Sunday, January 31, 2010

Digital review

We kept Candlemass today, ahead of Tuesday, the proper date, so that more people will be able to share in the celebration. Numbers are back to normal now after the cold spell. Andrew was back with us again after his lengthy Christmas break from training. After the Eucharist, a young man made himself known, seeking help. He spoke no English, only Portuguese, however, and it wasn't possible to make any headway in finding out what he wanted or how he came to be in Cardiff asking for help. Asylum seeker? Economic migrant? Abandoned by associates during a trip from home, wherever that is? From where? It wasn't possible tell. Nobody in St John's speaks Portuguese. In the end, Andrew took him over to St David's Cathedral, as there's a much greater degree of linguistic diversity among people worshipping and service there. I wonder if we'll ever find out about him?

After lunch, I revisited Margaret to give her Communion, and then went over to the Heath to see a Percy. Then it was back home to prepare for a PCC meeting after Evensong. Two more Faculties applications need approval - one for new church noticeboards around the perimeter, and another to put forward our proposal to enhance and decorate the font cover. This doesn't need to be part of any grand plan to improve the West entrance or add an extra storey to the vestry block, now under consideration. Both projects are about making known who we are and what we're about as the Parish Church by the market place in the heart of the city.

Fortunately the meeting wasn't too long, so I was able to return home and get my photo digitizer kit out and do some work on rendering some old negatives into a form that can be published on the web. As Clare and I have been sorting through forty years worth of old photos recently, packs of negatives have surfaced relating to our Jordan trip twelve years ago, plus a Greek holiday. It's nice to look at them again. Not all the photos made it out of the wallet. Even before digital photography, I was taking a lot of pictures - too many to take time to mount into albums. Was it , I wonder, a matter of photography getting cheaper, or of us having more to spend on film and processing?

Since the advent of digital cameras I've taken thousands more photos, but few ever get printed now, taking up space as they did prior to my first purchase in 2001. But will digital copies last as long as negatives, slides or prints? In 25 years of computing I've witnessed eight distinctly different changes to the storage media used for digital data of all kinds, quite apart from changes in computers and ways of connecting to them, mostly not backwards compatible. Changes in printed photos over a century were largely changes to the quality and durability of the materials used in print production. We may be able to produce and distribute much higher quality pictures digitally, and easily discard failures at little cost after purchase, but old style prints don't require electricity to view. Will this still be true in half a century from now I wonder?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A party and a confirmation class

Today was Margaret's 90th birthday. She fell and broke her foot on Christmas Eve, and is now in a special re-habilitation unit out in St Mellon's, opposite the now world famous shoppers in pyjamas banning Tesco store. She was planning to invite all her friends for a big birthday lunch, but the fall meant it had to be postponed, so several church friends organised a party for her in her residence, where there was a spare day room available that could accommodate a couple of dozen people. And that's how many people showed up, to greet her over an early afternoon glass of wine, sandwiches and cake. It was a joyous occasion, and Margaret was in good form, delighting the being surrounded by friends and family.

I almost lost my concentration on timing with so many people to talk with. I needed to be back home by four thirty for the first Confirmation class with Bethan and Matthew. Clare and I had to make an abrupt exit to avoid them turning up at an empty Vicarage. Despite red lights all the way, we were back on the dot, and despite my feeling of unpreparedness, it was a good session with two children keen to engage, responsive and asking questions. I guess that having taught confirmation classes a dozen times before makes it easier.

Hmm... you'd think that in forty years of ministry I'd have more experience than that. It reflects the decline in young church attenders, decline in those surviving church attendance long enough to want to be confirmed. When Clare and I were sorting out old photos the other day, we came across pictures of Geneva confirmation classes we did together in the nineties, when eight to a dozen teenagers per class was the norm. And that was half the number of confirmands at the start of the seventies when I did my first curacy.

The confirmation service is at the end of February, in St Margaret's Roath, so we have five intensive Saturday sessions. That's represents eight hours 'contact time' - as much as Jenny and I packed in to the weekend confirmation retreat we did together three years ago. It's as much as the kids can manage with their crowded personal and domestic timetables these days. I just hope we can all stay clear of 'flu and colds for the duration.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Where do we go from here?

Tonight I attended the local churches together meeting at Tabernacl Baptist church on the Hayes. It's now rebranded as Cytun, City Centre and Bay, a bit of a mouthful, obscure for those who aren't sure they know what Cytun is or does. It's the same group of faithful people, nevertheless, still striving to find a pattern of meeting for prayer and discussion what will attract people to leave the comfort zones of their religious routine, and meet to learn from each other. It's less than a week since our only annual success - a common meal, preceded by worship. Where do we go from here?

I had hoped that the redevelopment of the city centre would provide us with opportunities to combine in witness, maybe mount some kind of festive musical or cultural programme together. Separately all sorts of events happened, but there was no energy to work together at anything new. The Countdown 2009 Faith Focus Group, invited into being by the city's project manager, brought a few folk together periodically for eighteen months or so but attendance was sporadic, certainly not a priority in the eyes of many invited.

I used to think that a serious crisis or threat to the future of the churches might galvanise church members into acting together. Now I am not at all sure. When there are things to protest against, we make a poor job of combining forces. Yet, it's not for lack of good will towards each other. It's as if the Spirit has left us, like the tide leaving the boats immobilised on the strand, stuck where they are ... shades of the Sea of Faith here .... how depressing. It's not what I've hoped for and strived for down the years. Maybe future ecumenism will be the fellowship of believers of many faith traditions who have given up on denominational religion and its institutions and set out in search of something invigorating and new. What will it look like I wonder? Like Taizé? Like the Quakers? Like Solace Pub Church?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Too many words

After today's midday Eucharist I attended the annual Holocaust Day memorial event in City Hall. This year's event was jointly organised by the WAG and the City Council, and the place was full - over four hundred people. I'd heard on the grapevine that the organisation of this year's event was something of a nightmare, running way behind schedule. There were a few un-announced changes from the printed programme, but the whole thing ran smoothly throughout.

