Sunday, 29 May 2011

Rogation Sunday

I attended the Parish Eucharist at the Church of the Resurrection in Ely this morning, prior to conducting a service of infant baptism, as a stand in for Vicar Jan who needed to preside over a festive event in the church hall booked at the same time, celebrating 75 years as a chorister by one of her most regular and faithful men in church. 

I sat next to Jan's husband Peter, Principal of St Michael's College Llandaff. After the service he shared his enthusiasm for the Abbazio di Boze near Turin, from whence he had recently returned. It was the venue a meeting  he was attending of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC),  an ecumenical religious community living the Benedictine life with a special emphasis on excellence in creative arts and theological study. His praise for the place made me wish that I'd made the effort to go there when I lived close by in Switzerland, or on one of my many visits. Well, maybe I could manage a day trip this summer - who knows?

There were two families for the baptism, one presenting children of 2, 4 and 6, the other with a babe in arms. I've been coping with catarrhy congestion since our lost few days in Nerja, and it affects my voice, making it deep and gravelly, on half power. I wondered if I'd be able to make myself heard, but the church acoustics were kind, and I managed to hold the service together. 

Family baptism services and chaos often walk hand in hand. The babe in arms plus mother didn't arrive until I was about to start, but apart from that, everything went well until the moment I was handing out baptismal certificates afterwards, when a high speed toddler collided with the Paschal Candle. A diving catch by one of the godparents prevented the candlestick and content from hitting the ground and breaking, but warm wax went everywhere. One good reason not to have carpet in the chancel!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Jungle Book Live edition

Kath, Anto and Rhiannon arrived this afternoon to spend the Bank Holiday weekend with us. Owain came over to join us for a meal, then we went to the New Theatre to see a production of Kipling's 'Jungle Book'. It was superbly conceived and presented, with great movement, singing and dancing, religiously faithful to the Disney cartoon vision of the original story, rather than a freshly minted interpretation, but really fine entertainment nevertheless. I was surprised that for this final performance, the theatre wasn't full, especially as it's a half term weekend. Does this mean that so many kids now have the home video that a real live performance and a traditional theatre holds no attraction, no added excitement for them and their parents?

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Defining moment

I still recall vividly the knock on the door of my study bedroom in Churchill Hall on Friday 22nd November 1963, a fellow student announcing: "Guess what - President Kennedy's been assassinated!". I thought Pete was joking and told him to eff-off. It was the "No,seriously, it's on the news." which followed that drew me out of my room and into the corridor discussion by the bewildered that followed.

I also recall switching on the TV to snooze before in the heat during the afternoon post lunch siesta in Monaco, and seeing the breaking news of air attacks on New York's World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. I remembered that this wasn't the first attempt to destroy the twin towers, and wondering how they, before we knew who they were, could get away with it.

The Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, while we lived in Switzerland, was something that I found disturbing, in the way it revealed the poisonous persistence of tribalism in a sophisticated modern European country. It caused me to question all I took for granted about progress and modernity, and my faith. The avoidance of justice by the key perpetrators of Yugoslavian genocide meant that there could be no closure, no complete reconciliation, even though war had ended and the rule of law was gradually being re-instated.

I was glad when Slobodan Milosevic was taken to trial at the Hague in 2001, even though his premature death in 2006 meant he escaped human judgement. Then Radovan Karadzic was arrested in July 2008, but I don't remember where I was when I first heard either news. But where I was when the news broke of the arrest of Radko Mladic after sixteen years on the run, I shall recall. This was the man who could say in response to the allegations of genocide at Srebrenica, caring nothing for right or wrong: "If you thought it was genocide, why didn't anyone stop us?" This, in bible-talk, is surely the speech of the Great Accuser.

I was at my desk in the CBS Charles Street office, and Ashley called up the BBC live news streaming website, to demonstrate the improvement produced by the deployment of a new router/modem. And there I saw the breaking news headlines, and couldn't help but cheer aloud. Let's hope his health holds out long enough for his day in court. He needs to be heard out, if only so that the world may learn to recognise and beware of his self-defence.

The outrageous facts which accuse Karadzic and Mladic, the stories of victims crying out to be heard, are powerful in their own right. Deposed tyrants are a pathetic enough species, but unless we understand the logic they apply to their arguments very carefully, there's a risk we shall fail to notice their more subtle versions when they arise once more - not necessarily somewhere 'out there', but in our own back yard.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Welcome home?

As our flight departure was due late afternoon, we had time to stroll out and visit the Tuesday mercadillo after breakfast. I dressed ready for travel with my usual black shirt and cross in lieu of dog collar. As I was gazing at a stall selling teas and spices, I was accosted by an Irishman about my own age who asked if I was a priest. I confirmed that I was an Anglican cleric visiting Nerja, and he remarked that nowadays back home it was becoming a rare thing to see any cleric abroad in uniform, as they encountered such aggression and hostility in public, since the exposure of clerical abuse.

He told me that he'd been an international political and economic journalist for forty years, and was also visiting Nerja, but his home was in Galway Bay, and spent much of his year in Britanny. He'd been raised as a Catholic by a devout mother and a father who kept the church at a distance. One of his brothers was a priest academic who'd left public ministry and married some time ago. He lamented the church's inability to keep abreast of reality in its responses to a changing world, and we pondered awhile on how that might be addressed. He expressed an interest in staying in touch, so we exchanged email addresses as we parted.

Geoff and Carol drove us in good time to the airport, and our flight schedule was untouched by threats of ash clouds descending from the latest Icelandic eruption. The plane flew in the highest air-lane, over the top of some threatening storm clouds, and taking advantage of the jet-stream tail wind landed fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. We were surprised to discover while waiting for our shared suitcase that the use of a baggage trolley (normally free) cost two pounds. "Two quid!" I heard a fellow home-comer exclaim. "The bloomin' flight only cost twenty pound." No wonder BMI Baby is withdrawing its flights from Cardiff International Airport, having found it as uneconomic as it is also unattractive and user-unfriendly. It's a symptom of all that Wales cannot get right about developing its world class assets for the new century.

