Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Unexpected bereavement

Yesterday, I had a call about officiating at the funeral today of a woman in her early sixties who'd died unexpectedly on Sunday evening, after emergency surgery, from which she didn't recover. She and her husband came over for several months annually, as they had done for a dozen years. I arranged to meet her husband and three daughters at a beach restaurant in La Cala de Mijas. They were all stunned by the suddenness of her end. She'd lived with physical disabilities for many years, but was such a confident and strong character that she'd not only raised a family, but travelled all over the world, disregarding the difficulties that she might encounter.

We all met again at the Fuengirola Cemetery Chapel this afternoon, for a service attended by friends and neighbours from their urbanzacion as well as family. There were three dozen of us, a remarkable turn-out at such short notice. One daughter read a moving tribute and a grand daughter, recently trained as a sound engineer took charge of producing music from an iPhone attached to a small portable sound system dock. Her husband spoke movingly too. Afterwards mourners assembled for refreshments at a bar in La Cala, much loved by the couple and their kids. I joined them, and chatted for a while before slipping back out of their lives to let them come to terms with the far too fast movement of events over the past four days. 

I was aware the funeral director was a young woman, poised, confident, warm and considerate, acting in a quietly supportive way to the bereaved husband as he made an effort to lead his family with dignity while attending to his own need to spend a last moment alone with his dead wife. As the time cycle for funerals is still much shorter here in Spain than it is in Britain, the experience of helplessness in the face of fast moving events can be a cause of distress. The pastoral sensitivity of those providing the funeral service is as vital as that of the officiating priest. All involved have a stake in moving a family through parting to a quieter space in which they are free to grieve, and re-make their lives.

In this setting, very much like back home, I'm amazed at the willingness of people to trust me as a total stranger to come into their lives at short notice and work with them to create a rite of passage that will be the vehicle for them saying farewell to a loved family member. I do my best and people mostly make an effort to express their appreciation at the end. In return I try to make the effort to say thank you to them for welcoming me into the family circle. It's the least I can do for the privilege.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Michaelmass Memories

The sound of torrential rain during the night woke me from sleep. I was amazed at how long it went on for. Thunder and lightening was also moving around the area between the Sierra de Mijas and the sea, so I got up and unplugged all the electrical equipment I could find, for peace of mind, before trying to get back to sleep. It has cleared up, and the roads were starting to dry out by the time I was on my way to the first Eucharist of the day in Calahonda. My access road to the N340 was however blocked by a Guardia Civil car. Sections of the highway nearby were still being cleared of debris and mud. Mostly the roads through the town were clear, but road crews were still sweeping away mud with water hoses at the junction where I made a second attempt to access the N340, but I was able to pass by and make my way to the church of San Miguel in good time.

As today is Michaelmass Eve, the church's statue of their patron saint was mounted on a flower decked trona beside the main altar, ready for a fiesta procession and parish picnic later in the day. It reminded me of Michaelmass ten years ago when Anto and I did a flamenco guitar course in Granada. We stayed in the Albaicin barrio, where their parish church patron saint was also San Miguel. The church had an image of the Archangel a good two metres tall. It was taken on procession from the bottom to the top of the barrio by a cofradia team of two dozen white shirted men. San Miguel's Calahonda image could be easily carried by one person, but its trona was for four persons to carry, perhaps even children.

Despite the stormy night, very few regulars were missing, and there was a congregation of thirty. As I neared the end of my sermon, an elderly lady in the congregation fainted and fell off her seat, bringing proceedings to a halt while first aid was ministered. When it was clear that her condition was not life threatening we continued with prayers of intercession, and I laid hands on her while the Peace was being exchanged. One person took her home and another drove her car home for her. People are very good here at gently supporting each other, and no doubt somebody will make sure she gets to the doctor for a check up very soon.

Attendance at Los Boliches was not as big as I'd expected. The influx of autumnal residents in any number has yet to pick up. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the British Isles has been enjoying one of the driest and warmest Septembers on record?

Today is Clare's birthday, and she texted me to say that she'd opened her iPad present and was setting it up for first use. In the evening we spoke of Skype, but she admitted she was still talking to me on Kath's iPad, because she'd not yet managed to install the Skype app from Apple store, as it was demanding she supplied it with credit card details, even to download free apps, and she didn't have hers to hand when she set out to do it. 

