Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Michaelmas - and the hunt is on

Yesterday night at County Hall the third introductory training session for Cardiff Street Carers took place, and produced another eighteen people, bringing the total up to nearly a hundred now. I couldn't get there at the start because of my commitment to the Chi' Gung class, which I feel is already proving to be beneficial. With help in the form of a lift down to County Hall from Clare however, I was able to get there by the tea break. It's so frustrating to have a clash of special commitments, when days can pass with nothing outside of my routine office activities.

At tonight's session I learned from the HANR Outreach team leader that Mark, one of the city centre's long standing street 'characters' died a couple of months ago, in hospital from multiple organ failure. The long term damage from drink and drugs, plus the menal and physical injuries sustained during his street life made his existence nasty brutish and hard. He used to come into St John's from time to time, and could be spotted on times draped in a Welsh flag. We never really knew if he was drunk, high on drugs, or just very exuberant, for he would pray spontaneously out loud, when the church was empty, and sometimes during a service, he'd join in prayers with loud 'Amens' and 'Praise the Lord'. His regular religious habitat was the City Temple, where he had committed his life to Christ. On the few occasions I had a coherent conversation with him, his faith was apparent, not least in his endurance of hardship and suffering without bitterness or self pity. His glimpses of a higher life somehow enabled him to survive and to have a secret dignity in the face of his own brokenness and destitution.  

" ... and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest".

Then this morning I joined Paul Hocking, Chair of Street Carers for a meeting at Willcox House with HANR team members, a city centre management team member and Sergeant Karen O'Neill to discuss the re-location of the Charles Street nightly feeding station for street people. Pressure is on from St David Centre Security staff, and Marks & Spencer's staff to move away from the area, because of a few unpleasant incidents, and what is perceived as occasionally intimidating behaviour on the part of some of the clientèle towards late shoppers. Soon the old Ebeneser Chapel is to be converted into two presitgious restaurants, and there will be even more people out and about in the evening to feel disconcerted by the unruly behaviour of the few among the beneficiaries of the 'soup run'. 

All parties would prefer a solution that was in everyone's best interests. Nobody is prepared to invest that much time or any real money in a solution such as a permanent building location in the heart of the city, close to the very places where disposessed people like to hang around day and night, for good or for ill. Seeing Ebeneser turned into two posh restaurants when the city already has more table spaces than it can fill profitably all the time, is for me the stuff of shattered dreams and deep disappointment with fellow Christians' lack of missionary vision and confidence. That building would have been the ideal venue for a feeding station and rehabilitation project in the manner of Victorian church community enterprises. 

The need of the poor was on the church's doorstep, but they sold up and moved to somewhere more convenient for their needs. By the time it was a 'fait accompli' there was nothing anyone involved with Street Care work could have done to make a difference. Now we are working together amicably with those who have all the power they need to compel the Street Care feeding station to move away from its present side, to somewhere less contentious. But none of them were bringing any suggestions to the table this morning. There's no deadline, but the need for this to be resolved has now been openly voiced. It was something I saw coming more than a year ago, when I first learned that Ebeneser had been lost to the restaurant industry. I just hope and pray a positive solution can be found, with plenty of time to prepare for it.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Family get together

I returned to St Luke's for the Parish Mass this morning, while everyone else enjoyed their lazy Sunday breakfast and chill-out after a late night and talking and drinking wine. It's a fifteen minute brisk walk, just the same distance as from the Vicarage to St John's, so helpful to an arrival fully awake. The sky was again blue and the sun streamed in through the church windows, made more entrancing that usual by a dispersing cloud of incense. There's a nice relaxed atmosphere with plenty of prayerful silence to make it enjoyable to be on the receiving end.

Then it was back home to prepare for lunch out at Bully's restaurant nearby, with Owain joining us to add to the pleasure of the occasion. The food was very good, and none of the adults were disappointed with their fare. There was plenty of choice on the set menu, but not much flexibility in catering for the needs of kids that'll only eat plain food, no sauces, and will usually settle for a plate of pasta with butter on it (not on offer of this occasion). It's really a resutaurant for grown up 'foodies' -  the dining equivalent to one of those small fast two seater touring cars with little or no room for luggage - for consenting adults only.

Anyway, the serving staff were considerate and helpful, so Rhiannon ended up uncomplaining with a plate of green french beans and mangetout peas with a couple of bread rolls, not to mention the chocolate mousse to finish. It was time for them to head home to Kenilworth by the time we'd got back from lunch. Later in the evening we learned that she'd slept all the way in the car, and woken up with an appetite - for pasta, no doubt.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Getting things in order

This week I completed and sent off nearly all of the paperwork to accompany an application for a permission to officiate in the diocese in Europe - well, thirteen of fifteen required documents. Making a new passport application was less difficult. It took an invitation to help out in the last month of the interregnum at the La Cote chaplaincy in the Pays Vaudois, which I helped grow into life in the nineties, to kickstart me into action.

I celebrated Mass at St Luke's Canton this morning, standing in for Fr Mark who, along with most of the serving clergy of the diocese, was summoned to the annual diocesan conference. Several worshippers came from a nearby old people's home with their carers. Co-incidentally the first readings ware familiar passages - the last chapter of Ecclesiastes plus the Gradual Psalm 90, both of which reflections on old age and mortality. I couldn't resist giving an improptu homily start from the fact that, apart from the carers present, the rest of us were getting on a bit in life and inclined think quite a bit about mortality and the passage of time, raising a few smiles and laughter. I still get much pleasure from an opportunity to preach the Word. 

