Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard times

Today it was time to say goodbye to Rachel, Jasmine and John after their fortnight's stay with us. In another week's time they'll be on their way home to Canada. Maybe this time next year we'll be on our way to Canada, to enjoy a real winter, while they are still to be had, in the Rockies.

The first of the Advent 'God on Mondays' services at Tredegarville School followed in the afternoon. Sadly numbers are dwindling. I suppose this is inevitable as families are aware that I won't be there for them until the end of the school year. I hope my successor will consider it worthwhile to continue a family service in school and bring something that's fresher, more attractive and relevant to a new generation.

When I got home, I had but a brief time to draft an order of service for a funeral this week, to prepare for a visit from a woman whose husband had dropped dead in the street outside their apartment the previous week. He was the same age as I am. This made me ponder. Life is so fragile but how can anyone ever be prepared for their own sudden demise?

In the evening the Street Carers' Representative Group met in Thornhill Community Church, and I went along to be scribe, as usual. We had quite a lot to do, reviewing the recent training evening, and planning both follow up sessions and new trainings for 2010, and discussing the matter of i/d cards for volunteers - a matter which has emerged as a priority to push us forward. On top of this we discussed the streets.

Two homeless people have died in the past month, both Eastern Europeans. There's notably an increase in the number of destitute Europeans around these days. They are different from destitute asylum seekers, who are mostly isolated individuals and vulnerable not infrequently hiding from authority. For a start, European migrants have some rights, and aren't hiding from the police (unless they're on the run for a crime committed). They associate with each other on the basis of their language and homeland and in that they have some strength to cope with hard times.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent beginnings

The Advent call to wake up took a strange turn for us last night. Having gone to bed early, I was not finding it easy to settle. Our house is in a quiet setting with mostly remote background noise, odd sounds from outside closer to home are just a little bit unsettling. I heard a man talking outside into a mobile phone, and a dog barking. I peeped out of the window and saw one of the neighbours down below. His sturdy white hound was standing on our drive, barking into the dark corner of the Square, just beyond us. I returned to bed, then minutes later, there was the sound of a car and raised voices. A silver Merc that had been parked down the road a little was driving at low speed, headlights full on illuminating a man walking in front bearing a riding crop, lashing out at another younger man, driving him on with dark threats. This turned into a chase the length of the Square.

From time to time there have been burglars and prowlers in the vicinity. I think younger more agile guys take a short cut across the neighbouring convent garden, climb over the wall and slip through one of the houses opposite into the back lane exiting on to North Road. Such occasonal pedestrian traffic may not all be mischevious in nature, but it sure does annoy some folk hereabouts. "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." I thought to myself, bemused, as I tried to relax back into sleep. I heard most of the remaining hour chimes until the alarm went off to get me up for the early service.

Yesterday the third international rugby match of the autumn season filled the Millennium Stadium with 70,000 spectators yet again. The streets were impressively clean by the time I arrived at church for the eight o'clock. There was relatively little rubbish dumped in the area either side of the steps leading into the west porch. The same was also true on the occasion of the other two matches. Admittedly lots of rain probably kept fans indoors more than usual before and after, but everywhere was much cleaner.

Maybe our re-furbished streets and the Council's efforts to provide additional bins, and rubbish clearance are finally paying off. Certainly the cleansing team should be praised for their zeal and effectiveness. The theory is that better a place looks, the less likely visitors will be indifferent to its condition. Theory will be put to the test in earnest when the spring season of home internationals arrives, hopefully in better weather, and large numbers will be standing outdoors drinking before and after the match. Will cleansing services get overwhelmed by public slovenliness then?

The day's miserable weather undoubtedly helped diminish numbers by 20%. The casual drop-in attenders were missing - the first to be deterred by rain or cold. This evening's Advent Carol service went very well. Most of the regulars were there, plus lots of bell ringers. At the end of the service, I felt content, with no sense of regret. What struck me was not that it was my last Advent Sunday at St John's, but rather that sense of continuity which occasions like this give to the life of the church. I am glad and proud to have taken my place in the long stream of public witness that flows here from century to century.

Where I'll be next Advent, heaven only knows. It's all part of the adventure which faith proposes to us at every stage of life.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ojos de Brujo again

After the Friday lunchtime Eucharist, and an hour's washing up in the tea room, Clare and I headed north to join Kath and Anto for another Ojos de Brujo concert in Warwick Uni Arts Centre. It's already two years, and another album published since their last visit there. It was yet again a marvellous experience of theatrically presented music - a mix of Spanish hip-hop, funk and flamenco. We spent most of the concert down the front by the stage, rhumba dancing joyously.

Clare noticed that apart from the large number of Spanish student fans present, there were a very significant number of 'silver surfers', the fifty plusses, out in force. Why? Quite simple really.

We bought our first Ojos de Brujo CD at the Malaga Airport shop, recommendation of the manager, the year I did a flamenco guitar course in Granada, autumn 2004., and we all became instant fans. A lot of older Brits must have made the same journey and tasted the thrill of innovation that their marvellous music represents.

When are they coming to Cardiff? I want to know

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Blurred vision

Sally came to see me at lunchtime today, to talk again about her ambitious project to stage a public nativity story telling in the centre next Advent. I encourage her as much as I can because she is able to inspire and motive people across the denominations to work together. A big success in getting people to work together on something that matters could be a huge fresh boost to getting churches working together, not only in the centre, but across the city. Sally would like St John's to be the venue, but as we're so busy in December, this is not very practicable, unless the whole thing takes place under covered staging in the churchyard, with supporting facilities also outside. She's thinking on an ambitious scale, but I have yet to convince her of the need to draw up a specific proposal for a venue that could be discussed. And that has to come first. It's a long long trip from vision to reality.

Our City Centre Churches Together meeting was held at St John's this evening. Its name has now changed to 'CYTUN - City and Bay'. Most of the meeting was taken up with making arrangements for a farewell supper with Bay Chaplain Monica Mills, and discussing the programme for the Unity Week ecumenical meal and act of worship at the end of January. We learned that Ebeneser Church is to leave the City center in the coming year, proposing to re-establish itself in a building located somewhere more accessible and easy for parking. Their building is to be sold to a developer, I'm not sure what for. Such a pity, when the Street Carers' so desperately need a central place to shelter day and eveninng activities with the homeless. This loss of this building is an enormous set back to Christian enterprise in the city centre. The deal was done without reference to ecumenical partners, no concern for the impact on others. It reveals the absence of any truly relevant progress in relationships between churches.

