Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent arrives

Friday afternoon brought us snow and temperatures have been low enough for the white mantle to remain over Llandaff Fields, and make the footpaths treacherously icy here and there ever since. We walked under blue skies through the snow to the Cathedral Sung Eucharist today. Archbishop Barry celebrated and preached. He was on good form after a fortnight's holiday and looked pleasingly well for one whose job is so unenviably demanding.

This evening, I went to St John's for the Advent Carol service, and saw many old friends. Clare attended the equivalent Welsh language service at Eglwys Dewi Sant the other side of the city centre. Afterwards, I walked over there to join her so we could walk home together. Like St John's, people there are warm, open and friendly. Clare is in her element there, speaking Welsh. I feel a bit like I did when I was first in francophone social engagements in Geneva, a bit out of my depth and striving to follow, and say the right things. 

The trouble is, as Clare reminded me, contemporary informal Welsh has changed the way people interact. I understand a fair amount of vocabulary from what I learned in earlier decades, but don't always grasp how it's used, let alone know how to respond. It's one of those phases in language learning that has to be endured without knowing how long it'll take before a shift in comprehension, and confidence takes place.  At Dewi Sant people are gracious in the way they accept my limitations. They don't hesitate to speak to me in English if my nerve fails.

It's not such a bad thing for me. It reminds me of the need to listen more, and be humble in any effort I make to communicate.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Codi Canu comes to town

Recently we've been following a TV series on the Welsh language channel S4C called 'Codi Canu', in which four inexperienced subjects are tasked with training a choir from scratch to perform several pieces from the contemporary Welsh choral repertoire, with the support of a mentor. The outcome of the exercise is a competition between four choirs from four different regions of Wales, in a televised event staged at Cardiff's St David's Hall. Clare obtained tickets for this, so we went along and became part of the live audience at tonight's broadcast. 

It was a great musical night out. The bad weather reduced the audience somewhat, so that the place was less than half full, but there were still over three hundred people singing in the four choirs, plus their supporters, another five hundred. The floor manager had to encourage everyone  to squeeze into the central section of the auditorium for the sake of the TV cameras, so that it didn't look as if we were rattling around in that great space. It's twenty years years since I last took part in a live TV event. I'd forgotten how contrived they can be, in a producer's endeavour to make the programme engaging to watch.

All four of the choirs performed well, no matter how they were rated at the end of the event. Several of the pieces they prepared were for singing together, with an orchestral accompaniment conducted by maestro (as he was properly addressed) Owain Arwel Hughes, one of the judges. A chorus from Verdi's Nabucco, another from Verdi's Requiem, a very popular Welsh hymn, and the Halleliwia chorus from Handel's Messiah (yes, sung in its Welsh translation). All were beautifully rendered, and the audience stood, as is traditional, for the Halleliwia chorus.

On reflection, I realised that ninety percent of the music performed during the evening was derived directly from a religious musical repertoire. Each choir in competition chose to sing an arrangement of a Welsh hymn, all different. It says a lot about Welsh cultural and artistic values that this is the case.  And it raises the question about why churches of every denomination are so poorly attended.

It was clear to me that our audience tonight valued greatly the musical content - did that include the words and their poetic/theological significance? It's hard to say. I'm not a native Welsh speaker, although I am aware that for some who are, words and their meanings arouse emotion, just as the music does. It's all part of how identity is forged. But in our time this happens to a greater extent outside the churches' liturgical settings than within. 

Our musical and literary leaders (bards and poets) command attention where priest and preachers do no longer. Perhaps this is because too many of recent generations of priests and preachers (my own included) don't resemble bards or poets, having been spiritually shaped and trained by churches to fit in to legally regulated institutions, safe and socially acceptable. While this is fine for certain kinds of insecure domesticated suburban clients, it does nothing for the natural hunger of the majority, craving for a spiritual experience still better delivered by creative artists than qualified clerics. Changes in the spiritual formation process are certainly called for in this respect.

