Monday, 31 October 2011

A sunny Halloween - for a change

I don't recall waking up to blue skies and bright sunshine on Halloween before, nor breakfasting outdoors, as we did this morning yet again. We took the eleven o'clock bus into town, and found the outdoor market was on, around a hundred stalls, selling mostly clothes and shoes, with occasional watch and trinket sellers, a couple of fast food vans and a couple selling herbs and spices. It occupied the half the football stadium car park, and was bounded on one side by social housing blocks, the other by the enclosure of the old town cementario (cemetery). The section of the market closest to the entrance was taken up with flower sellers, catching the eye of those arriving who weren't already laden with huge bunches of flowers from their gardens or nearby supermarket. And lots of people were arriving to make their commemorative visit. 

Regional TV news programmes the past few days have carried several items of interest about the persistence of the popular tradition of visiting family graves, sprucing them up and laying flowers in preparation for 'Tosantos' - All Saints/All Souls. There are even voluntary groups that renovate areas of neglected cemetery, no longer visited by families or without famility members to visit. One large municipality employs charming young hostesses in uniform to welcome and guide visitors who can't find their way around - some are tourists looking for the graves of famous locals, others are simply relatives getting increasingly forgetful with age, with younger family members brought along out of duty, less inclined to remember the location of a tomb or a memorial to a distant dead relative.

After an hour in the market, we walked to the Salt Museum domain, with its carefully managed 'Salinas', with walkways, hides and intepretation panels - thanks to some European Community eco-funding. It's not as wild or vast as the area of 'Salinas' and scrubland the other side of the main highway south, but it's rich in wildlife. So, I got more photos of flamingos and the black winged stilts which eluded my shutter last week. Infuriatingly, just as I entered one secuded area which would give me closer shots, a pair of cormorants took flight closer to me, and unsettled a group of several dozen feeding birds. These took off showing their most spectacular scarlet and black under-wing colours just as I was struggling to get my camera into operation, so I lost the precious moment fighting with the machine, and missing the enchantment of just seeing such a rare sight, at forty to fifty metres. Ah well, another time I suppose.

We returned to the Playa de Levante next to the port, where Clare went for a swim and found the water quit warm enough for an enjoyable experience, despite seeing a large jellyfish. Then for the third time this week, lunch in Bar Los Curros, right on the beach, serving a great variety of the most superb fresh fish cooked in that straightford Spanish manner that does nothing to disguise the flavour or freshness of what is cooked. We ate differently on each occasion and weren't disappointed. The place is usually full with Spaniards and occasional foreigners like us who've made the journey of discovery through its unpretentious doors.

Today we noticed people at half a dozen tables eating from large paella pans. It looked like rice that had been cooked with stock and spices, but with little or no meat or vegetables added. At one table the dish was black rice, the colour of laver bread. It made me wonder if this might be a regional speciality to be eaten on the Vigil of All Saints. It was too late to ask and try. By then we were full of fresh sardines and baby squid.

We strolled into the town centre, all quiet for siesta with shops shut. I took time out for a snooze in the shady 12th century courtyard of the Castillo Fortaleza, and then we returned to the Gran' Pena beach cafe for tea and icecream, just in good time to watch the homecoming of a score of the port's fleet of trawler, each escorted by wheeling swarms of huge gulls, visible even though the boats were half a mile off shore. We often hear trawlers going out or returning from the night shift just before dawn. It was a rare sight to see so many of them arrive, just as the sun descended into the last hour of its autumnal glory.

Then it was time to walk slowly home, appreciating the sunset, and to call in to Enrique's bar for a drink - he's a long standing local family friend to Anto and Kath, and Anto's mother before him. She settled here 25 years ago when the neighbourhood was being built. We talked about Tosantos, and Enrique lamented the commercial introduction of Halloween commodities. Like Santa and northern Christmas kitsch, these things are foreign to Spanish tradition, with its deep Mediterranean roots in Christian tradition and history.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Family Sunday in Spain

Yesterday, we woke up to dark overcast skies. It rained a little on and off, and it got clearer towards evening, with beautiful sunset skies on this evening when the clocks were to be put back an hour. We only ventured as far as the supermarket, two miles there and back. I cooked a paella for supper, which turned out well, despite having to use a poor quality frying pan, and we went to bed early to take advantage of the extra rest.

We woke up to a bright sunny day, and after breakfast made the 45 minute walk into town for Sunday Mass in the Parish Church. There are two clergy, four Sunday Masses here. We arrived in time to have a coffee in Glorietta Square, just around the corner from the church, before the eleven o'clock. The cafe area was crowded with people breakfasting, young and old alike, and an accordeonist was playing popular tunes and begging a few coins from his audience. A young African trader did his rounds with a couple of trays of watches. For the first time in several years, I saw one identical to the Casio I lost some months ago, but as I've acquired a different one since, I resisted the temptation. One is enough.

The church was full for the service we attended, three hundred adults and a hundred children. There was a music group consisting of a couple of guitars and woodwind soloists, and some very lively singing of popular hymns, all of which seemed to have actions. It seemed in every sense to be a true 'family Eucharist'. Some worship songs had lots of rhythmic clapping, reminiscent of football anthems. Some of the adults as well as all the children joined in with gusto. There was no traditional church music. 

