk's engineers however, as the area she lives suffers from poor reception and high traffic, and we needed to be able to sustain an unbroken line for twenty minutes in order to survive the computerised queuing system and get to talk to a real human being.

It took three tries with the line dropping on two occasions. When we did get through the line was so poor it was hard make sense of what was happening at the other end. The last time, after the engineer had rung us back successfully once to a bad connection, we asked for a re-dial, and weren't reconnected. I had another go at eight in the evening only to reach an answering machine saying that the fault finding service finished at 8.00pm, although Talk Talk's latest bill stated 10.00pm.

So June still has no land-line or internet connection. My mobile phone account was £7.50 lighter for the 0870 call I made. Needless to say I'll be writing a fullsome letter of complaint to TalkTalk CEO Charles Dunstone. Their service discriminates against elderly technophobes and does not warn people in its promotional material that ownership of a mobile phone is virtually obligatory if one is to be able to report faults and help their engineer diagnose the problem. It may also be against the law to effectively deny a person made vulnerable by a medical condition for having a reliable telephone service at home.

I got home at nine last night to read for the first time an emailed round robin from the Bishop dated Thursday and arriving after I'd left, recommending that churches take the same precautions as recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Tuesday against spreading swine 'flu via church services. This entails abstinence from the Peace and no sharing the chalice, no self-intinction nor communion straight into the mouth. The priest may intinct everyone, having taken suitable hand hygiene precautions.

Hmm. I posted on this blog on 5th May, eleven weeks ago, about making this change to my liturgical routine in the light of injunctions about hand washing made days earlier by the head of the World Health Organisation, just after the seriousness of the 'flu outbreak was confirmed. No I'm not bragging, just wondering why it has taken both our Archbishops so long to say something about this matter.

The Bishop's round robin was informative about the history and precedents justifiying exceptional use of communion in one kind, pages of the stuff. It was however, too long and not simple enough for a sermon, even though a clear explanation for the suspension of custom and habit, and implementing the new routine is essential for people's sense of order and comfort. in prayer. I had to ditch doing a proper sermon on St James, a Parish patron saint (translated to Sunday), and struggle against tiredness to think through what to say and how to handle the practicalities of communion. Especially at the early service, with no assistant to hold the chalice to allow me to dip communion wafers for each person.

It would have been just a little more helpful to spell out to clergy that hand-washing before handling the bread and wine for communion not after, as enshrined in centuries of priestly training and liturgical tradition is essential for this precaution to be effective. Common sense needs conscious application. Liturgical ritual can numb one's sense of reality if care is not taken. I was not in a good mood and quite apprehensive about getting things right when Communion time came. Perhaps I was fussing, anxious about people's reactions. Although it was clear that not everyone was ready or could work out how to receive the dipped bread, we got through OK, and nobody missed out or dropped the Host, least of all me. I would have liked a few days longer to think about it and prepare. I don't mind change, but it does take longer to effect these days, just like getting out of bed in the mornings.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Troubleshooting trip

Still no joy with getting my sister's phone working. Thanks to the availability of my good friend Archdeacon David Lee at very short notice to do today's lunchtime Eucharist, I shall take the bus up to London today, armed with my mobile phone to see if I can sort things out. I must make sure personally she is OK, as I have no other means of contacting her, and am aware that she is unwell, stuck at home without a phone of her own.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Fresh horizons

After much inner wrestling, our family house in Pontcanna has a 'For Sale' sign outside it, and a rather nice description of it on the estate agent's website. All three of our children have lived here at different stages in their younger lives, and it was a place of refuge for us when we came home on leave from abroad, especially the last time, when I was in between jobs for six months. We've decided that we'd like a fresh start for retirement next year, and intend to down-size in a new location not too far away.

Clare has laboured long and meticulously to make the place look attractive. To judge by the number of viewers, nearly a dozen in the first week, it shouldn't be too difficult to find a buyer. It's in a popular yuppie area nowadays. I took my turn welcoming two of the three lots of viewers this afternoon, to give Clare a break. One lot see it as an attractive prospect, another sees it as a potential project to be worked on. So many different needs and tastes to be satisfied.

My in-box this afternoon contained an invitation from Tony Riches, a Council officer leading a Social Inclusion project that aims to make use of internet discussion forums and bulletin boards to engage support. The website is here.

Once it's all fully up and running, people involved in different activities will be able to subscribe, contribute, and engage in dialogue that can help to inform plans and policies. I've been enlisted to help develop a faith forum, and I'm quite thrilled about this, as I see in it the possibility furthering the aims of the Spiritual Capital project, now a year behind us. I still cherish the hope of being part of the development of wide ranging, vigorous ecumenical and inter-faith enterprise in the city.