Currently in the political arena it's debated that S4C caters only for a minority and is not good value for money. The same is also said about a great deal of Britain's prodigious creative arts enterprises. Thus it ever was in lean years I guess. S4C and British arts will never be able to convince bean counting political materialists that their value is way beyond their budget cost. They will be obliged to work harder, be less self-indulgent and waste less in order to sustain their cause. 

I hope they'll survive and be stronger for the challenge nevertheless.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

This ministry of hers

I appreciated the mature thoughtfulness of the address made by the Queen today at the opening of the Church of England's General Synod. There's a summary of her remarks here. She takes her role as Head of the established church very seriously, speaking, in effect, as the leading Anglican lay person with a strong sense of the full setting of the CofE's mission and witness in a secular multi-cultural society to which people of all faiths and none make valued contributions. I liked the fact that she mentioned the recent state papal visit in such a positive way countering centuries of antagonism catalysed by her predecessor Henry VIII.

"Yet, as the recent visit of His Holiness the Pope reminded us, churches and the other great faith traditions retain the potential to inspire great enthusiasm, loyalty and a concern for the common good."

Being a Monarch for nearly sixty years, she has witnessed remarkable changes in every aspect of life you can care to think of, yet made wise contributions above and beyond the politics and religion of the day aiming to reconcile, harmonise and give value to all participants in an increasingly diverse society. She has put her inherited privilege (of which so many appear resentful) to good use in serving the nation. I don't think this ministry of hers is appreciated nearly enough.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Tough assignment

We got up early enough to attend the Parish Eucharist at St John's Canton this morning. A student from St Michael's was preaching her first sermon, around the readings for the day, in honour of Christ the King. Both the Parish clergy and the lay reader in training were there to listen and encourage, which was a nice thing to do, in my opinion. The readings are substantial ones, and not that easy to work on, given the thematic imposition of the festive title as a theme.

There's a lot about kingship and kingdoms in the bible. Much of it relates poorly to the modern experience of sovereign rule, whether the democratic republican or constitutional monarchical kind. We often sing about God our King and some of the associated poetry of praise is hard to improve upon. But this occasion is a celebration of Christ the King, different in character from what is celebrated in the mystery of Ascension

It's not an ancient liturgical custom, but dates from the nineteenth century when the temporal influence of the papal states was declining, and the church needed to be reminded to look to Christ paradoxically reigning from the tree of the cross, He whose 'kingdom is not of this world', whose power is the 'powerless power that overpowers powerful power' as Bishop David Jenkins used to say.

1 Samuel 8, one of the readings for the day, offers an eloquent critique of human kingship, that needs consideration to remind us of the ambivalence that is an inherited part of any notion of royalty, but strangely, this isn't read at the service most people attend.
Ambivalence and paradox are far from easy elements to celebrate, without  withdrawal from the real world in which these must be lived with - even when thinking about Christ. The difficulty lies in making connection  between these ideas in our lives and the use or abuse of worldly power as part of our common experience.

To my mind our new preacher had an unenviable first assignment. She worked well and hard to explain the content of the readings and to point to Christ on the Cross. There were connections with life needing to be made to get the most out of this occasion - daunting for an experienced preacher taking the job seriously let alone a beginner. It was a hard place to start, tackled with gracious enthusiasm.

Preaching develops by going over the same great themes and passages of scripture over and over again for different situations. Whenever I revisit sermons once preached, I find that no matter how insightful they may be in some respects, there are awlays other respects I find embarrassing, inadequate, badly thought through, reflecting a poor state of mind at time of writing. I can never re-use anything as I find it. There's always something to edit or develop afresh.
After lunch, I walked to the Cathedral for the uplift of Choral Evensong, with Howells' Hymn to St Cecilia as an anthem. An hour of ethereal pleasure. For all my need for earthed relevance in proclaiming the Gospel, I still need my healing dose of heavenly beauty to keep me walking tall.

Friday, 19 November 2010


This morning, James had a lie-in, courtesy of a school INSET day. Then we took a trip around the East Bristol ring road to find the British Red Cross depot at Warmley and pick up a wheel-chair for Amanda to use at home. No sooner had we returned than a text message arrived to say she was ready to be picked up from the hospital, so I left James hoovering around, and went to collect her.