I recognised the two priests as ones who were in place two and a half years ago. The Parish is fortunate to have such continuity when European Catholic church priestly vocations are still falling. There was a lovely lively sense of being part of a worshipping community. The sense of prayeful joy made it resemble a charismatic renewal worship gathering, except that it was more focussed, disciplined, with lots of spontanaiety and warmth in the personal interactions, with no expressions of a self indulgent nature. Good teaching and leadership is reaping rewards here. It felt so right as a contemporary Spanish expression of Christian faith.

There was a handsome Tall Ship flying the Portugues flag anchored a mile off the mainland. After Mass we strolled out along the harbour wall among half term weekend promenaders to get as near as we could to take photographs. This gave us an impression of the size of the fishing fleet anchored here at Sta Pola, as most of its craft were in port, resting quietly moored along the key, some of them doubled up in one berth. It's said to be one of the largest fleets of its kind in the Mediterranean. 

We then made our leisurely way to the Varadero restaurant for Sunday lunch. It was very busy with families of three generations, sitting, eating and talking their way through a sunny afternoon. Every bit as Spanish as our lively Sunday Mass.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Orthodox connections

Another day of clouds and sunshine. We were again awakened before dawn by the buzzing of alarm clocks in surrounding apartments - three of them, at different times over half an hour, and each lasting for 10-15 minutes. The floors and walls are so thin that the noise can almost be felt as well as heard. There's no sound of anyone getting up, switching them off and thumping around to follow - the holiday apartments in question are presently unoccupied, and their owners have gone back to their other home in a big city somewhere probably in Spain, without disconnecting their alarm clocks from the mains. The sound emitted is that of an older type clock radio which runs off the mains. Spaniards are noisy at the best of times - even it appears, when thy're not there.

Today is the feast of St Simon & St Jude, Apostles, and this awakened memories of the time we lived and working in the St Paul's Area of Bristol. St Simon was one of our Parish Patrons, as a church dedicated in his honour was erected in Stapleton Road. It survived the alomst total devastation of the area during redevelopment and the laying of the M32 motorway first junction out of the city centre, and is still a landmark of the area, distinctive because the top of its spire was lopped off in the eighties. It became redundant in the early 1960's and its high altar reredos ended up gracing the south west corner of the nave, where a side chapel was created to permit Mass to be said there occasionally. The building was given to a growing Greek Orthodox community in the city, and still functions as Bristol's Greek church today.

It was an important place on my early ecumenical journey. A Greek Orthodox fellow student took me to worship there. It was the first place I had ever experienced worship in a language other than English or Welsh. At that time the church welcomed a young Russian Orthodox deacon, sent to the city to gather fragments of Slavonic church groups into one congregation. The priest prayed in Byzantine Greek and the Deacon in Old Church Slavonic. I found the solemn ritual awe inspiring and the depth of silence on times palpable. It was the start of a lifetime's affair with eastern Christian spirituality. When I was Team Rector of the St Paul's Area, my visits to St Simon's were few and far between, because their service times co-incided with ours, and there were few  weekday when worship was held. Nevertheless the influence of that early experience persisted, and the Slavonic speaking Deacon, once ordained priest, Fr Nicholas Behr became a friend. I learned a great deal from him in ecumenical discussions over tea and his German wife's delicious cake during our student years.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

View from above

The night before last, I made the annoying discovery that the BT internet dongle brought with me from work now refuses to give me access, claiming that I have exceeded a monthly data cap I didn't know was operative. So this is being posted from Sta Pola's public library. One expects roaming charges, of a more or less extortionate nature, but complete lockout having served only 28mb of data in less than an hour's access time spread over two days in total is a situation that one might have expected four or five years ago. Use of this dongle costs CBS £20 a month. It's hardly value for money when it works, and the help desk is far less than helpful about getting the data cap raised. "Why don't you use wi-fi?" is not an intelligent response to a client who needs to access data on the move in a foreign environment where wi-fi provision is an unknown element to the help desk let alone the client.

There were light showers before breakfast this morning, and much of the day was overcast, as promised, but we had none of the torrential rain experienced in the north and west of the country. We walked as far a Varadero beach and then climbed the 140 metres from sea level up to the remains of an 18th century round tower atop the highest local 'sierra'. The first half of the ascent was up a wide flight of steps in between empty holiday apartment blocks. The second half was up a steep path of more recent origin, created to make visitor access a little safer. There were signs that in recent times this path had been inundated by heavy rain, as it was strewn with stones and vegetation.

There was an unobstructed panoramic view of the bay and the island of Tabarca from on high. To the west was a plateau covered with bushes, cacti and small trees stetching into the distance, like something out of a cowboy movie. The tower had once been the base of a windmill, with the driving mechanism housed on a wooden platform constructed on top  of it. What a romantic project it would be to re-build a traditional type housing for an energy generating wind turbine up there! A great tourist feature, but it qouls probably take far too long to recover the costs of  investment.

We returned home for lunch, and after a siesta we wealk back into town to the nearest newsagents to buy some postcards, and a school exercise book, which I'll use for jotting down notes of meetings attended, and ideas for development on computer later on. I have a collection of these notebooks going back decades. Several are travel journals, one has my many user name and login password details, a few have poetry and prayers. The posher hard back ones are what I used to keep a journal in the decades before blogging.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Flamingo watch

Another warmer than usual for the end of October, bright sunny day to get us started with breakfast on the terrace, and then a bus trip to Gran Playa beach on the west side Santa Pola port. From here we walked inland, crossed the southbound road out of town and headed up a dirt road into a section of the local nature reserve. The 'Salinas' of Santa Pola is an area of several square miles of salt water ponds, at lead level, rich in wildlife and the unusual vegetation which thrives in a harsh saline environment.