Hopefully this is something I'll have more freedom to attend to in retirement - once we have a new place to live, once it's fit to live in and welcome people to stay in .... Hopes of this kind are so important, when your life has so centred around the job, (though not always the mission) for forty years.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lines still down

A phone call from Talk Talk's CEO office in response to an email of concern I sent off last Wednesday about the problem with my sister's phone. It has taken the system that long to pass it up the line - I made the point in it that it wasn't good for a single elderly person to be a long time without a home phone, as it left them vulnerable in the event of an accident. The caller said she would make sure to ring my sister's number to ensure all had been resolved. I had rung earlier in the day and the automated voicemail was still in operation.

An hour later June rang jubilant with success, having just arrived back at Gatwick airport. She promised to call again when she got home, but I received no call, and the automated voicemail was still functioning, so the matter remains unresolved. That's now a whole week.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Oswald and Marion picked me up early this morning, to drive to Porthcawl and rendezvous with others on the greensward opposite the Atlantic Hotel for a brief ceremony to scatter Peggy's ashes, in the place where she had met the love of her life, a sea captain who disappeared on active service at the end of the World War Two. She often returned there, to sit in the shelter where she'd sat with her mother before and after their brief encounter.

There were eleven of us altogether. Some hadn't met before, but all were joined by her friendship. Father Paul Bigmore had intended to be with us but was incapacitated by a foot injury. We stood on the grass, close to where the rocky foreshore begins. Oswald brought the ashes in a plastic bag, enclosed in a discreet green cardboard cube, and handed them over to me. I reflected briefly about what her life had meant to us all, and prayed extempore, before making my way gingerly down over the rocks to a point where I could tell the incoming see would later meet the land, and where the constant wind would not blow them on to the assembled group.

I then had to tear the bag open, lift it out of the box carefully, and hold it by the bottom before finally swinging it in a great arc, to allow the ashes to spill out and be carried on the wind across the rocks - a satisfying moment of release in discharging Peggy's wishes. We concluded with the Lord's Prayer and blessing. It seemed that those present found it as moving as I did, a moment of closure for those who had accompanied her in her long years of illness, borne with such dignity in the serenity of faith.

Mother Church enjoins us to bury cremated remains in consecrated ground, yet the scattering of ashes one way or another is a common practice, even among believers. They decline the Church's advice. No doubt the practice is fraught with problems in popular places like football grounds, golf courses etc. One way or another, having a place where mourning for a person can be focussed, where they can be remembered, is important for the healing of the bereaved. But in the end it's not pastorally healthy to insist on a 'one size fits all' solution.

The world is full of graves from many centuries of human existence and they help to chart our history. Yet not all the great or the holy can be linked to a last resting place. Just think of the multitudes lost at sea down the ages. Mozart and Calvin disappeared into their local pauper's common grave, the former because he had been reduced to poverty, the latter because he was determined that no pious soul should succeed in making a cult of relics with his bones.

For all that remembering those we love but see no longer is important to living a fulfilled life, memories fade as generations pass. No monument or sacred place can capture the true value of a person. All we know is how much of life and how many lives ultimately vanish with the passage of time and the dissipation of memory. The something that we are becomes nothing. We are all in transit to no-thing, the ultimate reality beyond all things.

One day, the sea that claimed Peggy's ashes from Porthcawl's foreshore today will itself no longer be there to surrender its dead, as the earth is incinerated by the death of the sun. But as scripture says : "Heaven and earth will pass away but my Word will never pass away." That Word in which we trust, the word of love holding us in being in this life and beyond when change itself ends, in the end that was there before everything existed - the eternity of God.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A day for Christenings

Two families brought their infants for baptism at this morning's Parish Eucharist, the first baptisms in more than a year. Both mothers were lawyers, and it was a happy co-incidence that they knew each other because both once worked for the same law firm. There were three times the number of regular attenders in church despite the morning being punctuated by cloudbursts.

Communicant numbers were the same as usual however, indicative of the disconnection of so many people with good-will towards the families and their religious intentions, but no desire to commit themselves to the journey of faith taken by the church. Having said that, it's marvellous that little Celeste has been in church with us regularly over the past three months, with her parents Rob and Joanne. She brings a smile to the faces of many of our older members.