We had a twenty minute wait in a not very protective bus shelter caressed, if not buffeted by a decidedly cool evening breeze. We shared confusion with two other passengers from Malaga about which bus was going where, as the circular bus routes embrace either Llantwit Major or Barry going to or from the airport. However, we had our free ride into the city and then another free ride home, thanks to our bus passes, and were eating supper and reading a fortnight's mail by eight, happy to be home again.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Ascent to Competa

After cleaning up and tidying the house, ready to welcome Geoff and Carol back tonight, we drove up into the Sierras National Park once again, to visit the hill town of Competa, high up at 1100m above sea level, with a view through the fertile valleys down to the coast at Torrox. As we set out from Nerja we saw a wheeled plough drawn by two heifers making its way at a stately two miles an hour down the main road past the petrol station, attracting attention, not from other road users, but from us visitors, amazed to glimpse this image of traditional local agriculture in the middle of an otherwise modern town. 
The last time I was struck by the incongruous juxtaposition of the rural and urban was about ten years back in Geneva, when I saw queuing among the buses and posh cars crossing the Pont du Mont Blanc over the Rhone, a tractor towing a large high sided trailer as full as it could be with grapes being taken from vineyards on the south side of the lake to a winery at the west end of the Canton. No question of using the by-pass - straight through the town centre, as ever. Who could possibly complain when the genevois are so proud to drink their own wine that none is exported?

On the narrow winding road to Competa we encountered a tethered mule contendedly grazing daisy filled grass, a herd of goats being shepherded to new pastures, and a large handsome green chameleon crossing the road at such a measured pace that we could stop and take a photo before it reached the verge. I've never seen such a creature in the wild before, let alone in the middle of the road I was driving on.
Competa is a fine well managed town, spread along a steep south facing hillside. It's larger than Frigiliana, and still working at tidying public services out of view. A large new underground car park close to the centre is under construction, enabling visitors to get closer to places worth seeing. It's cooler climate attracts expatriate settlers less comfortable with the torrid summer heat of the coastal plain. 

There's a small Anglican congregation here. Like Nerja, it was planted by outreach from Malaga two decades ago in days when the monthly journey (pre motorway) for a service took two and a half hours.It still takes an hour and a half from the city, but now retired clerics living nearer take services. It's less than an hour from Nerja, and Fr Geoff gets asked to conduct occasional offices up here occasionally.
The seventeenth century Parish Church is dedicated to our Lady's  Assumption. Its exterior has had a visitor-friendly makeover recently that integrates it with the adjacent main square The church's external south wall is decorated with large tiled panels telling the history of the town over the past millennium. There's a south promenade area for post-liturgical socialising, plus public toilets. The square is accessed through an imposing open brick portal. Refurbishment is almost finished. A mason was busy laying out the shield of the municipality in coloured paving blocks in one corner of the square opposite the church entrance.
We found ourselves a small bar-restaurant with a moorish theme, and lunched on a local recipe soup and tostado. It was hot, and the sun was a lot brighter at this altitude than it is usually down on the coast. For once I wished I had some sun glasses. We set off at a leisurely pace and went down to the sea at Torrox, so that Clare could have a final paddle. Then we did some last minute shopping and cooked some espadon for a final mediterranean supper. What a fine time we've had. 

More photos can be seen here.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

GP Sunday

Yesterday was a minimum effort day. Both of us are suffering a little from the high seasonal pollen count. The mimosa blossom is starting to appear, that's why, I reckon. I recall the heady scent and blocked sinuses from when we lived in Monaco. Blue skies and sun returned unchallenged this morning. We went into the centre and lunched on tapas again in a bar on the main square, then we sat in a shady spot on Calahonda beach all afternoon, and spent a quiet evening in front of the telly, watching an episode of 'Wallander' being shown now for the third time on BBC4, and conserved energy for our last Sunday here.

I woke up on time, just before the alarm, and made my first solo car journey to Almunecar for the nine thirty Eucharist, confident of finding my way after our reconnaisance visit mid-week. Seventeen of us were present for the service, and I joined then for coffee in a nearby hotel before returning. There were forty for the noon-tide Eucharist at Nerja afterwards, about two thirds of the normal average congregation, for the same reason. Numbers are starting to diminish now, as winter visitors return to U.K., and the summer influx of holiday-makers has yet to start. 

After the Nerja service we retired to the tapas bar across the street and chatted for an hour, keeping an eye and an ear out for the Formula One Grand Prix motor race, just getting under way up north in Barcelona. I thought of my two elder sisters, glued to their TVs back in Britain right now. Better not to phone them while it's on! 

We passed a quiet somnolent afternoon, doing little, then took ourselves into town to the restaurant of the Hotel Caribeo, overlooking the sea and offering the best european haute cuisine in town. A young guitarist with shoulder length hair provided music almost non-stop throughout of two and a half hour stay. A mix of Flamenco, Classical Spanish, Bach, Jazz pop and modern Latin-American. His playing was accomplished and occasionally tentative, suggesting to me that he's probably a conservatoire student, right on top of some of the music they have to learn, and working his way into new and different material. His playing, just audible above the buzz of conversation from two dozen diners was so enjoyable that I was initially distracted by the music, and struggled to choose from the menu what to eat.