Once home, she was soon getting the measure of using the wheelchair where she needed it to get around, and reviewing the storage arrangements in the kitchen to ensure she could safely access all the things he would need on a day to day basis. I'd set my heart on a long overdue de-frost of the freezer in the fridge, but in the process of liberating great chunks of ice from the cabinet as it thawed, I succeeded in killing it altogether. So, I jumped in the car, drove in the dark through evening rush hour traffic to the vast expanse of the Cribbs Causeway retail park to look for a place open to buy a replacement fridge.

I found the vast Curry's superstore, about the size of a couple of football pitches, packed with every kind of electrical device imaginable, with dozens of fridges for sale, conveniently visibly arranged in one corner. Within minutes I found the model I wanted, and as I was waiting to pay for it, a lad arrived from the warehouse section with the fridge on a trolley. Together we loaded it into the car, and in another twenty minutes I was home again, and unpacking and installing it.  Pretty impressive service. Fortunately, getting a new fridge has been a neglected item on Amanda's 'to do' list for some time, so the afternoon's disaster was more of a blessing than a disaster.

After this unexpected item, I cooked a pasta supper for us all, and then set off for Cardiff, happy to have seen Amanda back home and pleased to be in a place where she could work at her recovery in peace and security.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

New kit

Wednesday afternoon, I returned to Bristol by car, exchanging places with Clare, looking after James. Amanda intends to come out of hospital tomorrow to continue at home the work of physical rehabilitation imposed on her by her affliction. The hospital has organised for the delivery of several devices to support her in the kitchen and bathroon at home, to allow her as much independence of movement as is possible.

We were notified that delivery of the devices ordered would occur between ten and two. At eleven thirty a delivery van came and within five minutes of signing for the goods I was 'learning by doing' how to ensure the devices could be used to best effect. 

Raised toilet seats, and night commodes I've come across in times past. New to me, a portable handrail for the loo, adjustable height seats for kitchen and bathroom, a seat over the bath to make it possible to use the shower, and a utility trolley for transporting stuff across the kitchen. 

Learning to make best use of these will be the first adjustment to home life Amanda needs to make. It will give her greater freedom than being dependent upon nursing staff for her every move. In that freedom, I believe, lies the potential for the healing she seeks.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Attention to detail

I returned from Bristol to Cardiff especially for my Chi Gung class on Tuesday evening, and Clare took my place looking after James. I get so much benefit from the hour of exercise coupled with phyisical awareness teaching, that it's an unmissable commitment, as far as I'm concerned. Thankfully, Clare recognises this and supports me. I put an afternoon's office work in beforehand, and walked from City Hall to Talbot Street for the class. 

At this season, Cardiff Business Safe administration is a matter of attempting unresolved problems related to anomalous subscriber accounts. These amount to about a sixth of our total revenue stream, and we can't afford to abandon efforts to get it all right. In additon, I have been working at reconciling invoices and bank statements to produce a spreadsheet that will render the 2009 accounts in a form that won't take our auditors an expensive amount of time to turn into an annual financial statement for Companies House. 

Work of this kind is rather dull, systematic, narrowly logical, in contrast with the visionary, insightful, intuitive way of working I've relied on for most of my adult life. I can't honestly say it's enjoyable, but the contrast in modus operandii is educative. Producing useable accounts is like proof reading a text. Looking for differences and errors in material that looks similar in every respect is an excercise I'll never really get used to such strenuous attention to detail. Nevertheless, it does teach you to notice the world in yet another way.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Stand-in preaching

A desperate last minute 'phone call from the Vicar yesterday morning led to my early rising and a car journey out to Pontyclun to be stand-in guest preacher for their Remembrance Sunday Parish Eucharist. It was parade Sunday for local air and army cadets. The local firestation team also came in uniform, so the church was full, about a hundred and twenty people altogether. As ever, people were warmly welcoming. Some of them recall my visits to preach in the Parish as far back as 25 years ago.

After the service I went with the Vicar down to the cenotaph at the other end of town, for the Act of Remembrance. Thankfully, there was no rain. It was chilly, but the sun shone. During the wreath laying a grandfather, father and son laid wreaths side by side, and a class of year ten children from the primary school scattered poppies around the monument. It's good to see how the significance of the event is still being transmitted down the generations.