What does Apple do with this information, which remains unused if you don't ever download any non-free apps? Android's Google Play store doesn't make that demand, and if it did, I'd stop using it. These operating systems take too much information from us for no reason that is really so beneficial to us. Apple products are great, well designed, functional, as well as expensive, and very determined to make it easier for the user to spend more, such that it's possible to do so unwittingly if you don't understand fully the processes you're engaging with. Not happy with that at all. I'll pass on the Apple temptation.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Walk to Piedras de Cura

After the activity of the past few days, I was grateful for a quiet uneventful Friday, and didn't go far. This morning, however, with the weather still cool and cloudy, I decided on a good long walk. I took the promenade west, and went on beyond Castello Sohail, as far as the promenade would take me. It runs out, where the golden beach turns into a stretch of low rocky cliffs, with a footpath alongside the N340. I walked as far as the imposing landmark promontory of Piedras del Cura, before turning for home.
There's a car park lay-by adjacent to the rock, and there always seem to be visitors there whenever I drive past. Perched on top is a small statue of the Virgin on a plinth dated 1st January 2000. There are several plaques, and graffiti on flat rock faces. All seem to be of a commemorative nature, installed spontaneously, judging by posies of artificial flowers and occasional pot plant placed there. Are they for accident victims, in this vicinity? I wondered.
When I got back to Los Boliches, I had coffee and tarta de queso in Granier, and thought about Clare in Kenilworth, looking after Rhiannon this weekend. This tea shop is one of her favourites.
I reckon the round trip was about eight miles. I took many other photos, of empty beaches washed by a stormy sea, of a group of young surfers, finding the autumnal conditions to their liking, and a few more of sardinas on skewers roasting on outdoor the ubiquitous boat shaped barbequeues, which it seems every beach chirrunguito must have in its domain.

I also noticed at the end of the beach near the Castello, a neat lined up collection of a dozen such boats with the Costa del Sol logo on the side, indicating that they were municipal public barbequeues. All looking a bit forlorn on a damp grey day.
Even an urban beach empty of holidaymakers, on a damp grey day, has its moments of wildness, when the breaking sea floods across the sand and overwhelms stacks of sun-loungers for a fleeting moment, or an egret or a sanderling is glimpsed foraging among the detritus on the waterline. Quite a contrast to hot crowded summer days.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Beach wedding

Midweek Eucharist and coffee morning again for me yesterday, and then after siesta time, a rehearsal in St. Andrew's for the blessing of a civil marriage at a beach restaurant outside Marbella. Accompanying the bride and groom were more than a dozen family and friends. They arrived three quarters of an hour late, as the wedding organiser had not anticipated all those with some kind of role in the ceremony, active or passive, would want to be ferried to Los Boliches from Marbella. 

When we got started, it transpired the civil marriage certificate had been left behind in Britain, despite several admonitions to be sure to bring it along. The blessing of a civil marriage cannot proceed unless there is proof that the wedding has taken place. Nobody seemed to 'get it', least of all, bride and groom, who seemed to be in a daze about everything. I insisted the blessing couldn't take place unless evidence was provided that a marriage had taken place. It was agreed that the couple would contact a neighbour holding their house key, retrieve the certificate and email photographs to the wedding arranger in time for the ceremony to take place.

I woke up at half past five fretting: 'What if ...?, trying to figure out a fall back plan that would depend on civil ceremony witnesses being present in Spain for the wedding blessing. If the photos didn't turn up, I could get witnesses and the couple to sign a declaration that a civil wedding had taken place in a certain place and on a certain date, then I might proceed with confidence. On the face of it, the couple had made a simple foolish error. But how could I be sure, given the church had little direct contact with the couple during the preparation. Such is the nature of wedding blessings often organised by third party professionals. 

There was no reason to believe they would all lie to secure a church blessing without a civil marriage, but such things have occurred in times past. Now in a world where fake marriages and marriages of convenience are increasingly common the church is obliged to follow its procedures diligently for the sake of its trusted role and for the sake of the couple putting their trust in the church's ministry, even if they don't yet fully understand the significance of the public as well as personal commitment involved in making marriage.

Lunchtime today we were still waiting to receive photographic confirmation of the civil marriage, the best that could be done to secure the ceremony went ahead. Only as I was setting out did the awaited email arrive, two hours before the appointed time. The photos, taken last night, six of them, were all embedded in one message, big enough to stall the series of email clients through which it passed to reach Linda, eventually, just in time.

