Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Virus blues

The unwelcome beginnings of a cold reported on Sunday turned into a nasty affliction, leaving me almost without voice yesterday. The symptoms were reminiscent of the monster 'flu which put me out of action from Christmas Day to New Year's Day the year before last. With suitable hygienic precaution I got through the Evening Eucharist, then went home to a bath and early bed. By yesterday afternoon I was over the worst, able to venture out for an important meeting to work out office provision for Cardiff Business Safe. Rather than walk home in the face of an icy wind, I hopped on a bus and went out to PC World to exchange a memory card reader for the chip in my new mobile phone. I'd been sold the wrong one on the weekend by a sales assistant who was no better than I at reading the microscopic print on the box. Happily, obtaining the right one meant that I got a refund of four quid. That warmed me up. Then I jumped on another bus back to church for a quiet hour before the evening's Eucharist. Early bed was once more a welcome release from battling with the symptoms.

Today there was a midday as well as an evening Eucharist. My throat is not ragingly sore now but I only have a small voice. Hopefully this will come back to normal by Friday for preaching the Three Hours. I've worked Holy Week with bronchitis several times over the years, but I'm not as resilient as I used to be, so the risk of not getting through is greater. One can be fine most of the time, then useless when it counts most. When you go sick suddenly at the busiest time of year, there won't be too many clerics around on stand-by - they'll already be helping out in some busy place where the ministers are already stretched. There's no doubt that Parishes are feeling the pinch from clergy shortage, but there's no sign yet on the horizon of any regrouping to address the challenge. And it's the clergy who take the strain on this.

A few people in recent weeks have expressed the sentiment that my last few weeks might be happy and fulfilling to reminisce over. What I will treasure is the ocean of kindness and patient consideration from St John's members that has kept me afloat, and coped gently with my vulnerability. It keeps me from the bitter trials of having to work in isolation as a priest without a colleague. It shouldn't have to happen. A little strategic leadership and management could ensure everyone working at the public interface has support from a professional partner to share the entire workload. I mean working together, not just an emergency backup. I mean peer partners, not the boss-minion arrangement which seems to be what the church is experienced in maintaining. It didn't happen in my serving lifetime. Will I live long enough to be able to say "I told you so."? Yes, I'm moaning again. I believe things could and should be better. That was, after all, why I signed up for this, all those years ago.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Clocks on - Palm Sunday

I wish the start of Summer time didn't co-incide with Passiontide and Easter quite so often over the passage of years. Invariable the loss of an hour is combined with not going to bed early enough to compensate, and this means facing a Sunday less fresh than usual. Today I woke up with the unwelcome beginnings of a cold, which took away from my appreciation of this special time of year.

Everyone of us was delighted to welcome Bill John back to church. It's six months since he fell and broke his femur exiting the church porch. He's now driving again, and took his usual part in welcoming and introducing worshippers at the beginning of the service. A real triumph for his patience and persistence to be back among Christian friends again. In six months we have made no progress in removing the porch and replacing it with glass doors that would enable all who enter to see their way and negotiate the steps better.

We've had conservationist objections to relocating the porch, and have been pushed back into articulating a Grand Plan for all the stages of development needed to make the West end of the church and the choir vestry more visitor friendly, rather than letting us achieve one sound practical move at a time. I'm sorry not to see this resolved, before I go, but know that the determination of church officers and members will see this through to completion, despite the disregard of the DAC for the serious health and safety concerns we've represented to them.

It took three years of work in the face of safety worries to get us to the stage where the south churchyard path is now finally being re-laid. The official line is "If it's that unsafe close it off.", as if that was the only sensible answer possible in the life of a working church relying for its viability on being open to the public every day. Preservation of church property seems to be given more weight in 'duty of care' arguments than the people who use them. What would He who had not place on earth to lay His head have made of this I wonder?

It's the same regarding the adaptation of listed buildings to conserve energy. The church and other public bodies are in the thrall of CADW, when it comes to installing solar panels of ancient buildings. They all have the power of veto, and it's too expensive for anyone in their right minds to challenge this. Eventually we'll pay for all our failures in not putting the needs of people before fancy ideas about what is really precious in this world.

Dinah, the young Malaysian intern who's been worshipping with us for the past couple of months said her goodbyes today. After a quick tour of Europe, she's returning to Kuala Lumpur and her old desk in the University admin department. I'm hoping she'll email us some photos of her home church congregation, set in a culture where Christianity doesn't always fit comfortably, most church buildings are new-ish, and conservation is more about protecting the natural world from the ravages of commercial exploitation than preserving monuments to human ambition.

Sure, we all love our ancient sacred spaces, and invite them to speak of God to us, but how often we forget they were also built as expressions of power and status in past times. Our attitudes and preoccupations allow them to dominate us while we contrive as best we can to put them to proper use. How could we better achieve a proper balance? Another unanswered question I leave behind, when I leave office.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Honoured by bells

This morning, St John's bellringers attempted a full peal of Gransdire Caters, change ringing on all ten bells, to mark my retirement. I felt greatly honoured by their intentions. It was a lovely sunny morning, so I went and stood in the churchyard and recorded a few minutes' worth of the ringing, in a spot where there was little accompanying noise. Then later I added this sound clip to the front page of the church website, after a little juggling. The peal attempt had to be abandoned due to a calling error just after the first quarter was accomplished, and the band members looked a little disappointed as they came down the steps. I still felt greatly honoured.

I spent most of the morning error checking the annual report, and found one big one that had been introduced by a bit of unchecked cut and paste by the auditor, which placed responsibility for managing the four churches of the old parish on St John's - not a good idea. I wonder how long that error has gone un-noticed? No problems with the financial pages, thankfully. But it does go to show how careful one has to be to eliminate errors that may mislead readers. Even elaborate documents couched in legal speak caveats mistakes get made. Lack of simplicity can make things harder understand and to check no matter how many pairs of eyes look things over. This is the last time I will have to bother with stuff like this. It's the kind of responsibility I'm glad to be relieved of.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Climate concerns continued

Another well attended noon Eucharist today, fifteen people. The average weekday attendance at all services is generally around 27-30 people these days, unless the weather is horrid. I did an hour at the tea room sink afterwards, and when it quietened down I headed over to Southgate House to finish off the data entry task I'd taken on. I had the place to myself and was able to get the job done quickly, and go home.