The food was superb, although I hated eating so late, then having a half hour's walk home when sleepiness was about overwhelm me. Neverthless, it was a fitting finale to our stay here. Tomorrow we have to get the house clean and straight for Geoff and Carol's return from U.K. on a late evening flight.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Ancient and modern hill village

After last night's rain, cloud cover remained but more downpours seemed less likely as we reached midday, so we drove up and inland from Nerja to visit the ancient hill village of Frigiliana, dating back to the time of the Moors. The soil of the area is rich and fertile, and we were struck by the terraces of apricot and avocado groves decorating the contours of the valley below the village. 
Expansion took place along the adjacent ridge below the steep main hillside, after a factory was built here in the seventeen century to process sugar cane from valleys lower down. It was constructed of pale yellow brick and stands out, ugly and incongruous, but interesting against the backdrop of small white painted houses side to side in lanes and alleyways running across and down the steep slopes. Cane is now processed elsewhere, but the liquor is brought to the old factory in large drums for bottling. Parts of the factory have been converted to retail regional craft products, and as a place where unique local products including 'cane honey' and local  wines. Malaga regional viniculture make great use of the aromatic Muscat grape, in sweet desert and aperitif wines, also semi sweet and dry table wines. The dry is my favourite. As grapes generally thrive in poor rocky soil, and soil is so rich in this area, I suspect the red variety don't do so well. They do a wine that appears to use a local red grape to impart flavour to a cane sugar fementation judging by its distinctive taste. I wondered what the coach party of French tourists, visiting at the same time as us, made of this local tipple. 
The village was a sheer delight, with flowers growing wherever possible, streets beautifully paved, patterned throughout using the distinctive back and white pebbles seen also in Nerja's old town streets. With very few exceptions, everything was in good repair and well maintained. I imagine a great deal of work has been done to achieve this most pleasing environment. There were no telephone or electricity cables slung between eaves or across streets, no open drains or gutters. Every kind of service that could be buried was buried, except for the satellite dishes on chimneys. A great work of renovation and restoration planning. For me, the piece de resistance and symbol of pride and self confidence were the custom made cast iron drain and service access covers bearing a symbol of the village and the name of the municipality.
Altogether it's an expensive make-over of an historic asset, but so worthwhile. The place has many small shops and the narrow streets are not cluttered with outside merchandising, making it easy to get about un-hindered. Going into cool dark shops to look is part of the enchantment of the place. Hopefully in the long term it will be profitable with the multitudes of visitors and pilgrims to the many small eating places, renowned for their locally sourced cuisine. We lunched well in a restaurant with a small terraced garden, and it didn't rain until it was time to pay the bill. Soon after, the sun came out and stayed out the rest of our walk around. You'll find a slideshow of our walkabout here.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Al fresco nuptials

As Clare felt well enough for a car excursion this morning, we went up the coast to explore the beach resort of La Herradura and its environs, adjacent to Almunecar. It's a place frequented by seasonal holiday makers from Granada and the interior mountain region. At this time of year it's empty of tourists, many churrangitos and bars are still closed. It's a bit as I recall Santa Pola was when we were last there in May-June 2009. We found the little covered market, bought some cherries and fish for supper, then returned for lunch.
At three I made the twenty minute uphill walk to the Restaurant 'Torre de San Juan de Cupertino' overlooking Nerja and the Bay. The wedding blessing was due to take place on the roof terrace, and preparations were proceeding with a nervous eye on dark rain clouds above. Thankfully we were spared a downpour. All the wedding guests arrived punctually by coach, and the ceremony went without a hitch. This was a Celtic wedding, an Irishman marrying a Scottish lassie, so several of the men wore kilts.

I found that I approached the event with an unusual degree of nervousness, as this was the first time that I've ever conducted a wedding blessing that wasn't in a church. An effort had been made to create a sacred space, with rows of seats in a semicircle, a table covered with a cloth with flowers on it, and a floral arch for the bride and groom to stand under. But, on a balcony facing the sea there were railings, but no walls, no sense of enclosure holding together the two families being bonded together by this young couple. Although the familiar ritual unfolded easily and comfortably enough, I was aware of doing something that I'd never done before. 

It's hard to decipher this feeling and what lies behind it. Church buildings somehow represent and contain the tradition and some of the meaning to be found in making a marriage. Making the same ritual away from that environment, all there is to work with is what we bring with us. It's very Quaker, Congregationalist, or plain existentialist in essence, worthy of due regard when it comes to the human dimension of sacred commitment. And I'm impressed by the effort made by couples and their families to make it work for them the way they want it to. 

Without a sacred building, few props are available to us, faced with the ambiguity that accompanies much of our understanding and experience. In the absence of the traditional comforts of religion I had to work harder than usual to make this wedding as meaningful as it needed to be for the couple, and for myself as the minister of religion. This will certainly be a memorable day for them. I hope it will help them stay married for as long as they both shall live. That's what it's all about, whatever way it's done, after all.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cave tourists

I made the brisk half hour walk down to the Church shop again this morning to celebrate the nine thirty midweek Eucharist there. Once more we were a dozen people, and among the newly arrived visitors was a retired priest and his wife from Norwich diocese. He told me after that the local rural group of churches where he lived had just lost both its full time clergy, and this had left him rather busy, with three funeral as well as regular services to do last week. He was thankful to have his holiday time here pre-booked!

The Europe diocesan website now has a useful page dedicated to requests for locum duty clerics. What with home leave and duties during vacancies, it's quite a challenge to fill all the gaps. The number of places where a ministry to English speaking expatriates has developed continues to grow, especially in France and Spain, as a result of people retiring abroad, if not moving for professional purposes.
After the post Eucharist coffee at Rosie's next door, I went off the the Hotel Balcon de Europe to meet a young civilly married couple who requested a blessing ceremony here in Nerja. All the arrangements were made with Fr Geoff during previous visits, and this was my opportunity to meet them and prepare for their big celebration, which will be tomorrow afternoon in a restaurant overlooking Nerja. They showed their bi-lingual Irish wedding certificate, which I needed to see in order to proceed. They are excited that their romantic dream celebration of the new life they've already started together, is about to happen. Weather forecasts for tomorrow are none too comforting. I hope it doesn't rain, as it'll be held outdoors. However, the groom is Irish and the bride Scottish, and it'll take more than wet weather to dampen their enthusiasm for a happy feast.