It is always a serious wieghty sort of occasion, but this year it was also lengthy - over a hundred minutes in fact, with five speeches, (mostly of good quality) several poems, declarations and lengthy readings as well as musical items - too long altogether. I heard a lady behind me whisper to her husband "If only there was less talk and more music." I wasn't sure about some of the poetry either. None of it was familiar, all of it required a degree of study and re-reading to have its full impact in context.

Fr Stuart Lisk, as a Council advisor on events and ceremonies of this kind, acted as host/animateur, with his usual dignity and discretion. Some of the material was certainly crafted by him, and has been used on other occasions, but I got the impression that the overall direction of the event was not in his hands, or else it would have been much more concise. There were some nice symbolic moments, but these were in danger of being stifled by being sandwiched in among so many words. How often is this also true of a churches and their liturgies?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mind over matter

This afternoon I took a trip to Blackmill in the Ogwr Valley, to visit a community centre in a former chapel, to take part in a small adult learner's group finding out about computer security, part of the digital inclusion project run by Novasscarman's tech guys in various Communities First programme areas. It was good to listen to an experienced professional at work on these issues and a comfort not to feel entirely at sea with the subject material, although I do have some catching up to do in some areas. The group members all seemed to be about my age, I wondered if there were any younger people in need of acquiring ICT skills - the generation that missed out on that in schooling, or didn't use computers in their work life.

The Ogwr valley is beautiful, if lagging behind economically since the end of mining failed to bring any replacement job creation there. The scars of industry have greened over, but people living there have to commute to Bridgend or beyond for work. A nice place to bring up children, except that there's little to attract children back to stay at the end of their education years. I've seen the same in the Swiss Jura where the watchmaking industry was the main economic powerhouse for a century or more, both in factories and as a cottage industry. It has nearly all disappeared with the advent of digital clock mechanisms whose main component manufacturing bases are in the Far East. Where watches are still assembled there, it requires a small fraction of the size of the old workforce, so unemployment and rural de-population are inevitable.

One of the values of getting people up to date with computer usage and the range of tools available, is that they can find for themselves ways to pursue their interests, acquire skills and take initiatives that may benefit themselves and others. I heard the story of someone who had only used a most basic out of date by modern standards digital drawing and painting program, controlled by a standard mouse to create some remarkable art-works. High levels of precision control using a mouse are notoriously difficult to attain. Touchpad and digital pen technologies have been developed to overcome this limitation, but the artist in question had developed himself, either not knowing about alternative tools or not being able to afford them. That's what I call 'mind over matter'. The more ways that can be opened for ordinary people in deprived backwaters to discover their own creative gifts, the more hope there can be for the Valleys in the future.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Welcoming the world, as usual

We were joined at the eight o'clock Eucharist this morning by a young woman from Malaysia who has come to work at Cardiff University's financial administration department on secondment from her home university for three months. She must have been exploring the city early in the morning, as she'd be used to doing back home, to find a place of worship. Main services in tropical regions often take place early in the day while it is cooler. Our cold damp climate must be a shock for her.

At the ten o'clock Eucharist we welcomed Sophie Anna Purvis into church. She was baptized last Sunday in her daddy's parish church outside Preston. Her Romanian granny was there as well as her English grandparents. Recently, a tall quiet foreign student has been sharing in this service, but I didn't have the opportunity to catch him for a conversation until now. This week he arrived with a girl friend - his fiancée - who'd come to join him for the weekend from Marseille where they live. I had the pleasure of chatting to them both in French after the service, and was pleased to learn that he had found himself comfortably at home chez nous, although our style is probably more traditional than what he's used to back home. There were also an African couple the congregation that I hadn't seen before, but they slipped out before I could greet them.

The hand out of the electoral roll renewal application forms plus the skills audit forms began after the service and quite soon, several people told me they were not going to complete the skills audit forms - and this was from skilled and already highly committed people, suspicious of the intention, fearful that they might get called upon to volunteer in situations beyond the call of duty. It's not much fun for the elderly either, who feel there's little they are fit for any longer. Getting them to accept that their prayers and encouragement of others, the memories and wisdom are valuable is enough of a challenge, and for the most part the value of their assets is rooted in the local community they are part of.

Now maybe there are many people who are only too keen to offer their services and go far afield to help others. The Community Volunteer Service scheme suggests there is. But this model does not work for everyone. There are few keenly committed people who don't already feel that they are overstretched. The church is so short of people generally these days that there's hardly an occasion when anyone competes with others to do a job or run for office in church.

After lunch, I look Communion first to Hilda, and then to Margaret, who has just moved in to a convalescent home for a few weeks to support her when her plaster comes off and she has to do the phyisiotherapy. Just after I arrived Pauline and Norma from church turned up, and joined in prayer with us. Afterwards, all the talk was of organising a 90th birthday celebration next week for Margaret, who had planned a lunch for all her many friends before she fell and broke some bones in her foot on Christmas Eve. It was good to see her in good form, enthusiastic about life as ever. You'd think she was twenty years younger than she really is. A great inspiration to us all.

After Evensong, a chance finally to catch up with 'Slumdog Millionaire' on Channel Four, a real masterpiece of a film, rich with social comment and observation about poverty, modernity and India.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Case for restraint?

This afternoon a church outing for kids of all ages, to the pantomime - Robin Hood in the New Theatre, starring Torchwood's John Barrowman. Our party filled the whole of the front row of the 'gods', and were aged from five to ninety, one of the really speciall occasions in our annual calendar of events.