I had an email from my sister June in Ulm for the weekend visiting friends. Her first solo excursion for several years. Until she left on Friday, there was still no phone connection to her flat, only a automatic voice-mail, so this was the only confirmation I'd had that she'd gone away to plan. Worrying.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Term's end

This morning I shared with Father Roy Doxsey in the Tredegarville School end of term Eucharist and school leavers' celebration. It was also the occasion to say 'god speed' to Annette James, deputy head, on her way to a head teachers job at Malpas Church Infants school in the autumn. She's a charismatic figure, very popular with colleagues and children alike, so the farewell for her and for year six children, going up to secondary school, following the Communion, was lengthy and emotional affair, with each year group doing their own presentations, full of fun, music and art.

Roy had to slip out and do another Eucharist back at St Germans, but was able to return before the farewell ceremonies concluded. Then I had to slip out to do the St John's noon Eucharist. This is the kind of juggling we have to do in the absence of support from colleagues. As the years pass, not only are the numbers of full-time clergy diminishing, but also the numbers of active retired colleagues able to step in. At the moment we run to stand still, and don't know how to change things positively. It is sad that we keep going until the system breaks down, rather than having a constructive way to manage pastorally inevitable changes. It's painfully difficult to give up our expectations of how things ought to be.

In the afternoon I visited to BBC Wales Llandaff studio to take part in an 'All things considered' programme discussing technology, religion and modern culture, a subject much to my liking. I was not on my best form, having been robbed of sleep by a nose bleed, yet again last night. A quick visit to the doctor earlier this afternoon set in motion a request for a specialist ENT examination to see what the problem is. But that didn't do anything for my foggy, foggy brain unfortunately. Not my best radio appearance, I'm afraid, although I did enjoy playing the skeptic instead of the enthusiast for a few fleeting moments when it came to talk about virtual on-line church.

A taxi took me in the rain up to Thornhill Church for an introductory meeting of the Gweini board. Paul Hocking has asked if I'd like to participate, and bring some insight from my encounter with the Local Authority in the course of my work. I was much impressed with talks given about the work of a voluntary group called 'Oasis' working out of Tredegarville Baptist Church with asylum seekers, and a community worker living and working in Ely, out of sense of Christian vocation. There's some energetic engagement with real world issues going on around town, and a journey of discovery for some, that a truly biblical piety enables this to happen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TalkTalk frustration

Since yesterday, my sister June's phone has been out of order, except that the Talk Talk answering service kicks in and offers to record a message. She rang from a neighbour's place to let me know and ask if I would contact TalkTalk her service providor to inform them, although she was aware of a breakdown at the local exchange, from a recorded message issued by the help line service.

My recent experience of Talk Talk on this count has been unsatisfactory. They do not accept any request concerning a phone line from a third party, only the account holder. You can inform them of a problem, but they will not accept a request to instigate line testing procedure from anyone else, because of the liability that testing will lead to repair charges if lines or equipment are damaged within the account holder's property.

As my sister is in her mid seventies and she is not a mobile phone user, this policy to my mind places her at risk, when her phone goes dead. If she was unable to get out of the house to phone and had a fall she would be unable to raise the alarm. Not good. I used TalkTalk's complex and unfriendly electronic help system to report the problem, but so far, no acknowlegement only frustration.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Wholesome attitudes

I was away, and missed the last Retail Partnership monthly board meeting, so I was pleased to catch up with business at this morning's meeting. On the way in, I stopped off at church to lay out the Herbert Chapel for a board meeting of the Evangelical Alliance (Wales), due to start just about the time the Retail Partnership meeting was due to finish, so I succeeded in getting ahead of myself for once.

Having lived through the months of retail pessimism at Board meetings preceding the arrival of credit crunch and the use of the word 'recession', it was encouraging to hear positive reports of the state of trading, increased visitor numbers, and delight at the positive publicity for the city as a result of last week's Ashes Test match. Retailers aren't psychic, but they read customer moods and attitudes well. They are well pleased when things turn out to be less awful than anticipated, yet optimism is always moderated with caution. With careful reflection, most manage a good guess what what's most likely to happen next.

Bankers and investors work from the abstraction of trade figures. Retailers generate those statistics by their labours. I wonder how many people in the money business really sit and listen to retailers' talking as they try to sense the conditions and the mood that will enable them to earn their living? Discernment is an art rather than a science, involving heart, head and intuition, and yielding more than deceptive statistics can offer. More statistical analysis is done nowadays with ever more powerful tools for extracting new information from raw numerical data, but the world still ends up in a mess, miscalculating things. Perhaps because dominant intellect can work without regard for feelings intuition or observation, when focussed on abstractions, and on its own can easily be misled.

Anyway, it was pleasing to sense a good mood among retailer, as we heard the news that just over 60% of the retail outlets of the new St David Centre will be occupied and running when it opens for business on 22nd October coming. The meeting gave me an opportunity to announce that St John's would be hosting a Civic celebration of thanksgiving on 22nd November to mark the completion of the redevelopment. This was received with interest and appreciation. But I'll still have to work at getting people to come after the close fo trading on a Sunday evening.