After supper I went to the Quaker Meeting House to co-chair a UNA sponsored meeting giving a faith perspective on climate change, featuring Dr John Weaver, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Dr Hefin Jones, a biologist and member of Minny Street Eglwys Annibynnol. It was a very good meeting, with 22 people present, as many as we had for the conference I ran last September. It was a different constituency, and there were some interesting responses to the speakers from participants.

So, if this is what one can expect in terms of numbers from faith communities prepared to turn out in order to inform themselves at any given opportunity, it's going to be several years of putting on such educational events before there's any critical mass of people will to shoulder responsibility for developing a real faith communities' carbon footprint reduction action plan. That's what I'm convinced is needed - not just high level policy conversations, but something at grass roots that encourages local church communities to take effective steps, before the need for crisis management comes to meet and overwhelm us. If we don't get this, we risk losing many of our places of worship, and the community resources we rely on for mission, as they become unsustainable in a changed economic and well as physical environment.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lady Day

After the midday Eucharist, a trek in the rain over to Tredgarville School for the annual blessing and distribution of Palm Crosses to staff and children. A group of kids performed my Hosanna Rap account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which gave me pleasure. Just as the ceremony finished, the Head intervened to introduce a surprise presentation - about me, a kind of brief 'This is your life', told by some children, and a Powerpoint presentation made up of pictures of me taken from an internet search, mostly very fuzzy, as they were small sized and unsuitable for blowing up, but it was fun nevertheless. The pictures of me with one of the granchildren in my arms drew lots of aaaahs, and the infamous photo of me holding someone else's ipod, in an image used several times in tech news stories since it was first taken, aroused much amusement all round.

Each of the classes contributed their own handmade good wishes cards, so beautifully done. I must see if I can photograph and most them for wider viewing - just delightful. Then there was a present - one of the bigger digital photo frames with lots of memory, big enough to contain thousands of re-sized family photos. Just the job for a full time grandpa. I was just overwhelmed. The thought that I might not re-appear again after the Easter break spurred the staff into early action. There will be another chance, however, as there'll be an Eastertide School Eucharist to celebrate when term re-starts.

I took the opportunity to do an inventory of the church stuff held in school. It's only taken me three years to get around to it. Glad I remembered before I no longer hold the keys to do the job. This means that the work I've been doing on a handover file for church officers and my successor is now nearly complete and only in need of checking. That'll take an age, given my fading attention to detail.

From school, I went down to County Hall, where I had been asked to say the opening prayers for the Council meeting, both the regular clerics who do this were unavailable. It's the first occasion during my seven and a half years in office, and probably the last. It gave me a chance to greet several councillors I knew beforehand, and that was good. When I'd done praying, the Mayor, Brian Griffiths announced my imminent retirement and expressed his good wishes on behalf of the Council. That was a nice kind touch. Much appreciated.

Then it was back to school for a Governors' meeting with the OFSTED Inspector, who read through the summary of his report for us. It took fifty minutes, and all I can say of its content pre-publication is that rather than nasty surprises, there were only good surprises.
There's some stuff to work at, but everyone is very pleased at the positive recognition of the immense team efforts made week in week out over many years, in some cases. When the introductory description of the school's 'Sitz im Leben' was being read out cooly, it struck me quite hard just how difficult and challenging a social context this is to maintain a school, let along one that aims so high with pupils of every kind of ability, so that they do their best from whatever starting point the depart. I'm so proud it's a church school. I don't see how having beliefs can ever be a problem when the founding belief is that only the best is good enough for the children we care for. I'm glad to have had a small part in it. I would have liked to do more, but there's never been enough time to do everything needing to be done.

From school, it was back to St John's for me to attend the meeting of our local Cardiff Cytun - City and Bay (as the City Centre Churches Together has now rebranded itself). Along with the business, and a discussion of what the organisation wants from its website in the hands of a new volunteer designer, we had a discussion which I led about language and identity, which was an opportunity to think about issues that could be touchy, and which certainly impinge on how churches in a bi-lingual city engage with each other. It was ten before I got home to eat supper. The pace has been pretty lively just lately. No winding down for me yet.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Surprise tomb

After an early visit with another load of junk to the Council's waste disposal centre on Wedal Road through the commuter traffic, I went to the Priory HQ of St John Ambulance to meet Keith Dunn and think through with him what I might be able to do as a member of the Order once I retire from the Parish. I'd like to do something a bit more practical than my present role has permitted. I've been offered the opportunity to do the four day St John First Aider training, so that I can pull my weight as part of any St John's duty team I work with pastorally. My aspiration is to re-engage with those who work on big events at the Millennium stadium. This past few years it's been too taxing to do a Saturday evening event, and then have to rise early and work a whole Sunday. When I'm retired, I can do that, and aim to be recovered fully in time for a noon service at the Cathedral or evening Mass at St Mary's - the best of both worlds.

After the noon Eucharist, Martin our architect and Evan, our PCC secretary and professional archaeologist both arrived to inspect the work on renewing the south churchyard path, which started yesterday, a day later than proposed. The large offending roots of the ash tree that have caused us so many problems over the past decade were exposed. So also was the cause of the root problem. On the east side of the tree, the roots had been unable to grow downwards, due to a large stone slab buried in shallow soil beneath the present level of the churchyard path, so the roots had gone outwards sandwiched between the surface and hidden slabs, causing the upper ones to distort. A little prodding with a mechanical digger revealed fragments of stone slabs beneath the surface, covering a brick vault nobody knew was there. It was 80% filled with soil, perhaps from burials back before the closure of the churchyard in 1855. A little research of old churchyard maps is now in order, to ascertain whose tomb this was.

Was this tomb hidden to those who last re-laid the path, around 1890 after the expansion of the church with north and south aisles? The path was already a century old by then. The brick of this vault is identical to that of its neighbouring vault under the E-W 'alley' from the Market to Queen's Arcade, making it early nineteenth century. The find needs a work around solution from the contractors - not too onerous - but for us, it means a little detective work on the somewhat messy, under-reported history of changes to the church in the nineteenth century.