We we treated to a spectacular of superb song and dance routines, ice skating on stage and several illusionist's tricks, as well as the usual romps and silliness associated with this kind of stage craft. The only disappointment was the invasion of a certain degree of far from innocent adult humour, accompanied by the uncomfortable sense that many youngish children in the audience were all too aware of the kind of sexual innuendo emanating from the stage.

There are some serious issues implied here, about the robbery of innocence from childhood, one of Archbishop Rowan's favourite themes of discourse. We don't need a return to Victorian prudery, but we do need some sense of reticence and restraint when it comes to talking publicly about all kinds of intimacy and affection. Just because it can be shown or spoken about is not an adequate reason for insisting that it must be shown or spoken about.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Quite a missionary sort of day

Before today's lunchtime Eucharist I had a meeting with James Karran of Solace Pub Church and Trystan Hughes, University Anglican Chaplain, to start planning a second Good Friday evening outreach programme from St John's. Last year's event was a creative experiment which saw a team of young adults engaging with evening passers by, en route to pubs and clubs, inviting them to step into the church to partake of a multimedia exposition of the meaning of the Cross of Christ. The fact that it happened at all is remarkable, and that it drew in curious people, and provided a platform for dialogue with a few who might never have noticed it was Good Friday, or had any idea about its meaning.

This is what I regard us front line evangelism. It's hard work, and consumes time, energy and resources. There's no point asking if it's worth it in term of numbers through the door, conversions, or any other kind of result beloved of accountants. The very fact that a group of people are fired up to make the effort to communicate what gives meaning to their lives in an indifferent environment, is of immeasurable value. Those with a mission learn by doing, through the many exchanges involved in both the planning and execution of such an event. In the process, many different lives are touched.

This is equally applicable to those of us who devote a large part of our lives to maintaining and protecting a large ancient sacred space in the middle of a modern city. We do what's needed to make it possible for others who don't look at life from our perspective to be exposed to divine graciousness - whether through the beauty and silence of holiness, or through the telling and re-telling of God's story in Jesus. Evangelism has many dimensions. Those with a passion for it can recognise each other and find a way to work together - although not without difficulties if culture differences are large. Although Pub Church and the University Chaplaincy are as different from each other as they are from St John's, all three are set within the heart of the city. All have a desire to reach out to those who are in the city, no matter for how long or short their stay.

After the lunchtime Eucharist, I drove up to Aberfan in Merthyr Vale, to visit the Megabyes Internet Café, the home of the Aberfan and Merthyr Vale Youth and Community Project. I'd been invited there to accompany one of the Novascarman 'tech guys', the Digital Inclusion team that works on bringing information technology to socially deprived areas. At street level, the café serves food. Down in the basement, the café has a network of ten computers, freely available to any person in the locality to needs to use a computer or help with using a computer to develop their skills or enhance their employability. I'm starting to learn about this uniquely contemporary side to community development because I'm interested in social uses of technology, and hope to support the project as a volunteer when I retire. I really enjoyed meeting the people involved, and being an apprentice to someone nearly half my age, for a change.

The evening was taken up with our annual Christian Unity Week supper and act of worship at City United Reformed Church. Eighty people took part this year, and everyone was pleased to be there and hear Major Peter Moran give us a stimulating and funny after dinner talk about the origin of his organisation, the Salvation Army. Looking back on a busy day, it seems that mission and outreach characterised everything I was involved with. A refreshing change.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Echoes of yester-year

This evening, I had a rare invitation to preach outside the Parish at a Christian Unity Week service for the Lower Rhondda Council of Churches at St Paul's Porth. I drove up there in driving rain and darkness, not quite certain that I knew exactly where the church was. Last time I preached there was about 25 years ago on a Parish visit as USPG area secretary, so I had a vague memory that the church was up on the hillside to the right above the town centre. I was delighted that from this recollection I was able to find the place without stopping. The fact that the church windows were brightly lit standing out in the darkness helped, naturally.

About two dozen faithful and five of us clerics turned out on this horrible night. I was impressed by their commitment. Afterwards, two people separately told me that they recalled my last visit to the Parish, and still recognised me, despite my white hair. One lady also told me that she was a visitor to St John's tea room whenever she was in town. That was pleasing. It was good to have a reminder of my past life as an itinerant preacher. I guess it's something I may do more of once I'm settled in retirement.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Roll renewal time

I stood in for Fr Roy for the 'class Mass' at St German's this morning. The thirty children and teachers trekked bravely to church through sleet, and were so well behaved in chilly conditions. I had fun reading the story of David and Goliath, with the children doing 'giant' sound effects. Sophie, their teacher played piano so we did some singing as well. A real pleasure. Despite the weather St John's had a decent number for the midday Eucharist also.

Afterwards, I paid a visit to the city centre management office to find out if anything of interest happened while I was on leave. It looks as if work on renewing the churchyard path up to the south porch can now happen fairly soon. Matt, the city's project engineer is on the case, and organising the contractors for us.

In the mail today, a reminder from the diocese that this year the church electoral roll has to be renewed from scratch, as opposed to updated. It's one of those occasionally necessary high maintenance jobs, requiring a fair amount of chasing and checking. This is a task I'll have to oversee, as I probably have the broadest grasp of who's who, new and old, on the existing roll. Some people who've been on the roll many times over the years, may well think membership is automatic, or even believe they've already filled in a form especially if they've subscribed recently. It shows positively that a sense of belonging doesn't depend on filling in pieces of paper - a practice the modern world is particularly fond of.

The membership situation at St John's is made more complex by the considerable number of people who worship with us but belong to and support a home parish elsewhere, or who happily attend on Sundays, but don't want to be involved in any other aspect of church life. Yet, if asked, they would say they belong to St John's. Participation comes in all shapes and sizes, and this has to be recognised and respected.