The Romans may have been the first to extract salt from seawater in this flat marshy area. For centuries it was a nobleman's hunting domain, but over the past two centuries, salt production has been industrialised, with a series of ponds connected by channels directing the flow of seawater through sluices. When collected seawater has evaporated into a more concentrated brine, it is moved into other ponds and concentrated further, before the final evaporation and collection of the residue for storage, somewhat nearer the place from which it is transported for refinement and extraction of valuable trace mineral content elsewhere. There are big white hills of salt in the storage area alongside the road going south just before it crosses a causeway in between evaporation ponds.

Anyway, our aim this morning was an hour of birdwatching before the sun got uncomfortably hot. At first the high reed beds along the path seemed very quiet. In the larger industrial ponds we could see flocks of large grey gulls, and smaller back backed stilts. The other side of the track, on the town side are a series of older ponds which are now part of the conservation area, where indigenous vegetation is allowed to flourish, and there's a throughput of fresh water, helping maintain the level of salinity naturally associated with this ecosystem. Best thing of all about this domain is its perennial colony of flamingos, hundreds of them, rising to eight thousand during migration periods.

The town side landscape beyond the Salinas is typical of a marginal enterprise zone, warehouses, small factories, public cemetery and funeral centre, football stadium, with a few high rise social housing blocks behind them. The rich autumnal coloured wilderness of the nature reserve starts abruptly, incongruously, the other side of a main road out of town. It makes for some unusual photographs. My Sony HX5 has given me some super flamingo landscapes, although its ten times zoom isn't good enough to give decent closeups at 350m, that's just too far.

We walked back to the port via Grand Playa beach, and ate a superb seafood lunch in a small bar- restaurant right on the Playa de Levante. Then we visited the Mercadona sueprmarket on our way home to obtain things we hadn't been able to carry yesterday, and walked laden with goods the last couple of kilomtres home. Yet again, we both slept soundly for an hour or so, to recover from our exertions.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Spain again

I'm usually pretty bad about preparing to travel, doing it all at the last minute, but this time I started the day before, the reason being that Clare's cousin John and his wife Dorothy were going to called in on their way home from holidaying in Devon to have lunch with us today, before we set out. It must be seven years since we saw them last, so it was good to catch up, albeit for only a couple of hours.

At three we were taken to Cardiff Central station by our neighbour Mary for the first leg of a journey to Santa Pola, for a brief respite from the rain clouds. Our plane was on time and delivered us to Alicante airport at ten past eleven. There seemed to be nobody on duty at passport control, and our only case was the twenty second to come off the swift silent new baggage conveyor belt in a vast new terminal, which was still being built when we were here last, two years ago. We stepped straight into a taxi and set foot into Anto's apartment at eleven forty five. It's marvellous when everything works so well.

This morning we woke before dawn to see a sliver of waning moon set amidst layers of distant clouds, half an hour or so before the sun rose out of the Mediterranean to the north of the isle of Tabarca. A numonous sight like this is great way to mark the beginning of our stay. After breakfast, we walked the couple of miles to the nearest supermarket to get food, and then walked back fully laden in the midday sun, both of us feeling quite energetic despite a late night and early rise.

We had salad and fresh fried sardines for lunch. Then I slipped into a refreshing sleep, before hooking up the 3G wireless dongle I'd borrowed from work to make this posting. As you can see, it works a treat, and this means I don't have to lug my notebook into town and find the public library wi-fi. A gratifying experience.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Bible Sunday omission

I got up early in order to drive the twelve mile journey to Bassaleg Parish Church to attend the 8.30am said Eucharist service and hear Rufus, one of the students in my tutor group, preach for the first time on parish pastoral placement. There were thirty people present, a decent number for this large suburban setting. I was impressed at how relaxed and confident he was, but as a mature professional, used to speaking publicly and taking a lead, this isn't suprising.

Today is Bible Sunday, but the alternative set themed lessons weren't used, just the normal ones for the last Sunday of the Trinity-tide season. It was the same for me later when I celebrated and preached at St German's. Although these weren't greatly sympathetic to the theme, the best was made of limited material on offer. I'd seen what Rufus prepared beforehand, and we'd discussed a few points here and there, yet somehow we both failed to notice and take advantage of the fact that this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.

There has been some good publicity for this anniversary, radio and TV programmes, even drama centering on the KJV publication, as its text has had a major impact on the development of English language and literature. It's a key heritage document of British culture, so I wonder why this should have failed to excite our interest as preachers.

Our lifetime has seen many new translations of scripture, plus modern language liturgies. KJV still gets read in some big traditional public events, but quickly it seems to have become associated with ultra-conservative not to say cranky expressions of Christianity, those who refuse to countenance change, and strive to enage with the present with voices from a past that becomes increasingly distant. 