After this, a brief excursion to Tredegarville School to look at a school admissions dossier and confirm decisions taken by others, then back to Southgate House for another spell of work on data before returning home to meet briefly with Archdeacon Peggy to hand over documents relating to the Cardiff Churches Forum and its defunct successor Cardiff Christian Council, an ecumenical body which died of disinterest during my first year back in Cardiff. There's to be another attempt to revive a city wide ecumenical instrument, as a channel of support for Lightship 2000 and its ecumenical ministry to the city down in the Bay. I hope this has more success than the efforts I was involved with - one of my few disappointments of this job.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another landmark for Street Carers

This morning was booked for a loft insulation team to come and do their job in the Vicarage....

At the end of the morning I emailed Kerry at the diocesan parsonage board, and soon after got an apologetic phone call. The crew arrived at two, as I was about the depart for a session with Ashley Hopkins organising information for Cardiff Business Safe, and listening to his behind the scenes stories of business in the city centre. Fortunately Clare arrived home in time and was able to keep an eye on the workers and the house.

At the end of a satisfactory three hours of work, rather than rush home, I made my way slowly down to County Hall for the second Street Carers' Forum training evening. This time's numbers of new trainees were much less than last October's, just eleven people, but the programme was delivered in a crisper, sharper way than last time, benefiting from the criticism of the sixty odd who took part in the first training. Let's hope that the two remaining basic trainings can be as good and lead to a position where all who've been through this are recognised and accredited. This will be something good to show for the effort we've put in over the past two years.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Education, and education

Monday morning was much lifted for me by a visit from my good friend Roy Thomas for a 'catch up' chat. Since the completion of the Spiritual Capital project, we've both been too busy to see a great deal of each other. We still share a strong desire to work out fresh ways to engage insight from spiritual traditions of faith into the very secular processes of business and governance. It's not to do with religious institutions exercising worldly power, but rather to do with the creative impulse and vision.

We're both interested in innovation, and I delight in learning from the fresh discoveries he makes in his journey through the world of business. I'm not so sure how much he gets from my fascination (and sometimes suspicion) with technological innovations and their consequences. He's no sluggard in applying the latest social networking tools to his own work. Way ahead of me in fact. But then, his social world is a lot broader than mine, voluntarily restrained in the effort to do real justice to the specific social context in which I'm called to minister.

In this meeting Roy introduced me to Edge - a website that make space for some of the most creatively prodigious and visionary minds on the planet to have their say in writing. There's a lot of new ideas to another website called TED which is, a video blog containing 10-20 minute long videos of talks given by distinguished thinkers from every imaginable discipline, either about their field of work, or their personal take on life. TED is educative, inspirational and insightful if you tend to sit about as I do, before or after prayer, or when I'm finding life hard going, as it takes me places I hadn't thought of going, engaging with ideas from a different angle. It's just a learning boost that restores confidence in humanity.

After lunch, over to Tredegarville School for my last 'God on Mondays'. A congregation of four children (all boys again) and eight adults, four parents and four staff. Judging by one or two reactions from staff, my departure from the scene hasn't really registered yet. Parents have talked with me about it often in months past. It makes me realise that how different is the place occupied by a priest compare to a teacher on their social horizon. Teachers are busy maintaining the school's high standards of pedagogy and pastoral care. The presence of clergy in the life of the school is in the background, dependable, a relatively maintenance free contribution to the welfare of the whole from the school's point of view, and that's fair enough. Once the immanence of my departure regisers, I fear it's going to generate a lot of un-necessary fuss. I'd just be content to fade into the background - you could say, like any other 'service providor' when their job is done, without the drama of big farewells.

We are, in the words of Jesus, no more than 'unprofitable servants'. And in that, so privileged to have even a tiny share in the ministry of the pedagogues.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday encounter

This afternoon I went into town on a domestic errand, taking advantage of the lull in the crowds while Italy and Wales played the last rugby match of the Six Nations championship in the Millennium Stadium. As I was walking along an empty Edward VII Avenue, I was thinking about my former colleague at City Church, Tom Arthur, who retired last year. I was amazed then the next person to come into sight was Tom himself, out for a brisk walk. It's the first time I've seen him to talk to since he left work and crossed town to live in Canton.

Talking about the blessings of retirement he said: "The only good advice I received was this - just think of it as a career change, not as an end to working life." Funnily enough that just about sums up the way I have been thinking about the move we'll soon be making. Yesterday we booked the removal van for 30th April.

Yes. Tom's right. there are all sorts of things I want to work at, interests I have in the life of the City that will continue to occupy me while I have health and strength. The main priority will be home and family, catching up with old friends and a little travel, but even so that leaves lots of additional time for pursuing interests and being creative, without the compulsion to drive one self to justify one's existence. I wonder how difficult I'll find that. At the heart of it all is the challenge of living the faith, exercising priesthood in different ways, without the burdens of responsibility that go with managing a church and leading a community.

Tom, ever the Reformed Pastor in his passion to read life in the light of the deepest insights into scripture, has turned back to scholarship in retirement, studying St Paul's letter to the Romans, giving a lecture series on it for CACEC and writing a book, as well as returning to his youthful passion for visual arts. I look forward to opportunities to hang out with him in times to come.

As a result of this welcome break in by journey, my errand had to be completed amidst thronging crowds, as the match came to an end and appy red shirted supporters poured out on to the streets. Wales had won their last match. The pubs will be full tonight
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Preparing the way

I really didn't mind getting up early and being at church by 8.30am this morning. This was to meet with Matt Wakelam, Council project engineer, and Danny McGee in charge of the team that will be digging up the south churchyard path and re-laying it with pennant flagstones over the next couple of weeks, finally. It's been three years since this was first mooted, and it took us two of those years to get the Faculty to do the job. The rest of the time has been waiting for the right stone and contractors' time to be found. It's great, the job may be done for Easter, but more than likley before I leave. That'll give me a sense of achievement, especially if I can re-dedicate the path in memory of Peggy Theophilus, whose legacy purchased the pennant flagstones to be used.