With this electoral roll renewal, members are also asked to fill in a 'skills audit' form. The idea is to obtain a comprehensive picture of the gifts and abilities church members have, and which they might be encouraged to share, both in their own communities and further afield. It's a reasonable and well intended stewardship initiative. I hope it will be perceived in the spirit in which it was intended.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

West entrance plans under scrutiny

This lunchtime the Diocean Advisory committee came en masse and held a site meeting with us to discuss our overall plans for the west end of the church, and possibly the George Pace designed Vestry block. We were joined by Mr Wright, an architect representing the 20th Century Society - a specialist group with a conservation interest in architecture and furnishings of the period, and one of the constitutionally determined consultation partners with a right to comment on changes proposed to church fabric.

If there's an objection to what we propose to do, the Chancellor of the diocese calls a Consistory Court to receive full representations from interested parties in order to inform him on his ruling. Inevitably such events are costly in terms of both time and energy, so any possibility to sort things out before the process reaches this outcome is to be embraced. This meeting was needed because of our desire to relocate the west end internal porch designed by renowned architect George Pace back in the 1970s. It has become something of a safety hazard with the increased volume of one-off visitors to the church we now receive. We live in dread of any more serious accidental falls in the area of the porch and adjoining step. We've done our best without removing the porch but this has not resolved the problem.

Common sense dictates that removal and re-arranging the entrance area to make access that much safer is necessary. Church rules and regulations demand a lengthy process with uncertain outcome. Rules are so sacred that the only conceivable solution in the enforcers' mind is not to use the porch (our principal entrance), while the procedure is followed, if we are concerned, no matter how long it takes. Our dear church members are so much more patient and persistent than I shall ever be with all this. I shall be glad to dissociate myself from this 'religious' world view, whose fear of administrative 'disorder' and people taking their own initiatives makes the burden of managing these prize assets an even more difficult and unpalatable a task for volunteers.

A dozen of us were present for the meeting. We went carefully over all the issues touching upon the need for remedial action, and our plans to open up the west end and improve meeting facilities in church by extending the vestry block with a new floor in the roof void. We went over in summary form all the various discussions of the pros and cons of alternative measures contemplated over the past three years. Everyone behaved themselves well, despite the sense of resentment the home team feels at having its own sense of responsibility curbed by interested parties who in the end give advice but no practical help or funding.

I think our potential objector appreciated the problem we face having seen it in context, and he was open to the idea of the porch being relocated as part of a proposed extension of the vestry block. All this still needs to be rendered in proper documentary form to assist the process. Let's hope that what we produce will make as much sense as we feel it should, after living with this unresolved problem for so long.

After the meeting, I hopped on a bus to go to the Heath hospital for a couple of visits. Traffic was busy and very slow in both directions going there. A passenger who got on the bus talked about a 'jumper' on the Gabalfa roundabout flyover. It took a moment for the penny to drop. When I crossed the road bridge over Western Avenue near the hospital entrance, I could see the tail-back on the carriageway below and a police car diverting traffic on to the roundabout.

From the upper stories of A block, overlooking the road, I could just see a few policemen standing atop the flyover, and the figure of someone else sillhouetted against the guard rail - a drama that had been unfolding for several hours, it appeared. Staff members kept popping out from the wards into the stairwell as I ascended, to take a peek at the distant scene. I can only presume that the news had gone out on local radio. Traffic was still bad when I left, so bad that I walked all the way home, rather than face an equal amount of time sitting in a bus that would only take me half way there.

After cooking a seafood paella for supper, I spent several hours drafting a summary statement in support of the Faculty petition already made, explaining the circumstances and needs surrounding our proposal. I hope this will go some way towards making progress to a satisfactory conclusion.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A decent proposition

After recent poor weather, numbers at church are beginning to pick up again. At the Friends Committee meeting after Evensong, we decided that we would press on with the font enhancement project. Although the DAC seems to want a grand plan for all the works needing to be done at the west end of the church, the work on the font cover, in our view stands independently of the rest. As we have a site meeting on Tuesday, it's possible questinos abut this could be resolved. Then we'd be free to apply for a Faculty.

I was also sounded out abut how I'd feel about the possibility of a Parish farewell do that would entail a fairly localised pilgrimage outing culminating in a nice sit down dinner together with all the regular member, who normally turn out for such an event. It's like someone read my mind. I can think of nothing I'd appreciate more. It's one of those things we do well together, guaranteeing a fond memory to set out with on my retirement journey.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Looking back from a new decade

We've very pleased with the new bed, which certainly gave me an improved night's sleep. Clare spent the morning trying to figure out how to put a flat pack wardrobe together, while I figured out what to preach tomorrow - my first sermon of the new decade. Clare, ever a great planner with good attention to detail spotted that there were anomalies in the layout of the pre-drilled holes, sufficient to suggest that a component of a similar wardrobe with a different internal layout had been packed in error. She emailed the company with corroborative photos. We'll see how long it takes to obtain a response and a correction.

What to preach tomorrow? A great Gospel - water into wine. I looked through my computer files to check when I'd last preached on this at St John's, and it seems that I hadn't. The only time since returning to Britain was in St James' in 2004. Where was I in 2007 on Epiphany 2? Still away in Switzerland on winter leave. I didn't need to hunt for an old diary. It was all there in the archive of this blog. How useful.