i went home to lunch, arriving before the rain started. After an hour it stopped and the sun came out, so we drove up to Maro and visited the extraordinary limestone caves. Only discovered fifty years ago by some local lads, the site has been nicely developed for tourism, and has logged over half a million visitors a year, justifiably. One of the largest caverns has been equipped with seating for several hundred, and a level floor created as a performance space. There's an exclusive dance festival which happens here annually each July. We had our photos taken on the way in, and were presented with the opportunity to buy it as we left. While I hate having a commercial photographer take a picture of me without permission like that, the result was decent enough and on impulse we both agreed it was eight euros worth of amusement, if a little cheesy.
The photos I took in the caves can be found here. A tripod would have been a boon companion for perfect picture consistency. However, some of the handheld flashless photographs taken with my new Sony HX5 underground justify my guilty purchase.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Nurturing Nerja's young

I went down to the Church shop this morning to get a new second hand book to read. Clare and I met up for lunch at an excellent tapas bar near the main church, discovered yesterday, then I made my way slowly through the back streets to San Miguel church for the teatime meeting of 'Messy Church', an outreach by the Anglican congregation to mothers with pre school children. An undercroft room below and behind the main sanctuary is borrowed for this purpose, and a dozen adults, mostly of grandparental age, involve themselves in the offer of hospitality, themed art and craft activities with children or leading a simple act of worship. 

Few if any of the families attend regular church, but clearly this English speaking social enterprise is valued, and has lately attracted as many as twenty children. On this occasion there were only half a dozen for no obvious reason except that the week after San Isidro's festival sees some shops and businesses taking a few days off and normal working patterns disrupted. In my experience there's never a single reason for the wide variations in attendance patterns of any activity involving parents and small children. What's important is being there, and being there regularly to welcome anyone who turns up, and taking an interest in them. Nerja Anglicans are enjoying the challenge and sustaining their commitment thus far. The need is as much there in an English speaking expatriate community as it is back in Blighty. It's admirable that so many are willing to take part.

Up in the church sanctuary at the same time, local Catholic kids were meeting either for a catechism class or to be prepared for a confirmation or first communion ceremony to happen in the coming weeks. May is the month when these things traditionally happen. It's a positive witness to the barrio of the church's care for children in the community that these two activities happen simultaneously.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Spanish burial

I was back in the church of San Miguel by eleven this morning for another funeral of a British woman who had been resident in this area for the past quarter of a century, having uprooted totally from the UK and integrated into a new life in the Spanish community. The daughter and son in law with their two small daughters were the chief mourners. The children were beautifully behaved and naturally involved in all the proceedings. Of the twenty other mourners, the majority were local neighbours. A close friend gave a brief tribute in Spanish, the family solicitor read a portion of John's Gospel in Spanish, and I did the rest in English.

We arrived at the Commendation in the service exactly at midday, allowing me fortuitously to pause for the church clock bell to toll the hour. Thankfully, I knew that after thirty seconds it would also chime the Angelus, or in Eastertide, the Regina Caeli. Just one spoken prayer fitted nicely in between the two, to take away the eerie silence, and then we left the church.

With the family and other mourners bearing flowers, we followed the hearse through the barrio, with a police escort to see us up a one way street and across the dual carriageway at an uncomfortable angle to access the cementario. The last time I walked behind a coffin through the streets in clerical garb was thirty seven years ago during the Troubles in Newcastle County Down, at the funeral of one of the town's senior tradesmen, leading a procession of his apprentices - Catholics and well as Protestants - to bury him. At the end of today's quarter mile walk, the departed, whose body had been repatriated to Spain from her native England where she'd died in hospital, was to be entombed in a columbarium level six niche, eighteen feet above ground. 
In the narrow aisle between columbaria walls there was a large portable iron platform, which I climbed up in order to be at eye level with the niche for the prayer of blessing. One of the rare times I ever recall being literally six feet above the congregation leading in prayer. After my descent, two funeral workers manhandled the English imported coffin between them up the stairs and into the niche. Then it was the turn of the mason to ascend and seal it in place. The panel used was thick plywood, the sealant something like polyfiller. It was done neatly, carefully, without haste and took ten minutes. I spoke appropriate meditative scripture sentences into the silence ad lib, and the assembly of mourners seemed quite at ease with this, as it removed the need for trivial conversation. 

In due course a marble memorial panel and facade will be inserted into the front area, similar to the one adorning her late husband's tomb to the left. For the time being, the space is occupied by mourners' flowers. The Spanish lady who'd spoken in church also brought a wreath of roses. These were placed by the tomb of her husband, on the fifth level immediately below. Friends, close together in death, as in life. 

There were quiet appreciative handshakes afterwards, from Spanish and English mourners. As I returned to the church, carrying my robes, I was aware of old men sitting outside noticing me smiling and nodding their  greeting. Dressed as a priest here, you're not invisible in public, as is commonly the case nowadays in Britain. And in these days of clerical scarcity, I guess they're glad to see any new priest around the block, whether they need one or not, as the priest in a community seems less of an oddity to them than it does so much further north. Here a new priest can be a sign of hope for those who want their community to live fully.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Keeping faith with the Workers' Saint

Up early this morning to be driven by Jill to Almunecar for the nine thirty service at the 'Fisherman's Chapel', as the former convent chapel is popularly known. This was a kindness on her part as the last part of the route down from the Autovia into the town was not easy to recall after just one visit last week. Having driven the route twice, I think I should be able to remember it next week. Jill lived and work in several countries before retirement, and we had a very interesting conversation en route about the funeral customs of Spanish Royals and Zoroastrians. There were twenty three in the congregation, and they sang enthusiastically, filling the small place with their voices - and, of course, the early sun shone in through the open windows, to make worship against the backdrop of a barrio waking up to enjoy its Sunday, real pleasure.