Afterwards I made a trip to Staples and bought the cheapest all-in-one printer, photocopier and document scanner I could find for the CBS office - forty quid, not because we need a printer, but rather a scanner. The cheapest stand-alone scanner is fifty quid, and is far too well specified for the basic task of digitising records, my next project to make it easier to work from different locations. Although our office in Charles Street is ready for use, we are still working from City Hall because we have doubts about the security of keeping sensitive records in an open plan office in a building where there is still much un-monitored coming and going by enforecement officers. It's not in anyone's best interests for us to lower our vigilance threshold, so we keep on probing as diplomatically as we can to see if these needs can be better accommodated. And for the moment we put up with the difficulty of not being able to assemble or our assets in one place and run a 'proper' office.

Late afternoon, just after I'd finished installing the scanner software on the office laptop, Anto, Kath and Rhiannon arrived for an overnight stay,  to celebrate Clare's birthday. It's the first time they have visited us since we moved in and made changes to the house which they occupied for a couple of years when there were first married and we were in Geneva. This week the newly contructed linen cupboard at the top of the stairs got its coat of varnish, and we had a new panel fitted to the side of the bath, completing the renovation work planned. Before supper, we strolled over to the children's playground on Llandaff Fields for them to stretch their legs and relax in the evening sun. It's been a lovely autumnal day.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Learning new habits

Last night I went to the Chi' Gung class again, and it really did me a power of good, with new insights into things I learned years ago, as is often the case with Christie's image packed teaching style. The simple review of certain hand gestures - each associated with animals, dragon, tiger, rabbit, deer - gave me something to work with in fending off joint pains, and retaining strength and flexibility. The fact that you are given things to work on which have a therapeutic dimension makes it invaluable.

Thus energised after a good night's sleep, we got up early and went swimming this morning for the first time in weeks. It was a lot less taxing than I thought it would be and I swam vigorously for about half an hour. Later in the day I was tireder than I'd expected. I may feel pretty well these days, but my fitness level is not what I'd like it to be. I need to develop a more demanding exercise routine, that's for sure.

I then went to Newport on the bus to hand deliver my passport application to the regional office, and pay a visit to my friend Martin. We went to PC World to get him a wireless dongle to free his computer from the wireless router-modem, attached to a phone point in the lounge away from his office. As a temporary solution ages ago he moved the computer into the lounge and used it, tethered to a network cable to obtain internet access. He's now got used to having a computer on hand, so will he now move it back into the office and buy another smaller machine to replace the office one on the occasional table?

Gradually the use of computers becomes more ubiquitous in our daily lives. There was a time when I'd look at designs for equipment, phones, cameras computers, personal organisers with new hardware and software interfaces, and wonder who on earth would want to buy them and use them. I realise now that very far sighted people are constantly considering the business opportunities inherent in matters of usability and new ways in which to use innovative technology. Usefulness becomes everything. These days I too like to have a computer on hand if I watch telly. It means I can look up things of interest to do with something I'm watching, or update my blog during advertisements. TV these days is rarely so gripping or so good that it demands a hundred percent attention. 

Apple boldly declared the iPod, iPad and the iPhone would be revolutionary innovations. Did we really need them, and be willing to pay so much for them? I used to wonder. Few products have sold so fast globally, and been integrated so quickly into people's everyday lifestyles, that their use and the never ending development of new applications for their use must be seen as more than  just a fashionable fad. Other companies compete now with similar cheaper products, deploying similar touch screen user interfaces and wireless internet connections. Others follow where  Apple leads. I've never been able to afford to be an early adopter of innovative products. Rather, I observe the rise and fall of new promoted gizmos, and discover what really changes our usage habits collectively before comitting myself to learning something new.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Honourable mention

I officiated at a funeral this afternoon of a lady who'd attended the Friday lunchtime Eucharist at St John's whenever she was in town shopping or meeting friends. She'd left instructions in her will that I be asked to do this, without my knowing it. She'd been worshipping in church just before I left, but had been taken by a fast acting cancer. Her little dog had died only a few weeks before her. Others of her generation, she was over eighty, remarked that it was good she'd left this instruction, as often family members don't know what to do, having moved away from where they grew up, not knowing that much about the everyday life and associations of their elders. By stating this in her will she was inferring that someone she knew, although a stranger to them, would look after them and help them on this sad occasion. It's a small act of consideration on the part of a dying woman. It's an honour to be named in this, and a duty which on any occasion I could manage, I would do my best to perform.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

A day for remembering

St John's welcomed us back for the Parish Eucharist this morning, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood on the day itself. Julie's family and friends were all there before me, occupying the four front pews, ready for the baptism of her grandson Tyler. To be able to administer both Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper on this occasion was indeed a welcome privilege. There were over sixty people in the congregation, and afterwards there was a huge choccy cake and bubbly wine to share. In every way it was a chance to give thanks for the years past, and for the blessings of present times and the wonderful friendships that remain here in the heart of Cardiff.

After lunch I made a little pilgrimage to Llandaff Cathedral for Evensong, to remember  with great respect and affection Archbishop Glyn Simon who ordained me. He's buried in the churchyard outside. The choir sang  Herbert Howell's magnificent Collegium Regale setting, which really makes my spine tingle, plus an anthem by Charles Wood. Two Canons officiated at the service and there were another four of us retired clerics in the congregation, content to be on the receiving end. Alan Jenkins was there, like me, remembering his ordination day forty five years ago, same place, same date.

My journey in ministry and mission started here and has come full circle. The desire to commend faith in Christ as universally relevant to all humankind has taken me to many unusual places, each one different in what I learned and was able to offer. That continues in retirement, but no longer with the constraint of being focussed on one place or one group of people, by virtue of one's mandate from a bishop. I need to learn how to discern and use the gift of freedom I now have to offer ministry only as a response to the needs presented, rather than as a duty to which I am committed, as when I was a full time working cleric. That's quite a difference. I hope I shall remain up to the task laid before me in those seminal words of ordination from the old 1662 Book of Common Prayer spoken over me by Glyn Simon as he laids his hands on my head.

"Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a priest in the church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands Whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven, and whose sins thou dost retain they are retained. And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and of his holy Sacraments. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

I've been a liturgical reformer all my working life, one way or another, and don't disapprove at all of the texts of the revised modern language ordinal, but I'm glad I was ordained in the time I was, with this solemn pronouncement made over me, words used across the English speaking world ever since the reformation breathed new vernacular life into the ancient Latin formulas. This says it all for me. 

It's what I have striven to be in response to God's call imparted in the uncertain years of my youth when Vietnam, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust overshadowed the world,  when the Beatles were supposed to be more popular than Jesus, when a man first walked on the moon, when church attendance slumped, and with it vocations to the ministry. It's been a bit like rowing upstream for much of the time, though never without blessings, and the surprises of grace. 

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Pope's visit

It's extraordinary that the Pope has made a state visit to Britain this week, and addressed an ecumenical interfaith assembly of public figures from the very spot in Westminster Hall where Thomas More stood trial and was condemnd to death for his refusal to renounce his allegiance to Rome. His beatification of Anglican convert Cardial John Henry Newman was a source of good-will to all who love his poetry, hymns and prayers, regardless of their denominational allegiances. 

When I was growing  into adulthood, occasions like these would have still been unthinkable, except by really crazy visionary ecumeniacs. Despite, and maybe because of all the difficulties and challenges we've faced, in the past generation, it's been a great time to be alive, so far. Where will God's people be in another forty years from now I wonder?

Friday, 17 September 2010

Opera night

Finally today, I managed to mail a package of documents to the diocese in Europe office in Westminster containing my application form and half a dozen other supporting documents requesting permission to officiate in the diocese. If accepted this will place my name on a list of available clerics willing to travel across the channel, north east or south to places near and far where there are congregations of Anglicans in need of locum ministry. Most chaplaincies have permanent clerics, the larger ones have more than one, the smaller chaplaincies may only be able to afford occasional visiting clerics or offer accommodation and travel expenses for a set period, so maybe I can be of help if the occasion arises. The next job is to renew my passport which runs out at the end of October. I won't be going anywhere unless that's in order.

After a spell of washing up in the tea room and an even shorter spell in the Cardiff Business Safe temporary office in City Hall, I rushed home for an early tea and then we headed to the Millennium Centre to hear Beethoven's opera Fidelio. The singing was, as ever marvellous, but the minimalistic production was a disappointment, and made the whole thing feel tentative, more like a last rehearsal than the first night it actually was. The prison simulation looked OK but swayed  visibly as actors moved through it, thereby failing to convey any impression of  secure fastness. Small props were few and far between. The singers mimed giving water and bread to the captive Florestan, and the murderous villain approached his victim with an imaginary knife in hand. As I said, a bit too much like a rehearsal than the real thing. And the applause at the end reflected that. Still, the music was glorious and nourishing, with great things made up of simple German melodies. Despite everything, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Mozart's 'Magic Flute' in two week's time.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

" ... as one who serves."

I celebrated the Eucharist at St John's this morning as the priest who's there regularly on Thursdays for the time being was away. It's the first time I've been asked to stand in since I retired. It was good to learn that weekday and Sunday attendances are being maintained in the absence of a new incumbent. Old fashioned clerical protocol dictates that the retiring incumbent should keep clear for a couple of years and not interfere in affairs or compete with his successor for the loyalties of parishioners. And there are all sorts of worst case stories told about retired former Vicars being a nuisance and making life difficult for the one who has to shoulder pastoral responsibilities after they've gone. 

To my mind this presumes that all clerics have problems about establishing or relinquishing status and power. It has nothing to do with ministry or the Gospel of Him who set his disciples the example of humble service. As far as I'm concerned the only thing necessary is to ask either the congregation, or the new incumbent when appointed, if I can help in any way, and keep out of range if the answer is 'no'. There's no need to experience this as rejection. What I learned from the experience of working for USPG, was that the authentic missionary serves the flourishing of the church by working themselves out of a job, so that they need to move on. That's actually how I feel about retiring when I did.

Having said that, I did ask if I could celebrate the Parish Eucharist this coming Sunday, as it's the fortieth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. It was something I needed to think through before asking. At one level I'm not too comfortable with a priest drawing attention to themselves when they are by virtue of office figures who attract public attention. Some love attention, some need it, but what purpose does it serve in my life? The passing of years has shown me that many more remember birthdays than recall ordination or more importantly baptism dates, even among close family. But what I felt I'd like to share with others on this occasion was my heartfelt appreciation of all those (now mostly long dead) whose prayers, influence and encouragement guided me to priesthood as a way of life. So this is my personal Litany of the Saints, offered in thankful remembrance for all that enabled me to believe a life of ministerial service was possible at all.

I scribed for the Street Carers representative group meeting this evening at TAVs, in Roath, an old Gospel Hall which has been adapted to serve homeless rough sleepers and vulnerable people, as a place where they can sit down to a meal, take shower, get some new clothes and find someone to listen to their concerns and pray with them if needs be. It's an admirable working model of a vision of pastoral and practical care for the poorest of the poor, developed by people at Highfields Church further up in Roath. We could do with a couple more of these around the periphery of the city centre. 