After the Eucharist I spent the afternoon with Ashley in Southgate House entering data about RadioNet subscribers into a spreadsheet, ready for invoice production. A laborious task needing attention to detail from both of us, as each entry needed to be cross checked, and both of us have a tendency to stop and tell stories as we go, prompted by queries about the entries. I heard lots of anecdotes about business practices regarding bill payment which I wouldn't care to repeat. It made me realise how big a component of any economic crisis is lack of integrity and honesty on the part of those responsible for running a business. Whilst this may fall short of being a crime, lack of discipline and restraint in managing finances can so easily cause an otherwise healthy business to go under.

When I got home, Keith and Vanessa were waiting for me to take their details in preparation for their wedding, to take place the week after my retirement becomes official. My predecessor is performing the ceremony, and I shall be there no matter what. To hell with stuff old clerical protocol, these two are my friends!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St Patrick's Day

Yesterday, I took an early coach to London to see my sister. By the time we reached Newport the heating system had sprung a leak, and we stopped there until the next coach arrived to take us on, and hour late. The toilet on this coach was not functioning well, and half way the poor driver had to stop at a service station and do an urgent clean up, as its water tank had obviously not been filled or had stopped working.

On the crowded second coach, I sat next to a lively young afro Caribbean woman with a strong 'Lunnun black' accent, so different in tone and character from the rural dialect of her parents or grandparents generation which I got used to and was able to imitate when I worked in Bristol's St Paul's Area. A fascinating evolution of speech among the rising generations over a thirty year period. She told me that she'd just started work as a home carer for an agency, after eleven years in care home. She now worked long hours every day for ten days, dealing with the care and support needs of seventeen people, visiting some several times a week and sometimes daily, then having five days off. She was confident and proud of the work she was doing, and told me in passing that she went to church on Sundays. That cheered me, for sure.

After today's lunchtime Eucharist I attended my last Deanery Chapter as an incumbent of the church and was invited to open with prayer, which I appreciated, as it meant I could give God thanks for the fellowship of clerics and all the difficulties and challenges faced, and entrust them and their work to God. Better than making a speech. I am still struck by how poor clergy morale is, and how cynical many are about church leadership. The traditionalists do not feel heard or cared for. Mutterings about going over to Rome are heard. But to what good purpose when Rome itself writhes under the impact of clerical child abuse scandals?

We are witnesses the breakdown of traditional expressions of moral and spiritual authority in all churches. Religious Hierarchies as they have developed in the late 20th century under the dubious influence of global corporations on the one hand and over controlling secular legislation on the other, are under great strain as they strive to hold everyone together in he face of the forces of great change. Will it all break down? Or is it not to late to hope for reform, or organic mutation, transforming the community of communities into smaller sustainable communities in which mutual trust and confidence can be rebuilt? It isn't more controls or containment that the body of Christ needs, but rather creative freedom and confidence. More of the Spirit, less of the law. More of positive innovation, less of guilt inducing regulations that are either irrelevant or unenforceable. Do we need heirarchs? Yes, but more of them with less power and more accountability through personal dialogue.

After Chapter I came back into town to attend an open afternoon to launch the revamped Tourist Information Centre in the Old Library - now with extra added retailing space, but still awating the return of a notice board for promotional advertising of local events. I bumped into a senior Council officer for whom I have high regard, and took the opportunity to bend his ear about the plight of Cardiff Business Safe. More accountability through personal dialogue also applies to the Local Authority. It may not lead to any real change, but it may help to grow understanding and trust. With these elements, every organisation runs better.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The trials of getting the job done

It's two years since pressure of work and the limitations of my ability to be helpful in a difficult situation led to me taking a Lenten break from helping with the administrative side of running Cardiff Business Safe. I've kept in touch with director Ashley Hopkins since then, because he was 'hotdesking', as business slang describes it at the City Centre Manager's officer in Southgate House, where I am a frequent visitor. I have continued following developments with interest.

This time last year a new digital radio communications network was established using state of the art equipment to serve the business crime prevention needs of city centre retailers. It's the first of its kind in the commercial sector in the U.K. if not in Europe. This kind of equipment is used for secure communications by the police, prison service and others involved with public security, because it cannot be eavesdropped upon.

Getting the organisation to run properly as an instrument of partnership on crime reduction and public safety in full co-operation with the police and the Council as well as retailers and licensees, has proved to be far from straightforward, and full of frustration. The technical side of the operation, and the servicing of RadioNet system subscribers, albeit complex, has proved much easier to set up and run than relationships with public bodies. When the City Centre management office moved two weeks ago over to the Old Library, Ashley and CBS didn't also move. No provision had been considered to support his work, which is acknowledged to be a vital part of making Cardiff as safe place for trading and leisure activities. Something taken for granted when it works well had fallen down the cracks in the channels of Council bureaucracy.

Aware of this, I paid Ashley a visit in the huge empty office on the ninth floor where he is for the moment a 'grace and favour' guest of the St David's Partnership team, now winding down its activities, with the work of overseeing the redevelopment project coming to its natural end. It's quite a bizarre situation, but Ashely labours on stoically, determined to let nothing get in the way of maintaining this prestigious new communications system, despite the odds. By the end of our chat, I offered to help clear some of the paperwork backlog, as time permits for the moment, and more so once I retire.

It will be nice to have a little project to which I can contribute and keep in touch with City life and activity without being a nuisance to the diocese as the process of appointing my successor hopefully gets under way. Last week's PCC meeting decided to write and ask the Bishop to get a move on and advertise without delay. I know he is keen to do so, but it seems to me that having made early moves to formulate a Parish profile with the Archdeacon back before Christmas, inertia has now set in for no good reason.

It is embarassing for me to be quizzed by all and sundry about who my successor is, when they start work and will there be a handover period, and be obliged to say "I don't know." Almost universally the response is "What on earth is the matter with your bosses?" There's no point in explaining just how far into the rural past the mindset of the Church in Wales is stuck, even with the modern organisation and communications resources it uses.

I went on from visiting Ashely at work to Tredegarville School for 'God on Mondays' - this week on Judas. The head related the latest exchanges on financial planning with County Hall, and a spat with a company pursuing the school for payment after delivering faulty goods and services. All this, and teaching too. Our school is a place of educational excellence with the highest standards of care and dedicated service by the entire staff team. The system that is meant to be there to support this essential purpose can be said to be good in parts, but in many ways exhibits less zeal and dedication to than is found in school.