It would have been better if we could have acknowledged the debt we owe to the KJV, because it did for its generation what contemporary translations do for us today. However, making a text intelligible to read is only part of the challenge of delivering the message in a vastly different world. With translation of the message goes intepretation and application to make it relevant, to engage an audience already striving to cope with the confusion of a multitude of other messages broadcasted for the benefit of our time. Looking back to our roots requires a particular effort, which forsook us today. Sometimes appraising our heritage may be best left to culture gurus - after all, they aren't missionaries, we are.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Return to Ty Mawr

Today I drove to Trellech and Ty Mawr Convent, to take part in the annual Associates' Day. It's the first time in since years that I've been there, and in that time, more than half the sisters I knew over the past thirty years have died. Of the four sisters there at the meeting, two were old friends and the other two were new to the community since my last visit.

Ty Mawr was always an important place of spiritual refuge for me. I could have visited during the past six years, but made a conscious choice not to do so. It was hard enough committing myself totally to being present and part of the somewhat confined world of the city centre, during its period of redevelopment. Many people who live, work or hang around in the city centre don't have the option to take refuge in a distant place of great beauty. If the city is a kind of desert, what must it be like not to have the option of leaving it? So I persuaded myself to try and put down even deeper roots, and learn what it might mean to adapt and grow a spirituality in such a secular environment, where the witness to faith may only have secular meanings for people.

Well, I survived. But I missed Ty Mawr greatly. Today, the countryside was as beautiful as ever. The convent grounds look well cared for and the wind quietly sings through the trees its calming song, ready to transport its hearers to a place of inner contentment and peace. It took me a little time to get used to the place. It has endured many changes in six years, whilst appearing largely unchanged. Time needed just to tune in, to re-connect. But all in all, the day was a grace, gratefully received.

I still have to work out what the past six years of absence has taught me. Or, if it was just an idealistic experiment that failed.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Gadaffi's end

I went into town early today for the radio users group monthly meeting for security staff, and came away with a job to do - to set up a blog that subscribers can contribute to. First figure out the best way to do it, using Google tools I suspect.

I was working away at this at my desk in the office when the news of Gaddafi's capture and killing began to trickle out. An ugly ignominious end. A mad cruel dictator gets a taste of his own medicine, some may think. Out of touch with reality he undoubtedly was, reported as saying indignantly to those who dragged him from his hiding place and disarmed him: "Don't you know who I am? How dare you treat me like this?" Whether his death was really an accident due to cross-fire or a deliberate execution on the part of someone  bent on vengeance may never really be known. The abuse of his corpse before being taken to a secure place was certainly a feast of revenge. It stripped his captors of the dignity of their achievement.

I agree with some media commentators that the continued re-cycling of film footage and pictures of his death resembled some obscene 'snuff' video. This is what happens with 24/7 news coverage, and also in a culture of dubious transparency which insists 'if it can be shown it must be shown'. The only concession to humane sensibilities are the warnings transmitted, of a 'look away now' nature. Gaddafi will not now face justice on this earth, but the media spectacle made out  of his demise, and the public display of his body, however grisly, may help give an illusion of closure on his tyrannical reign to some and reassure those who lived in fear of him for decades the possibility of a new beginning.

Tyranny only ends, however, when the tyrannised succeed in renouncing all the evil practices of their former overlords, and replacing them with non-violent and just ways of governance. It's less of a foregone conclusion than anyone might think.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

St Luke's Day in College

I spent the afternoon in College again today, checked messages on the College computer network, had tea with staff members in the Principal's study, and then attended the St Luke's day Eucharist in chapel, celebrated in Welsh by Fr Stephen Adams, member of staff. Only half a dozen of us were there. I was conscious that it was the first occasion for me to attend the 2004 modern language liturgy in Welsh. It meant that I had to read very carefully an unfamiliar service text, and this reminded me in a good way of early days following the Mass in French or Italian - it seems now like many years ago. Except this is a language I started learning to read back in Ystrad Mynach Junior School back in the fifties. Such a pity it got neglected, as so few people in our family or locality were Welsh speakers in those days. I feel I should be much more confident in liturgical Welsh than I am. It's lack of necessity and opportunity, sad to say.

After the Eucharist came this week's tutor group meeting. We said Evening Prayer together and than had a revealing discussion about prayer and the departed, leaving me with the impression that most people in the group were on unfamiliar ground, no matter what year of studies they were in. It may reflect the prevailing evangelical religious background of many students offering for ordination these days, and the widespread contemporary difficulty of developing any fresh language of discourse for approaching the mystery of death and eternity. It's too easy to stay stuck in the contentions of old fashioned Protestant/Catholic positions, and have no awareness of how Eastern and Southern Christians (not to mention those of other faith) may have ideas and insights about life and death that challenge the Western European mindset.

After supper, I returned to College for a session with Dom Cyprian Consiglio OSB, an American monk of a community of Camaldolese hermits. Until now I hadn't realised that this strand of contemplative monasticism, originating with St Romuald in Italy just pre-dates the foundation of the Carthusians in France by St Bernard. in the early eleventh century. Dom Cyprian is a poet and musician, teacher of yoga and student of meditation in world religious tradition, an advocate of what he calls "the Universal Call to Contemplation." On top of that, he discovered this call early in his monastic training through a brief meeting with Dom Bede Griffiths, one of the great British pioneers of inter-faith dialogue through meditation and monastic life, most of whose life was spent establishing a Christian ashram in southern India.