The meeting avoided discussing reasons behind the failure of support for several recently planned ecumenical group activities. Everyone involved seems to be so busy. and makes excuses or just forgets. Several members came to the meeting and left during the first hour. Ecumenism has dwinded to nothing more than the annual act of fellowship. We don't study, nor do we do anything else together. Fellowship between Cardiff's eight Welsh speaking churches is much stronger and more active. They have a common cause. Attempts to give Engish or bi-lingual ecumenism a common cause on which to act comes to nothing. Without a vision, people perish, but blurred vision can lead to inertia and loss of confidence.

Modern ecumenism became a popular and public element of church life in my student years - and there were many achievements. It's not enough that we are on friendly speaking terms, and no longer locked in conflict over doctrine or discipline. We have not succeeded in establishing a common way to engage ecumenically in public life, except for the odd protest, usually when it's too late to matter. It's a cause of disappointment and regret to me as my official public ministry comes to an end, something to say 'Sorry' to God for. Now I can only hope things will improve when I have left the scene.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preparing handover

The PCC met tonight in Tredegarville School staffroom - our first midweek meeting for some years, to accommodate the Archdeacon, and those uncomfortable about driving into the centre in the night. Peggy took them through a mapping exercise to identify all the various components of ministry that need to be maintained and owned by other during an interregnum.

I felt they all did me proud, showing their awareness of the unique and rich complexity of the church's everyday life, and its ordinary and special occasions. In thinking about what needs to be handed over, however, I became aware when I arrived home of one huge and glaring omission. We'd all forgotten to think about the Parish website, who will keep it up to date in future?

About a third of our regulars, I would say, are I.T. users, and maybe they don't have that much need of the website, when up to date information in print is so readily available in church. However, the website is a component of our interface with the rest of the world. It gets consulted by visitors from all over the world, I'd say around a thousand visits a year, although I haven't done any proper analysis of this.

Fancy me, of all people tech obsessed, forgetting that!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Strategic Transformational Change in view

This afternoon I was invited to attend a meeting in County Hall presenting the new Strategic Transformational Change programme. This initative proposes a new way of working between the public and private and voluntary sectors that manages the procurement of all kinds of public services in order ensure best value through competitive tendering for good and services. It's a complex idea to grasp. Local Government and big public service bodies, hospitals and emergency services, for instance, serve the public on so many different fronts - land, buildings, roads, social services, leisure, education, social services. All have evolved in different ways in managing their own assets, and any grand overview will spot areas of duplication - use of road vehicles is one instance. Different bodies have vehicles that are not in use constantly, some spend a lot of time parked and idle, when they could be time shared with other organisations.

The use of state of the art information technology can assist in managment of highly complex administration. We've seen this well deployed in the re-construction work in the city centre, and the efficient way new shops get fitted out and readied for opening while everything else around continues as usual, without getting in the way. Getting whole sections of large organisations to change their way of working and enter into new working agreements with others is an immense challenge, entailing a complete change of work culture and an end to the self-contained 'silo' mentality often identified as an obstacle to change in big organisations with many departments.

The process starts with the Council doing a deal with the Indian Tata Corporation to manage all its I.T. services. Tata not only does steel, cars, investment etc, it has its own stake in the world of computers, with a huge consultancy business. Council I.T. is not being 'outsourced' to India, but Tata's I.T. experts will become part of the City's home team, and assist local experts to develop new administrative systems in situ, if I understand things correctly. Most contracts for services and supplies run on a three year basis, but this deal is set to run for up up fifteen years, with built in reviews en route. This gives an idea of how long it is expected to take to bring about change on this scale, that will touch upon all the Council's communications and information infrastructure. There's a lot more at stake here than changing hardware and updating software. It's about a re-design of ways of working with far reaching effects and cost benefits.

I just hope that a piece of recent research published on the use of computers in American hospitals will be taken into account

The name of the programme is deliberately a bit way out, one might say pretentious. Rolling out a programme that is destined to span decades that will inevitably include changes of political leadership is ambitious to say the least. To have obtained sufficient cross party support to get this far is quite something. No doubt, when it comes to change, the devil will be in the detail - as we have discovered at St John's in attempting to achieve a transformation of the building that moves beyond making it all shiny clean and bright, to opening up the West entrance in ways that will make it safer and more visitor friendly. Q. How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? A. Change? What change?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning from yesterday

I wish I could remember everything I heard at yesterday's conference from the two web designers' hasty presentation. There were several things that I found immediately challenged me to reconsider what I've been doing in the past seven years of building parish websites here. The present one is the third incarnation to develop from the original material I put together to publicise parish information in the first year of my ministry here. Unfortunately questions fired at us thick and fast prompted reflection straight away, rather than making a note of them for later. I wish I'd got my camera out at the start and photographed the slides of text displayed, but I felt embarrassed, a bit too geeky, and didn't want to draw attention to myself. So it was only when the last slide repeated the first that a managed to take a snap.
Well, I can say, hand on heart that St John's is a seven day a week church. How much 'fullness of life' is expressed in our missionary 'offer' to the public? It's a place of peace, where people come to seek the presence of God, a place of welcome, kindness and compassion because of the people who've made it their spiritual home. In what ways can we better express that interest in life in all its fullness which is at the heart of the Good News of divine truth witnessed to by Jesus? It needs some more creative thought.

Then there's the second quotation, inviting us to look at a website as being more than just an information depot, more an extension of the life of the church. I hadn't thought about this until now. This is a time when sharing particular kinds of information can be used as a means to build real communities of interest. This may start in cyber space, but as a following of like minded folk develops, they find the need to 'eyeball' each other, and meet in the flesh. So the web content you deliver can be a channel to community building and development. This is something the Council is already learning how to do with its Social Inclusion Extranet website.