We drove back to Nerja for the midday Eucharist at the church of San Miguel. Many of the regular congregation stayed away from church, due to the difficulties of access and parking (as many drive in from outlying areas) caused by the Romeral de San Isidro - an annual street procession made by the region's agricultural communities to honour the saint. There was also the competing attraction of seeing the procession. Nevertheless there were still twenty eight of us for the Eucharist, in an echoing barn of a building seating 400.
Nobody could tell us much much about the saint, so I googled St Isidore and came up with the 6th century sevilliano scholar bishop who converted the Visigoths from Arianism to Orthodoxy. (Ah! A contemporary of Illtud and Teilo, back home in Glan Morgannwg!) He was an early developer of thinking about involving people in decisions about their governance, when such ideas were less than fashionable. Why so popular? 

It was only after mentioning this in my Good Shepherd Sunday sermon, that someone spoke about San Isidro Laborador - Saint Isidore the Worker. I googled again, and this time came up with an eleventh century Spanish saint - a landless peasant who, together with his saintly wife were acclaimed for their holy living and generosity to the poor - so, not San Isidro of Seville, patron saint of computers, but San Isidro the Worker, patron saint of agricultural workers. That explained everything. A big 'oops' for me however.

After the service, I met some of the family of the woman whose funeral I shall be doing there tomorrow, and we confirmed the arrangements we'd made by phone and email from the U.K.  Then it was time to make as much haste as possible in the midday heat, to follow the procession uphill to the outskirts of town, to see as much of it as possible, having missed the first hour or so of a three hour affair.

We missed the horsemen leading the way, and a few of the opening festively decorated wagons. The first dozen or so were literally ox-carts, drawn by beautifully kept yoked pairs of bullocks and some mighty bulls. A variety of decorated horse drawn carriages and carts followed the oxen, and finally came every kind of tractor and trailer available, festooned with flowers and ribbons, and kitted out with a sound system. 

Each vehicle was accompanied by groups of men, women and children in traditional Andalusian costume or in stylish fashionable modern derivatives, singing, dancing, drinking and smoking, smiling, chatting and waving. It was all the better for the absence of obvious commercial or political sponsorship. I felt they were doing it for themselves, and not for the tourists, not even for any 'good cause'. It was just a natural expression of pride and pleasure in community life and fraternal relations. My photos of that precious hour on the street can be viewed here.

We learned that the procession made its way out of town to a nearby area where there are large limestone caves. This was to be the site of a party for thousands, continuing all afternoon and into the evening. Back at Church House we could hear from the distant hillside the thumping disco beat of a big sound system. It didn't continue into the small hours, however. After all, tomorrow for farmers would be an early rise to a working day as usual, in the spirit of San Isidro, Laborador, their causa festiva.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Moving scenery

Yesterday for the first time we went down the flight of steps, beautifully decorated with patterns made of black and white pebbles, to Calahonda beach below the Balcon de Europe. On the beach there's an old fisherman's cottage which has been made out a cave at the foot of the cliff.
It's a lovely sheltered spot with several small coves, linked by a red brick and quarry tiled trail winding through huge masses of limestone conglomerate boulders either torn from the cliffs by the sea recently or pushed out of the bedrock by volcanic activity in more distant times. Right down to the foreshore the cliff face is decorated with greenery and flowers - nasturtium, convulvulus, hibiscus. It's an enchanting path, evoking memories of childhood adventures. It's a shame that for the time being you cannot walk its full length to Burriana beach, as sections have had to be closed off due to instabilities in the cliff face. No matter how strong and permanent cliffs and mountains appear to the casual viewer, this is a landscape still in the process of formation.
Overhead flew a light plane towing a banner reminding citizens to vote Conservative in next week's elections. Registered expatriates are allowed to vote. When I got home I found a phone message advertising a meeting to brief English speaking people about the issues in these elections. It's a sign of just of well established the Brits are that in some regions they stand in local council elections and get appointed.

Friday, 13 May 2011


Churchwarden Judith drove me in her SUV to today's funeral. It was good to have here there to distribute the service booklet and hymn sheets. As she arrived to collect me, there was a second call in English from the funeral directors confirming next Monday's service at San Miguel. The first call had been in Spanish, so  the man had to get an anglophone colleague to ring back on his behalf. Somehow in my early learning days in Geneva, I'd gotten by with my funny schoolboy French, but now I don't have even that advantage, and realise what a challenge this must be to those working in far flung places with less accessible languages.

Unfortunately, there were two possible funeral centres in the vicinity of Velez Malaga. Ours was the Axarquia Thanatorium - the one Judith didn't know about and hadn't visited before, so we missed the turning which figured in the instructions given me the day before, and drove to one the other side of the town centre first. Fortunately we'd started out with time in hand and arrived with ten minutes to spare.

The Axarquia Thanatorium is located in a commercial industrial area, amidst car showrooms and the suchlike. The roundabout turnoff also has a sign for the Axarquia hospital (sanatorium?), so it's not far to go when making final arrangements. The place itself opens on to a small forecourt decked with seasonally cropped plane trees, then straight on to an access road for several other commercial outlets. For the number of businesses in the street parking is inadequate. It stinks of bad local planning. We had to drive around the block, park on a pavement and make the past three hundred metres with indecent haste to be there on time, all of which set my heart pounding a bit.

The warehouse sized building has a huge marble decked foyer with seating, and funeral chapels off-set down corridors. People were milling around inside and outside, and information had to be hunted for, but we soon made contact with the widowed husband who took us to our chapel to meet the choir and get ourselves ready for action. The chapel seated about sixty with the fifteen strong choir all standing at the back. In the absence of an organ, singing would be unaccompanied.

The casket was a polished oblong box affair, with a hinge down one side, a lock with a key in it on the other to facilitate viewing the body if requested. The women of the family had made their own flower arrangements with the best of blossoms from the garden at home, and there was a framed photograph with them. The altar behind was set up for a funeral Mass if required, and on the 'north' side of altar was a life sized statue of the Virgin of Sorrows gazing towards the casket, looking down upon the deceased, should the lid be open. All carefully considered for those needing such a resource. There was also a permanent Paschal Candle, and this I made sure was lit. By the time everyone was in the chapel, none of the officials were in sight. Not that I would have been able to speak to them. It's fairly rare to find an English speaker in such a setting.