With an audience of thirty, he told stories and sang spiritual songs in Latin, Sanskrit and Arabic for two hours. It was a delightful experience, which rang many bells with my own spiritual journey into the world of faiths. After his session we spoke briefly and I told him how I had been awakened to wider spiritual horizons by the discovery of a book by Abbe Dechanet called 'Christian Yoga' when I was nineteen. I was a little disappointed that so few of his audience were College students. In my experience the earlier one is exposed to and challenged by this kind of spiritual encounter, the less likely one is to get stuck in or even worse undermined by the intellectual demands of doing theology.

For me, this was an evening of inspiration, putting me back in touch with the well springs that have long nourished my own spiritual journey, although they have been somewhat neglected over the past decade, most of which I passed trying to root myself at St John's as an oasis in the 'desert' of the city. Now I can re-visit the sources freely once more, I have thus far avoided making the effort. However, this Saturday I'll be going to a day meeting of Associates of the Society of the Sacred Cross at Ty Mawr - the first time in seven years. What have I learned over the intervening years, I wonder?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Blessing in action

I went to St Michael's after leaving work early this afternoon, to take part in a Family Service organised by a group of students. There are around a dozen children under ten among students there, so there's an opportunity for families to worship together and for those without children of their own to grow skills and experience in the offering of worship with children taking part.

A lot of work went into it on the part of the half a dozen adults and two children taking active parts, including a time of preparatory prayer together beforehand. The white walls of the College chapel provided a perfect back drop for a digital projector to display the words of hymns and prayers for all to join in. I usually hate the way video projectors are used in worship, because of the way the screens intrude upon the aesthetics of the place, as this for me is an important component of making an environment for prayer. Here, however it worked very well, as the display disappeared once no longer needed to for words to read.

My only contribution to the service was to give the blessing. Given it was a service of the Word in which some people said and did things to engage others and the others sat and were engaged, I devised a little form of blessing that would involved everyone in getting up and doing some movement together. Everyone joined in with a good will, and seemed to enjoy a little unexpected added fun at a moment of formal closure. How to make worship more active and participatory is always a challenge. I must think of something else to do, next time I assist in one of these services.

OK, in case you're curious, I took the actions repeated in the last verse of 'If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands' and used them as an acted out Amen for a blessing which had four brief prayer parts to it. Clap your hands, stamp your feet, turn around, say 'We are' - if you'd forgotten....

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Going the long way around

Back at St German's for Mass this morning. The town centre was taken up with a half marathon race, and in order to avoid extra traffic queues on my usual route, I drove to Adamsdown via Gabalfa and City Road. The road got more and more congested as a neared my destination, although this was more likely to be shopping traffiic heading for the centre at quarter to eleven. I arrived with five minutes to spare. Someone else arriving at church as I did chanced going through the city centre on the route I'd avoided and found no hindrances at all. Race route closures in the centre were already over by the time I'd set out, but I didn't realise it. Remember this for next time!

The Mass was followed yet again by a Baptism, and late return home to prepare and eat lunch. Then, back to church for Evensong and Benediction before collecting Clare from her train. She stopped over another night at Kenilworth to look after Rhiannon, while Kath and Anto drove with the band almost up to Crewe for a gig with their band Lament. I admire their energy. The car journey to Kenilworth is probably the longest I take these days. Driving up and back on successive days leaves me quite tired, especially when it's combined with a Sunday taking services and preaching. Is it simply a matter of ageing? Or is it because I've got out of the habit of long distance driving? A bit like you get out of the habit of long distance walking if you don't do it regularly.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Call me an unbeliever if you will ....

I drove to Kenilworth with Owain yesterday afternoon. Clare had gone ahead to a Eurythmy conference in Stourbridge, and she arrived after we did, so that we could as a family celebrate Kath's 40th and Clare's 66th birthdays, several weeks after these events. We went to a Loch Fyne restaurant which was crowded and busy, but very well run with excellent cuisine.  The restaurant was pleasantly suffused with cooking smells, giving a good impression of homeliness, despite its considerable size.

I slept on in the morning, so long I missed most of the heroic Welsh Rugby defeat, eating breakfast alone. It's impressive that the Wales Millennium Stadium had a full house of spectators watching the event live from New Zealand. Technology again abolishing distance. We still had to drive home into the setting sun this afternoon, however. The roads were fairly clear when we got back to Cardiff, most fans would have gone home after the morning's match, with only a historic disappointment to celebrate.

Owain reproaches me for my disinterest in our National Game. I can't help it if I prefer the Millennium Centre and its grand opera, to Millennium Stadium shouting. It makes me think of kids watching a playground fight. We don't seem to have come far from the era of  'bread and circuses'.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Upgrade dilemma

Well, the new version of Ubuntu 11.10 arrived yesterday and is getting reviewed in the world's front running tech' pages. I upgraded to 11.04 in April, but didn't get on with the controversial new Unity graphical user interface, so I took advantage of the provision made to use the alternative Gnome 2 desktop, which has served me well over the past five years or so. To my mind it's far better than all the various Windows desktop and file handling resources I've ever used. Not that I've been persuaded me to abandon Windows entirely, even though 70% of the time at home it's Linux I use rather than Windows. 10% of time using Windows seems to be eaten up with installing updates and patches. Ubuntu does this mainly in the background once you've given permission to proceed.