Obviously as church community, we want to tell the story of Jesus, invite people to share in the life of worship and service that has evolved through our life together. Our web information is an open kind of advertisement, an electronic extension of the noticeboards around the railings, if people are interested they can drop in and sample the church for themselves. This may be more true for people passing through, visitors from other parts of the country or planet, than it is for people in the locality. Visitors are very important to us, but so is the continuous task of building local community. Our concert programme brings in hundreds of people occasionally, likewise special services, exhibitions and Cards for Good Causes, but all this is a transient expression of community, with greater or lesser spiritual content, as a component.

Given that so many people today are able to access church information on-line, people who don't begin to know if we have anything interesting to say that would be worth enquiring into, what do we need to do with our web presence that would capture people's interest, focussing on aspects of life which concern them? This is the searching question that is now gnawing away at me since I heard yesterday's presentation.

We don't get a great deal of feedback about our website, except that people appreciate having all the information in one place. We have our web archives of restoration work, parish magazines, art exhibitions, Lent lectures in text and podcast format, linked faith trail, climate change and Christian apologetics web pages. There's a huge archive of photos of past parish pilgrimages, four years worth of web albums devoted to redevelopment photos, and of course, this blog. It is quite a significant output, providing essential information services, for sure, but much of it relates to my developing missionary interests over the years, interests which others may well have appreciated, but not necessarily shared. I get the occasional message that indicates that there are others out there who appreciate and share the same interests, but none of this has generated an on-line community of interest capable of leading somewhere new.

The buzz word is 'social networking', symbolised by the way that so called 'internet natives' the younger generation brought up to take the web for granted, make use of sites like Facebook and MySpace. I have a Facebook account, almost accidentally, due to pressure from my eldest who uses it a great deal to publicise her band Lament but I hate it. Too much of what is deemed to be 'content' is to my mind trivia. I'm not interested in community building around trivia. I can see how social networking is used for political and social action, but that's only about information distribution and maybe marginally about debate. One could use it to share life experiences with others, or to issue a well publicised invitation to people to share a social vision, but to what end? I need convincing.

In yesterday's session, I was taken with two American websites shown to us, which made use of the best of networking, marketing and design techniques for church purposes. One was a video blogging site, presenting the personal testimonies of a score of individuals from the world of creative arts and sport speaking about the transforming effect faith in Christ has on their lives. A minimalist format, with people speaking to camera from a huge white leather arm chair, like you might find on any reality TV set, telling their stories in a very relaxed, warm, straightforward way. It was a well thought out consistent production, devoid of mawkish sentiment and pietistic language, quite compelling to watch. See what you think.

The site is called 'I am second' It is nothing more than a site about people putting Jesus first in their lives. It offers all sorts of opportunities to people to connect on-line, join local groups, register as individuals or churches. What was so evident was the amount of thought invested in the creation of this evangelistic tool, starting from the most traditional of ideas.

The other website promoted Soul City Church, once more a visually attractive site with a variety of interesting content describing the social vision, teaching style and action plan for a church community which has yet to become incarnate. It's not a virtual church, like the one set up here in the UK offering participation in on line acts of worship in Anglican style, with prayer meetings sermons and bible studies, either live or podcasted. Soul City Church is a church plant, aiming to set up a real world base in Chicago, first advertising on-line, promoting key features that target people seeking meaning and transformation in their personal lives. The website sets out the vision of a group of spiritual entrepreneurs wanting to set up in a new situation, with a long experience of church planting and growth in a neighbouring state behind them.

The first stage is to develop a community of interest, and then invite them to a gathering point and publish the story of the church plant as it happens, starting early in 2010. This site is also worth exploring, as it again gives the impression that people have thought carefully about what they want to offer that's unique, and how to set about making the offer.

It may seem easier if you come from a new generation of independent evangelicals, without the institutional ties of historic denominational faith, but the same critical questions can be applied to presenting traditional forms of Christian life to a world decreasingly familiar with them.

I'm not ashamed to admit that much of this is new to me, although I've been aware of the way the evangelical movement has mutated and adapted in recent decades. It isn't by any means all conservative and fundamentalist. There's lots I don't know, because I've stayed tightly focussed on making the most of my own Anglican heritage.

When I worked for USPG I had many opportunities to learn about and share in charismatic renewal, but since then, I haven't got out much. A great deal of innovation has passed me by. It's intriguing to think that it's my interest in technology that has opened a window for me into how the other half of missionary Christianity lives.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Conference at Cornerstone

A car trip to Morriston, Swansea for me on this dark overcast and rainy day with Jim Stewart and Paul Hocking of Gweini for their annual conference, at which Paul had invited to me speak in a seminar about the work we've done together forging a working partnership between Street Carers and the City Council. The conference was at the Cornerstone Church, centre, established in an building that appears formerly to have belonged to British Telecom. As well as a large main hall space, there were plenty of rooms for small group activities, easy to access. It was well equipped with lots of hi-tech presentation equipment, used for the church's extensive teaching ministry. The event was beautifully organised by a hospitable home team, and brouight together people from all over Wales, about forty of them. It a vigorous community worth taking note of. Their website will give you a favour of it.

Conference contributions ranged from work with the homeless and asylum seekers, to food banks, farming crisis, engaging with local authorities and addiction rehabilitation. Wide ranging and most encouraging as evidence of different kinds of engagement in contemporary concerns. Towards the end of the conference we received presentations from two young web design entrpreneurs who were Christians in the realm of digital media. It was challenging stuff, and actually deserved an earlier place in the day, because they were applying some serious critical thought to their creative process. In itself this was capable of being influential on the way we approached other issues of social involvement. Their brief input certainly has me thinking about all my web creations, and what purposes they serve. I need time to ponder properly on this.

Gweini is a body that enables Christian voluntary bodies across Wales and in various localities to find a voice in public affairs that matches their public service and community interests. It's what we Anglicans refer to as our social responsibility mission. There's been a sea change in the domain of independent evangelical and charismatic churches in the past quarter of a century, that has seen them engage innovately in community building mission and church planting in new housing areas as well as town centres and urban priority areas. It's the rediscovery of social gospel mission as practiced by Methodism and the Sally Army in the 18th and 19th century, and reflects renewed creativity and social enterprise that makes them a vital force in contemporary mission, one that goes largely unrecognised by many in established mainstream denominations.