Are people employed in public service less committed to their work today than their forebears were? What has made such a difference? Is it the size of organisations, or the way they are structured, leaving so little room for real responsibility, judgement and personal initiative? Or is the nature of work today less condusive to stable commitment?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mothering Sunday

We had a baptism at this morning's Parish Eucharist of Mary Jones' great grandson Thomas. The normal congregation was more than doubled, and it was a lively occasion, made even more of a challenge to handle by the unforeseen absence of two key people who make our main Sunday service happen. I had to make sure that all their normally un-noticed tasks were done to make things work, and I was only 99% successful, which kept me on the alert. Nevertheless it was a happy occasion and I don't suppose many will have noticed the things that caused me discomfort.

I was delighted because Dinah the young Malaysian woman who has been attending the eight o'clock Eucharist in recent months came to the ten o'clock for a change, and experienced the full warmth and vigour of a pastoral occasion she easily recognised from her church experience back home. Like many from outside UK, she was confused by the tradition of Mothering Sunday, as opposed to the internationally marketed Mothers Day, generally in May. She said she'd rung home and her mother was bewildered by this early greeting, so a full explanation of the British 'mothering' tradition was gretefully accepted. We also welcomed a young Chemistry post-graduate Italian student called Chiara who'd somehow discovered us recently. That's the great thing about being an open church in the middle of the city, you meet people of all ages and cultures as a matter of course. And it makes our regular congregational members happy indeed.

In the evening before delivering my fourth Lent Talk and singing Compline, I was inwardly grieving /whingeing a little at the poor and irregular attendance for this occasion. Admittedly, I make the texts available in advance, plus a printable booklet, but like every orator I crave a decent audience. We were fifteen. the usual dozen familiar patient faces, and three visitors.

Two ladies were with us from a parish near Burton on Trent for an away football match supporters weekend. After the service they stayed to chat. As my maternal grandparents had lived in Burton on Trent in their old age before illness and infirmity compelled them to surrender their home to come and live with us, there was a special point of conact between us.

My address had caught their imagination, as they were facing the challenge of renewing their own parish outreach into the community by adapting their buildings for more diverse usage. The question was how to underpin this at a spiritual level? I had been talking about the notion of being 'church for others', which I've lived with for forty years, but still comes afresh to some, much to my surprise. I told them the story of how St John's Tea Room had educated church members in pastoral mission in the most unexpected of ways. With another couple of days to their visit, they determined to come back and investigate for themselves. Their genuine interest served as a fulsome reproach to my tendency to self pity.

The conversation meant that I was a late arrival at the Friends committee meeting. However, it was well steered by Vanessa, and I was gratefully home by ten past eight.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Technical obstacle course

The day started with a maintenance team arriving on the doorstep to fit new halogen lamps to security lights the Vicarage doesn't have. Un-noticed, further down on their worksheet was the real reason for their visit - the annual gas safety inspection, which the guys hadn't noticed.

Once the job was done, I went over to St German's by bike, to pick up my missing rucksack, before going into St John's, earlier than usual. Another work was in progress there - a technician from BT attempting to sort out the problems with our noisy phone line and erratic broadband link. It turned out, as we suspected, that the problem was in the street outside, and due to a flooded conduit. The work was completed right on midday as I was about to start the Eucharist and Lent meditation. I was unsure if the work had been effective as I walk in, and played my part in a most distracted way.

Sure enough, after the visit we had better quality audio on the phone line, but no broadband. The usual connection difficulties persisted, and this meant that I couldn't retrieve the Annual Report documents needed for printing and copying from email. I went next door to the new City Centre management office on the top floor of the old library, to borrow a computer link, but their security system wouldn't allow me access to Google Mail, so I went down to the new library. I never established whether I could access Google Mail or not, because their computer hardware doesn't include a Memory Stick card reader. I had intended to download documents on to the spare chip I always carry in my wallet, but the Library computers are only equipped to take USB flash drives, so I had to ride home and acquire files for printing there. Annoyingly, the one day I didn't have a spare USB flash drive in one or other of my pockets, was when I needed one most.

Four hours after the telephone job was done, our broadband link was restored. That little exercise in futility, plus production of the documents needed for distribution on Sunday took me the rest of the working day. Making it possible for the church office to function for the demands of our time in a relevant and effective way remains a frustrating resolved problem, which may or may not matter to my successor. It won't bother me when I'm retired. Whether my home broadband works or not, I'll have time to visit the library (supplied with USB key) and while away the hours surfing in a fair and convivial place, whenever I want, with no more deadlines to fret about. Glory be!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Statistics

Before celebrating the midday Eucharist at St John's, I stood in for Fr Roy at St German's this morning, to enable him to go off and conduct a quiet day. As Clare needed the car to get to school, she dropped me off en route, and I walked back into town, via school. Annoyingly I left my rucksack in the sacristy, and couldn't re-trace my steps and pick it up, as the church was locked after Mass and Fr Roy was away.

The rucksack contained a new phone for the Choir vestry and documents for the Archdeacon's Annual Return. In this, the Parish gives an assortment of statistical data about Pastoral life and activity that is required to accompany the audited Parish Annual Accounts and Report. Audited Accounts are necessary for the regular scrutiny of the diocese by the Charity Commission. The Report from the Vicar and PCC summarises all that's notable and interesting about the past year. Statistics are of attendances at regular worship and occasional offices.

Like a portrait made of dots, they give no more than an impression of the reality. What are they used for? How often are they cited to inform real decisions? We aren't told. It's hard to believe there's any real value in this annual exercise, as its findings aren't properly discussed with the providors. It's got easier over the years, with the help of a prepared spreadsheet, to work out the averages, and this final time, it didn't take me long to complete. I'll be content never to have to do this again. Perversely, it makes me think of the curse upon King David's census (2 Samuel 24).

Ours being one of the few churches in the diocese open seven days a week to the public, it irks me that no account is required of our annual visitor numbers. It's a statistic that helps make sense of our mission, and is of interest. We should really invest in automatic counters attached to each entrance door, to obtain a reasonable estimate. In the meanwhile, church service attendances across the year amount to around 6,000. Half are regular repeat attendances by the core of faithful people. The other half are from those who come for occasional offices, carols and other special services. Another 1,500 a year attend organ concerts. The Tea Room serves in the course of the year around 15,000 customers. In addition is the greater number who just pop in to pray, or visit and take photographs. Numbers signing the visitors book, or taking tourist guides in seven languages are but a small fraction of consumers passing through, leading us to estimate that quite apart from its regulars, St John's welcomes 40-50,000 visitors a year.