Once the chapel doors had been closed to shut out the noise from the foyer, I could make myself easily heard in a room full of seventy five people. The choir sang movingly a couple of pieces requested from their regular repertoire by the family. With the family's agreement I led everyone in singing 'All things bright and beautiful', rendered with great gusto. In the absence of funerary officials, I wasn't sure how the end would happen, so after the blessing, I led the next of kin outside, then the congregation slowly poured out. Once it was quiet and only a few family members remained to collect the flowers and photograph, the casket was wheeled away informally, quietly and things naturally came to a close. I learned that cremation would happen latter, not on site but privately without ceremony over at Almunecar.

Thankful that all had gone as well as it could, we left for home, there being no after-service reception on this occasion. On the street nearby we met Clare on her way to the local medical centre, to see if she could get treatment for the sinusitis which has been plaguing her since we arrived. Fortunately, she was able to see one of the emergency medical team and obtain medication with little difficulty, despite possible communication problems - always a nightmare when it comes to describing symptoms to someone with whom you do not share a mother tongue. But all's well that ends well.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Bereavement meeting

At lunchtime today , I drove the chaplaincy car along the coast road in the Malaga direction to Torrox, the next resort along the coast from Nerja. At this time of year, before the major influx of holidaymakers, the roads and beaches are quiet and empty, something which I appreciated as I hunted for a nameless churrangito (snack bar) where I was to meet the bereaved family. This is much more the likely pattern than a home visit here, apparently.

The sand of the largely limestone seashore in this region is an interesting cement grey, due to the addition of black volcanic sand and pebbles into the mix at some time in ancient pre-history. From its appearance, you'd  expect the foreshore to be as hard as a kerbstone, not soft mobile sand. Exposed cliff and road cuttings reveal ancient pebble strewn river beds compressed and twisted out of shape over time into a hard material whose character resembles concrete with added pebbles and boulders. This would be a bleak environment if it were not for the proliferation of mediterranean greenery in abundance.

It was good to sit and listen to a husband and three children speak fondly about the woman whose life we would be celebrating in tomorrow's funeral. There would be no eulogy, just a couple of musical items from the choir and the funeral liturgy which I could develop to fit the occasion. All in all this was familiar territory. The only unfamiliar thing will be discovering the Thanatorium (sounds like a sanatorium with a lisp), and liaising with the funeral directors to ensure an appropriate outcome.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Midweek celebration

I walked down to town this morning to rendezvous with churchwarden Judith, and go to the Church shop to celebrate the midweek Eucharist there. Eleven people turned up, including some visitors, who were appreciative to find an act of worship going on in the midst of the everyday retailing on second hand books and nearly new clothes. Afterwards I went to the Hotel on the Balcon de Europe, to rendezvous with a couple whose civil marriage I'm blessing  next week. I was on time, but a week early for the meeting, I discovered when I checked the documents. So I bought some fresh fish in a real fishmonger's shop and headed home for lunch.

A phone call at siesta time brought a second funeral request - a woman who was somewhat disconcerted to learn of Fr Geoff's absence on leave. A member of a local English speakers choir in which he sings had died, and a funeral was to be arranged at which the choir would sing and Fr Geoff was asked to officiate. I was able to reassure her that as his stand-in, I would be available for a service on Friday - at the Thanatorium near the Velez Malaga motorway junction. Later in the day, I received a call from the widowed husband, and we arranged a preparatory get together with the family for tomorrow at a beach snack bar in neighbouring Torrox. 

The evening news reported an earthquake in Lorca, near Murcia, about three hours drive north of here. Just as I was about to go to bed, my sister June rang for reassurance that we were OK, as she'd heard on the news that  the quake had been felt in Granada, just over an hour's drive through the mountains east of here. Whatever next, I wonder?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tuesday market

After breakfast, we sauntered out of our residential area to check out the full blown mercadillo (open air market) occupying double the open space of the Sunday market. Ninety per cent of the stall and clothing and shoes. The rest are household goods, artwork, jewellery and vegetable stalls, offering the best of seasonal fare, plus a few selling spices, teas, nuts and dried fruits. We made the most of the opportunity to stock up on fresh veggies, pecans, dates, figs, stuffed olives and paella spice. Nerja has a welcome variety of decent restaurants to choose from. Eating out is great for socialising, or when we're tired of our own creations, but everyday home cooking Mediterranean style is a pleasure as much on holiday as at other times.

Fr Geoff gave me the vital low-down on local funerary practice before he left, in the event of a request coming my way. He reckoned it would be unlikely, as he'd had more than his annual quota in the past year - although his locum priest last year had three funerals in a fortnight. Famous last words. After lunch there was a UK phone call requesting an Anglican  funeral at San Maguel which would involve repatriating a widow's body by air from Britain, for burial with her husband in a columbarium tomb at Nerja cemetery. That's something I've never done before. Pastoral ministry is like that. You never know what's going to happen next.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Getting about

First thing, Clare and I walked downhill to the nearest beach and back to find out how long it would take ius - twenty five minutes, or thereabouts. Nice healthy exercise. With last minute errands to perform, Fr Geoff and Carol had a busy morning, so later on it was my opportunity be taxi driver, get used to their car and familiarise myself with Nerja town centre street layout. We lunched together in a restaurant overlooking a beach on the south side of town, then went home for a siesta before taking them to Malaga airport for their journey back to the U.K.

The Autovia (motorway) carves a spectacular path through coastal hillsides, with views of the sea, valleys and high sierras at every turn. The seventy kilometre journey takes less than an hour at a leisurely pace, allowing time to register not only the beauty of the landscape, but also the extent of the urbanisation of the Costa del Sol. Housing has been constructed in every conceivable location in this very hilly landscape, and not always in harmony with it. In the coastal plain areas there are high rise apartment blocks, but little beyond three storeys in the interior. Many of the  buildings fail to take advantage of their place in the natural environment. It's not quite ugly, it's not beautiful - if anything it's odd, an unnatural evolution from a visual perspective. But then, one could say the same of many volcanic landscapes too. Twentieth century urbanisation represents economic volcanic activity in its own way.