It was a stimulating experience to share a little in this journey into social engagement and a fuller participation in civil society, as it's one I've been taking during the years of my ministry in the city centre, really for the first time in my working life. We're all now learning how to do this afresh as those in government look towards faith groups for fresh energy and inspiration in tackling the problems of different kinds of social exclusion and 'broken Britain'.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nativity challenge

I attended a meeting at 'the Gate' over in Roath (a church transformed into community theatre venue), at the initation of Sally Humble-Jackson a parishioner in Lisvane, with an inspiring vision to mount an ambitious inter-church Advent project in the city centre, to tell the Nativity story, in a public setting using actors possibly in a tableau format, repeatedly at key times, targeting the mass audience of pre Christmas shoppers during December. She's talked to scores of people in the month since she first came to see me about it, and experienced a broad groundswell of goodwill towards the idea. A good two dozen turned up for the first meeting. Realisation will require extensive detailed planning. Are churches capable of coming out of their self preoccupation enough to make a success of something like this? I wonder.

I couldn't stay until the end of the meeting, so I don't know what the outcome of the meeting was. She's hoping it will happen Advent 2010, so it's going to be a project that my successor and other city centre church leaders will have to engage with rather than me. Sally is appealing to people in all 200 odd churches of the city Borough to participate, with huge enthusiasm and faith that invited a response, which is great. Will she be able to forge a unity in this one evangelistic project that will make a difference to a city in which mainstream ecumenism has no structures or instruments of governance to represent any shared interests whatsoever?

Renewal can often begin with a visionary individual. I'm praying for renewal in this quite specific matter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Archdeacon Peggy came tonight and met with the church wardens and a few others to try and untangle some of the problems associated with several outstanding faculties we have in the pipeline which don't seem to be moving. However, the main reason for her visit was some preliminary work to brief the others on procedures leading up to my retirement, the appointment of a successor and to prepare for the necessary interregnum.

It was a cordial meeting, one in which all displayed a good general understanding of the dual ministry I have exercised as church pastor and city centre missioner. She needed to check if my version of the life and activities of the church was one that's well shared. I think she went home with a really good sense of the excellent team that was there before I came on the scene and which will be there, God willing, when I have moved off 'the edge of the centre' into retirement.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Retail optimism and anxiety

This morning's retail partnership board meeting welcomed the Bank of England's local agent, Ian Derrick to paint us a portrait in financial graphs of the current economic situaition. While there are indeeed signs that the recession is just about to 'bottom out', the return to 'normality' whatever that is, seems destined to be tentative and slow. The recent opening of the St David's shopping centre may have cushioned Cardiff from the worst effects, but that doesn't reflect the wider picture of the Welsh economy. There yet may be set-backs to come for businesses, when public spending cuts and VAT temporary reduction ends.

No matter how sobering these thoughts, the mood of good cheer among retails prevails, as recent weeks have seen modest rises in spending and big increases in the numbers of people visiting the city to shop. We finall heard the official footfall figures for the opening of the new St David Centre. 150,000 the first and second days , 200,000 the third day - that's half a million in the first three days, and a million in the first week. The St David's PR team are well pleased with the response to their efforts. Northing stands still, of course. We were also briefed on the retail partnership's pre-Christmas publicity campaign to promote Cardiff shopping, now under way.

Some concerns were expressed about the now approved adaptation of the Old Custom House building for use as a centre for the homeless during the years when the Huggard Centre and Tressillian House will be demolished and re-built with vastly improved facilities. This is close, uncomfortably so, to several hotels, John Lewis, and the south entrances to the Grand Arcade. The guilty feeling is that many would prefer street people to be swept out of sight, so as not to frighten the customers. The project in hand is, as far as I'm concerned, the best possible option until the new building is ready, so I have spoken up in defence of it in several quarters, including the retail partnership.

Homeless and suffering poor people are going to hang out in the centre no matter where services are provided for them. It's public realm, a place of human equality despite unequal spending power and social status. There should be no places in public where people are barred, provided they behave acceptably. That's the core of the problem. Unacceptable behaviour arises from being pushed around, not being able to be cared for adequately, despite resources available and people wiling to help. When people are anxious insecure and rootless, what they need most is not to be pushed from pillar to post, or playing 'chase' with police dutifully moving them on. I believe a collaborative approach to managing the planned temporary centre for street people, is needed with some real dialogue around how to provide a safer environment during this period of change. This is as important for immobile poor and rootless people as it is forthe ultra mobile spending classes. I think I have to set about persuading others of the necessity of doing so.

Monday, November 16, 2009

One small step toward zero carbon footprint

I had a brief meeting this morning in church with the Representative Body's properties officer, Alex Glanville, and two representatives of British Geothermals, whose proposals for a feasibility study on making St John's a zero carbon footprint building are under consideration.

The technologies in this area are developing at a pace right now, as many people in business as well as ecologically minded individuals are concerned to do what they can to counter global warming. The company are keen to show the potential of delivering a state of the art solution to the huge challenge of keeping such a large volume old building at a temperature that is both good for old stone, vintage organs and people (of all ages).

With so many people visiting St John's over the course of a year, and our desire to maintain the building as a place of welcome in every sense, the need for heating is important, just as the need to move as soon as possible towards a zero carbon footprint is, in order to give a very public lead within the city.

We had a forthright discussion, and all of us departed feeling that the next step was worth taking. So the survey will be commissioned, and maybe, before I retire, I'll be able to present it to the PCC as a legacy. If the project is fully realised it will take several years to implement, given not only the technical procedures entailed, but also the bureaucratic stages which must be followed scrupulously to ensure CADW and other conservation bodies are satisfied, not to mention government bodies with strict specification requirements to ensure grant aid eligibility.

I think I'll be happier to watch this happen from afar, than wait for all the cogs to grind towards achievement. The older I get, the more I suffer from my impatience to see things put right. It's all part of knowing how little time I have left, in terms of potential years of life, but also growing climate chaos we experience more frequently it seems.