All I had to do when I got back to church was switch on the lights in the Herbert Chapel for the EA group. They were installed and organised, but couldn't find the switches, hidden by a large processional banner, cause of some amusement. After the meeting, John Martin Evans, Gweini's level headed statistician, stopped by to thank us for the use of the chapel. He said that it had been a calm and positive session, no doubt aided by the peace and beauty of the place including the large commemorative chest tomb of the Brothers Herbert, helping meeting participants keep a sense of balance and perspective on life. I liked that. Perhaps a little 'memento mori' would induce a deeper realism in the deliberations of the world's financial whizz kids too, and save us from the damage that 'boom and bust' economics metes out to ordinary people.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Beginnings and ends

I managed to get wet three times today, as a result of intermittent showers and despite taking a mac out with me. In between times the streets dried out, giving the illusion that it was all over. I stood under the exterior canopy of Queen's Arcade and watched an armoured cash delivery van reverse into one of the new lamp standards in an attempt to get close to the Halifax's main entrance. Several new lamp standards have been lost to vehicles over the past six months since they were erected. This time it was only a brush with the bumper that made the lamp post shudder. With two more tries the driver succeeded in positioning his vehicle the other side of the lamp post and accomplishing his mission.

The vehicle shouldn't have been in the pedestrian precinct, as it was gone eleven o'clock. Apart from the heavy rain slowing everything down, the start of the week was marked by long traffic queues, as work started on the Kingsway with the erection of fences, draffic diversion and lane closure. The work in hand is the modification of the pedestrian crossing, and is destined to last nine weeks, if it runs to time. Let's hope the change is worth all the hassle it will cause.

This afternoon was the last 'God on Mondays' of the term. School ends of Friday and we have a Leavers' Eucharist on Thursday. I've now raised with the head and staff the question about whether it should continue during the period of transition that will occur with my retirement and the appointment of a new incumbent. It's certainly wanted, yet it has become increasingly difficult to establish a stable regular pattern, with my absences and with school closures for bank holidays and INSET days, and as a result attendance has suffered. I think it could do with a complete make-over, new ideas, now people and new life involved. I'm proposing we look around and ask if any other churches around the place would respond to an invitation take on running a family service on a Monday afternoon. We'll see what the outcome will be.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Living with visitors

I counted ten of our regulars missing at this morning's main Eucharist, but they were replaced by at least that number of visitors, several Aussies among them, no doubt hoping for a good final day's play in the Test Match later on. Also among our visitors were the Rector of Paradise in Newfoundland, and his wife. People from all parts of the world just dropping in as they do, sometimes just to take photos and look around, sometimes to join us in prayer. The early year upturn in city visitors has been sustained, judging by the extra photocopy runs I've had to do to keep the visitor leaflet racks topped up, not only the history leaflets, but also the Christian faith enquiry leaflets - which pleases me.

The Test Match was in the end, a draw. A great launch for the new SWALEC stadium. Cardiff now has three modern sporting arenas with the capacity to draw national and international crowds. Hotels around the city are all pretty full on big event weekends. Apparently several more new hotels in city are on the drawing board. If only it was possible to improve the capacity of the road and public transport infrastructure to match. Big events may be big income earners, but the do not improve the quality of life for those who live in and around the place. Yesterday there was a fun-run in Bute Park. The public address system, was so intrusively loud in our neighbourhood, a quarter of a mile from the stage that had been erected for the purpose, that we had to turn up the radio indoors to be able to hear it properly. And this went on until well into the evening. Bigger doesn't always mean better.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

WWW at 20

The BBC has been observing the 20th anniversary of the birth of the World Wide Web. Its technology blog reports an interesting discussion with Sir Tim Berners-Lee the inventor of the concept when he was at CERN. He regards the impact of web communication and its future development's as a real evolutionary stage in the history of humanity, a paradigm shift in consciousness. I begin to wonder if Christians and the churches, keen though they may be to exploit the technology, have really got to grips with deeper understanding of this change for humanity in a theological way. It's worth a read and can be found here - no technical jargon to bamboozle you either.

Bill Thompson, a well known tech journalist involved in the discussion regarded himself as a latecomer to the web, starting in 1993. Funnily enough that was the year I acquired my first email address through the internet service account of Holy Trinity Anglican Church where I was Chaplain. With several CERN mathematicians and physicists as members the congregation, it was only a couple of years before I was being shown the prototype of a church website, written in early HTML code, by someone who could get his head around doing this kind of programming, something requiring too much attention to detail for me to make a success of.