One of the things we started to discuss is the re-location of the existing mobile feeding station in Charles Street outside M&S, to forestall more hassles with security staff resulting from a few mis-behaving street people. It will only get worse when the adaptation of the vacated Ebeneser church building into two new prestigious restaurants is completed.  Such a shame nobody would consider  allowing one of them to be acquired as another permanent off-street feeding station for street people. At least I was able to hand over a cheque to the new Street Carers Forum fund  from the diverted giving campaign back 2007, stewarded by Cardiff Business Safe. This will help with training to help Street Carers to improve their standards and confidence in the great work they do.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Record breaking marathon of a different kind

Last week I was asked if I would take part in a rather unusual activity in the St David's shopping centre - an attempt by a team of health care professionals on the Guinness world record for the most number of blood pressure readings taken in a period of eight hours (2075). My role was to be part of a small group of monitors verifying that the procedures were being followed properly to their conclusion. With the support team welcoming the public and signing them up, there were fourteen trained people and their assistants using digital sphygmomanometers (a big word for the thingy with a cuff that wraps around your arm to take a blood pressure reading), plus a doctor on hand to meet with people who had enquiries or had been referred to him because of their abmormal BP readings.
It meant getting up early and being in town by 8.30am, which I didn't manage because of a lack of buses combined with horrendous congestion on Castle Street, which is still part blocked by road works that  seem to be taking an eternity. I arrived at nine, and others were trickling in and setting up ready to start. They weren't waiting for me, but for Rhodri Morgan former Welsh Assemby leader, who was due to make a little speech and start the day, for the benefit of the media. BBC Cymru was there, and did some interviews and filming. You can see the report here (in Welsh only), with glimpses of me in the background, signing off logged entries, and wandering about. Not very exciting though.

Once the footfall of shoppers picked up, the numbers started to come in thick and fast, people of all ages and race. I was amazed, since there didn't seem to be a huge amount of publicity beforehand. The poor doctor worked very hard and must have advised a hundred people who were referred to him in the allotted time. He remarked how surprised he'd been to see a significant number of under 20s with high blood pressure. It's something you expect in older people, and is sometimes found to be the case with Africans and Asians here in the UK. I wonder what our usual diet and lifestyle is doing for them?
I'm glad I took part. It was an excellent exercise in promoting public health concerns, and one which touches me personally since I was confronted with my own un-noticed rise in blood pressure, some four years ago. Oh, yes, I forgot to say, we set a new world record too, 2331 readings in 8 hours. And my wrist sure was aching, having signed off at least half of those logged in.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Holy Cross Day

When I'd finished a bereavement visit this afternoon in preparation for a funeral next Monday, there was a text on my mobile phone from Clare to tell me that Tai Chi' classes were re-starting in St Mary's Church Hall this evening. I didn't properly get re-started after a break for my hernia operation followed by an outbreak of kidney stone movement three years ago. It was eighteen months before I get rid of the stone and recovered full confidence in normal physical activity. By that time I'd become too busy and lost the habit of regular class attendance. Not a good thing. When I retire .. I said to myself.

The learning and discipline involved in Tai Chi' was something I found invaluable. Some of the awareness stayed with me and sustained me during my last demanding year in office. Well, now there's no excuse for not returning. I'm re-setting priorities and will start catching up with myself properly - body soul and spirit. My body's been pretty good to me over the years. Now it's time to return the favour.

The class of thirty was for beginners, and I was glad of that, as it makes it possible to receive familiar input afresh, and to take note of the difference made by the passage of three taxing years. Christie is an excellent teacher, always re-crafting her descriptions of what she asks us to do, using verbal imagery as well as showing us the way. I came home refreshed and determined to continue. And I paid for the term up-front. No slacking now!

Monday, 13 September 2010

Short weekend in Kenilworth

No public book burning took place on Saturday 9/11 day in the USA. There were protests of one kind or another around the solemn commemoration of that stupendous act of violence nine years ago, in NYC and Washington, although there were reports of violent protests elsewhere in a few muslim countries and attacks on churches. It could have been so much worse.
I attended my first meeting of the St John's Jerusalem Eye Hospital committee in the morning, at the new conference centre on the Treforest hillside campus of Glamorgan University. This site has come such a long way since the days when it was just a Mining and Technical College in my youth, welcoming lots of third world students to do engineering and mining courses. People forget that Ponty had a streak of the global village about it as far back as the fifties and sixties. The meeting was located here as the annual St John's national conference for volunteers was taking place on campus, with 180 participants of all ages from all over the Principality. Very impressive.

From there I drove to Kenilworth to spent the rest of the weekend with Clare, babysitting Rhiannon, while Kath and Anto played gigs at Leamington and Ludlow food festivals. I attended the eight o'clock Eucharist in St Nicholas Parish Church on Sunday morning - another pleasant experience, as the air was clear and the sun was shining brightly, illuminating the stillness of a lovely 13th century church interior. Worshippers here are warm and friendly, evidently appreciating their early quiet time with God before whatever the day presented them with. 

The brisk walk there and back is a real pleasure. The setting of the church on the brow of a hill with a poplar tree lined avenue leading up to it and a huge expanse of greensward falling away below it down to a small stream is classically English picturesque, yet this piece of public parkland is as busy day by day as Bute Park is in Cardiff, as it is well used by locals, and very well managed by Kenilworth district Council. Such amenities need to be appreciated fully as they are so important to the community, and yet always vulnerable when it comes to public spending cuts.

After seeing Rhiannon off to schoool this morning, we streight off home. We needed  to be back by lunchtime, as we had workmen coming in the afternoon to remedy problems caused by rising damp which had been incorrectly fixed before we moved in. Another case of one work team ignoring the expert advice given by another, sad to say.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Eid in Cardiff

Yesterday's late night news indicated that the American Qu'ran burning pastor might renounce his threatened action, not least as a result of the eloquent appeal President Obama made, urging him to consider that the impact of this act, would serve to increase recruitment to Al'Qaeda. The pastor regards his protest as a response to a proposal to build an islamic cultural centre in proximity to the World Trade Centre site in New York. He obviously cannot get his head around the fact that at least sixty of the 9/11 victims were Muslims. 