There were about sixty guests at the wedding, most of them had flown out from Britain to attend. The venue was a beach restaurant on the edge of the golden sands of Alcate Playa.
Chairs were arranged on the beach around a small platform with a table, a parasol, and chairs for the bridal couple right on the beach, just five metres from the water's edge.
A guitarist was hired to provide accompaniment to the ceremony, a teacher at the Marbella guitar academy, not too far away. We chatted beforehand, as I'd done with the guitarist at the previous Saturday wedding blessing I performed, but this time with a bit more confidence. 
Conditions were perfect, cool clear, a slight breeze. After I'd welcomed the congregation and settled the bride and groom into their places, the sound of the guitar duetting with waves breaking on the shore provided a perfect moment of serenity from which to move into the blessing liturgy. 

It's the first time I've ever taken a service of any kind on a beach. I was tempted to take off my sandals, but was reluctant to draw attention to myself in such a smartly dressed crowd. I marvel at how some of the women coped on the sand wearing high heels. Despite the awkwardness of such an exposed situation, it wasn't difficult to draw on the sense of place to make the liturgy memorable for everyone involved, yet it's the first time I've done this in forty four years of ministry. Nice to know new challenges to pastoral creativity still exist.

I've never had any qualms about taking the ministry of prayer and blessing to places away from church sanctuaries, but in the past it's been the exception rather than the rule. Going to where people who aren't that religious want to be, but regard as special for them, is a relatively new dimension for Anglican ministers. In the past we've relied on the attractiveness of our church buildings to bring people to us for blessing. Changing social and religious attitudes challenge us to offer ministry wherever people want to be, rather than where we think they ought to be. I can't say that I don't have misgivings about this, it's not always easy to rise to the challenge, but it does mean there's never a dull moment in God' service after all these years.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Travelling ministry

After a series of telephone conversations and email exchanges over the weekend with a woman whose friend had died after months of illness after an accident, I set off in down the N340 towards Gibraltar this afternoon, to officiate at a funeral in Manilva cemetery chapel. It looked straightforward enough, with the destination marked as being close to the AP-7 toll road exit, which runs inland, up and away from the coast. Thankfully I was in good time. I'd expected the cemetery to be signed from the coast road, where Manilva seemed to be located, but there were no signs. I overshot my junction by several kilometres before I realised my error. 

As I was turning to back-track, the funeral director called to ask where I was, as the family had arrived. 'Estoy perdido' I told him. At this stage I was still half an hour early for my rendezvous. I guess it says something about the expectations of funeral directors have of clergy in the part of the world. Part of the mourning ritual happens in the cemetery chapel, and the priest, I guess, is usually there to accompany mourners. 

The caller said he'd get an English speaking colleague to call me back. I stopped and asked the way of two women in a car in a lay-by on the edge of Manilva Playa - the built up coastal resort. One of them was English, and the other was Spanish, neither of them proficient at giving directions in response to my questions, but I gathered I was within a kilometre of the junction required to take me inland, up to the old coastal hill village of Manilva, on whose outskirts the new municipal cemetery is located. One more enquiry from a young man parked near the Police station, directed me around the by-pass, and I arrived twenty five minutes before the appointed hour.

There there thirty mourners present, filling the chapel entirely. The cemetery building housed a couple of other chapels of different sizes, and there was a notice to say that there was a crematorium, although I was unable to detect an incinerator smoke stack in the complex. The deceased asked to be cremated, but officialdom would not provide the necessary permissions. A hospital autopsy report was awaited, which could take many months to receive, as the deceased had suffered a head injury, followed later by a stroke it was necessary to determine if these were connected in terms of cause of death - presumably for insurance purposes. So, until permission is granted she had to be 'immured', which I think is the correct description for burial in a wall of niches, still the most commonplace means of burial in Spain, as in other parts of Europe. 

So, at the conclusion of the service, coffin, congregation and priest had to descend two cemetery levels to reach the assigned niche - steps for the majority, the ramp for me, the coffin and funeral attendants. I hadn't climbed up the rickety metal ladder to the platform required for top level nice burial, since I did a funeral in Nerja two years ago, but at least I was prepared, blessed the niche, and read the committal prayer to advance the procedure. The cementing of the coffin into its niche behind a slab took only a few minutes with a silicone compound injection gun, wielded by one of the cemetery attendants. Then I dismissed the assembly with a blessing.