By the time I left Geneva at the end of 2000, website authoring programs were freely available, and I was able to construct my first church website for St Paul's Monaco. I did the same when I came to work in Central Cardiff Parish, with a rebuild of the website when the benefice was dissolved, to reflect the change. Earlier this year I did a complete re-build of St John's website, in a way that reflects the evolution now taking place.

Instead of using a familiar web-site authoring program on my computer, I used free tools and web hosting facilities offered by Google. The website making program resides on the web itself, and can be accessed from any computer with an internet connection anywhere in the world. This means anyone with the authorisation codes can access the site and update information on it. When I move on, handing over responsibility for the church website to another will be uncomplicated.

I found the Google Sites tool easy to learn how to use. Familiarity with its routines and tightly controlled structures is all that's needed. If you make a mess of something, there are possibilities to un-do actions and recover from disaster a lot easier than used to be the case. In the old days before 'autosave' (even for un-named files) was a built in feature of programs, a power cut or a computer crash could destroy hours of work.

Nowadays with digital storage on the Web being cheap enough for companies like Google to give out free, all one's data and working programs can be stored on the Web and accessed from anywhere. This is what 'cloud computing' is all about. All data. That includes one's mistakes, messes and for some with a darker turn of mind and soul, their guilty secrets as well. They're all out there somewhere, accessible with the right authorisations. It's hard to trust totally in such a system, however secure or stable. I still carry the bulk of my library of files in my pocket on a memory stick that cost me less than a tenner. Just in case. For insurance.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Anatomy of distrust

Last night I was the recorder for a crisis meeting of the Street Carers Forum Representative Group in County Hall to consider the breakdown in consensus leading to the cancellation of the first ever training session devised by this group to meet the needs of volunteer teams out regularly on the streets offering support to the city's homeless and vulnerably housed people. The training was meant to be a decisive step in setting up a collaborative partnership between the voluntary community of Street Carers and the Local Authority.

Voluntary bodies have enthusiasm and dedication to be there for people at times when professionals in statutory agencies are not available. Those who work voluntarily with the homeless and vulnerable on the city's streets have an admirable record. In my role as City Centre Missioner, I've commited myself to build bridges between voluntary caring groups and the City's professional social workers, convinced that each needs the other to do justice to the needy.

Not all faith based Street Care teams find it easy to work with Local Authority professionals. Fear of control, fear of being 'taken over' hinders progress. Volunteers do a job professionals cannot do. Each needs the other. Dialogue between them is essential. Many involved realise this and are willing to sustain a proper relationship, but not all. Some are indifferent or distrustful of the intentions of local government, and those elected to power.

Patience is needed to make progress, plus determination and sensitivity to ensure that the anxieties of a few inform but do not hinder the progress of the majority. None of the anxieties hindering progress are new to me, but their sheer persistence astounds me, and reminds me how hard some people find it to overcome their fears and embrace change,

It spells out something of the problematic relationship between people with faith and initiative, and those charged with implementing rules laid down by those elected to authority in civil society. This relationship is made harder when people of faith forget that the society sustaining them rests on Christian values and ethics, no matter how secular and alien it may appear to be in their eyes. This kind of narrow vision among passionately committed Christians, I find frustrating and discouraging.

Will people of faith ever be capable of doing things deserving respect and trust among those elected to hold power over us? In principle there's no reason why not. In practice, it's the opposite.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Not only employees but stakeholders

Once again I had to rush from the midday Eucharist to the Castle for a meeting of the Countdown 2009 group concerned with transport, way-finding and acess concerns in the city centre. This time we met in a vaulted room below ground floor level, used as part of the Victorian Bute family's romantic attempt to return wine production to Wales.

A vineyard was planted on the slopes below Castell Coch, clone of a mediaeval Rhineland Schloss built on the site of a mediaeval ruin in Tongwynlais at the edge of the modern Borough in the late nineteenth century. My father spent several years growing up in nearby in Taffs Well at the end of the First World War. He recounted the presence of the vineyard there to me when I was young. It's funny, the kind of associations you have to deal with, when trying to focus on business in hand.

The business of this work group is meant to be concluded by the time the new city centre retail area opens this autumn. I can't see this happening. Keeping the city moving, whether on wheels or on foot is an evolutionary process, unpredictable, dependent on what individuals decide to do, how they do it, and whether or not the influence that can be exerted upon them is effective.

My guess is that with all the best technology available, it will take a couple of years after the launch of the new St David Centre and John Lewis Store to establish a predictable manageable pattern of movement, in and out of the city centre for people and vehicles, to deliver current aspirations. Not good news for those charged with driving the task to completion maybe. The developers deliver their best, and on time. Presumably their financial backers are aware that unpredictable elements are part of their investment product.