However, the media report that he has agreed to visit New York and meet the imam there who is involved with the project, on the understanding (inferred) that it may not go ahead in that location. Different reports suggest that the proposal to stop or move the project has not been agreed, let alone discussed.  

It appears the pastor has already met a leading Florida imam, to discuss this, and was invited to go to New York to meet people involved there. Interviewed this morning, the imam spoke in a forthright way about their conversation, and his differences with the pastor in understanding was what spoken about. It's confusing but at least a start has been made to engage him in dialogue, and hopefully to avert a moral and spiritual disaster. Meanwhile protest riots are breaking out all over Afghanistan and in other countries, as Ramadhan comes to an end. Eid ul Fitr began with the first sighting of the new moon at Mecca on Wednesday evening - Thursday evening in USA.

Glasgow University's Theology Professor Mona Siddiqui spoke with superb insight and wisdom on this situation on this morning's BBC Thought for the Day. Her contribution was one that all people of faith could be proud of. I was disappointed that she didn't end by wishing Muslim listeners 'Eid Mubarak', although I suspect not that many woudl have their ears glued to early morning radio, being more likely to be praying or celebrating in some other way.

I was in town early this morning with Paul Hocking to meet the new city centre police sergeant Karen McNeill to give her an up to date briefing on the development of Street care work. Afterwards I went into City Hall to drop off my bag before going on to Cathays for the funeral of Christine Griffiths at St Michael's. Hundreds of Muslims of varied nationalities, all dressed up in their Eid Friday best were pouring out of City Hall at the end of their first Eid ul Fitr public gathering for prayer. So many smiles, bright eyes, happy greetings - such joy in the air - a great witness to faith in God.

It was a pleasure to move slowly through the crowd. For once I was wearing my cross, and here and there it meant I too received a warm greeting or a smile. I saw a man I recognised and wished him an 'Eid Mubarak', he embraced me with delight and took me to greet the imam who'd led the festive prayers. I also met Dr Saleem Kidwali, president of the Muslim Council for Wales and greeted him. I told him how well Professor Siddiqui had spoken earlier on the radio. "That's what I have to go and do next!" he said. It's that sort of day with all the American goings-on throwing the spotlight on the occasion. 

I was so glad to be there to offer a little sign of good-will to a few of the believers at this gathering. There were well over six hundred present, of all ages. I didn't notice anyone  from the media  there recording this peaceful, happy gathering of faithful people acting normally in the face of the fear being raised by the communication of this bad news story from Florida around the planet.

I took the bus and walked fast part of the way to get to St Michael's on time. There was a crowd of a hundred to say farewell to Christine. Still active to the end at eighty eight she had lots of friends across the generations. There were five clerics present, all asociated with her beloved St Teilo's. She'll be fondly remembered and sadly missed.

From the bus, travelling back into town through Cathays,  I saw Muslim families out on the streets in their new festive clothes, going to and from the mosque in Wyverne Road. The building has had a front end face lift since last time I passed this way. It now looks less like the church hall it once was, and has more dignity, worthy of an islamic cultural centre serving at heart of student land.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Limits to tolerance

A Wikipedia article informs the world about 'International Burn a Koran Day - planned for September 11, 2010 by Dove World Outreach Center to protest militant Islam aggression by burning copies of the Qur'an. The event was announced in July 2010 by pastor Terry Jones of the non-denominational charismatic Christian church in Gainesville, Florida to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the event has been widely condemned by politicians and religious groups, however, Jones has also received support for his initiative, having been sent two hundred copies of the Koran, and gaining support from thousands on the social networking site Facebook.'

The international media has picked up on this and it has attracted condemnatory comments from national leaders and even by Genreal Petraeus over in Afghanistan, who points out how the outrage at such a proposition, let alone its actuality, will place more lives at risk, motivating even more retaliation, not just in the war zone, but all over the world. This morning the UK tech blog 'The Register carried the news that church's website was no longer available on-line. Whether because the Internet Service Providor has pulled the plug, or the site has been hacked is not yet known. Non extremist Muslims promise to distribute 200,000 copies of the Qu'ran to replace the 200 sent for burning, and why not? There'll be even more interest shown in reading a copy of a book deemed fit for burning.

It's hard to think of this religious group as being anything other than a hostle extremist sect, as evil in their intent as the very groups they regard themselves as protesting against. They represent the very thing that secularisers like Richard Dawkins, relish to get in their sights and attack them as if this kind of body represented most the world's conservative Christians, let alone others who aren't Condemnation and dissociation by other Christians achieves little. The question is, what kind of action can be taken, that doesn't get accused of being an attack on free speech or persecution of people for their beliefs?
To my mind this initiative constitutes a clear incitement to religious hatred. Can Federal US law address this, or is the American legislature wary of its right wing moral majority? I'd like to think there were grounds for action to inhibit this protest in UK law, if it happened here. It's right that all people of good will work at the process of increasing respect for each others beliefs in order to learn how to live better with differences. But it is also right to have some socal and legal process that discourages and prevents the cultivation of ill- will, and puts public order, stability and peace at risk.

It's not against the law to burn books. Remaindered books not destroyed for recycling materials may be used as fuel, as they are cheap enough. Redundant damaged old bibles are a cleric's nightmare, as it's not unusual for them to be received from families who inherit them from deceased relatives and don't know what to do with them, when they have no use for them, as they feel guilty about trashing them. This surplus of sacred texts is a legacy of the age of printing and universal literature distribution. Before printing,in some cultures ,old and redundant sacred texts on parchment or vellum were overwritten, and if beyond re-use would be stored, even buried, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I don't know what Muslims do with old copies of the Qu'ran, or if they have the same practical problems about disposing them at the end of their useful life. But these are side issues.