Apart from long standing friends and neighbours, people had travelled considerable distances along the Costa del Sol to attend the funeral, tribute to the fact that the deceased had helped them or provided them with professional services as an estate agent in times past. A death brings together all sorts of people who don't know each other, as well as family and friends. Within the hour, as I was taking a few photos as the last car departed, the cemetery superintendent appeared and announced it was closing time. Municipal punctuality. Mine was the last car in the upper car park, the other occupants were local rubbish collection vehicles. There's a certain municipal pragmatic logic about that.

At the moment, locum cover for the two vacancies on the Costa del Sol is a bit thin. Covering this funeral for our neighours in Costa del Sol West meant a hundred mile round trip for me. That's a far cry from any ministry I've exercised previously.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Ordination anniversary weekend

Well, I managed seven hours sleep, but could have done with more. I drove to Benalmadena for the first celebration in honour of St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, and thence to Los Boliches for the second. This weekend was the first in which I presided as a priest at the Eucharist, at St Andrew's in Caerphilly, one that brings back fond memories of friendly supportive people in a mining community, back in the days when there were still three collieries producing coal in a three mile radius of the Parish where I served my title, six miles from where I was born. 

From one of them, Bedwas pit, my Great Uncle Will was recruited aged 40 to serve in the army he'd quit fourteen years earlier, possibly to join a team of military miners working on the Western Front. He disappeared at the second battle of Paschendaele. Nothing is known of how or why. His wife never recovered from not knowing anything about his end. This week, grand-daughter Rhiannon is going on a school trip to the battlefields of Flanders. I wonder how much she knows about this side of family history?

The coast road is a lot quieter now and I had no problems with traffic or parking. The weather is somewhat cooler too, and that too eases the pressure. I was glad to have nothing else to do for the rest of the day, apart from meals, siesta, late afternoon paseo, and a Skype session with Clare and Owain to end the day.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Marbella wedding

After a quiet Saturday morning, I drove up to Alhaurin to visit a gathering of the 'Mustard Seed Gang' which is the name of the church's occasional activity event that ministers to children. There were a dozen children and a over a dozen adults there, working on the theme of creation. I could only stay for half an hour, as I had to make my way to officiate at a wedding blessing in Marbella, via La Cala de Mijas, to visit Linda and pick up the wedding liturgy kit. She had planned to accompany me and take part in the ceremony, but was unable to. I wondered if I'd remember my way to the underground car park close to the wedding venue in the grounds of a huge apartment complex with bar and swimming pools, overlooking the sea front, without Linda to navigate for me, but fortunately it was more straightforward than I remembered.
The garden in front of the restuarant, screened from the promenade by tall trees, was furnished with tables to seat 180. A stage and sound system was set up for later performers to use, with a table plus floral arch set up in front of the stage to give the ceremony a focal point. Guests were welcomed by an Iberian harpist, a nice local touch at a Celtic wedding celebration.
The afternoon had been overcast, but as the bride walked down the aisle the sun, now descending to the horizon, penetrated the clouds. A moment of good cheer. It wasn't a hymn singing sort of occasion, but a couple of nieces of the bride sang three suitable duets to punctuate the ceremony.

I struggled with an order of service that I hadn't devised myself. It contained unfamiliar elements, and I'd scan-read it, rather than going through it properly. The couple and I had a talk through but not a walk through last time we met. This was a mistake I won't repeat. In as familiar a ritual as a wedding, whether a full British marriage or blessing following a civil ceremony, what you do binds everything together, far more than words. I'm used to coping with variations in set texts, but only because it all rests on a framework of ritual actions. So, I had to take it slowly, drive carefully, to get us where we were meant to be going. Fortunately, this seemed to convey relaxation rather than the mild panic I experienced a few times.

The very generous buffet meal took a long time to serve out with so many guests, but we sat around the table assigned, drank wine and/or water, nibbling on jamon iberico, before the spit roast pork, salmon and many variety of vegetable, cooked or in salad form, could be queued for. The entertainers started early and worked hard. By the time the sun set it was time for the speeches. Then a flamenco dance group of five women performed magnificently, albeit sadly to recorded music rather than to a live guitarist and singer. But it was beautiful and powerful. 
Then it was nine thirty, time to say thank you and head for home, to rest and refocus my attention on Sunday worship to follow. Several people stopped me on their way out to express their appreciation for the service - if only they knew!