Getting public transport to run reliably on time is a vital factor in making a success of the city centre redevelopment. This is a complex and difficult, operation given the projected increase of traffic into the centre from retail workers, suppliers and shoppers needing vehicle access. All this increasing demand leads to greater congestion. Success brings its own problems. Consumers are fussy these days. Satisfying everyone seems like an impossible task. I admire all those who strive to obtain information and get things right in their work day by day.

Every now and then, someone at these meetings will say something that alerts me to the fact that those paid to work on these projects are equally affected by the outcome. A reminder of the biblical idea that we are all 'members of one another'.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Test Match footnote

The whimsical parson in me felt compelled to write in the service register, next to the record of the day's Eucharist, that the first ever Ashes Test Cricket match to be held in Wales began this day in the Parish.

For no reason that I can understand a photocopy of the present Parish boundaries lies at the moment un-filed like litter on the sacristy table. Truth to tell, nobody knows what to do with it because, like other posher versions of this map in existence, it is incorrect in the matter of the boundary on the East side of the new Parish, which is meant to follow the line of the Bro Taf railway out of Queen Street Station up as far as the road bridge just below Maindy swimming pool. Church bureaucrats are not always as attentive to detail as we'd like them to be. My representations to get the error corrected have so far been ignored.

However, on the West side of the map, the defining boundary is what it's meant to be, encompassing Sophia Gardens, the Glamorgan County Cricket ground, and a diagonal section of Llandaff fields (so called) across to the Blackweir Bridge over the Taff. This means the first Test Match in Wales is being held in the City Parish of St John the Baptist Cardiff. It's not news, and will do nothing to change the world, but maybe in 200 years time, if the church registers survive, some church scholar will ponder the meaning of my marginal scribble, and set out on a trail to discover facts well known to worshippers and historians of the god cricket.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ashes bounty

Eric Dutton, the venerable president of the Cardiff Hoteliers' Association has always looked with a favourable and generous eye on what we've attempted to do to make St John's attractive and relevant to the city's offer to visitors. Thanks to him we first had internal floodlights to illuminate the windows on the St John Street side, so that they contributed to the Christmas illuminations. And he's been more than generous in ensuring the extra electricity bills were met. He was a bit nervous about last year's nativity installation for fear of vandalism, but we strode defiantly and triumphantly through the worst case scenario last December in a way that did a power of good to people of good-will in Cardiff

He popped into church to say hello yesterday with the promise of a couple of complementary tickets for the historic Ashes Test Match in the re-vamped Glamorgan County Cricket stadium, due to start tomorrow, with the suggestion that we might like to raffle them for church funds. Well, a bit late to organise that properly, but with eBay, and people who know people around here, maybe the tickets can be put to work for us.

We're almost at the end of a quiet three year fundraising project to replace all the old rusty window guards of the church with new high tensile stainless steel mess guards in unobtrusive black. The transformation has been slow but truly comforting to behold. The exterior looks so much more neat and tidy, and they will not deteriorate like those mounted in 1946 did. They'll last at least half a century, if not longer. They may fall off due to wear and tear on their mounting points before they start to look tired.

It's been a worthwhile achievement, all undertaken by one of our members, Sue Morris, passionate about protecting the beauty of our fine Victorian stained glass, ever since we had a vandal attack on the weekend of her daughter's wedding. Now we're within sight of completion. Only Comper's chancel window remains to be equipped with a new guard. So, the tickets went to Sue to use as fund raisers.

When the old guard comes off for replacement, the window will get its first good wash in several decades before the new one is installed. It's a beautiful classic piece of fin de siecle design and craftsmanship. I hope I will see it in full glory before I retire.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Codex Sinaiticus on-line

BBC's Today programme this morning announced the on-line publication of a complete set of images of Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest biblical texts available for study, dating back 1,600 years. This is an important event for scholars because it re-unites in the virtual world, a document split into four and parcelled out between Egypt, Russia, Germany and the UK after its 'discovery' in the monastery of St Catherine Sinai in 1844 - another case of colonial looting to match that of the Elgin Marbles in my opinion. At least the removal of the manuscript from the monastery has meant that extensive scientific study has yielded a vast amount of information about how the text was understood by its readers. This plays a hugely important role in our understanding of the formation of the biblical text as we read it today, derived not from a single but many textual sources with their array of minor textual variations.