The concern here is about deliberate burning as an expression of contempt and condemnation. It's not  only refusal of one religious group to dialogue with others, it's an act of confrontation and incitement to hatred, which gives offence to most, and will bring back hatred in reaction upon their own heads. If this isn't as illegal as fomenting race hated, why isn't it? Surely it would be possible to ban such an activity from the public realm? What the sect does about this in its own private domain may be beyond the reach of the law, so long as children and vulnerable adults are not endangered or health and safety regulations ignored. The media will either steer clear of publicising a private event or not, depending on their political agenda. Speech may be free, but not everything that's said is worth listening to or promotes the world's well being. 

Let's hope that the sound judgement of the moderate majority prevails in this nasty affair.

This afternoon, Slashdot reports that Rackspace, major American internet hosting company, took down the 'Dove' church websites. "The center violated the hate-speech provision of our acceptable-use policy," explained Rackspace spokesman Dan Goodgame. "This is not a constitutional issue. This is a contract issue."  Funny how long it took them to notice.  Anyway, they've done the right thing. I wonder if relgious fundamentalist websites hosting virulent anti-gay propaganda (like 'the God hates fags ' site) will also get taken down?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Rosh Hashanah

Stephen Hawking was on the BBC Today programme to make his usual assertion that God is an un-necessary redundant idea in understanding the creation of the universe, and likewise philosophy, proclaiming that science and the intellect have all the answers to the kind of questions we have about reality. He believes philosophy as much as religion hasn't caught up with the extraordinary advances in science this past quarter century. He is effectively proclaiming a new paradigm shift in our knowledge and understanding of everything.

Religious folk may not be too bothered by this for the moment. Philosophers may be quietly thinking: 'Who does Hawking reckon he is?' In wrestling with theory of knowledge (how we know what we think we know), talk of a paradigm shift refers to a change in how bewilderingly complex things become clear, simple and understandable in a relatively short space of time. Are we really there yet? All the complexities of modern scientific findings are couched in arcane mathematical theory, and only a few experts can understand, let alone make any connections. Albert Einstein once said "Mathematics deals exclusively with the relations of concepts to each other without consideration of their relation to experience." Getting an all embracing mathematical theory that is scientifically testable may be the precondition for a paradigm shift in how we understand the universe, rather than a manifestation of one. It's no use to anyone if it can't be related to experience, however.

Tonight is Jewish New Year's Eve. Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks was on Thought for the Day, not long before Hawking. His contribution was a beautifully, positively crafted affirmation of faith. He knows how to communicate the good news of faith, with intelligellectual vigour. You can read his words here. It's well worth a look. In five days of aired debate, he's the first person to mention Aristotle's ideas about the material universe always having existed, as opposed to coming into existence from nothing. I mentioned Fred Hoyle's discredited continuous creation theory four days ago, but  forgot about Aristotle and others who first had these debates. How familiar these would have been to Jewish saints and sages, contemplating and praising God's creation, as they too in their way tried to probe its secrets.

How many are thy works O Lord. 
In wisdom thou hast made them all: 
the earth is full of thy riches!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Underground activity

Since the spell of heavy rain ten days ago, the hole in the street outside has re-appeared.

Or to be more precise, tarmac and rubble shovelled in and rolled over on two previous occasions began to sink and produce or should I say reproduce the same circular depression three feet across and a foot deep. This time, someone else noticed and called the Highways Department. This time the mini-excavator brought in dug down well over a metre, into the bed of clay beneath the tarmac and rubble layers until it had reached the end of the range of its bucket. With great skill, the driver then placed two large steel panels over the hole, using the ram on the machine's front and the jib arm to shift them into place. Then the crew left for the day.

Chatting on his lunch break, one of the crew told me that he'd seen several recurrent holes of this kind in other parts of the city. He attributed them to the excavations made by sewer rats, who take advantage of any loose brickwork in a tunnel to burrow into the clay and create chambers in which they can rear their young. These can become quite large, and when uncovered, found to be stuffed with plastic bags and other materials borrowed to make nest bedding. They hadn't so far come across such a chamber in our street, but we'll see what further digging reveals in days to come.

Here's a few action photos

Yesterday and today we've had an excellent carpenter in making us a new linen cupboard at the top of the stairs. We're very pleased with it. This kept me at home most of the day, so it was gone for when I left home to drop of some work done at City Hall. I waited 25 minutes for a  sixty one bus to appear in my direction. In the first fifteen minutes of my wait no fewer than four  sixty ones passed, going toward Pentrebane. Is this a record? I have no idea of what was going on out there in the suburbs.

The poor driver was clearly coping with a lot of pressure, well aware that he was late. A small boy was misbehaving at the back of the bus, winding up three younger children and their mother. I think he was also dinging the request stop bell constantly. Two minutes into the ride, the driver stopped, got out of his seat and shouted angrily at the kids, threatening to put them all off the bus. The three smaller children all started weeping loudly and hysterically, making things worse. When they got off, the mother of three apologised for the behaviour of the brat, not her own but a friend's she was minding. Several passengers got off too, and made kind, sympathetic, appreciative noises to the driver. Such is  life on the sixty one bus.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Soul music day

We went to the Cathedral Sung Eucharist this morning, and were treated to an excellent sermon from Mari Price in the wake of the Hawking news story, plus the singing of a Mass setting by late Victorian Irish composer Charles Wood, colloquially known as 'Wood in the Fridge' because it's written in the Phrygian mode. It's one of my favourites. The soaring sounds of the Sanctus literally made me tingle from head to foot. It's not something that I can honestly say I experience often at the liturgy these days.