I went back home for lunch. Clare had invited niece Anneke and Stefan her three year old  son for the weekend, so it was very much a family occasion.  Then James  and I went down to the Bay, to take photographs of Wales GB Rally cars at the end of their gruelling week, all queued up for the prize winners ceremony. HMS Monmouth was in dock for a weekend visit, and we succeeded in being the last two to go aboard for a walk around at the end of visiting hours - a new experience altogether for James. After a short stay, we headed back for the car, and drove back to Bristol, for James to visit his mother in hospital and prepare for school. I'm not often sleeping in my own bed at the moment.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

An unusual Remembrance Day

I returned to Bristol by train yesterday afternoon to look after James. Rather than ride into Temple Meads and take the 45 minute bus journey back out to Southmead, I got off at Filton Abbey Wood Station, and walked to Amanda's house. This took 50 minutes and thankfully I didn't get rained on. The last part of the walk took me across the sprawling campus of Southmead Hospital, which has a huge building site at its heart. Here I took a less than direct route for the last leg of thre journey, adding an extra five minutes, but door to door, it was still quicker than going in and out of the city centre.

This morning, I took the bus to Temple Meads to buy a rail ticket for James to travel to Cardiff on Saturday morning, there being no permanently open ticket office at Filton Abbey Wood, and James being nervous of having to obtain one on the train. The experience of travelling on his own is new to him. The day oscillated between heavy rain showers and bright sunshine.

At the bus stop there was an elderly blind man seeking the same bus as I was taking to get to his bank in Henleaze. He seemed less than confident of his destination bus stop, perhaps because going out with a white stick on his own still unfamiliar to him. Either he was recently blind or perhaps without his usual partner as guide. More by luck than judgement, and with a few anxious faces around the bus, the right stop was identified just in time. I spotted his bank across the road and got off with him and walked him over. 

As I returned to the stop to wait for the next bus, the heavens opened. A young woman sprinted in haste out of the rain into the shelter to join the three of us waiting there. Immediately we started chatting, and not just about the weather. She was a student heading back to her osteopathy training centre in Oxford, thrilled with enjoyment about what she was learning. She'd already travelled a lot and looked forward to being able to travel more with her future profession. We chatted all the way to the station, about healing, family, Tai Chi, the fast developing world of India and China. Her natural confidence and ease with a stranger the same age as her grandfather said a lot about the secure and loving family in which she had grown up. It was a most enjoyable if extremely rare encounter. 

I took advantage of my day ticket to hop on and off buses across the city centre in order to avoid the intermittent showers. When there was a prolonged clear spell, I walked into the St Paul's area, which I have re-visited only rarely in the 27 years since I was a parish priest there. St Paul's church and the late Georgian Portland Square enclosing it look spruce enough, but there are few if any residents in the Square, long ago converted into offices, many of which are empty. 

The church I resisted closing is now owned by Circomedia - describing itself  as the leading centre for contemporary circus and physical theatre in Europe. It's a training school for circus artists which boasts the largest permanently rigged flying trapeze in the UK. Not surprising when I think how high the ceiling was in that beautiful building, so hard to manage for the congregation of eighteen remaining when I became its priest in charge 32 years ago. St Werburgh's parish church, closed also after my time became an indoor climbing centre. Only St Agnes' Parish Church remains open. Huge sums of money were invested in the internal adaptation of the nave to provide community facilities under the same roof as the place of worship. It looks well cared for and well used. The adventure playground next door the the church has sprouted permanent buildings as well as amazing climbing structures. The park opposite has been re-modelled, and the street layout changed to integrate church and park to good effect.
There are new houses where there had been derelict land. Low rise apartments have been given a face lift with garden enclosures replacing open areas that once made them vulnerable to vandalism. All in all a great deal of investment in uplifting an area which still has a high concentration of people without employment or with instability in their personal lives. Yet, the many well looked after houses and gardens demonstrate that deprivation is not the whole story of life in the area.