As the sun was setting on our way home we stopped at a hypermarket near Velez-Malaga to pick up a few necessary food items. It was vast, and reminded us of similar shopping centres in France. Navigating our way to the main entrance for the first time proved a challenge. The key to anxiety free motoring in any country is understanding how the road system is designed to get you where you want to be. However, there are always sufficient differences in local road markings and signage (despite international conventions on these facilities) to raise anxiety levels when attempting to find the right way to go.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A Sunday treat

Today, the Nerja and Almunecar Anglican congregations combined for a joint act of worship in the small  chapel of Our Lady of Carmen in Almunecar.

It used to be the ground floor chapel of a convent, accessible to the public straight from the street, probably sisters doing missionary pastoral work in the parish, living in the two storeys above. There are no more nuns, but the local Catholic Parish mission still continues using the buildings for pastoral purposes, and one of the Sunday Parish Masses is celebrated there on a Saturday evening.
Combined Anglican services have been held hitherto in Almunecar throughout May, as the Parish Church of San Miguel in Nerja has been otherwise occupied with additional celebrations relating to first communion and confirmation. This year, these have been switched to Saturdays, removing the need to change the routine of two Anglican services a Sunday. However, there was best possible reason for a combined service, in the form of a visiting preacher from Britain, the Reverend John Bell of the Iona Community and well known to listeners of BBC Radio Four's 'Thought for the Day'. He'd come over to lead a Celtic Spirituality workshop at a retreat centre in the Sierra Nevada, which Fr Geoff and his wife Carol were fortunate enough to attend.
John Bell is a story telling craftsman and he did us proud, getting the sixty strong congregation (95% aged +55) to reflect on the opportunity of older people to do new things and leave a positively memorable legacy to succeeding generations. Apart from 'Thought for the Day', the last time I caught John Bell live in action was in 1985, when I attended a convention in Edinburgh marking the 75th anniversary of  the first inter-church conference on world mission which eventually led to the foundation of the World Council of Churches. I think John was there for the centenary event also. I certainly wasn't, and was saddened to see how little it was reported upon, in the church press, as well as the rest of the mass media.

After church, we went to a nearby restaurant and socialised over coffee for an hour before returning home for lunch and a siesta. This gave us an opportunity to meet members of the congregation. Clare found and chatted to a  Welsh speaking lady from Aberystwyth who'd  moved to Spain with her husband who had since died. I conversed with a retired funeral director from the West Midlands and another man who was familiar with the mission of the church in Latin America. Then we drove home for lunch and a siesta, with a quiet evening to follow while Fr Geoff and Carol readied themselves for their holiday journey back to the U.K.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Locum duty in Spain

To Bristol Airport yesterday afternoon, for an evening flight to Malaga. My former colleague from the Halesowen Team Ministry, Fr Geoff Johnston is now pastoring the congregations of Nerja and Almunecar at the northern end of the Costa del Sol. I'll be standing in for him while he and his wife go on leave. We met up in the airport arrivals area, and were driven the 50km journey back to Nerja in darkness, which was really tantalising as this part of the world is terra incognita to us.
It was half past two by the time we got to bed, and were awoken by a big thunderstorm and rain just after dawn. The weather front was going east, however, and the rest of the day was beautifully sunny. After a late breakfast we went into Nerja old town, and lunched on the renowned 'Balcon de Europe', a promontory, once part of a military fortress transformed into a palm tree lined promenade with stunning coastal views. Photos can be found here

Late afternoon I was shown the local Catholic Parish Church of San Miguel, where Anglican Sunday services take place at noon. This dates from the early seventies, a building project in a poor barrio undertaken by a parish priest who made it his life's work. It's quite a plain building, with only one large crucifix and a couple of large statues. No stations of the cross or votice candle stands, a simple open confessional station was the only adornment of the nave apart from congregational benches, almost protestant in its simplicity, and quite fitting for churhc sharing with the Anglicans.
We were there for a wedding blessing. A Dutch couple with two children, on holiday, wanting more than just the bare civil ceremony to mark their life commitment to each other, following whatever journeys both had made before they found each other. With the organist, Fr Geoff and one of his churchwardens, I was the only congregation in this barn of a church that seats four hundred. On their way to the altar, I was entrusted with a digital camera, and took photographs of the occasion - less than easy, as I had never handled a Samsung digicam before, and had to figure out by trial and error how to switch off flash and get the telephoto lens to work without instructions. Fortunately, I'd got it right be the time they reached the vows, and was able to give them back a decent record of their Big Moment.

Blessings of civil weddings, whether in church or in hotels or restaurants are part and parcel of life for an English speaking priest of any denomination. A romantic wedding in a beautiful location all prepared as a package deal by a 'wedding arranger' is a commodity marketed these days to aspiring couples with plenty of spare cash. While we were having lunch, one professional 'wedding arranger' passed by and stopped to say Hello to Fr Geoff. This was timely, as she's arranging a wedding I'll be blessing on a restaurant terrace during my stay here. 

Apparently the civil administration of Nerja has obliged to the Parish of el Salvador to restrict the number of weddings it does in any week in the church adjacent to the Balcon de Europe, as it can't keep up with the paperwork required for couples flying in for a combined wedding and honeymoon package deal. Curiously enough, the largest number of couples come from Ireland. Are they escaping from the weather? Or from clergy reputed for narrowness as well as disrepute arising from the actions of an abusive minority? 

I find it amazing, the extent to which people are still prepared to trust clergy to play a significant and intimate role at an crucial moment in their lives, particularly when they are strangers in in a foreign land. And for me that's what makes expatriate pastoral ministry a special privilege, if anyone is willing to make the journey.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Taken on trust

I officiated at a funeral this morning, at Thornhill Crematorium. Last Sunday's pastoral visit to the next of kin left me not knowing how many people would attend. About two dozen people were there, and few of them were interested in engaging with me, as is often the case. Engaging with each other also seemed problematic as well. Moving beyond showing respect for the deceased to being reconciled with each other is a journey that's difficult to take, and many are reluctant  to take it.