One of the panellists on this week's 'Any Questons' owned up to being a practicing Anglican, confessing that he found it easier to believe in God when he could join in a Book of Common Prayer service than he did when asked to sing 'Shine Jesus shine'. I wouldn't be surprised if there were many more who'd want to say the same, but feel a bit uncomfortable about saying it. It wasn't the position of a diehard liturgical conservative, but of someone hungry for the richness of our spiritual heritage, feeling that a culture of choruses and jolly enthusiasm is not enough sustenance for taxing times. 

I've always been a moderniser, as well as loving church tradition. It's been a disappointment to me that over the years the impulse to give liturgy a more contemporary look and feel has happened, but with an over-simplification of content. Much of the best modern music is considered too hard and demanding on the attention span to be of use in today's brief encounter with the Lord, where anything longer than 65 minutes overturns schedules or disrupts the post liturgical meet and greet routine. So today's service hit the spot for once - uplifting, inspiring, and leaving enough time to say hello before heading back home for lunch.

Tonight we went to a benefit concert by old friends Robin and Bina Williamson, held in support of Pontcanna's vegetarian health food store Pulse, actually in the store itself, in front of an audience of two dozen, packing out the available space. Pulse has been struggling as a result of the recession, and after the failure of a co-operative venture to buy out and run the store and its suite of therapy rooms, Rhiannon and Derek, the couple who've been running it for years are having another go at re-shaping its retail offer, and in the process are discovering they have local community support. Hopefully, there will be other concerts and recitals in the space occupied by day by several cafe tables. For those who believe small is beautiful, there's real potential here for a multi-faceted enterprise.

Robin and Bina are true inheritors of the musical and story telling tradition of travelling bards and troubadors. Their repertoire of stories and songs embraces sacred and secular, Celtic, Latin, black and white American and Indian folk sources. They re-work the material of others, and do their own original compositions as well. Robin was making folk music in 'The Incredible String Band' forty five years ago, before hippiedom and cross cultural fusion really arrived. Holding together the old and the new, and taking them to a new place in connecting with old and new generation audiences is surely what wandering minstrels do best. We're lucky they call Pontcanna home.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Who can know the mind of God?

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking's publicists are busy promoting his latest book right now, giving us the impression that his latest theories dispense with the need to consider that existence, the universe (or universes if there be many) ever had or ever needed a creator. He speculates about demonstrating mathematically that everything in existence is simply self generating, with no need for a divine Author to enter the equation. He is confident that the laws governing the process will be one day be proved by experiment to be the only necessary reality. Similar controversy forty years ago surrounded Prof Fred Hoyle who proposed his steady state theory by which new matter is spontaneously created out of energy as old matter is transformed into energy. That speculation didn't need God either to propose no beginning or end to the material universe.  Cosmologists work on mathematical theories which only a tiny elite can really understand, and are difficult to ground in everyday reality. How different is this from wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a needle?

Hawking is utterly brilliant and challenging, to give him his credit. In his 'Brief History of Time' twenty odd years ago he expressed the confidence that mathematics and observation would deliver us theories which unified and even simplified all the laws of nature in a way that enable us to know the 'mind of God'. OK, it's a respectable enough scientific pursuit, but the idea of knowing the 'mind of the God' originates in a rhetorical question on the part of St Paul, marvelling at the mystery of existence and divine transcendence, in first  Corinthians 2:16 and in Romans 11:34, (in a doxological poem derived from a Greek Jewish earlier text) The complete phrase says: 'Who can know the mind of the Lord?' (here, the Lord = God). It expresses the classic idea of divine transcendence and unknowability to reason, a notion pre-dating Christianity, which is re-iterated by St Augustine in the fifth century AD.

So, when Hawking first stated his position, was he being over-confident, optimistic or arrogant about knowing the un-knowable? Attempts to tell the true story about the origin of all things describe creation from nothing in the language of the laws of nature, laws derived from mathematical theories verified by observation. There's no need to embed God in the equation as the 'first cause', kick-starting the appearance of matter, time and space from nothing, just because ancient story-tellers did  this in the scriptures. There's no way that reasoning could confirm it was true anyway, if God is unknowable to reason. 'In the beginning God ...' is a statement of  faith conviction arising from a sense of awe and wonder experienced when the universe is contemplated, by whatever means.

Any attempt to give a complete account of creation occurs inside the very thing it seeks to describe, however thorough and exhaustive the attempt, it can only ever be partial. There's no absolute certainty that the 'insider' can understand or represent a transcendent whole view of all that exists. Even if our account of all the laws of the universe was complete and correct, the question about the origin  of such laws stands unanswered. You can say the laws 'just are' and don't need an origin if you like, but that's a choice opinion, no more than speculation which cannot be proved true or false. Even if we say the laws originate in the mind of God, it's only our theory, equally un-testable, if God is unknowable, and beyond the power of reason alone to grasp.

Knowledge of God derives from  love, God's self disclosure happens in the experience of being loved and returning love, which transcends all experiences of human relationships and dwells in the depths of our humanity. This is knowledge as it lives in feeling, intuition, imagination and will, more than it does in reason. Reason at work in detachment from these other elements issues in partial fragmentary knowledge about anything. The whole person knows what the mind alone does not. Faith of the whole person that 'God is' - in, above and beyond Creation, does not explain the universe,  but enables us to point to a source to the universe and the laws which have formed it  and reverence with awe the source of existence, the mystery beyond our finite ability to conceive or contain. 