In an open space at the junction of Grosvenor Road and Ashley Road, I found a sculpture honouring the life of Jamaican poet and playwright Alfred Fagon, who settled in St Paul's as a young migrant from the Caribbean, and obtained public recognition and the broadcast of his work in the 1970-80's. I made his acquaintance in the period when we were striving to develop new community facilities for the area, and he visited us at the Vicarage for tea and conversation. He died at 48, a couple of years after I moved on. It was good to see that he's remembered as one of those creative people whose creative labours helped introduce a new audience to the black immigrant experience.

I visited the site of the former St Barnabas school and long closed church (one of the first redundant churches of the post war era), where I had helped to get the first St Paul's Community Association off the ground before leaving. The old Vicarage building is still there and the old school building too, with extensions and adpatations to it. The church, never a thing of beauty, has gone, and is replaced by an all modern community centre, named after black activist Malcolm X. I don't think he ever visited St Pauls, but many inhabitants looked to him for inspiration.

As I was taking photographs of the site from down Ashley Road, a man started remonstrating with me abusively for doing so, telling me to eff-off. I had a touch of deja-vu at this point. Ashley Road, aka 'the front line', because of its location as one of the flash points in the 1980 St Paul's riots, evidently still has this 'territorial' identity or memory to it in the minds of inhabitants too young to remember the events at first hand. I recall my own indignation at the media assault in the days after the fateful night of April 2nd, and the resentment of the intrusion felt while the community linked its wounds and buffed up its pride. 

I crossed the road and tried to speak to Mr Angry, to tell him this was once my home too, the place where I worked, that I was remembering who I'd been thirty years ago, but my attempt to converse was ignored, blocked with more curses. Nothing about me or my past associations would have been of any interest to him with his passionate illusions. I'd love to have heard his opinion on the improvements I thought had been made to the area.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

God of surprises

I listened to a remarkable programme this evening about twin sisters, raised by a mother who was a life long agnostic/atheist. Yet both children embraced Christian faith naturally and without difficulty. As a young adult, one of them converted to Islam, out of her experience of radical feminism, regarding herself as being freer as a muslim woman, not needing to play all the games that women play to keep up appearances or be attractive to others. This rejection of modern western notions of sexuality seems to be a recurrent theme lately, with Tony Blair's feminist sister-in-law Lauren Booth speaking about her conversion to Islam to the media recently. 

This documentary was about the relationship between the sisters, and the mutual challenge of facing their mother's terminal illness from perspectives that were informed by their different faith perspectives. What the audience was not prepared for was the mother saying in one interview that in no way would she consider taking up religion, having done without it all her life, and then in the next interview speaking with utter candour about the profound mystical experience she'd had which made it possible for her to go back on her earlier words and speak about faith in God. Evidently the God of surprises.

She had become reconciled to the Christian faith which she'd presumably been exposed to in her youth and later rejected, and was able to celebrate 'Eidmass' with her family. She hadn't expected to live long enough to see her newest grandchildren, and yet she did, and spoke freely about the grace she had received in all of these things. Needless to say she didn't speak about church, nor, she admitted, had she considered what Islam offered, although she admired the courageous witness to faith of her hijab wearing daughter.

I was also moved by the testimony of the muslim daughter to her experience of islamophobia as one distinguished publicly as a believer by her dress. She wept as she spoke, entirely without anger, without desire to blame and shame. But what she said was indeed an indictment of the ignorance, the prejudice, the lack of respect and unbelief that makes Britain a place no longer to feel proud to be part of, regardless of how hard our leaders try to lead and uphold decent values.

When I look back to my early days of my ministry at the challenge so enthusiastically undertaken of renewing the church in the face of secularity, it's impossible not to admit the sense of failure which I now experience. What did we do wrong? I suppose I shall be pondering over that for the rest of my days on earth.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Local Saints

I went to the 9.15am Parish Eucharist at St John's Canton this morning, which gave me more time at home with James before he departed with Clare to return home to Bristol, just after lunch.

After they'd gone, I found I had just enough time to walk to the Cathedral for Evensong, in honour of the Cathedral's sixth century Celtic founding fathers - Teilo, Dyfrig and Euddogwy. I found that added something special to the rest of a day spent in solitude.