I hope my successor will not be absorbed so much by church management as to lose sight of the challenge presented by all these passing people, to give a positive witness to the faith we live by and exist to proclaim.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Timely measures

How delighted were all who attended today's midday Eucharist to have Percy back with us after a spell in hospital. His singing is much missed by the choir on Sundays. The morning was bright and sunny, and having him with us was 'value added', as far are we're concerned.

Mike, one of the craftsmen who worked on the renovation and redecoration of the church in 2008 is back with us, constructing much needed additional drainage channels in the north churchyard. This measure will help reduce the ingress of damp, one of the knock-on effects of such abundant extra rainfall.

Slowly, St John's is taking protective measures to mitigate the new impacts of climate change on the building. Our geothermal expert technicians have been in and out this past week, measuring and evaluating the environment of the church to inform their proposals for a geothermal energy strategy for the building. It's a lot more complex and subtle than I had originally envisaged, but this is partly because new technological solutions are now coming on stream very rapidly. I'd like to think that what we're doing is timely.

Monday, March 08, 2010

End in view

This afternoon we re-started 'God on Mondays', two weeks into term, after the school OFSTED inspection, which has concentrated all attention and sapped collective energy since it was announced at the start of the winter term. I really wonder if the impact of this process is as good for the schools as a thoroughgoing evaluation is meant to be. Everyone already does their best for the sake of the kids, and that's evident from even the most cursory of visits. I wonder what the 'added value' element of inspection consists of, and how it can be quantified? Still, I might say the same about the Monday afternoon Family Services I have been conducting over the past four years. Will my successor think this worth continuing? Or think of something better, more attractive and relevant to help nurture the faithful who still value this link to the pastoral and liturgical life of the parishes that support the life of the school?

There are three God on Mondays sessions in this half term. I'm using them to look at characters who appear in the Passion story. Then, the day before term ends, Fr Roy and I will distribute Palm crosses to the children, and that will be the end of my pastoral engagement with the school, over the five years since the last Curate of St James left the Parish and was not replaced. Will retirement mean the end of my ministry to children, I wonder? I would like to have done a lot more, but holding the whole Parish together, survival in this era of resource starvation has meant that there's been less time for people (children included), and more time just coping with running a big public voluntary enterprise hemmed in by some many administrative and legal checks and balances. I have never been happy with that. And retire discontented at the inevitability of iit all.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Retirement landmark

The weather was kind enough to allow me to cycle to church for the eight o'clock this morning, and that meant I was a bit fresher and more awake than usual when I went to the altar. I love the early morning time of quiet prayer. But, I'm a night bird, and getting to sleep early enough to wake up feeling fresh has always been difficult, making it an effort to get into gear. Trouble is, on clear evenings I love to go out and look at the stars in the silence of night before surrendering to sleep, and that equals Late. Among the early worshippers was a young woman from Malaysia who's been to the eight o'clock before, she's on a work placement in the University Registry. She said that the temperature at home was 40 degrees centigrade. In Cardiff, it was just above zero. She didn't seem to be suffering from the cold like those of us present, two or three times her age!

At the Parish Eucharist I counted half a dozen single women among unfamiliar faces, in addition to the average three dozen regulars. Unusual. I wonder why? I spoke with two of them - one was from Italy, here on a language course for three months. The other was a student passing through from Freiburg im Breisgau, a University town near Basel and the Swiss border, gateway to the Black Forest. It's marvellous the way visitors discover St John's, and seem receptive to our very traditional ways of worship and hospitality. I'd like to think that doing things well and wholeheartedly is the secret.

As we finished the evening office of Compline, preceded by Lenten address, our young Malaysian returned with her camera. She wanted to take photos of the daffodils that still decorated the church after last Monday's St David's Day service, and Margaret's funeral to send home. She was so disappointed to discover they'd all been spirited away after the Parish Eucharist. However, I was able to offer her the consolation of access to the Parish web photo archive, where I'd posted, Monday night, 65 photos taken by Pauline and me on my camera, and by Anna Morell, Archbishop's press officer, on hers. The album is here.

The offer took a little time to deliver. I couldn't remember the long web address of the photos, so I needed to pick it up on-line and write it down for her. Simple? No. The church office is so cold that some times computer boot-up procedure, meant to be 2 minutes under Linux, twice as long for Windows (I run both systems in the office in case one has a hissy fit on me in an emergency) seems to pause forever in mid-process as if the system is broken. Just like me getting up in the morning. So I sat for an age in freezing cold when I should have been upstairs in the choir vestry making an efficient start to the PCC meeting, due to begin five minutes after the end of the service. I arrived twenty minutes after the due start time, and fifteen minutes of that delay was waiting for the computer to perform. Perhaps we should put thermal lagging for the office computer on the next PCC agenda.

It was a good meeting, driven by shared awareness of key items of interest, rather than my steering of the agenda. This was my last full PCC meeting. There were no expressions of sentiment, just the usual business, with lots of full and free exchange, as it would be, whether I was there to chair the meeting or not. The life and mission of the church has to continue, with or without a Vicar in the inspirational moments and in dull routine periods. These are people who keep their eye on the ball.

I feel so privileged to have had this spell as their leader, and am happy to know that, no matter how well or badly the bosses discharge their responsibility to re-appoint, St John's will continue active in service as the spiritual heart of the city centre.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Losing our religion

A quiet Saturday was just what I needed after such a taxing week. After a late breakfast we went over to our house in Meadow Street, to inspect kitchen installation progress, now that that job is nearning completion. We then went out and bought ourselves a ceiling light fitting, ready for next week's electrician visit, and travelled on to Penarth to have lunch in a small eatery we like, with quirky sixties 'continental' d├ęcor.

While we were at table a lively mixed group of young adolescents came in for a cuppa and a chat. I wasn't following their conversation, but at a certain point one of them started rehearsing the Lord's Prayer, as if trying to remember it for some reason. Quickly the whole group joined in saying it together, demonstrating I guess who could and couldn't remember the text - not with a feeling for it as prayer, but much in the same way that a memorised poem or pop lyric might be said, as if they were challenging one another to remember. A curious phenomenon. What does it signify, I wonder?

