Thursday, September 24, 2009

Walking the talk

Last week I was asked by John Webber, chair of the diocesan mission committee if I would give Sunil Menken, Bishop elect of the Diocese of Kushtia in Bangladesh a pastor's eye tour of the city centre. Sunil is currently a parish priest in the city of Dacca, the capital. He's staying with John down in Llantwit Major. Lllandaff diocese is preparing to establish a companion link with the Church of Bangladesh. I'm delighted about this. And I hope it makes possible closer ties for us locally with Cardiff's substantial Bengali community.

We met at Cardiff Central station, mid morning, and I took him over to Southgate House to say hello to whoever was at their desks in the city centre manager's office. It has a great view of the Parish. Also next door in Land Security's local office, an additional view of Cardiff Bay, plus an architect's model of the city centre, altogether making possible an excellent overview to get us going on our tour.

From there, we walked up to St John's for the midday Eucharist, and had a snack in the tea room before the tour proper. I think that hearing a little of Cardiff history is quite useful for giving an idea of why buildings and streets are laid out the way they are in relation to landscape. It's so easy to be impressed by the latest layer of new edifices, and not realise the mutations of past centuries that have left place names, obscure landmarks, open spaces. Any city is a hugely complex story. Just imagine - Dacca is thirty times the size of Cardiff. There you'd just need a much bigger overview and a lot more time to tell the story.

We walked up to the Castle, down St Mary Street to the Prince of Wales pub, to recall the first Cardiff village riverside settlement where the Benedictine Priory of St Mary the Virgin was set up in 1080, and looked back up the street considering how the business quarter developed, not at the wharf-side, but in the safer shadow of the Castle walls, where St John's was built and rebuilt as as chapel of ease to St Mary's, close to where successive markets traded from the thirteenth century right down to today.

Then we crossed into Bute Terrace, gazing at the new hotels - sign of the contemporary mobile society that has established itself as part of the modern core economy of the city - and slipped into the John Lewis department store on its first day of public trading. It was heaving with people. We took the escalator to the top and back, took some photos, walked around among the crowds. Sunil clearly enjoyed this.

Then we walked up the Hayes, looked at building works nearing completion, and went through the 'old' St David Centre, now renovated to match its new neighbour, into the Queen's Arcade and then into Queen Street. We walked down Charles Street, popped in to St David's Cathedral, passed the CIA arena, crossed over into Tredegar Street and re-entered the John Lewis store for a quick cuppa before I took Sunil for his train back to Llantwit Major.

In between my descriptions of what went on where, Sunil interrogated me throughout about what might broadly be termed 'social service provision' - care for poor and marginalised people, civil and human rights advocacy, interpreting Christianity to people of other faiths, and so on. So many things that are undertaken by the church in Bangladesh are done by secular charitable bodies here in U.K., not least because the Christian ethos of many generations has so strongly influenced our civil society, and encouraged voluntary social enterprise. For him the context is a predominantly muslim society, with different history and priorites. For me this was a stimulating and challenging exercise, a dialogue, and not merely a presentation of Cardiff to a visiter.

It really was one of those days. The random element of city life means I can walk through the streets for hours and see nobody I know on one day, yet get stopped at every corner on another. Today as Sunil and I went around, we met all kinds of people, Steve - the city centre ops manager; Andrew Highway, Steve's predecessor, now working for Caerphilly UDC, who is also a non stipendiary ordinand coming to us on placement from this Sunday - he was just sampling John Lewis in between work appointments when we met. Meg Underwood, NSM priest who is part of the prison chaplaincy team. who usually comes to our Thursday Eucharist, Eddie Davies who was in the tea room when we arrived for lunch. He's taking the service this Sunday to permit me to support an adult confirmation candidate up at St Michael's. Then, on the street, we bumped into Ian Thomas, my steadfast supporter in city centre outreach this past five years. All chance encounters, welcome any day of the week, but especially welcome today as I gave account of what being a city centre priest means in this setting.

There are times when this job has felt very lonely. Yet, it has forged many connections with different people for me, and for the most part, these are invisible to those I worship with, who support me day by day in this ministry. How blessed I felt that all these meetings happened within the space of a few hours - especially when I know from experience that I could make exactly the same journey and see nobody I know.

This evening I had another privilege. A long conversation with a young man to be confirmed this Sunday. He has taken a long journey of learning and discovery in Christian faith and this has led him to find both a welcome and a home at St John's, slowly and steadily over several years. As in my own journey of faith, he has been deeply influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy, so conversation has been easy and enjoyable between us. It will be a privilege to sponsor him before the Bishop this coming Sunday.

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