James texted me when he arrived home, and asked what I'd been up to. I replied that I'd gone to Evensong at the Cathedral. He texted me again: "Evensong" where's that?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Garden blessing and fireworks night

At noon today I had the privilege of acting as Chaplain to the local Cardiff & Vale British Legion gathering to bless the Garden of Remembrance in St John's Churchyard. Fr Mark, the Area Dean was there to welcome and bless, in his role as acting priest-in-charge during the vacancy. It was great to be able to share this very public piece of ministry with him. Australia were playing Wales and the city centre was extra full with visitors and spectators for our Act of Remembrance. James came along and sat shyly in a corner, and took a few photos. Owain arrived at the end, and we all lunched together at one of Owain's favourite places, Cafe Minuet in Castle Arcade - authentic cucina casalinga Cardiff style. Owain then took James to Dempseys to watch the match, and I took advantage of the crowd reduction to take a tour of the shops before joining them to witness Wales' defeat.

After supper James and I went out for a walk down the misty river bank past the cricket ground, so that we could stand, watch and photograph the 'Sparks in the Park' firework spectacle over the other side in Bute Park. It certainly was worth braving the chilly evening to witness, and we had fun comparing photos on our respective laptops when we returned home to warm up. I was surprised when James mentioned that he'd never experienced walking out in deep darkness and mist at night before. But then he's grown up on an urban housing estate where the street lights stay on all night, or nobody feels safe. So different from the days of my youth when the few street lamps went off at eleven, and only pit men on the night shift were out and about.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Damp Guy Fawks

Clare returned from Bristol yesterday morning for her usual kindergarten session. I did a few hours of office work before returning home for lunch and catch-up, then went over to Bristol to take her place looking after James, and visiting Amanda.

After an early breakfast and seeing James off to catch his school bus at seven thirty five, I switched on the TV news and promptly fell asleep on the sofa for couple of hours. At least when I came round, I was refreshed enough to put in several hours of work on further developments to the Business Safe database, that I've wanted to do for some time, but never found the time or the distraction free environment.

Amanda and James live in a quiet corner of a housing estate, and being away from home there are fewer things to divert my attention. It was raining miserably, thus no prospect of a decent walk, so I settled down to do some redesign and data entry work for several hours before lunch, followed by a hospital visit, cooking a meal for James before another hospital visit and then a trip for us both back to Cardiff.
We got soaked walking to and from the hospital, yet despite the rain there seemed to be a fair number of fireworks punctuating the night sky. It was the same last night, and it will be the same tomorrow night, with a big charity fireworks and bonfire party in Bute Park 'Sparks in the Park'. Hopefully that will compensate for missing a friend's party tonight - there was no choice about getting wet in any case.

Funny, I don't recall bonfire night lasting three days when I was a kid.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Holy enjoyment

After a busy few hours of office work in City Hall, I made an effort to get home early enough to walk in darkness across the fields to Llandaff Cathedral for the six o'clock Solemn Eucharist of All Saints Day. Sitting in choir for the service was uplifting, wafted on clouds of sweet incense. No sermon, just an hour of beautiful meditative worship to crown the busyness of the afternoon, and then walking home, with the mild breeze dropping occasional falling leaves upon me. Simple holy pleasure, with an evening of solitude to follow in which to savour the experience - Clare has gone to Bristol to look after James, as Amanda is hospital.

The Mass was sung by a choir of twenty eight, mostly young people (Darke in F), and there were another forty worshippers present. As a full time cleric, musician or verger, your job is to be there and prepare the celebration for others to join in. It struck me that some, if not most participants had come straight from work, to stop and immerse themselves in the life of the liturgy for this hour before eating, saying hello to the family, catching up on chores. It makes 'lay' and 'professional clerical' spirituality different as offerings of prayer. 

If you're wrapped up daily in church affairs, holy things become routine. Rushing into church from work to pray, despite the distraction and fatigue, is an opening to an experience of the holy that can transform the meaning of the day. Now I have a different sort of lifestyle in retirement, I begin to appreciate the difference.