When I was young I was impatient largely because I wanted to get on to the next new thing to be achieved. Now I know a little more about what matters in the long term, my reasons not to be patient increase day by day, as my ability of achieve anything really useful diminishes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Clare and I were delighted yesterday to welcome our grand daughter Jasmine and her parents John and Rachel back for a stay of nearly two weeks. It's almost exactly three years since Jasmine was nearly born at home here, and a year since they were last over from Canada. Jasmine has grown from a toddler into an active energetic articular three year old, with just a trace of a North American accent and huge blue eyes.

They all came to the Eucharist this morning. I saw Jasmine enter, but she didn't see me untill I called her name. She turned around and called out 'Grandpa' very loudly, turning heads as she ran to greet me. In a congregation that has a considerable number of grandparents, this was a special moment of mutual identification, in which we all took pleasure.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Nativity set installed

Yesterday, the hut was installed under in the north church tower garden, ready to welcome the nativity set. Darren, the guy working on it was unable to rendezvous with me to get the set of figures out of storage in the temporary vestry. As he said on the 'phone to me: "I'm only six hours behind on fixing lighting problems today."

We managed to meet up this morning and the figures were installed by lunchtime, with baby Jesus now resplendent in a little wooden crib Darren cobbled together with pieces of batten from B&Q. Somehow the half-sized recumbent cow got left behind in store, and was only discovered after Darren had gone. Thankfully, he hadn't finished, as there was one more thing to do - a grille to cover the opening, to deter thieves, vandals and bottle throwers. When he returned later to finish off, the cow was slipped into place.

No, it doesn't look quite so charming behind a protective net of rigid plastic, but I'm honestly not bothered, as this adds something different to the portrayal of Christ's birth. The appearance has a little of the prison about it, as well as being protective. After last year, viewers will understand the need for the latter, but the former is less obvious, until you recall that homelessness is a sort of prison for those who must endure it. Jesus started life with his parents in the prison of temporary homelessness, 'insecurely accommodated', as social work professionals say today.

I must make sure of finding a way of drawing public attention to this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Switch-on day

A rotten rainy day today, windy but oddly warm for mid November. Mid afternoon the Cairngorm reindeer arrived in their special truck. Due to changes in vehicle access to the pedestrian area, it came in via Wharton Street, and then turned around outside the House of Frazer's loading bay, well, almost outside the coffee shop, where it was so narrow that the lorry seemed to stretch from one side of the street to the other. Despite the tight squeeze, the manoeuvre was highly successful, completed without wrecking the dustbin by the churchyard garden steps, or external chairs and tables belonging to Costa Coffee.

I was delighted to see a diminutive young Scottish lassie step down from the driver's cab after this tour de force. Large vehicles have demolished four lamp posts in the centre over the past few months, manoeuvering in much larger spaces than the width of Trinity Street. I'm pretty confident those drivers were not women. There's a certain breed of trucker that doesn't seem to take that much pride in their work, sad to say.

The reindeer, six of them, including a couple of 6 month old creatures, spent an hour in the churchyard getting over their journey, before being taken down into Hills Street, where a huge igloo shaped tent had been erected to house them, and allow families to walk through and view them out of the rain.

Outside Royal Arcade, a small stage had been erected once more. X Factor finalist Lucie Jones came down from London to do a surprise gig and interviews there this morning. There was an excellent bebop quartet playing there to a tiny rain swept audience when I visited them after seeing the reindeer out of the churchyard. I met portrait photographer Ben Green on the street, whose photographs of 'characters' from the streets of Cardiff and Tiblisi were exhibited at Milgi's in City Road when we went there for a meal back in August. He's asked if he can photograph me for his collection. Heavens, does that mean I look like a Cardiff 'character'?

Apparently, over on the east side of the shopping centre tonight, there was a polar bear on view. As it was really such a wet night, I took myself home after meeting Ben, and gave the rest of the switch-on festivities a miss, rather than get any wetter.

During the evening, the St John's ringers successfully executed a quarter peal to mark the Christmas lights switch-on and the celebrate the end of the redevelopment work. To the public the bells ringing on a Thursday practice night are a familiar background sound. I wonder if anyone out there realised it was different this week, without the usual start stop rhythm of rehearsal going on?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Armistice Day

I went into church earlier than usual today, to be there for the two minute silence, but also to take a toner cartridge back to the shop over in Clifton Street, where I'd got it refilled a fortnight ago, to get an adjustment made to permit it to function properly, something forgotten when it was re-filled.

On the way back I called into the Catholic Truth Society shop for some communion wafers. The Metropolitan Cathedral's great tenor bell (electronic by the sound of it) was tolling a death-knell in the hour before eleven o'clock. It was such an evocative sound, of such powerful significance. Our team had rung the bells half muffled on Sunday last, as is customary on Remembrance Sunday. But why hadn't anyone suggested we at St John's join the Cathedral and toll for an hour today?

When I got back to church, Bob Hardy, our tower captain, was working in the Cards for Good Causes shop, and once asked he was up the tower stairs and ringing our (real) tenor bell for the past five minutes before the hour struck. I'm glad we made it, ever for a short while. About a dozen people came into church and sat down for the two minutes silence. At the end of it I recited aloud Binyon's famous phrase from memory. It must be one of the rare occasions when I have done so. The very public carnage of recent years, claiming the lives of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has reclaimed proper public attention during remembrance tide.

I'm glad we filled the churchyard tree with giant poppies as part of remembrance pre-publicity, and that the poppy sellers on the gate collected more than they have done for years. The old soldiers may be fading away, but they are being replaced by another generation of young men (and now women), scarred by the brutalities of battle. My generation has been having its try at running the world, and has done no better than its predecessors in putting an end to the need to resolve differences by violence. Fear and hatred poison all our best intentions as they ever did. Such a shame.

After the St Martin's Day Eucharist, I went out along the Hayes to photograph new retail arrivals along the Hayes, now including Jamie's Italian, a fashionable branded eaterie opposite the new library. On the St David's Hall big screen Archbishop Rowan was holding forth from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey's national service of remembrance. It was a lot quieter just now in the 'Westminster Abbey of Cardiff' as St John's has been nicknamed in times past.