The ancients seem to have understood this well enough within their own limited worlds and cultures. They used anthropomorphisms and picture language to tell stories about divine creatorship with fertile liberty. They knew their stories pointed people in the direction of  unknown reality, and helped them engage with it. Science and maths tell creation stories today in their own way. It may be more abstract and elaborate than the myth making of old, but it serves the same  purpose - helping us live more truthfully the life we have. We just seem to find it so much harder than they did to acknowledge anything outside or greater than our own power to reason. Is our sense of self significance doing us that much good, I wonder?

Friday, 3 September 2010

Coming in threes

I had a call from Caroline over the Cathays Parish after breakfast to tell me that Christine Griffiths one of the long standing members of St Teilo's congregation had died unexpectedly aged eighty eight. She was active right to the end, and only a short while before she died in hospital she was asking her daughter to arrange for someone to cover for her on this coming Sunday morning's tea rota at church, just in case she didn't make it home for the weekend. She walked everywhere and was still studying and doing recreational line-dancing into her eighties. A full life, well lived, but she was expecting to live to a hundred and five, like her mother, so it's come as a bit of a shock to everyone who knew her.

Today's funeral at the 'Res' gathered over three hundred people to say their goodbyes to a man who was evidently well known and appreciated in the community. Glanely Parish Church is still a much valued local community venue for funeral services despite the alternatives of funeral home or crematorium chapel, so they get a higher number than most Parish Churches during the year. This has inspired the congreegation to develop a lay team dedicated to supporting people in bereavement. There's nothing better than doing well whatever you are given the opportunity to do.

During the service, I looked out at the sea of faces, more male than female. I noticed a fairly equal division between those who were singing the hymns and those who were not. Well, here, people are to some extent free to be themselves whatever they believe. The respect written on faces was universal - respect for the deceased, but also respect for the community tradition of valuing the lives of those who die and sending them off with ritual performed in this place, binding them all together at the heart of their locality. 

It stands, no matter how much or how little people believe what the church thinks they should believe. Religious goings on still have a place and a value in a contemporary social setting. It's part of what ministry means in this secularised world, and should never be regarded lightly. Thankfully church members and leaders here understand this, and act upon it.

I arrived home to an answering machine message from a company in Whitchurch asking if I'd officiate at the funeral of a 'St John's lady', whose name I didn't immediately recognise, who'd requested in her will that I be asked to do this. So many people around the city identify with St John's for a host of different reasons, be they carol services, civic events, family history in another era, attendance at occasional offices or just coming in to the tea room - so many people who feel they know me even though they may never tell me their name or have it recorded in the church for any purpose. They identify with the church as a place with people who take an interest and care about others in some way that matters to them. It doesn't have to be intense. For some who are shy, a degree of anonymity is precious. It's enough for them to know they've been noticed and, in some way, blessed there.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Our human differences

Yesterday and today I celebrated Mass for the faithful weekday worshippers at St German's again. I'm starting to get used to doing such a familiar ritual again now, albeit from a different perspective - that of an invited guest. This puts you on best behaviour, makes you perhaps a little more conscious of what it means, than when you are secure in your role and automatically doing what you always do. It's so possible to hide behind routine, and not notice the illusory vanities of the ego creeping in when you occupy a role that places you at the centre of attention for others when you lead them in prayer.

The challenge is always one of making it possible for others to go out of themselves god-wards, not through you or because of you, but because they feel safe to be in a place and in the kind of company where they can. From my perspective, there's no room for egotism there, only for self-effacing service. But my goodness, it's hard to sustain, as the lust to be noticed and appreciated is such a powerful persistent force that it makes sexual desire seem like a flash in the pan.

Since I met with Paul Keeping nine days ago, I've been mulling over the discussion we had, and drafting a paper that may help to put some life into a dialogue between the City Council and its communities of faith, designed to encourage social inclusion and participation in agreeing the values and policies that shape our life as a city. It's an idea proposed in the face of reluctance on the part of many local authority officers, that dealing across the board with faith communities is 'too difficult' to yield any practicable conclusions, because there are simply too many differences to reconcile between faith groups. 

I argue this is bound to be the case unless you develop a way of working that starts by inviting faith groups to recognise their common ground in terms of values and practice in their relationship with civil society, also the grounds on which they agree to differ with each other and maybe with local authorities, without disengaging from the dialogue. On their part local authorities must disengage from the dialogue when, after scrutiny, the differences expressed transgress established state law. This is a difficult, sensitive issue as there's always a small measure in which law is still elastic, in the process of formation or consolidation. 

At the heart of the difficulties I've been mulling over is a social history which accorded status and privilege to one faith group in the eyes of the state, and not another - namely Christianity as the established or formerly established religion of state, (depending on where you live). In a muddling way, Britain extends religious privileges and status to other faith groups, though not to all equally. It might be better if 'established' religion were to renounce all privileges, and accept equal recognition on the basis of agreed criteria. Abolishing religious privilege is not, however, without problems. 

There are circumstances, for instance, in which religious privilege can be used to counter excessive state reactions in addressing the needs of vulnerable people (e.g. churches marrying asylum seekers when the state refuses). Abolition of religious privilege, if desirable, must first secure those who might otherwise be left vulnerable. That's just a taster of what must be settled first. The more I get into this, the more a of challenge it is to think straight, keep an eye on the horizon, and not ignore the complexities of dealing with our human differences. How good it is to have the opportunity to think about these things in depth, rather than just gloss over them, because there are too many other things to get sorted first.

Owain rang me this evening and at 20 minutes notice invited me to join him at Dempsey's bar to listen to a visiting contemporary jazz trio, playing a late evening gig. I arrived during the first number and as treated to a couple of hours of brilliant improvisation from three young musicians - a tenor sax player from Slovenia, a drummer from Vienna, and a virtuoso American double bass player. It was hugely refreshing, and I was lucky enough to wait only three minutes for a bus home at 23h30. I must do this again.