Apart from the carefully chosen prayers of the funeral liturgy, it was difficult to know what to say that would help everyone involved, when as it seemed, relationship with the deceased was for each of them the point of contention. A priest cannot any longer compel anyone to go some place they don't want to go. The priest's presence and role is not fully understood, yet it is tolerated and to an extent trusted to help people through a rite of passage which they themselves find it difficult to place properly within the context of what their lives mean to them. So, I come away yet again in the absence of any feedback, wondering if I have been of service to anyone.

Having shared things that matter most to me in life, I have to trust that God will take and use this to enable everyone to move on, learn and grow, accepting that I may never know if this made a difference to anyone.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Extra-judicial killing makes news

It was strange to awaken on a Bank Holiday Monday morning to hear news of the killing of Osama Bin Laden hidden in a large private residence in the Pakistani equivalent of a military town like Aldershot or Sandhurst. If anyone in the military or government knew he was there, it suggests there was a conspiracy to conceal. If nobody knew, it reveals an almighty level of incompetence on the part of Pakistani military intelligence. The oddness of all this was compounded by the fact that the first intimations of the raid came from a Pakistani tech worker tweeting, well before White House announcement, about the late night arrival of helicopters and loud explosions heard in his Abbattabad neighbourhood.

Given a record of questionable loyalties on the part of some in the Pakistani intelligence services and military, the Americans can't be blamed for not forewarning anyone of the discovery of their number one target for the past decade. Regrettably, violation of another nation's sovereignty as a means to an end is nothing new. Murders and kidnappings are part of the shameful history of foreign adventures for the USA and other super powers. In this era of instant global communications, used by the ruled as well as the rulers, nothing can be done secretively or remain hidden for long without someone disclosing it and maybe someone else demanding an explanation. The exercise of power without accountability sooner or later, is becoming increasingly more difficult. But, as we see in Libya and Syria, those with a grip on power, will strive even more brutally and ruthlessly to retain it, preferring to be destroyed than relinquish it. The ancient ways of tyranny still persist wherever they gain a foothold.

The speedy disposal at sea of Bin Laden's body as a means to avoid a pilgrimage cult around his grave will be controversial, even if it's not contrary to islamic law and custom - not least because evidence of identity has not been formally published or independently verified. In his native Saudi Arabia everyone, even royalty is buried in unmarked graves, but the Saudis declined the offer of re-patriating and disposing of his body. They disowned one of their own wealthy offspring who refused to behave according to type.

Today has seen public jubilation by Americans, still affected deeply by the experience of 9/11. But will this lead to true healing of those memories? The recent Qu'ran burning episode by an American fundamentalist pastor only led to loss of more innocent lives in different part of the world. The glee of revenge soon turns bitter with the prospect of reprisal atrocities from Al Q'aeda. Maybe, as experts have suggested, followers are now less organised to effect any immediate action, but it is still to be expected sooner or later somewhere in the world.  That's the trouble - violent acts spawn more violent acts. Only the truth will set the world free. 

I would like to have seen Bin Laden reduced to size by having his day in the international criminal court, like Karadzic, Milosevic and the other authors of Balkan genocide who saw themselves as above the law. How one could prosecute or defend charges of incitement and conspiracy to commit mass murder, in a way that involved the best of islamic as well as secular lawyers is not easy to envisage, but perhaps that's the kind of challenge the global village community has to take on board as part of educating all its citizens in the ways of justice and peace.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Low Sunday - Mayday anniversary

I drove out to St John's Penllyn again this morning to lead the 9.15 Parish Eucharist for ten people. The church register recorded more than thirty attending for last week's Easter Sunday celebration. Such fluctuation in numbers is almost customary in these days of mobile populations, living in one place and working in another which may be far away. 

After cup of coffee in church with members of the congregation, I drove back down the A48 to to the village of Saint Hilary for the second service of the morning. A  church here was dedicated by the Normans to fourth century French theologian St Hilary of Poitiers in the twelfth century. The exquisite village and Manor took the saint's name as well. As I was getting out of my car, I was delighted to hear the church's peal of six bells being rung to welcome worshippers, on this beautiful spring morning.
As ever, none of the bell-ringers stayed for the service, yet there was still a congregation of nearly thirty, and the church register told me the number last Sunday was double that. Quite impressive for a country village. I gather St Hilary has plenty of social activities in keeping with its largely professional constituency. Again there was coffee and conversation afterwards.

On my way home for lunch I had a preparation visit to make to the home of a woman who was next of kin to a septegenarian whose funeral I'll be conducting this week. I heard the sad story of a divided family in which communication between siblings as well as parents failed decades ago. What will I be able to say to those who attend, not even knowing who will turn up?

I returned to the Vale church of Flemingston to lead Evensong and preach for six people. Last time I was there, it got dark much earlier and I was unable to take a photo. I allowed plenty of travel time on this occasion and was able to enjoy the scene for half an hour before starting work.
Flemingston Court next door to the church was, I think, the site of the original local Manor house. It still has access over a stile into the churchyard from its courtyard. Worth a couple of extra photos, I think.
This was the first time I'd taken Evensong in the year since my retirement, one year ago this weekend. What a lot has happened in that year! We're well installed in our new home, and have done a reasonable amount of travelling for pleasure and duty. However, I don't yet feel settled. I'm still lacking a sense of what my mission in life is to be, now that I have as much freedom and security as I need. I write a fair amount, but I not sure of my goal. I'm suspicious of writing for academic purposes. Having little faith in publication and publicity doesn't help either. Throughout my adult life there has always been some meeting of personal impulse and aspiration with some opportunity coming towards me. If it's there at the moment I can't see it. 

The wait is an interesting learning curve, however.