Browsing through old entries jogged my memory with the realisation that it's now three years since St John's City Parish in its present form was born by episcopal decree. Three years. That was already six months after demolition of city centre buildings was complete, when site clearance and excavation created the great red hole out of which the reconstruction sprang. I can go back and look at all the photos as well, and remind myself of the remarkable times in which I have been privileged to conduct my last commission in public ministry. Not so much water into wine as new wineskins for new wine - a public domain for meeting and trading fit for doing business in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Back to work

The alarm rang before seven this morning to get us up early to receive a delivery of furniture flat packs for assembly and testing in preparation for our retirement move in three months from now. The consignment arrived just after nine, with a courtesy call just beforehand from the driver, so we could have stayed in bed, but never mind. By eleven, we had a new bed frame assembled, to fit the mattress we bought several months ago. The old bed had lost its capacity to allow me a good night's sleep, and with old shoulder injuries playing up, I've had more than my share of insomnia this past year or so. I look forward to testing it.

The city centre and St John's were quiet this morning, shopping activity still subdued by wintry weather conditions. There was half the usual audience for the lunchtime organ concert, although there were ten of us for the usual noon Eucharist beforehand. Because of my leave arrangments, Archdeacon David Lee had offered to come and celebrate, so I had the pleasure of sitting quietly in the congregation instead of leading the service. The tea room was not as busy as usual, but I still took a turn at washing up for a couple of hours before heading home for some desk-work.

At last, the Faculty to renew the south side churchyard path has arrived, along with news in an email that a source of riven Pennant flagstones has been identified at a decent price. It's taken a year, but there is now the real possibility of the job being done before the Mayoral service on St David's Day. One of the last pieces of pavement in the city centre to be renewed. As the Mayoral service aims to be one of thanksgiving for the achievements of last year's completion of the city centre regeneration projects, this is encouraging news for me.

The evening was taken up with constructing a draft order of service for discussion at a meeting with County Protocol people on Monday, and preparing the God on Monday weekly services for the next month. And finally, pretty tired, I'm off to test the new bed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Last night I discovered that I'd not booked myself on the earliest flight to back to Bristol, which was just as well given the weather conditions. What it meant in practice was the avoidance of a really tiring early start, and a leisurely departure. I caught a park and ride bus to the airport from the other side of Vernier/Meyrin railway station. It took ten minutes, and I was 25 minutes early for check-in. The automatic check-in terminals were already open for my flight, and within a few minutes of arrival my suitcase was on its way, and I was queuing to get through security checks with about sixty people in front of me in the usual long snaking queue. Twenty minutes later I was strolling unhurriedly through the huge new duty free shopping area, and making my way to the all new departure lounge. A lot of expansion has taken place in this airport since my last visit eighteen months ago.

The flight was only fifteen minutes late taking off, and ten minutes late, touching down in fog at Bristol. My bag came out quickly and I was soon on a bus for Temple Meads, with only a fifteen minute wait for a train to Cardiff - all very relaxed and easy. Only after arrival at Cardiff Central did things become less smooth. There was no readily accessible information about the departure points of buses that could take me up North Road close to home - Birchgrove or Whitchurch buses - there are several. With a little time in hand, I jumped on the new FreeB shuttle around the city centre instead of walking, or going on a bus stop hunt. With a dozen sets of traffic lights to negotiate and a cigarette break for the driver added in, it took 20 minutes to get from Central Station to Greyfriars, the drop off point which would give me the shortest walk home.

The distance from the station to Greyfriars I could have walked in ten minutes, but I'd decided not to, as the ground was slushy and I didn't want to carry my suitcase rather than drag it and get it mucky. Others may have learned the same lesson. I was one of two passengers on the bus. The other man thought he was on a park and ride bus out to Cardiff City football stadium. The livery of the P+R buses, and their size is significantly different, so he may have been plain stupid or unobservant. Having said that, I noticed a P+R bus with all Welsh language descriptions down the side of the bus nearest the pavement - not bi-lingual, all Welsh. There's a lot to be learned around here about communication, no matter how many languages are used.

How jealous I was of the real time journey panel displays on Geneva trains buses and trams, resembling a simplified sat-nav route display, all integrated across the network, along with fare structures. It takes the nightmare out of travel, and in a place where six languages (French German, Italian, English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian) are used by both travellers and residents, information is clearly displayed in ways that don't make different languages much of a problem. Cardiff could be just good, but unfortunately what you pay determines what you get.

After a brief cup of tea at home, I had to walk over to Tredegarville school for a meeting between the Governors and the OFSTED lead inspector. A school Inspection is due, starting on St David's Day. The procedure was very carefully explained to us, and were were asked a few preliminary questions about our perceptions of the nature of the school. If only local government offers and their procedures were exposed to the same disciplined and detailed independent scrutiny as are pedagogues, perhaps it wouldn't be quite such an onerous task to deliver useful and relevant information to the public as it seems to be. In this day and age 'good in parts, with room for improvement' is not enough.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Tragedy strikes near and far away

During the day, more news has come in about the earthquake in Haiti. It has apparently destroyed the UN headquarters, the Anglican Cathedral and buildings housing its vital social outreach programme. Claudine learned that the daughter of an Anglican episcopalian couple working in Geneva, herself also an international civil servant working for the UN in Haiti, had been killed in her work place. Claudine had spent a weekend with her last year during a visit there. 

This tragedy will hit many more people here locally in the international organisations, losing colleagues, friends, family members. In this place of great wealth and accomplishment, there is suddenly deep shock and, for the moment, powerlessness. There are well tried and tested emergency response procedures in place on the part of many UN organisations. There may even be lines of communication to the heart of the situation, but few if any left alive to make the process effective. "Who can be ready for such a disaster?" as one interviewee just said on the radio.
It snowed for much of the morning, but the temperature rose slightly and so the snow settling started to turn slushy. At lunchtime I ventured out, taking the 16 tram on the Meyrin - Cornavin line down to Balexert shopping centre, which has gone through a phase of expansion, and now boasts a striking restaurant straddling the main highway. The tram stops below it, and an escalator takes people up to dining and shopping level. After lunch with Claudine in a Turkish restaurant for a change, I set out to look for the few items on Clare's shopping list, realised I'd forgotten my phone with necessary details recorded on it, and so had to go back home to fetch it first. I then re-took the tram to Cornavin and shopped in the town centre instead. This didn't take long, so I went down to the Quai Wilson and loitered at the lakeside, camera in hand, snapping a cloudy sky beautified by the setting sun. It was a contemplative hour, recalling people, many of them now dead and gone, that I'd known and ministered to here, ten years previously.

