Thursday, October 22, 2009

St Davids Dewi Sant - the grand opening

I was up and out of the house, armed with two fully charged cameras, and walking the streets by ten past nine this morning. Along the Hayes, some window cleaning and sweeing up was still going on as the media's TV cameras were being positioned. ITV's satellite relay van was down by the library and BBC's up in Hills Street. The Red Dragon Radio Car was parked in the shadow of the ever patient edifice of Mr Batchelor. I noticed this morning that he is portrayed smiling, almost Buddha-like. This is the third makover of the city centre since his heyday in Victorian times.

Miracles have happened overnight. No spaces to be seen anywhere, enclosed by Heras fencing, or plastic barriers. All clean and tidy, people able to roam freely, try out the new shiny black marble topped benches, hardly a hi-viz jacket in sight anywhere. What an achievement in just fifteen hours. Somebody told me that a thousand people were working into the night on various aspects of the preparation, contractors and shopping centre staff, all working together for a common outcome, an achievement all can take pride in.

The energetic young women of the SDC public relations team were all out and about, smartly dressed and made up, bright eyed and bushy tailed despite, as two told me independently, getting only two hours sleep the night before.

I made my way into the old shopping centre, checked in and ascended the escalator to access the Grand Arcade for the first time, and walk the two hundred yards to the intersection with the East West arcade, where opening reception was to take place. Already there were a hundred plus people there - council officers and members, Suits from London, SDC staff, contractors - all smartly dressed. A champagne breakfast had been laid on for those who hadn't taken time to eat before leaving home.

For me it was a special experience for one reason. Gathered in one place for this opening were many people that I've become acquainted with over the past four years of being involved with this project, from all sides of the enterprise. The makeover of the churchyard was the point at which I started to engage properly and get to know people, and from there many different connections have been made and initiatives taken. Politicians, project managers, promoters and administrators, every one a stakeholder in this huge undertaking.

All I've been able to do is to accompany them on their journeys, understand the sheer complexity of everything as it has happened, and attempt to interpret it to those who haven't understood. I've been a kind of interested by-stander. My career and daily bread has not rested on any kind of responsibility for this great achievement of collaborative enterprise. The privilege of being a priest and pastor, literally at the 'edge of the centre' during this time, is that I've been able to tell the story of some of the things I have witnessed, and express some kind of appreciation for creative processes at work on a grand scale, as I continue to search for the deeper meaning and purpose it all.

I dislike the glib phrase 'cathedral of shopping', because it denies the market place its dignity as a realm of exchange and encounter, creativity and challenge. Too much theology expresses a kind of snooty bourgeois disdain for trade, oblivious of the honour acquired by anyone regarded as trustworthy or offering valuable service. The market place is a realm where people express faith in each other. It's a place of exchange between believers and non-believers of all religions and none. It's a place where people get to put their ideas of beauty, truth and goodness into practice. A place of action rather than of contemplation. Yes, a place where it is wise to reflect and contemplate on the significance of what is going on more often than relgious people do.

Anyway, musing apart. The doors opened on time, and the story is well told in media annals. At 9.30, the doors opened and hundreds of people rushed in through the Hayes Arcade entrance - the only one I could see from my vantage point, but I believe the other main entrances also opened at that time. Within minutes upstairs and downstairs were thronging with excited people, gazing into windows, taking in the grand vista. Far from resembling a cathedral, the Grand Arcade resembles a stylish railway station with its high arched glazed roof, which pays homage to the 19th century grand arcades of Milan's city centre retail heart. A place of departure, adventure, interaction, conviviality. And in every sense a place worth visiting. That's what it's built for.

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