After our return home, I walked into town to get some wild bird seed and fish pie mix (to cook paella for supper) from the Market. On the way, I passed another group of slightly older adolescents. One of them was tearing up a booklet and scattering its leaves - opposite the Police Station and Law Courts. Some of the group were laughing and others reproaching him with a concealed admiration at his daring. I spotted the discarded cover. The booklet was the text of Saint John's Gospel, probably acquired from one of the evangelists who operate on the streets of the city centre from time to time.

Deliberate blashphemy? Sure. An offence to literature and literacy lovers, as well as religious folk. This age of cheap print publication and disposable literature has made some Christians keen to distribute scripture in the most profligate way, taking the chance that people will read rather than hoard or discard the gift. It's true that in deprived and impoverished countries, the gift of scripture and literacy are cherished highly. But here, where we have excess of everything, too many words, too much rubbish in print, it's a different matter. Not to be able to value a book, not to be able to respect holy scripture is a profound handicap for a young person - a recipe to nourish fascism.

How do we teach upcoming generations respect and value for that which is to be treasured most?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Farewell Margaret

Over eighty people gathered to say farewell to Margaret this morning. I felt unable to sit down and write either a homily or a tribute, and had to trust that when I opened my mouth something worthy would come out. Pauline's voice was full of her sadness as she read the Epistle : "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race ..." I felt the same too, as I read and spoke, but managed to get through without cracking up. But all in all our sadness was filled with the light of our love for her, and the sun shining in, making all the daffodils glow. I'd like to think Margaret would have been comforted by the occasion if she'd been taking part.

As I awaited the arrival of the hearse outside Thornhill Crematorium I saw a pair of buzzards circling high above the fields below the Wenallt on the north side. It reminded me of life in Geneva, and trips through the Vaudois countryside on Sunday afternoons, going to Gingins to take a service, and seeing several pairs of buzzards in the course of ten miles on back roads. Then, after the brief committal ceremony, it was back to St John's to celebrate the noon Eucharist and deliver the third Lenten meditation, then afterwards to join the rest at the post funeral reception, the Tea Room being closed for the day.

Finally, a brief visit to Tredegarville school to hear the first reports of the OFSTED inspection. All round, a 'very good' verdict, with 'outstanding' for Pastoral Care and Religion teaching. It's what I'd expect, but it's so good to have that confirmed objectiverly by outsiders. The staffd are alll pelased, but quite exhausted after the ordeal, which has dominated their lives for the past couple of months. Isn't there a better way? I wonder.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moving on

Archdeacon David Lee stood in for me at the lunchtime Eucharist today, enabling me to officiate at the funeral of the mother of one of the St John's Priory Headquarters staff. This entailed a journey over to the Gwent Crematorium in Croesyceiliog, and a reception afterwards in the Rhiwderin Inn on then outskirts of Bassaleg. It was a beautifully sunny if chilly day, and a countryside, although still wintry, looked as if was about to break out into spring, with crocusses in abundance, though very few open daffodils outside. I was given a lift back to Cardiff through the lanes over Caerphilly mountain, via Rudry and Lisvane. The views of the city were uplifting, after the sadness of sharing a bereavement.

Then at six o'clock, we received Margaret Kemp's body into St John's overnight, and I celebrated a requiem Eucharist with over thirty friends and family present. The church was still awash with the scent and colour of the hundreds of daffodils brought in for Monday's Mayoral service. We decided to leave them in place as a special tribute to Margaret. We knew she'd delight in them. Afterwards someone reflecting on her passing spoke unwittingly of the continuing decline of the congregation. Not, so I had to say, with three adults and two children confirmed in the past six months and several other newcomers joining us regularly. The growth is not remarkable, but it has been steady and slow, and more than the net losses of people through death or moving on. I'd like to think this will continue for my successor also, as I move on.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

What do we really want?

After today's noon Eucharist, a meeting of the 2020 focus group at the Castle, to look at the latest developments in the work on pedestrianising the environment of High Street, and hear about a scheme that will involve local businesses in becoming stakeholders in the management of funding that is to be applied to their local environment, having a say in spending priorities and in how the area is marketed. We heard that marketing the Castle Quarter is now getting attention. This is something I was researching two years ago. I must get in touch with the project leader and make sure that St John's is understood to be part of the Quarter publicity design concept from the outset, and maybe promote some of the ideas and work I've already done on this, while I still can.

The problem is that as soon as there's a vacancy, no familiar face to relate to, the business of securing appropriate inclusion soon goes by the wayside, and years go by before the opportunity is there again. Maybe it's just as well that we're only moving across the Taff, and not across the Severn or the Channel. For a while at least I may be able to keep some useful church interests alive before handing them over, as opposed to leaving them to wither and die.

After the meeting, a trip over to school for a meeting with another inspector, reviewing the pastoral role which Roy and I share in school - a lot easier than yesterday's meeting. It was good to see staff relaxing as they came to the end of what had been an intense and demanding three days. As if life in school wasn't intense and demanding enough already.

Then, an evening meeting up at 'the Res' church hall, as Glanely's Church of the Resurrection is called. It's over 25 years since I was last there to preach at Martin Reynold's first Mass. Now I was invited to speak to a two dozen strong ecumenical Lent group about Faith Communities and Climate Change. It was a first outing for me as a speaker on this subject, and enjoyed the challenge and the dialogue that ensured.

I learned that there were ructions going on because this event clashed with a Lent Talk given by Bishop David as part of a Lent wide series across the diocese. I checked when I got home, when I discovered that I too stood among the accused. I didn't really take in the publicity for this series, or think it relevant to me, a) because it was tied to a diocesan adult basic education course I am not using because my constituency has moved on from repeating basics; b) the first publicity for it arrived after I'd started planning my Lent programme (pressed by Richard's request for diary dates in advance for the magazine), and was approached at the planning stage of the Ely Lent series. In other words, the launch of the Bishop's initiative was already too late. Having been launched in the January 'ad clerum', a reminder was omitted from the February edition, so many forgot, if they hadn't already dismissed the invitation on practical grounds.