What an unusual way to celebrate the forty fifth anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate. Still in service, still learning, thank God.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Malaga induction

This morning, Iain and I took the train to Malaga to attend the induction service for the new chaplain of St George's Malaga, Rev'd Mary Ellen Dolan. The Church is set in an historic English cemetery dating back to the early nineteenth century.
The gatehouse, shown here, was built in 1856. Malaga has the oldest Church of England chaplaincy in Spain. The cemetery is set on the eastern flank of the base of the mountain on top of which is Malaga's Gibrafaro fortress, with several terraces of graves and some enclosed sections with niches. It's maintained by a trust, since the British Foreign Office sold off the land which it originally owned and tourists must pay to enter though not worshippers. It proclaims itself to be a member of the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe. As with all churchyards, maintenance in good order is a perpetual challenge, added to which is the need to conserve many monuments of historical interest, if not artistic merit. It contains a record of nearly two centuries of expatriate residents in Andalusia and the city.
There were about thirty of us in a chapel holding sixty, to celebrate the Eucharist in which the induction ceremony was set, conducted by my old friend Fr Geoff Johnston in his role as acting Archdeacon. It was good to see him and his wife Carole again, as they leave for Britain and retirement at the end of October. Judith his churchwarden in Nerja was with him too, and that gave us an opportunity to discuss my return to Nerja to be their locum chaplain for the Lent-Easter period. If all goes to plan, we'll have a family party there for my 70th birthday, as it falls in Easter week.
After the service, refreshments were served on the terrace outside the church building, then Fr Peter Ford, who has spent much time recently as locum chaplain in Malaga joined Iain and I for the return journey to Los Boliches. It was good that he was given a role, reading the Gospel during the service, a good way of recognising the continuity in ministry with locum clergy freely offer. Fortunately he hadn't returned to Britain, as he lives in Fuengirola.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Mushroom season

There were nine of us again for the Midweek Communion. We remembered Hildegard of Bingen. The coffee morning and charity shop afterwards picked up in numbers again, with the return of more regulars and a few newcomers as well. I went home promptly at the end, crossing my fingers that I hadn't missed the visit of the postman with my little parcel from Clare, but there was no sign of mail, or missed packages. 

I had the second phone in two days enquiring about the possibility of officiating at a funeral. The first was for a service on Friday, impossible because I'm scheduled to go to Malaga to represent the chaplaincy at the institution service for their new Chaplain, the Reverend Mary Ellen Dolan. The second enquiry was someone especially requesting the offices of the previous Chaplain. The family in question were unaware that he retired nearly a year ago. There's still a high degree of expectation that a priest should be asked to officiate at a funeral by many who never darken the doors of a church, but unless the family are in some way linked to the church community, it's a rather impersonal affair for which anyone available will do. It's a bit like that in urban areas of Britain where many funerals are performed by a duty roster crematorium chaplain. It may be much the same here for the Spanish.

After lunch I walked down into Fuengirola, past the Ajuntamento, to inspect the building work on the site next to the Parish church of Nuesta Señora del Carmen. Last autumn, there was a deep hole there and the beginnings of a re-enforced concrete skeleton. I'm not sure what's in the basement, maybe it's parking, but there are four storeys above ground near completion, offices and meeting rooms grouped around an internal courtyard - a new Parish social centre, it seems.

I noticed there more varieties of mushroom on sale in the shops at the moment, a sure sign that it's September. I bought some labelled 'Seta', which like hongos seems to be a term for a mushroom that isn't a champignon. I used some to cook a risotto for supper, and was well pleased with the result.

Rachel, forgetting the time difference, skyped me at one fifteen in the morning, just after I'd fallen asleep. It was lovely to see and talk with her and Jasmine, but getting back to sleep after seemed to take all night.

Finally, just before midday today, the postman arrived with my long awaited charger, so my DSLR battery was installed for a good soaking charge. It's taken eight days to get here, whereas a card for Amanda's birthday, posted on Friday arrived on Monday. Never mind. I'm just glad to have it.

My afternoon paseo took me east up the promenade as far as the beach road runs, to Carvahal, just on the outskirts of Benalmadena. Large swathes of beach are now quite empty, although most of the bars and restaurants are still functioning, their numbers of staff and clientele are greatly reduced. It's been quite pleasantly cool and cloudy this past couple of days, 17-21 degrees, with a breeze, most pleasant for a decent five mile walk. It's good to get into the routine of regular exercise again.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Visit to the Bull

One thing I forgot to pack when leaving Cardiff was the charger for my DSLR battery. When Clare got back to Cardiff, she found it and posted it to me. That was a week ago. Meanwhile, last Friday, after the post for the day had gone, I sent a birthday card to Amanda, and yesterday morning she sent me a text message saying it had arrived. Uh-oh? What's happened to my little parcel? How long may it take to arrive? Or, is it lost? 