This evening Keith, Claudine and I were invited to supper with Alec and Ann-Marie nearby in Meyrin. Their daughter Dagmar and her husband Guy, at whose marriage I had officiated a dozen years ago were also there. It was a happy occasion, telling stories, eating raclette, a fitting conclusion to my stay in Switzerland. With the minor changes in temperature and weather conditions, I should fly out on time tomorrow midday, back home and straight into a school governors' meeting. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Treasures at the Gianadda

I left Meyrin on the 08h16 commuter train to connect with the inter city train at Cornavin, to arrive at Lausanne for my 09h15 rendezvous with my old friend pastor Valdo Richard. The train was one of those double decker affairs with a splendid view from upstairs. It filled the whole length of the station platform, the best part of 400 yards. Hundreds of people got on, and there were already many more passengers who'd got on at the airport. Swiss trains are well used. This one was going to the far east of the country - Zurich and then beyond to St Gall. What surprised me was just how many trains, both local and inter-regional, were operating, despite a night with snowfall. 

Since a third rail track between Geneva and Lausanne has come into service the journey time non stop to Lausanne has come down to thirty five minutes, as well as services being more frequent and of greater capacity. Swiss railways have had their economic problems like any other. Marginal services have been cut, but the demand for main line services crossing the country has increased, with economic development and further integration into the European Community. Although not without its problems, Switzerland truly is a place which continues to benefit from the globalisation of commerce.

Valdo and I breakfasted on hot chocolate and and croissants before taking a train to Martigny, along the shore of Lac Léman through early morning mist and low cloud. By the time we reached Vevey, the end of the low cloud was in sight ahead of us across the water, and sunlight was beginning to transfigure the panorama from the train, like a Turner painting. Such joy! By the time we reached Aigle, the skies were blue and the surrounding mountains on all sides were pristine with a fresh layer of snow. Martigny lies in a deep steep sided valley, and in winter, the sun doesn't appear above the crags until late morning, so it can be very cold, as low as -5C most of the day. A shuttle bus delivered us to the vicinity of the Gianadda art gallery, our destination for the day. Clare and I often came here when we lived in Geneva. It was Valdo's first visit. 

We'd come to an exhibition of Russian ikons from the Tretchiakoff collection, examples of fourteenth to seventeen century painting, featuring a couple of huge images of John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian, two of the Nicene Fathers by Andrej Rublev, and a crucifixion by Master Denis. My favourite icons in the collection are one of the Holy Face, reproducing the much older image 'not made with hands' (i.e. miraculously) the painted in the late 14th century, and a Trinity of earlier date, though not Rublev's famous one, but a rather simplified one with exquisitely subtle colouring. These, for me were images worthy of long contemplation.

We lunched in the St Bernard (dog) museum, and then went for a brisk walk up to Martigny's old town area. The mediaeval church in the central area is now re-deployed as a mortuary chapel, with three biers for coffins in separate viewing areas. All other liturgical furnishings had been removed, so it was only used for vigils. The door was open, and the place unattended. A notice advertised the presence within of an old lady recently deceased, and indeed, there she was uncovered and lying in state on public view. I've seen this arrangement in a village with a small ancient and a larger newer church the other side of the Alps from here, in Macugnaga. I guess it's local custom. It says a great deal about social stability and the low level of crime and disorder enjoyed in this community that it's possible to leave a corpse on display in an unattended public building, although I am of course forgetting all about CCTV cameras.

After our walk we re-visited the icons for another hour, then made our way back to the station, and left on a train that took me straight back to Geneva, bidding Valdo farewell in Lausanne en route. The return trip down the Rhone valley in evening sunlight was exquisite. By the time we reached Lausanne we'd re-entered the low cloud zone, and it was dark by journey's end.

After a quick shave, Keith Dale drove me through snowy streets across into France - for a supper date with Michael and Barbara Bell in Prévessin - Möens, border crossings no longer manned by douaniers, since Switzerland embraced the Schengen Agreement (open borders within the EC). Claudine tells me that the result of this is a nightmare for people visiting from outside the EC, as all visa applications now have to be done via Paris, rather than Berne, with a six week delay commonplace. I was given a lift home at one in the morning with snow falling fast and the roads empty and silent, not a soul around in this normally busy city.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Catch up time

After a good night's sleep and a lazy day, a train ride along the lake to Nyon. Here Philippe picked me up to take me to Vésenex just over the border in France voisine, for a weekend catching up with him and his wife Julia. She's voluntary priest and founding member of the Anglican community of La Cote, along the north side of Lac Léman, both sides of the border Franco - Swiss border. 

The suburban rural landscape in which their eighteenth century former farmhouse is located is covered in snow, still and quiet. Just right for a time of quiet conversation and reflection on the journey since I was last with them at Julia's priesting eighteen months ago. She's on leave at the moment, so on Sunday afternoon we celebrated the Eucharist together with another old friend, John Paul in the place we'd talked until late, two days running.

Then Jean Paul took me home with him, up to the Jura village of St George, 600 metres higher than the lake, altogether a 1000 metres above sea level, to spend an evening catching up and stay a night in their family home, a traditionally shaped wooden Swiss chalet perched up above the village looking south, over the lake towards the alpine region which is home to the famous Portes du Soleil ski domain, where I first learned ski alpin fifteen years ago. 