I don't suppose I am alone in regarding Epiphany as the trigger point for starting to look ahead to Lent. If some set of Lent events is going to take place that is meant to take precedent over local planning, then it has to be announced at least by the beginning of Advent if not earlier to allow for adjustments to be made in habitual programme schemes. It's hard enough to get people to commit to local Lent activities, let alone get them to visit the Cathedral or some such other place. But most importantly, the uncomfortable question: who has said they want the Bishops do put on this kind of event? How was the decision made, by whom? What mechanisms do we have for establishing what people want by way of teaching ,encouragement and support from their bishops or diocesan teams?

I sympathise with the frustration of those putting on poorly attended events, having gone through all that with the Lent Lectures, which I finally killed off three years ago. I know that St John's parishioners like to have some Lenten input, but find the time commitment difficult when they are juggling so many other things in their lives. That's why I do talks, print them, podcast them. I make the offer in several ways, but I know I can't impose, and demand their attention or attendance. I work on material because it's my job 'in season and out of season' as Paul would say. Part of my spiritual discipline is to do the work, and do it for people I know and live with. That's so much harder when you have a couple of hundred different communities to live and work with. Having a variety of ways to reach them all is essential. Timing is essential too.

Now that there's not even a meaningful debating opportunity at the annual diocesan conference, I wonder how constructive conversations between the grass roots and the leadership can be re-awakened. I don't think we see enough of our Bishops and other senior people alongside us in the parishes any longer. They may well come for big special events, but it's in the mudane and ordinary events that time can be found for more creative listening and debate. But these days we're all plagued by too much admin, too many committees. So when do we really meet and learn from each other what we really want of being part of the church today?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Packing, speaking, accounting and scribing

I packed glassware this morning. We're clearing fine Victorian sideboard, prior to auction. It has to be sold, as it will not fit in our retirement home. It's an even smaller house than the one in which we first lived when I was a curate - the occasion when we acquired this piece of furniture. It has accompanied us throughout my ministerial life. Letting it go is a hard wrench - so many memories are associated with it.

After lunch, the Tuesday Group gathered with me in church for a special Lent service. This year I could not manage a whole series for them as I have done this past three years, just a single one. That's the measure of how much extra there is to fit in during this period of preparation to move one. A dozen of them turned out, the most I've had for such a service. I felt honoured by their support and appreciation expressed.

Then it was off to school to meet one of the OFSTED inspectors, visiting for the first three days of this week to discuss the governors' role in financial management of the school. It was quite a perplexing encounter. I was not sure of its objective, and it seemed as if we were talking quite different languages when it came to engaging with the matter of understanding the meaning of value for money in purchasing policy. I wonder if we're being 'softened up' for the harshness of impending state cutbacks in education. Will the inspectors report exhort us governors to acquire more training in the governor finance role. i.e. get brainwashed in education authority bureau- speak, rather than insisting they learn to address the realities on the ground in the way the people on the ground have to in order to survive? I confess I am suspicious.

Education has, to my mind become all too much a political football, subject to fads and fashions, and psuedo science. Pedagogy is an art, and it can be a costly art, for that matter. Governors are there to ensure that teachers can practice their art well and happily, not for the comfort of bean counters and remote managers. They need to be accountable to teachers and children, not the other way around,

After this unsatisfactory encounter, it was a matter of rushing home to get ready for a Street Carers Representative Group meeting in County Hall, and agreeing our plans for a volunteer training programme that will take us through the rest of this year. I still take notes at these meetings and run the Street Carers' blog. A long tiring day.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Dydd Gwyl Dewi

This morning, St John's welcomed the annual service of the Lord Mayor of Cardiff for the other Mayors of Wales, prior to the annual St David's Day parade around the city centre. It was perfect occasion with blue sky and crisp air, and enough of a breeze to make the mayoral flag flutter on the St John's tower flagpole during the event.

It began with the surprise arrival of the Archbishop of Cardiff, our nearer neighbour, whom we we delighted to see along with our own Archbishop Barry, who was preaching, and we were able to seat them on opposite sides of the sanctuary in splendour. Archdeacon Peggy and Barry's new chaplain the Very Revd Chris Whittall also came and occupied thrones on high, to add to the pomp of the occasion.

A boy and a girl Scout of the 'Lord Mayor's Own' troop carried the mayoral maces in procession before him, and a Royal Welsh College brass quintet played a special welcoming fanfare before the service began. This was the event I'd hoped to see happen back in November to celebrate the end of the city centre redevelopment phase, but it had proved impossible to communicate with ecumenical leadership in the city to make it happen. I was so glad that after a a little behind the scenes diplomatic activity, it proved possible to have this theme absorbed into the annual Mayoral service. Barry had already been booked to preach, and I'd begun to brief him on the content and theme of the sermon back in August last year. The outcome was just right for the occasion, positive in every sense and appreciative of all the good things that years of effort in planning and construction have brought, for the benefit of all citizens.

There was a good cross section of people involved in the whole project present, although some notable omissions. For some reason I cannot fathom, Paul Williams, the city centre manager was not invited - one of the most pro-active contributors to keeping the place running and building morale and expectation during the years of great upheaval and confusion, left out of the guest list. Why? Paul Manning the city's project manager wasn't there for another reason - an urgent admission to hospital with heart problems. No doubt, a product of the stress under which he has worked over the past seven years I have known him, and just as he is about to retire.

After the service, there was a reception in St David's Hall and then the parade to watch, with great crowds of people in festive costume all along the Hayes, with music and speeches on a small stage in Hills Street. Sunshine throughout. What a pleasure!

Clare and I were also invited to the banquet in City Hall in the evening. We were entertained by singing school children beforehand, and Prince Charles' harpist during supper. She spoke about her role afterwards in a delightful touching way, referring to the beautiful glamorous party dress she was wearing and had worn on several royal occasions and one a match day. She had a story for each occasion. That made me feel very proud. Here was a Welsh girl, something of a musical celebrity, who wasn't telling stories about the special dresses she'd worn (by great designers or at great expense), but remembering the special associations of the one dress she was proud to wear and grace the Prince's events with. Different values, so much more honourable. It's in the little things (as St David would say) that our true worth can be witnessed.