MS Publisher 2000 however, is still less demanding to use in desktop publishing than open source Scribus. Better the devil you know than the devil you should get to know.  Also true of MS Works database. I've used it for over a decade to manage data, and have lots tied to it. It runs only on Windows. Works data formats are not freely exportable to any database engine I've found, though raw data can be passed to other programs by copying and importing from a spreadsheet. It's easier to keep Windows and run Works databases than find and learn a new program capable of running on top of other operating systems. One day, I may  install a copy of XP on a virtual machine running in Linux, just to retain data attached to Works. It'd save learning a new program and going through the pain of migrating data to a Linux database if I could find one friendly enough.

Anyway, back to the 11.10 upgrade. Gnome 2 has been ditched in favour of Gnome 3, with radically changed user interface, also controversial. The early version I tried was buggy and crashed on me, leaving me with little zeal to adapt. Unity and Gnome 3 may be exciting innovations, better for people who learn new habits quickly maybe, but I'm not patient about unlearning old habits and acquiring new when it comes to using tools that are meant to help me get thoughts on the page quickly and easily. So shall I bother with 11.10? Or shall I switch to another Linux distribution that gives me the choice of user interface I don't need to re-learn? I simply don't need a user interface that resembles that of a smart phone or a tablet, because I own and use neither of these devices, and again, the extra learning, however easy it's promoted to acquire is not what I want. The same will be true when Windows 8 appears. It's not that I can't learn new things, but that I've got better uses for my learning skills.

The question is, do I ditch Ubuntu for Linux Mint to support my computer usage habit? Or go to Kubuntu? I used KDE on various Linux versions and off, six or seven years ago. It was good, but Gnome 2 suited me better. New versions of KDE look great, but are perhaps more complex to set up initially because of the vast range of options to waste time playing with. XFCE and LXDE are good and simple, great for elderly machines, but often appear unpolished working on a newer machine. So it's time to start thinking about what will be the least painful basic change to make to may everyday working environment. It's as bad as having to buy clothes and new shoes. Even worse, slippers.

I laugh at myself when I think how much of my working life I spent helping others to interpret and come to terms with change!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Preaching in College

This week I've been at St Mikes three afternoon in a row, taking opportunities to meet each member of the tutor group, as well as seeing them together for an hour on Tuesday. Today I preached at Evensong to the assembled two dozen residential studies, and had supper there afterwards before going to my Tai Ch class.

It was the first time I'd ever preached in the College Chapel. I spent a lot of time tinkering with my sermon in previous weeks, and before preaching this afternoon I felt quite apprehensive for no reason I could identify. It had to be just right for the occasion. It was my first time with this group of people, about whom I know little, apart from the fact that all have put their lives on the line to train for ordained ministry. They come from many different walks of life and faith experiences different from my own. Such a responsibility to address them in a way that anyone might glean some insight or inspiration from my thoughts. 

I felt this to be a more demanding task than what I regularly do, preaching to congregations where I hardly know anybody. Yet in a way that's easier. Congregations have their social context, parish loyalties and even age grouping as a point of departure for addressing them collectively. At St Mikes' almost all come from different backgrounds. Forging them all together as a learning and praying community in which at least a third changes every year is a challenge for the staff - and I'm now a volunteer, learning how to be a staff member. This makes me apprehensive. Not that it's so alien to my past experience. The responsibility is so much greater, helping to raise up leaders and pastors for a church which is struggling for survival as it seeks to renew its way of doing ministry and being in mission.

When I was a student here during the era or student upheavals in the sixties, many lived in hope of reviving a past golden age of catholic Anglicanism. A few evangelicals were edging towards the charismatic renewal experience beginning to break out here and there. Third world Anglicanism was still being nurtured by the last big generation of European missionaries, rather than being self-generating and indigenous. A few of us were liberal, wanting to learn from people of many cultures and faiths, sensing our way towards a new kind of world Christianity, struggling with the onset of the demise of the Western church. There was hope in the face of looming challenge, a strong desire to translate received faith into contemporary discourse, and a naivety about the real lasting dangerous impact of a permissive society. Only the religious conservatives seemed to be alert to the threat.

None of our enthusiasms or efforts succeeded in reversing long term church decline. Perhaps my nervousness about addressing this faithful body of students is derived from the abiding sense of failure arising from the decline that's happened when our generation was in charge.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Nastiness on the bus

On my way home by bus this evening, a young mother with a babe in a buggy got on the bus after I'd taken a seat next to the area used for passengers with wheels, so I got up and moved to allow her to sit opposite her child. Then a couple with two small children plus pushchair got on the bus. Dad had the babe in one arm and the toddler attached to the other. He made his way to the seats at the back of the bus, leaving Mum with empty push chair. As it was much larger than the buggy, she decided to fold it and put it in the small luggage bay, having declined non-verbally the other mother's invitation to share the space where her buggy and baby were parked. With a little effort, the unwieldy pushchair was parked and she joined her husband and children at the back of the bus.

Then a woman behind me started off in a loud voice attempting to raise debate with fellow passengers on why the second mother had not been able to park her pushchair in the assigned area - despite the fact that the space available wasn't big enough for both to any common sense observer. It soon became clear that the woman was making an effort to draw attention to the younger mother. Did I mention the fact that she was wearing a hijab? What then started was a diatribe against 'all these people coming over here and taking over everything that's ours', just loud enough for it to be audible to the mother who was subject of conversation, and others in surrounding seats.

It was an ill-judged interference in a normal interaction between two mothers with children, apparently satisfied with the compromise they'd made and uncomplaining about the journey they were taking. Rather than endure the journey saying nothing, I felt the need to say something, as the woman behind kept repeating herself more audibly, as if she was making the most of the chance she'd seized to humiliate someone different from herself. So, I took a deep breath, turned and addressed her in a voice loud enough to carry up the bus.