Inside the Grand Arcade I met Derek, manager of the Marriot. We expressed common pleasure in the transformation of the city centre we've witnessed in three years. He more than me, as his hotel was right on the construction front line, more so than St John's, and neither of us closed for business!

On the way out I ran into Sophia, very busy getting ready for tomorrow's arrival of Santa and the reindeers in Hills Street. She kindly took a moment to explain the layout proposed for the next day, and to intimate a special little celebrity surprise being planned for opening time.

I shan't say a thing!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Surrealism strikes St John's and Working Streets

When I cycled into church in the drizzle this morning, I was unprepared for the sight that greeted me. Around the north and east perimeter of St John's now sit the four German style wooden building attempting to repreduce the style and ethos of a Weinachtsmarkt. To my mind they are disproportionately large, out of scale with their surroundings, looking more like a garish pastiche of a market place than the real thing. I can't believe anyone approved designs for this without considering the visual impact. I also wonder if larger vehicles and fire engines will be able to squeeze through Working Street safely without taking another new lamp post with them. So far this year, four new lamp posts have been downed by big lorries.

Worst of all, the 'chalet' housing the bar, selling mulled wine and German lager, is set so close to the church gate as to render the entrance unusable for the next six weeks. In previous years, when the churchyard wall was lined with the huts of the Craft Fayre, an undertaken was made at the outset to leave a gap in the row of huts that would permit access through the gate. This edifice had been erected with no regard for church users. Much annoyed, I asked a man in charge what made them put the thing in a place where gate access was blocked. He told me that he'd been told the gate was "not in use". Whether I'll ever be able to track down the person who spread that bit of mischief is doubtful.

I knew that this ephemeral project was on the cards for the season, but I feel like I have been duped. I cannot imagine how the designs got past the Planning phase without their visual impact being called into question. Maybe I was missing from the Consultative group meeting when it was on the agenda. Maybe it was shrugged through on the grounds it's only temporary so it doesn't matter. The new public realm in which the church is set now looks as surreal as it might if surrounded by fairground from a weird ersatz Deutchland. It remains to be seen whether it stimulates equally bizarre behaviour in the average Cardiff punter.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Equalities review day

The news today has been full of reminiscences about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's also Rachel's birthday.

This morning I attended a Council review conference on the first full year of work implementing the single Equalities Act. The presentations before an audience of a hundred were interesting, and so were the two optional workshops I attended.

One was about the involvement of the public in the processes of consultation which accompany every imaginable initiative by local authority, public and voluntary bodies and businesses these days. The Council's research team has published a new website dedicated to gathering information in one place about consultations going on in the region. It's a site where results can be published, and a site to which people can be directed by organisations running consultations who want to open up their survey mechanisms to people at random in general public to ensure as wide a range of opinions are heard, and not just those of a target constituency.

The site is called 'Ask Cardiff' and is well worth a visit to discover just what organisations are asking questions about now, and what answers they've come up with previously. It's easier to examine and find out than it is to try and describe. It presupposes that people are ICT literate of course, and one of the challenges of adult as well as children's education today is to ensure anyone can us a computer to obtain information, and that nobody is left out.

The other workshop was about social inclusion of religiously diverse communities in a dominantly secular context which tends to undervalue and disregard their contribution. The group was under a dozen, one of the smallest. Demand for the workshop was illustrative of how uninterested the majority of people are in the role of religion in public life. This kind of event, for people in local government, public service and voluntary organisations, with a handful of politicians and hangers-on like me, attracts few with an interest in the role of religion in society, even if some participants, particularly those from black and ethnic minority groups, were more likely to be of religious persuasion. Of the nine in this interest group, only three of us were obviously white British in origin.

The discussion was valuable and wide ranging, touching upon respect for people's outward display of religious identity - turbans, crosses, hijab etc; dietary matters at public events, need to develop existing training in religious diversity awareness and recognise that, however successful, it is limited if it fails to include introduction to majority Christianity either in its white British manifestation or its diverse ethnic minority editions. Yes, it's true - Christianity is omitted in present religious induction training sessions in local government here. Only 'other religious' are covered.

It may be argued that Christianity is 'too hard' for the simple minded structures of local government thinking to imagine how to include it in an introductory course, so it's excluded, effectively in contradiction of the Equalities Act. But the same is true if one considers diversity within Islam or Buddhism. Those in charge are content to settle for an over-simplification of their richness in order to introduce them to a new audience. Basically, Christianity is ignored, and even Christians within local government are too embarrassed to take issue with this. It could be argued that forms of Christianity, despite the public exposure they get, are now so poorly known as to be in no different position (in the eyes of the majority of secular religionless people) to any other form of faith.

I suspect that originally an induction on religions and culture was a well intended effort to help public servants understand and serve better a growing number of their clients who were 'different' from themselves. Twenty years ago that was a good start, but we've moved on from there. Religious and cultural diversity is as common-place a factor in ordinary people's lives as diversity in gender and sexual preference, but greatly played down. Re-education is needed, and the learning objectives need to be re-evaluated if social inclusion, cohesion and justice are to be achieved for all citizens.

Annoyingly I had to leave to get to Tredegarville in time for the re-start of 'God on Mondays', so I missed the plenary report back, so I don't know whether points I made in the workshop survived in transmission.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

At our Remembrance Sunday Sung Eucharist this morning, Andrew preached his first sermon. It was well received, as he has a nice clear voice and so could be heard by all our older members who are a bit hard of hearing. Even with a public address system and a hearing aid loop in use, speakers still have to think about projecting their voices or their speech will be more an indistinct noise at the back of the audience.

As Bill, our eldest war veteran, still housebound after a fall, the task of conducting the Act of Remembrance, just after Communion and right on time, fell to Oswald, our treasurer, who was in the Navy in the North Atlantic at the end of the Second World War.

After the service I drove up to Gerrard's Cross for a family gathering at Rachel's sister-in-law's house to celebrate Rachel's and Jasmine's birthdays, just three days apart. It was great to see her again. It's a year since she was last over from Canada. Clare drove down with Kath, Anto and Rhiannon, having looked after Rhi over the weekend while her parents were gigging in Lincolnshire. Owain couldn't join us as he was travelling home from a work conference in Bonn.