J-P, whose wife Sally was away, expertly prepared a fondue, to a local farmer's recipe. We talked, ate and drank until late. It was dark when we arrived, and misty when we left in the morning, so the inherent beauty of this place was concealed. I've stayed up there with J-P and Sally on several occasions over the years. It's both peaceful and inspiring. Not only the place, but also the people, as is also true of Julia and Philippe. We worked closely together in the early years of preparing the ground for the recent development of the La Cote pastorate. This is, in all honesty, the only exercise in 'church planting' I've ever been involved with. And it all grew out of lay initiative, with no more than a little support and encouragement from me.

The pastorate is now self supporting, and as its first phase of development and consolidation comes to an end, it can be regarded as a fully fledged chaplaincy with its own ministry and mission. I'm not sure of what's involved in any official change of status, and don't think I care much, as long as this enterprise in the Anglican spirit of pastoral care and service continues to flourish purposefully, and be valued as part of the anglophone life of this region, crossing as it does the boundaries of many nationalities. Those involved look to a future that continues to respond to the needs of the hosts of newcomers seeking a welcome and a means to feel at home from home - expatriates from many countries, plus second and third generations of English speaking settlers. 

J-P dropped me off at Gland train station for a ride back to Keith and Claudine's at Meyrin. The rest of the day was taken up by lunch with Laura, former church secretary, and tea with Gill, the widow of my much loved former church warden and friend Mike. It doesn't seem like nearly ten years since he died, and nine this month since we left Switzerland. Such a lot has happened since then. Geneva has changed, there are many new buildings. The already good public transport as got even better with the construction of more new tram lines. There are so many trams, buses and trains in every direction, and all are so well used, it's hard not to be jealous in comparing it with Cardiff public transport, which is modernising itself with such laborious effort and little tangible effect.

Thursday, January 07, 2010


With the arrival of snow greeting my first day of leave, I wondered if I'd hav any luck with my booked flight to Geneva. The Easyjet website told me the earlier flight was cancelled, but mine was still listed, and the news said the Bristol Airport was still open, so with some misgivings I set out on foot, lugging my case, unable to wheel it through the snow. Trains were running to time, but when I got to Bristol, the suttle bus on which I had a ticket booked was cancelled, so I had to pay out ten quid to share a taxi with two others to get to the airport. By the time with arrived in complete saftey, without incident, despite the weather, the airport was expected to re-open for afternoon flights. However, during my transit time, Easyjet had decided to cancel all flights.

So, I re-booked on the first flight available, Thursday morning, and wondered about how I might get back into Bristol to stay the night with Amanda and James, since there were no buses and the taxis were so expensive. Then I realised that a check-in for an 08h55 flight, if the airport was open, would be at 05h00, given that you're now expected to allow four hours to check in and go through the stricter security precautions (not actually in place yet). 

I texted Clare to ask her to check internet weather prognostications for tomorrow, while I enquired about hotel bookings. I was taken aback to learn that a room would cost me £140 overnight, meals extra. At this stage I was uncertain I would be re-imbursed by Easyjet because I had not had time to read through let alone understand the two page advisory note handed to me when I made the flight booking change. The check in clerk, under pressure, did not draw this to my attention. 

Many other passengers lived near enough to home and had cars at the airport to slide home in. Others coming from a distance evidently knew the score better than I. I heard from Clare that tomorrow would be fine, but the night very cold, I realised that crossing Bristol to spend half a night, then returning with no certainty of any transport back to the airport early enough for the flight was out of the question. I realised I'd have to stay where, but by that time there were no hotel rooms left close enough to guarantee return in such icy conditions for the flight. So I just had to stay there, in the somewhat chilly entrance hall, and punctuate the wait with snacks and hot drinks.

Ryanair flights, and some domestic services returned during the course of the day, but in the quiet times and through the night, there were perhaps fifty travellers who, like me, had been caught out by the jerky early flow of information, not been able to make alternative plans, and missed out on the possibility of re-imbursable accommodation. There could have been a thousand people stranded there, not fifty, had the public information not been quite so good as it was. However - 

If I'd been able to check for updates easily at Cardiff Central station I could have saved myself the bother, gone home and rebooked on-line.  

Or, if the train ticket office had been informed of the cancellation of the shuttle bus, it would have flagged up the growing problem, and not issued me a through ticket which I could not then make use of. But then, lack of integration of all the so-called public service transport companies at the most basic level of telecoms infrastructure means that lack of consistent up to date travel information is a common problem. So much so, that it's left to private web entrepreneurs to devise information services that work. 

Or, if I had invested / squandered / spent money on a smart phone or a netbook, I would have been able to find out all I needed as I travelled and turn back at any stage. But, over the past seven years my life as been largely confined to the square mile of the city centre. I could by no stretch of the imagination consider myself to be a 'man on the move' to justify such a purchase. In fact, I realised how out of practice at the art of travelling I have become. I hope that will change when I retire. Not that it's any justification for more technology cluttering up my life. Time for simplification. And actually an empty day with nothing to do but wait - 20 hours in all - was not such a bad experience after all.

I watched people, I read, I prayed without burrowing in the case for my Book of Offices, and in that busy place found some stillness of a sort. I witnessed an elderly couple first bicker, then quarrel and almost come to blows. They were en route to their retirement home in Portugal. The break in the familiar routine of travel was more than he could cope with. He kept insisting on trying to check in the cases, needing to be retold that the flight had been cancelled and that they had to wait - stress, tiredness plus short term memory loss, far from undermining him, made him belligerent, and the police were called when they nearly came to blows. She had not seen him react like this before, so smooth their few travel outings had been before.

It was disturbing to discover there was no first aid post or rest room available this side of the airport, no paramedic available, no first aid signpost. Normally in an emergency an ambulance could come at short notice, but on icy roads? Exceptional conditions on a night like this maybe, but to my mind something wasn't right about this situation. The airport was adequately heated, but the automatic doors stayed open for far too long - courtesy of the excursions of smokers, unaware of what loitering just outside the open doors with warm air blowing out, was doing on the inside to keep dozens shivering when they could have been warm.