The BBC online magazine article by Roger Bolton on this matter is interesting, and the range of critical feedback to it equally so. Bolton projects a stereotyped view of how people read and interpret the biblical text, failing to make clear the distinction between simple classic literalism and fundamentalism as a doctrinally driven way of interpretation, which goes to the text with mind made up about certain teachings, looking for proof. Commentators on the article, apart from the usual secularist detractors of religion, make it apparent that a variety of reasoned approaches taking the contents of sacred texts seriously, are neither literalist nor fundamentalist, and are unshaken by the 'alterations' and 'variations' in text revealed by scholarly investigation.

The manuscript contains two deutero-canonical manuscripts - the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas - known and referred to since ancient times as early Christian documents but excluded from the authorised selection (the Canon) of the New Testament. Why? They did not match up to the quality of the others that were selected, when it came to authorise texts for reading in public liturgy. People could read them for personal devotion but not rely upon them in making the case for Christianity. So rarely is this said in response to the crazy conspiracy theorists who feel that some great 'truth' was officially suppressed. And this in an age that is so hot on listing for us all the 'must read' books in print.

The news broadcast talked about how the virtual text display showed modifications made to it during the course of its early life (revealed by modern hi-tech tools) as if such 'changes' were an issue of great contention. They chart ancient debate about the meaning and interpretation of the text, in the shaping and transmitting of Christian faith - a debate to be taken as seriously as the received texts we strive to interpret for our own times. The whole process is more complex and dynamic than fits well in the world of instant media and modern PR. This best place to get a balanced view on the subject is the Codex website - well worth a visit.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Radio has the best pictures

Although it was a warm and generally sunny afternoon, I turned down an invitation to a strawberry and cream tea party, to stay in and listen to the first part of a new dramatisation of Le Carré's 'The spy who came in from the cold', which I remember as a marvellous black and white movie starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in the year I graduated.

It was a marvellous adaptation for the sound stage. Not only was it beautifully engineered to listen to, but able to evoke images of time and place belonging to my youth - overshadowed as it was by the Cold War, and the popular anxieties it generated. I was overjoyed to witness the death throes of that era in person, when I took part in a parish twinning visit to Leipzig during the fateful October demonstrations of 1990, which hastened the end of the Berlin Wall and the DDR. I hope I shall live long enough to witness the end of the wall that divides the Holy Land between Israelis and Palestinians as well.

After Evensong we had a PCC, in which we managed to get through quite a lot of business in record time. One of the key items of business was the agree to ask for a Faculty to permit a change of use to the empty gardener's hut in the south churchyard garden. There's interest in opening it up as a kiosk to sell fresh fruit and soft drinks during opening hours. That would certainly be beneficial to users, and possibly to the church as well, receiving a modest rental for the privilege. We shall see if the idea matures according to plan.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Risks of the job

Last night's BBC Radio 4's discussion programme 'Off the Page' treated the matter of 'Falling on your sword' - seen in terms of resignations on grounds of principle, or before being disgraced and sacked. Somehow the conversation got on to clergy resignations, for whatever reason good or ill, and how problematic this was when it meant automatic homelessness for clergy families living in accommodation tied to the job, when they didn't own property. There was an interesting exchange about what happened if clergy lost their faith, and could no longer preach with integrity what they were commissioned to preach. How hard if they had a family to provide for, should they compromise, when resigning had such impact?

Stories were told about clergy in remaining post yet openly declaring disbelief in key Christian doctines, and the shock of a chaplain for retired clergy, at discovering that fifty percent of those in his charge openly disavowed the faith that had afforded them a living, once they'd left office and were secure in retirement accommodation. One can also tell stories of pastors who left the straight and narrow and had to resign or else be dismissed, because what was private to them, became public. Or those whose teaching, as opposed to behaviour, caused such mayhem that their license for ministry had to be withdrawn.

Yet, one can just as easily tell stories of faithful pastors resigning on principle, even changing their church allegiance, not because they have lost faith, but because their embrace of faith and commitment changed them, changed where they wanted to be, and with whom they wished to travel the journey of faith.

It's not hard to become disillusioned with churches, given their weaknesses and failures to live in the spirit of Christ's teaching. The anti-religious propaganda of this secularist era has made many believers anxious and put them on the defensive, unable to rise to the challenge of criticism, not least because they are all too aware of the horrendous evils done by religious people in the name of tribe, culture, or their particular brand of orthodoxy. As an ordained person representing the beleaguered band of believers, it's possible to get tired out, experience isolation and abandonment, turn inwardly against any kind of spiritual world view, and just mark time, survive until it's possible to leave public life and religion behind for good. The binding of a priest to a parish, with oaths and solemn undertakings in a quasi-sacramental ritual is in its way as exacting as a marriage. If it all becomes too demanding, retirement for some must feel like a divorce from church and maybe from God. I wonder how many clergy spouses feel their partner's work is a rival for affection as well as attention?