It was so delightful to see our two grandchildren playing together and enjoying each others company. Jasmine's no longer a toddler, but a cute little three year old, amazingly articulate and clear for her age - just like her nearly six year old cousin. Well, they belong to a family of great talkers, I guess.

As getting there for the party involved a three hour journey in each direction after taking two services I was very tired when we got home. Going there meant that I had to miss a PCC meeting, but having done the preparatory report for it, I was happy to entrust chairing it to Allan, knowing that he'd do a capable job, and also that the meeting would probably be more concise than if I was in charge. I'm far too lenient on participants to run brisk meetings.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


At last night's Mess dinner, with another spate of British deaths in Afghanistan dominating the week's news, the mood was less exuberant than usual. Rear Admiral Wilcocks, freshly retired from the MoD was guest speaker, and he reflected the mood eloquently. Being free of loyalty obligations for the first time in his working life, he was able to speak like any other citizen about Britain's involvement in the conflict. Whilst he felt certain that the government's policy of engagement was undoubtedly justified, he was critical of the overweight bureaucracy that's meant to support fighting forces, but seems too often to work as more a hindrance to military effectiveness.

It strikes me once more - something I see in the domain of local government all the time - that despite our formidable modern communications technologies, we seem to be less efficient in administration, less capable of communicating usefully and effectively, less fit for purpose than in times past. Perhaps this is to do with values and standards brought into the realm of work, or the way people are managed and motivated, or perhaps job insecurity generating limitations in loyalty to the task appointed.

We're told that everyone can now expect to change their job skill-set four times in their working life. I think that's true for me, although I am fortunate in having worked within church institutions, and only having three 'employers' in forty years, unlike many today who can number dozens of employers and bosses, not to mention jobs and tasks. None of this perpetual change is good for loyalty or commitment. Far too many folk are forever having to learn a job from scratch in a way that doesn't entirely build upon what they already know. That limits the effectiveness of the job undertaken. If people are treated like disposable commodities in the work force, and not as persons, this will be reflected in the product society gets.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Getting ready for Santa & the Mess Dinner - unconnected

There were seventeen people for the lunchtime Eucharist today, a high number that seems to be becoming less unusual. Maybe it is linked to increased footfall in the city. It's certainly busy these days, since the Grand Arcade opened. Each time I walk through there seems to be a new shop opening. Christmas decorations are going up all over the place. In another six days there'll be a lights switch-on ceremony, and for one more year Santa's reindeers will have their supper in St John's Churchyard before they go on duty before thousands of enchanted tots and their parents.

This year, Santa and Co. will be based in a giant inflatable igloo on Hills Street, in the open area between Habitat and St David's centre. With a new one way system in force, the animal transport vehicle must enter the pedestrian area by a different route, and the reindeer taken off and into the churchyard through another gate. Adjustments will have to be made, as several large wooden 'chalets' in the German Weinachtsmarkt style are to be constructed on Working Street around the north and east side of the church, and will be selling hot snacks and mulled wine in the run up to Christmas. How this will work in practice remains to be seen. A trip to the City Manager's office was necessary after the Eucharist, to check out the details, and this meant that I couldn't do my usual hour of convivial dish washing in the tea room. Then it was time to go home and get ready for the annual United Services Mess dinner in the Angel Hotel.

Once more, over two hundred mostly ex-servicemen (no women) dined together to the sound of an excellent military wind ensemble in their scarlet uniforms, toasted each other, listened to speeches and told stories. I sat next to a TA Colonel from near Wrexham, whose day job is farming. We talked green issues, enjoyably. On the previous five occasions when I have been present, ostensibly to say Grace, and lead an act of remembrance, I have sat between Steve Crosby, a Mess committee member and John Wall, Master of Ceremonies. I asked John where Steve was this year, and learned that he had died only a fortnight before - a year younger than I.

Unfortunately nobody had thought to inform me of his passing, so I missed the opportunity to attend his funeral, and could do no more than raise a glass to his memory. As a 'civilian' parson, it has been an honour to serve as Mess Chaplain, although it has been mostly in a formal role with so many other demands on my time.

In a way, not being told of Steve's death reflects the superficiality of the pastoral relationship I've had with the Mess. That saddens me, but it strikes me that maybe that's the way most people prefer it to be these days - not getting to close to a cleric in case their beliefs are questioned or challenged. It's so important not to give up simply because the role doesn't seem to mean much to anyone any longer. Better to keep turning up, as Woody Allen says. Success is in 'being there', no matter how you're regarded. Circumstances change, knowing and being known, even being taken for granted, has a significance which changes with the passage of time.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Public transport headaches

In an echo of my previous posting, this morning I attended the Lord Mayor's Muli-Faith service in City Hall, an annual event instituted after 9/11 to enable the city's faith communities to express their commitment to work together for the welfare of the city and all its citizens. It's a well crafted formal event that allowing people of many different faith backgrounds to express good will towards every aspect of public life.

It's an event that succeeds in bringing together a significant body of people from the Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities, and people from established mainstream Christian communities. Still thin on the ground is representation from the black led churches, and new evangelical church communities that have marked growth and success in the life of the city. But, it's still a worthwhile occasion for meeting and greeting - not that this necessarily leads to different faith groups working together.

I sat next to a lady from City United Reformed Church, who expressed her surprise that I was in the audience, and not playing an active role representing the traditional 'civic' church of Cardiff. I said it was good that three of my Anglican colleagues were actively involved in the event, so I'm content that my engagements with the city are mainly in the background. It would be impossible to be committed to running big public events as well, especially without the support of a Curate. In fact, I had to rush off at the end, to celebrate the midday Eucharist. I'd been unable to find a substitute, as is often the case. Today's the day for a special retired clergy lunch, so the chances of getting a substitute were very thin.

After the Eucharist, I was off to the Castle for a Countdown 2009 Focus Group meeting of the Transport, Wayfinding and Access Group. I hadn't intended to go, but a phone call this morning asked if I could make a special effort. One of the items on the agenda was to consider the complexities of providing information about city centre buses, and how this can be addressed. Apparently each bus company is responsible for its own signage and can change services when it wishes. The City endeavours to gather and display relevant information, but achieving this is a perpetual moving target under these conditions. Add into this the recent re-location of bus stops and poor re-direction services for passengers (about which I'd expressed an active concern, both privately and in the press), then it was clear why my presence at this meeting was requested. Getting critics on board is a respectable enough strategy!