Night passed, day came, flights resumed and ours set off on time and arrived minutes ahead of schedule. Geneva's weather was much the same as Bristol's but with everything running normally, as it ever does. Good to be here again, and see real snow clad mountains.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Anticipating Epiphany

Thanks to my good friend David Lee, I was able to take this Sunday off. Clare and I went and sat together at the Parish Eucharist in the Cathedral, celebrating Epiphany Sunday, anticipating Twelfth Night on Wednesday. The city too is anticipating the end of the festive season, with Winter Wonderland and Santa's Grotto closed to the public and dismantling today. Many homes will already be taking down their trees and decorative lights. The schools re-open today as well, on the tenth day of Christmas. It's rather sad that we don't make the most of the twelve days of festivity between Christmas and Epiphany, as still happens in parts of Eastern and Southern Europe.

I had an email and some photos from Kath holidaying at Sta Pola in Spain. The Magi arrived there yesterday. She sent a photograph of kids queuing up to tell the Magi what gifts they wanted. I'd not heard of this before, but it has to be better than Santa - three for the price of one?!
Being Spain, I expect public festive activities around the Epiphany will go on for several days. This is a wholesome habit which unfortunately we've lost up here in Britain.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Spiritual Capital - Cardiff blog reviving

Now that my journalling of the past four years of city centre redevelopment has come to its natural conclusion, I've had time to start work on reviving another blog, which I started as part of the Spiritual Capital research project. Its purpose was to gather articles of interest from the media and other publication sources concerning relationships between communities of faith and civil society. There isn't an absence of this kind of material, but faced with competition from so many attention grabbing crises, news of this kind can quickly slip out of focus, even though it might be important to those interested in learning what the voice of faith contributes to the debates of today's world.

What re-awakened my desire to re-activate this little enterprise was an email conversation with my dear friend Roy Thomas about the difficulties of engaging faith community members as organ donors. He is Executive Chairman of Kidney Wales and a vigorous advocate of social policy changes that will help shorten the lengthy queue of sufferers awaiting kidney transplants. He is troubled by what he sees as the failure of the church to give a strong enough lead on this issue.

Faith communities around the world, for the most part, take a positive encouraging view of organ transplantation and donation, as evidenced by the Organ Transplants website. Faith communities and their leaders often have valuable things to say on matters of public interest. They don't always get disseminated because few in editorial control of news are interested in something they don't believe the general public are concerned about. Many faith organisations and leaders are now obliged to have their own press officers to present if not actually promote their views, competing with others to ensure they get a public hearing. Reporters used to go out and solicit news and comment from religious heirarchs, but those days are long past.

Decline in the social role of religious authority is linked to decline in interest in formal institutional religion, not least among the media classes who until recently have controlled means of public communication. The emergence of blogging and 'citizen journalism' has changed this. It has made it possible for ordinary people with specific interests to gather news, opinion and information and offer it as a public service through a website - this can be on religion, sport, music, technology, trade or politics, as well as ranging interests of a more dubious kind.

I'm hoping in retirement to find time to scan the news and gather items of interest on religion and civil society for easy referral at the Spiritual Capital Cardiff blog site. Maybe this will help make more visible what faith communities locally have to contribute to wider society, and be of service to others willing to consider letting faith leaders give a fresh insight and a moral lead in the wider world.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Welcome the new decade

There were half a dozen of us for the midday Eucharist yesterday. I picked a shopping bag full of litter up from the church entrance afterwards, then visited the City Centre Managment office to wish the team a happy new year, before returning home and settling in for a quiet evening with friends. Rachel phoned from Canada, Katherine texted us from Sta Pola in Spain, and Owain from Prague. Our guests departed at eleven, so Clare and I stood alone on the doorstep in the chill night air under the rare 'blue moon' to watch the festive fireworks in Coopers Field and at the 'Calennig' funfair at midnight.

Clare and I took a wardrobe apart this morning, so that she can re-furbish ready for the move to come. She enjoys DIY. It's a habit I'll have to acquire once more when I retire and run out of work related excuses. There were just two of us for the Eucharist to welcome in the new year this lunctime. Shoppers were just begininng to flow in to the centre. The streets were still untidy from the previous night's revelling - understandably as even street cleaners deserve time off at festive times. It could have been worse. This past few months things have been so much better. Our new shopping centre seems to be encouraging decent behaviour from passing consumers.

On my way home, I met Graham, one of a small number of Cardiff's Street Carers who has a personal ministry to homeless people on the streets, and can be found out there several times a week, with a suitcase full of really useful things that come in handy for people in need who have little or nothing. He's such a thoughtful man. He told me how he'd been out one evening recently, taking with a group of homeless people when he had been upbraided by a security official belonging to a large store in the neighbourhood, blaming the seasonal shoplifting epidemic on homeless people. Such a ridiculous piece of scapegoating. Graham decided that a kind answer would turn away wrath, and visited the store next day, smartly dressed (instead of wearing his usual outfit for street care work), bearing a card and a gift wrapped Gideons New Testament.

Next time he saw the man in question, he was profuse in apology. I couldn't help thinking that most street people wouldn't have the confidence to penetrate deep into shopping aisles packed with covet-wear tycoon threads or girlie party frocks - to steal what? And security guards tend to weed out the usual suspects with behaviour or body odour problems close to the door. Smart thieves don't usually show up on the radar of suspicion. Their demeanour is not that of a poor victim struggling to survive in a cold and sometimes vicious world on the margins of society, where anyone and everyone can pick on them, with or without justification.

Woe unto us with so many possessions to guard.