Each day since Thursday last, apart from Sunday, I've made sure that I'm here in the morning to receive a delivery, knowing that the little parcel will be just too thick to pass through the letter box opening in the garden door. So far, nothing, and I've no idea how long it might actually take to convey a little package from Cardiff to Fuengirola, given that a little package is not a letter. 

The way the postal service works in any country, let alone between countries is a mystery, and it's admirable that it works at all, given the variety of regulations governing the terms and conditions for the delivery of letters and packages in different countries. But, for a newcomer like me, it's a matter of uncertainty combined with inexperience. So I stay in and wait, not knowing what else to do.

Yesterday, I didn't go out all day. This afternoon, I willed myself to go out for an afternoon paseo, as it had cooled pleasantly by a few degrees. I walked East towards Torreblanca, not on the promenade, but on a road which took me up into the urbanizacions surrounding a 70 metre high promontory that overlooks the coastal plan.
A rare instance of unmanaged wild area in the conurbation, hosts an old maritime watch tower and one of ninety examples nationwide of the iconic 1950's bull advertisement logo for Osborne's Sherry Brandy. It has become a popular symbol in Spain, appearing on flags and tee shirts, quite divorced from its origin in drinks marketing.
When faced with removal under revised planning regulations, some bull advertisements were locally adopted, retained by popular acclaim as an unofficial Spanish identity symbol. The present bull of Torreblanca appears to be the third on this site, to judge by the discarded and rusting remains of foundations at previous locations on the hilltop.
When I arrived, half a dozen teenagers speaking a Scandinavian language were gathered around the bull, taking photos and climbing, where they could, girls posing for photos swinging from the bull's cojones, which I observed has been graffiti'd over several times, making them less visible that the usual matt back which makes for such a distinctive distant profile. Scope for philosophization without limit here, which I shall renounce. The views from up there across the sea plain and along the coast in both directions are well worth the climb. Surprising really that it's not considered worthy of a few tourism signs to direct visitors there.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

First Communion Sunday

We celebrated Holy Cross day throughout the Chaplaincy, rather than the Sunday after Trinity, to mark an important occasion - the admission to Communion for the first time (before Confirmation) of a group of eight children and one Mum, at the Eucharist up at Alhuarin. There were seventy people there altogether, some having travelled up from Calahonda to support candidates from there, and others from the Los Boliches congregation. It was good to be able to share leadership of the service with Caroline, who together with Sandy had arranged the preparation course. Quite a remarkable undertaking without a permanent chaplain, although Acting Archdeacon Geoff was happy to led his encouragement to the initiative.

The children entered with the ministers in procession, with a simple cross carried in front by one of the children, also a crown of thorns and a white winding cloth. The cross was made for last Good Friday's service, and worshippers have since then become attached to it. For this occasion a floor support mounting was made so it could stand freely next to the altar. The crown of thorns and cloth were added by children during my sermon. It was a happy family occasion that many members of the congregation found uplifting. 

After the service, festively decorated cup cakes and Buck's Fizz were on offer on the terrace outside the main church door, while people chatted and took photographs.

There's such a lot of work entailed in gathering a group of young learners together from different locations for five preparation classes, let alone the preparation for the service itself. It was a marvellous achievement and an expression of the health and vitality of pastoral life here. I'm so glad it came to its conclusion at a time that I was here to be a small part of it.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Happy family celebration

I was glad of a quiet uneventful Friday to prepare a short homily for the wedding, and an order of service in booklet format, which I could handle unobtrusively during the ceremony. It took a while to figure out the page print layout, as it's ages since I last did an odd booklet without recourse to the publishing tools  I keep on my office desktop PC at home. All good exercise for a lazy brain.

This afternoon I left with plenty of time to spare in order to arrive early enough in Benahavis to take a stroll around the village, and take a few photos. The original village was established by the Moors in the 11th century with Montemayor Castle, which I didn't see. It's expanded greatly as an exclusive holiday resort in the twentieth century, boasting nine golf courses and several hotels, and a reputation for some of the region's best restaurants. 
Not surprisingly, it's said to have the highest per capita income of any municipality in Andalusia. As ever with rural areas in this part of the world, new buildings are constructed in traditional styles. Interestingly, the parish church built only seven years ago, stands free on a terrace at rooftop level, with a parking garage and a parish social centre beneath at street level. A good use of space, and in a place like this I imagine land sells at premium prices.
The wedding blessing was a real family affair in the sense that the couple had been together 29 years, with children and grandchildren to show for it. It took place before a gathering of sixty guests on the upper terrace of a Granh Hotel function suite under a canopy that was only partly successful at shielding us from the afternoon sun. The service wasn't too long however, with no hymns and only background recorded music to enter and leave by. 