"Would you please keep your voice down and your thoughts to yourself", I said. She protested she had a right to say what she liked. "Your opinions aren't mine." I said. "I regard them as inflammatory and offensive. You do not speak for everybody." She told me to shut up, and so did the man sitting next to her, who had been her closest audience. After some mutterings, both lapsed into silence. The young mother in a hijab got off the bus at the next stop. 

I watched her walk straight from the bus to the door of 9 Cathedral Road, the home of BAWSO a support organisation for ethnic minority women. I hope she was going there because it was her destination, and not to take refuge from being persecuted on a bus by a woman in my age bracket, a woman who should have known better - we the baby-boomers, raised in the shadow of the Jewish holocaust. 

This incident has haunted me ever since. I intervened because silence would imply approval for harrassing someone on the grounds of race and culture. But did I have to be so middle class intellectual in the words I used? A cosmopolitan Cardiffian would have said something like: "Look luv, cut out this racist twaddle will you? We're all mixed race and religion round here. Live and let live I say." 

I'm better after the event than in the moment - the habit of many years as a (hopefully) eirenic clergyman, has left me handicapped when it's a matter of coming to the point, telling it how it is, calling a racist a racist.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Navigation error

I had a half hour drive to celebrate and preach in the Rhondda parish church of St John Porth Newydd this morning. I arrived early, but at St Paul's, the wrong church. I didn't realise, as the notice board I looked at while waiting for the church to open didn't state the building's dedication, which would have prompted me to realise my error. The church warden greeted me with puzzlement, and assumed the Vicar forgot to tell her. I got ready for the service, then he arrived, and was taken aback to see me there. It was easier for him to go over to St John's than it was to instruct me how to get to an unfamiliar place at the last minute, so with apologies, I stayed. The congregation were good humoured about it. It's the kind of error I rarely make. Maybe the solo drive to and from Kenilworth left me more tired than I realised. Josh, a new student at St Mike's was in the congregation with his wife Rachel, his first placement Sunday. I trust it was instructive for him to see how well the church coped with the unexpected.

I then returned home via St German's for a baptism - two teenage girls and three children under five. Figuring out how best to make the most of the occasion for the two girls, as well as the parents and godparents took me a few minutes, but as several of the godparents were stuck in traffic, I had time to spare. At first the congregation, though attentive were shy about joining in, but with a little encouragement things improved as we went along. I wish I could have spent time on preparation with the teenagers. 

Parish policy has been to accept any young person presenting themselves for baptism (often because they have been asked to be godparents, or are about to get married), without a long course of preparation aimed at leading them through baptism to confirmation. The reason for this acknowledges that for a variety of social and pastoral reasons many families in such a working class area fail to get their children baptised as infants, and not because they have rejected Christianity. Making baptism accessible at an older age allows them to catch up. Hopefully the experience will enable the Holy Spirit to take them further on a journey into faith.

It was two o'clock by the time I sat down to lunch, then after an hour's nap on the sofa, I was back in church for Evensong and Benediction at five. Despite the damp weather there were twice the number present last time. I learned that there's another baptism next Sunday after Mass, but this time only one child.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Down time

Yesterday morning I drove up to Kenilworth to look after Rhiannon, as Kath and Anto have the first of their band gigs of the new touring season. I enjoyed listening to her read, as well as reading to her. At the end of the school week, she didn't need too much from me, apart from her favourite tea time meal, and to be allowed to curl up on the sofa for a couple of hours to watch a familiar children's video and a little TV. She's not a great TV watcher, as her own imagination is so fertile. She loves making things and role playing with her dollies far more, so her desire to unwind with a little 'entertainment' was unusual, a sign of tiredness. She went to bed punctually with no resistance and was soon asleep.

The gig was closer to home than many, so Kath and Anto arrived home before midnight, pleased with the reception given to their revised set of songs. Anto got up early to watch the World Cup rugby, and was joined by Rhiannon on the sofa towards the end of the game. By breakfast time she was busy playing imaginatively as usual, refreshed by an undemanding evening and good sleep.

As I was about to leave Auntie Viv arrived to take over babysitting for a second evening's gig, somewhat further away in Staffordshire. Whatever time they return, Kath will have to be up in the small hours to drive to Heathrow for an early flight to Brussels for a meeting in Antwerp as part of her exciting research and development project on small children and dance. Such stamina! I headed home, hoping that the driving wouldn't leave me feeling too tired to enjoy tomorrow's duties.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The value of time

I was at St Mike's yesterday for a tutors' meeting over lunchtime, and spent part of the afternoon getting to know one of my tutor group members, before meeting the group for our session before supper. Students have a 9.00am lecture start most weekdays. Their day starts with Morning Prayer at 7.30pm before breakfast, but for those with neither car nor bike it's over a half hour walk over Llandaff Fields into the University Faculty of Theology, and using the bus could take just as long. So if prayer time goes on too long, there's a risk that breakfasting is squeezed to a minimum. Some students living outside College travel in before Morning Prayer, and so have a very early start. It's all a good deal less leisurely than it was in my day, and requires commitment and stamina to sustain. 