Modern professional-speak for such tensions is 'work-life balance', but in a way imbalance is nurtured by the kind of bonding ritual which initiates a new phase in a person's ministry, with all the ideals and expectations built into it. There's little to help a pastor cope with failure. At a human level, ministry can involve suffering - loneliness, disappointment, frustration, disillusionment within the job, because it's an occupation that involves openness, vulnerability, the risk of abuse and betrayal. The experience of failure can be shameful to speak of. Although preaching the Gospel and healing the wounded belong together, there are situations in which the healer's wounds get overlooked. The outcome is that people are lost from the journey of faith, not just lost on it. Is there a remedy for such tragedy?

I once resigned from a job when church leaders refused to trust me to mediate in an on-going conflict between them and the Diocese. It was clear I had to quit to ensure the matter was resolved properly. This left me wounded, workless, and feeling the shame of 'divorce'. Thanks to mother-in-law's legacy, we had a home in Cardiff to return to, and a welcome from another Diocese - the one that had ordained me - countering rejection experienced abroad. The spiritual formation I received when I was young made it clear that keeping faith involved such risks. It stood me in good stead. Are others as fortunate, I wonder? I'm so grateful for the loving welcome St John's gave me, letting me be myself, enabling me to return to action, sharing the faith.

The journey may well take you to hell on times, but it sure can bring you all the way back again.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Farewell Peggy

About fifty people were present for Peggy's funeral office, which began with Vanessa singing 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' from Haendl's 'Messiah', in the morning sunlight, setting the tone for a moving service. I was aware that some of the people present had known her for three quarters of their long lives. Although her attendances at worship during the past three years of her final illness became rarer, I know many of her fitter contemporaries visited her regularly at home and in hospital, as I had done. She coped so graciously with illness and infirmity, and never failed to welcome visitors with delight in her eyes and a huge smile.

This ability to be present to others, no matter what her own condition was indeed an amazing grace, which sent her visitors away cheerful despite their anxieties for her. Remembering her in a brief homily, I spoke about this, as the secret of living victoriously through suffering. It seems as if this thought resonated with many of the mourners to judge by comments made to me afterwards. Fr Paul and I shared the service and took her to the crematorium for the final farewell, before we went our different ways, grateful for having known and loved someone whose faith in God uplifted ours.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Midweek meetings

Robin Samuel came over to church at lunchtime, for another preparatory session towards organising a Cardiff climate change conference this autumn. We still have to confirm a venue, and not being able to do so means advance publicity is delayed. I hope this doesn't mean having to push the conference forward into October.

Then, I cycled over to Roath Church House for our bi-monthly Chapter meeting, attended for the first time by our new Archdeacon, who had us all talking a bit about any 'good news' we were pleased to share from our parishes. It was cheering that everyone had something positive to say. Many spoke modestly of signs of growth.

The reception given to the discussion paper about how to modify the role of the Archbishop of Wales in the light of changing work-load and new responsibilities was somewhat mixed. Some think it's the best effort of its kind of the three attempts over the past quarter century to propose changes in the organisation of the Province's leadership. Others are doubtful of the value of the move, concerned about the long term pastoral impact of making Llandaff Diocese a permanent archiepiscopal see. All felt it was important the matter was widely discussed by the whole Church in Wales.

Whichever diocesan Bishop becomes Archbishop, there'll be conflict of interests between oversight of the Diocese, and duties away from Province. and Diocese. Development of international archiepiscopal collegiality risks creating an Anglican curia, with or without a patriarchal head. It took us long enough in Anglicanism to develop effective synodal governance with laity and clerics shaping church life together. The many meetings of Archbishops have not prevented arrival at the brink of schism. On sheer performance grounds, I'm doubtful that all this additional international work load is justified - to say nothing of carbon footprint and lifestyle issues.

Anyway, back on earth this evening, two dozen church members and friends gathered to receive the body of Peggy Theophilus into church for an over-night stay before tomorrow's funeral. Her old friend and former assistant Curate of the Parish Fr Paul Bigmore celebrated a Requiem Eucharist, and the choir sang a hymn Paul wrote and dedicated to her, a few years ago. During the day, much flower arranging was done, and everything looked beautiful in the rays of the setting sun. It's just what would have given her great delight to behold.

Afterwards, Clare and I took Owain out for a 'new job' and birthday celebration gastro-pub supper, followed by one of mum's special gateaux and a bottle of Cava. It's great to hear him chatting enthusiastically about the challenges of his new role with the British Council.