During the pre-dinner drinks reception after the service, a guitarist played a rich mix of traditional solo flamenco and latino fusion music with a recorded backing track. There was also a DeeJay for the disco after the meal. I struggled to chat with the guitarist in Spanish, and he was most gracious. I enquired about his instrument, which turned out to have been made in Valencia, designed to be as good for classical repertoire as flamenco. My first Spanish guitar, now fifty years old was also made in Valencia, so this was a source of delight for me. He invited me to have a go, a most generous gesture, while he was setting up. It was quite an effort to play, as my left hand had become quite stiff from holding on to a Bible and a service sheet during the ceremony. No time to revive the fingers for such an unexpected invitation.

I was relieved to find that my name hadn't been included on the guests' dining table list. Sometimes it happens because the hosts presume the welcome they wish to extend. You don't find out, until it's too awkward and ungracious to decline. At the end of the drinks reception in the heat, I was tired and only too glad to get away and make the hour's return drive in a cool air-conditioned car, to arrive home before sunset, leaving to their celebration, not just a happy couple, but also a happy extended family and friends.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A Eucharist, a Funeral and a Wedding

Given the location of the Chaplain's house, it makes sense to take the back road up to Mijas pueblo and follow the slow road above the town towards Alhaurin, rather than drive through slow urban traffic and pick up the new highway the other side of town to reach to same junction for the road to Coin. Today, I timed myself, and found the journey times equal by either route. For me, the back road wins, as it's less dependent on variations in urban traffic flow. It's more varied, slower to drive, but overall, it takes the same time to get to the evangelical chapel on the outskirts of Coin where Anglican services are held twice a month. There were nine of us this morning.

After coffee and a chat, I drove back to Fuengirola, but instead of going back to the house, I found my way to the municipal cemetery chapel (aka funeral centre) for the first time. A few decades ago, the public cemetery was located near Fuengirola Zoo, but forty years of urban expansion compelled the re-location of the town's necropolis further out, on the edge of town. This required relocating 'columbaria', (if it's the right word to apply, not only to cremated remains, but to the honeycomb walls of niche tombs for coffins), and the building of a new chapel and mourners' assembly rooms.

Reflecting a pragmatic approach to dealing with death, the new municipal funeral facility is situated in a pleasingly quiet corner of an industrial zone in the rio Fuengirola valley, with a vetinerary centre and municipal sewage works for near neighbours, not far from the local horse race course. It even has its own built-in bar and restaurant, reflecting the social value given to bereavement events, in a way that British local authorities would fight shy of in their facility design. Anyway, I arrived an hours early and was grateful for the opportunity to eat and drink something before the service I was due to conduct.

As the deceased 'guest of honour' on this occasion was a renowned local entertainer and musician, the funeral chapel was full. I'd guess over 200 people. Quiet remarkable for a nongenarian. The public address system worked, but wasn't good. The sound reproduction system had died, so we had to make use of an imported portable music player to relay recorded music through the public address system. It was inadequate, but the congregation took it all in good spirit and the singing, despite the recorded accompaniment, was a worthy tribute to the one whose life was being celebrated. 

I was handed an electric bell push by the funeral directors, to summon them to bring on and remove the coffin. It worked fine, except that during the tributes it got dashed to pieces on the floor. I picked up the bits and reassembled them during the final hymn, and when the congregation had taken their leave, I hit the button hopefully, and to my relief the funeral assistants appeared, as summoned.

The reception after was in Fuengirola's 'Salon de Varietes', a former cinema, rescued from oblivion by British ex-pats, the deceased being a key actor in this enterprise. The English language theatre, since that's what it now is, is right in the heart of the town, obviously busy, active any time, but today packed with mourners remembering someone who was, in every respect, the reason for being there together. It said a lot about community. It also said a lot about the value of inspiration and leadership.

I slipped away after an hour of interesting conversations, went home to freshen up and prepare to drive down the N340/A7 to the edge of Estepona, before turning inland to find the hill village of Benahavis, developed as a holiday resort, with an extensive spa hotel, catering for hundreds in a quiet place away from the coast in a cool secluded place. Here I met Linda and Bill, their family and friends, to prepare for a wedding blessing celebration this coming Saturday. 