Talking of busyness, a friend of my sister wrote this to her recently from New Zealand:

"It’s disappointing that many of the smaller parish churches here are closing, due to low congregation – first they started sharing ministers, so a minister would serve over a couple of parishes (or more). But you know, I've virtually stopped going myself. It’s difficult fitting everything in and actually gaining some peace or message from a church service. However, I do feel that the church could respond in different ways – be open evenings and after work times, have smaller & more frequent services during the week of a slightly different format – prayers & communion / singing & praising god & in different ways / groups that discuss issues like islam, etc.  I don’t see any of this happening – they all tend to just keep the same liturgy repeated once a week (& Weds mornings).  The modern way of looking at time is the problem – you can’t expect people to be able to spend half a day at church – it has to be easier & simpler, otherwise no-one will come.

She's right that the problem is the modern way of looking at time - how we value it and what we use it for. Easier, simpler, more frequent, more convenient. That's a huge ask with diminishing resources. Maybe she doesn't realise that what's on offer is all that's sustainable. 

My worry is that the tone is being set for busy crowded pressurised ministry, in which there are too few clerics attempting to maintain several times more church communities than any of their predecessors had to a couple of generations ago. Admittedly, lay people take a lot more responsibility for running parish affairs these days, and some can be encouraged to do more and find satisfaction in doing so. But pastoral ministry consisting of replicating Sunday and weekday Eucharists, weekday offices and church council meetings may leave little time for creative idleness, hanging out with people, whether churchgoers or not, to get to know them and their lives better. 

The cleric's role (and what people expect from them) has gradually become more restricted to that of a 'services provider'. Parishioners having to work together more actively to sustain the life of their church may come to know each other better over the years than their priest can get to know them. They get used to saying to their parson: "I understand how busy you are." It's that much harder for a pastor to get the time with people needed to accompany them, understand and sympathise with their circumstances. Or, it's possible only to achieve this quality of ministry with a smaller circle of people, perhaps only church goers, and this limits the relationships that can be built up in service of the wider community. How can this be turned back into a virtuous cycle without a radical re-appraisal of the value time has for us?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Harvest Two

Taking advantage of yesterday's warm sunny weather, we drove to the Gower, and ate a picnic lunch on Oxwich Bay beach, before walking the low tide shoreline to Three Cliffs Bay. There were double the number of people out sunning themselves compared to our last visit on August Bank Holiday - possibly because at that time many were still holiday-making abroad. With the tide being as far out as it could be, we had time to explore rock pools, and found two kinds of starfish, whelks and winkles about their business

Walking back to the Oxwich Bay Hotel for tea, facing the sun, I found more tiring than expected. But then, I've had more than my usual amount of exercise this past couple of days. I need to work hard at staying fit, obviously! We returned home for a vegetarian curry supper, and watched the second of the two pilot 'Inspector Montalbano' detective movies. It engaging, quite nicely done, but a bit lightweight against competition from 'Wallander' and 'The Killing', both less 'entertaining' and more compelling to watch. Although I've hardly used the Italian I acquired since I put effort into learning it thirty years ago, I was pleased at how much dialogue I was able to make sense of apart from the subtitles. Funny how memory works, and sometimes doesn't.

Before bed I spent an hour revising my Sunday sermon. I don't know why, but it was the first time I had to prepare something on the parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 21 after five cycles of preaching with the three year lectionary. There are gaps in the sermon records I keep. Possibly this is due to the coincidence of this Sunday with Michaelmas, Harvest or Dedication Festivals, so it gets less regularly  used. 

Anyway, I was taken aback when I arrived for the Eucharist at St Mary Church in Cowbridge Benefice this morning to realise it was Harvest Festival not Trinity 15. I had overlooked this in the published preaching rota notes, and in any case had preached Harvest at St German's two Sundays ago - they'd advanced their celebration to accommodate their dedication festival this weekend. I placed my sermon notes in the pulpit, and only then noticed the small sheaves of wheat and freshly baked loaf, placed in front of the altar. Although I could recall what I had preached about two weeks ago, it was an altogether different affair to preach Harvest in two wheat growing rural parishes, where to judge from the fields along the A48 from Cardiff, All had been Safely Gathered In. 

So, I had to improvise, at both St Mary Church and St Hilary, without going on too long. I explained what had happened, to their amusement, and then enjoyed reflecting on the value and significance of local food production in this time of recession and environmental threats. I think it went down all right, although I am conscious that when stimulated to talk freely, I can talk too fast, say too much, and not give time for the message to sink in. Let's hope the 'plough the fields and scatter' techinque worked on this occasion.

I arrived home punctually in order that we could drive to Penarth for lunch at the 'Mediterraneo' on the sea front. With no evening service this week, it meant that I didn't have to dash off somewhere else, so we lingered on the prom and on the pier, basking in the unseasonal October warmth. We've been out in the sun a lot over the past few days, and not had the slightest trouble with sunburn. What a difference a few months can make.

It was late when we sat down to supper so we missed the first half of Sunday spy melodrama 'Spooks', so we lingered until it was over and then watched it on my big Sony laptop with BBC iPlayer. For once, streaming was flawless, without the delays due to crowded bandwith we often get at peak periods. It's usually quite entertaining, although suspension of disbelief required to accept the fictional power of technologies used in the series makes it almost as daft as Dr Who on times. I stopped watching that thirty years ago. Thankfully this is the last series of 'Spooks' - unless there's a Christmas Special. I wonder if Rhod Gilbert would be interested in a headline role?