Yes, it is very complex - therefore requiring a lot more advance planning. Except that in the case of Cardiff we're still sorting out the messes caused by the failure of transportation planning back in the seventies to resolve contemporary problems. We're still paying the price for that, so that much planning time has been taken up with problem solving, admittedly with better techniques, new research and innovative ideas to hand. Suggestions emerge in discussion, and one hears the grey heads say "Interesting, we thought of doing that years ago, but couldn't get it approved."

The new video information signposts in the St David's Centre already have Arriva train times live broadcasted on them. There's room on the system for the buses to do likewise, except that with different bus companies, there are different information policies at work, and different technical solutions to information distribution. Players in the bus service game haven't yet realised that it's in their best interests to make all their information live and accessible all the time. They're as hard to organise coherently as the legions of taxi drivers, and the City has no powers of sanction to insist that all work urgently to achieve an obvious objective.

The press doesn't seem to understand this either. It's good at moaning, sometimes misinforming the public, but not so good at proposing a unifying solution. There are entrepreneurs out there whose specialism is providing an overall integrated transport information service to the public on the internet, which can be better than some of the individual travel companies' internal systems. We have all the information tools one could possibly want to manage the complexity and high demand which public transport services require, but no grand ringmaster able to unify all, and scant will to achieve it in a hurry. The Greater London Council has special powers to achieve integration between service providers. Why not Cardiff? For now, we just muddle on, and try to find ways of grasping the nettle.

Tonight, being bonfire night, the air's been alive with the sound of rockets bursting with crackling noises. Fewer bangs than I recall in former years. Fewer fireworks all round, for that matter. There was a big display in Bute park on Saturday night. At six pounds per head entrance fee, that works out a lot less costly than family fireworks, and a lot safer, but it's very much a sign of the times. I can't remember when last I saw any kid touting a totemic figure around and calling out 'Penny for the Guy ?' It seems quaint to recollect now - but it disappeared when my own children were small, a quarter of a century ago, already.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Faiths on climate change

Following an invitation from Anna Morell, the Archbishop's press officer, I attended a meeting at the BBC studios in Llandaff this morning, dedicated to exploring the interest of faith communities in environmental issues. An assortment of people present had interests in the subject as I do, and were interviewed privately, to camera, at various stages of the three hour session on specific topics to do with their environmental interests. Basically, BBC Wales created this event to collect material to use as part of a 'green' season of programmes leading up to the Copenhagen climate change conference next month. There's even a 'green' website to accompany the season.

We were treated to four twenty minute presentations from Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian contributors on what might loosely be called 'green' theological perspectives. It was an excellent and stimulating morning, ending with a half hour live Radio recording of 'All things Considered' with the four speakers as panellists. Unfortunately I missed this, since it was my turn to be interviewed. For the moment the podcast of the programme is here.

It was a worthwhile event, and demonstrates, as theologian Paula Clifford stated at the end of the Climate Change conference I worked on recently, that it's secular organisations that can give the kind of lead which faith groups will combine to follow, as there are no ecumenical or inter-faith organisations locally which are able to bring believers together in a common cause.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Remembrance of times past

Today Clare and I went over to Bristol where I conduded the funeral service of a former parishioner of mine from my days as Team Rector of the St Paul's Area, thirty years ago.

Freda, (same name as my mother) came to me in in a time of distressing spiritual crisis. I got to know her and the youngest of her five children, Amanda, then fifteen. All her other children were off her hands. Freda had been a single parent struggling bravely to cope for twenty years or so. She and Amanda started coming to church, but Freda's spiritual crisis turned into a health crisis when she had a stroke which had the effect of impairing her speech and weakening one side of her body.

While she was in hospital, Amanda came and stayed with us in our vast Vicarage - we had plenty of room. She stayed two years with us, until we left the Parish. By that time, Amanda had finished school and was starting work. Freda was a survivor, and while she never fully overcame her disabilities, and needed sheltered accommodation, she made the most of her life, and was happy to see Amanda married and bring a son into the world. Amanda was the closest to and most supportive of her mother.

When she rang to tell us the news of Freda's death two weeks ago, I volunteered to take the service. I wanted to be able to pay tribute to this brave woman, raised in post-war poverty, never lucky in love or money, but ever one to fight back from the edge of despair to laughter and resignation in the face of the rough deal which life handed out to her. We've kept in touch with Amanda over the years, but her siblings were always strangers to us, so we were meeting them for the first time over refreshments in a local pub after the service. I hope they thought I did justice to their mother's character and courage.

The service was at Canford Crematorium. I don't think it's changed at all in the thirty years since I was last there, yet it all seemed unfamiliar, as did the roads around Westbury on Trym, once well known to me. During my PGCE year I'd helped out in Holy Trinity Parish Church, Westbury on Trym. This sense of unfamiliarity puzzled me. Was it that I'd forgotten after 25 years? Little seemed to have changed in the village or vicinity. I came to the conlusion it was a matter of looking at a place I knew with different eyes, without the old associations of places and people. I doubt if there'd be anyone i n that Parish who would remember my nine month sojourn with them after this many years.

Curiously enough there was an elderly retired engineer among the parishioners, whose interest was in the potential of geothermal heating. This was where I first heard a technical explanation which has driven my more recent interest in seeing St John's explore the same course of action. I can't even remember his name.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Good cheer day

All Saints' Day today. A memorable occasion, as Keith and Vanessa announced their engagement during refreshments at the end of the service, much to everyone's delight. Four weeks after a hip operation, one of our very special welcomers was back on duty giving out books, adding to the good cheer of the occasion. At the meeting of the Friends of St John after Evensong, we discussed the Advent Sunday Parish lunch, an occasion when we hope all regular congregation members will dine out together at a local eaterie. We're very good at DIY occasions, but every now and then it's good that we all sit down and enjoy each other's company and someone else's good food.