I'd been asked by the Chaplaincy of Costa del Sol West to help them out with this, as their own (locum) chaplain was unwell. I reached the village on time, but as there were few signs, and I had no idea of what the hotel looked like, it took me an extra ten minutes to find it. A modern complex, with palacial moorish features and lots of swimming pools next to a dryish river bed in a remarkable valley setting.
I understand why a couple wanting to tie the knot, but without attachment to any church building (as is often the case nowadays) should choose such a quiet secluded and beautiful place. Making a lifelong mutual commitment remains an important expression of love for some people, and it's worthy of being taken seriously, whatever else may have happened in their lives before. Getting wed takes as much courage as staying wed. That's what I'll tell them on Saturday.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Midweek ministry

Up early before sunrise, unable to get back to sleep, so I finished my magazine article, breakfasted, and took a decent although uninteresting picture of the 'supermoon' low over the western horizon. When the sky is profoundly dark, I can't get correct camera settings to reveal the detail on the moon's surface, as the contrast between sky and moonlight is so high it washes out the image. I've tried for years to work out how to do it without satisfaction. This time, in the twilight prior to dawn, there was just enough contrast to show the desired detail. Interestingly, the sky in the photo appeared pale grey rather than pale blue. 

Then I did a load a washing, and watered the garden before going to St Andrew's Church before nine, to get ready for the midweek BCP Communion service. This week, it was followed by the re-opening of the coffee morning with charity sale. Despite fears nobody would turn up, a few dozen dropped in and socialised, so it was worth the effort invested in it by the usual small dedicated team of workers.

Afterwards, I did most of my week's food shopping in the covered market and Mercadona, having risked taking the car in, hoping to find a parking space. Already this last few days, supply is just exceeding demand again, and that's a relief. In the afternoon, I prepared my Sunday sermon around the Feast of the Holy Cross, geared to the celebration of the children's first Communion at Alhaurin. I wanted to complete it early enough to assist others, not licensed lay readers, who will need to use my text to guide their Sunday preaching. It's a good discipline for me to start preparing earlier rather than later, so often my tendency in a crowded working life, It's actually more enjoyable, I find.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Keeping busy

Clare's last day yesterday was quiet and uneventful. The usual swim, lunch at La Salina, our nearest restaurant down the road from here, siesta, walk along the beach and promenade to Torreblanca, and tea/coffee and cake at Granier, before turning in early, her Vueling flight departure being at seven fifteen in the morning.

We were both out of bed by four thirty and on the road to the airport by five under the light of an almost full moon. She was checked in and on her way through security by ten past five. As it was still dark when I got back, I went to bed again and slept until nine. At ten I had a text message to say she'd landed in Wales, and by eleven she was at home in Cardiff again. So easy, so convenient, apart from the early start.

I thought it was about time I booked my home leave flight for October, a month from now. That will also involve an early start. Unfortunately the first train arrives in the airport just as the flight begins to board, allowing no time to pass through security and walk to the departure gate so that rules out the best option. I'm contemplating going to the airport on a late train and camping out, as in some ways a disturbed night's sleep is no worse than having to waken from a deep sleep to get going, and it would save someone having to get up early to ferry me. Such is the cost of airport parking, I wouldn't contemplate taking the car and leaving it there for five days. If only the flight left an hour later!

Next task was to set about preparing my part in the funeral service being planned for this Thursday. Sid Wright, the man who died at 93, was a well known musician and entertainer, who'd been a band leader in London's West End clubs for forty years, starting during the blitz. Retiring here at sixty he went on to have second career pioneering the development of musical entertainment for British expats. He was a founder member of Fuengirola's English language Little Theatre, and one time St Andrew's church organist, who'd helped raise funds to establish the chaplaincy. Accommodating the family's wishes meant first reading through fascinating biographical material and press cuttings of some of his interviews, and tailoring my usual contribution to fit the occasion.

Once that was completed, there was an article to draft for the next edition of the Diocesan prize winning Chaplaincy magazine 'Outreach', ahead of next week's production deadline. It kept me busy for most of the day. It was only when I woke up from my siesta wondering where Clare was, thinking she was downstairs, that I realised I'm here now on my own. For several weeks in the Spring we were the first occupants of the house, and this has been a repeat. I shall miss her, no doubt, and it'll take longer than usual to get used to being here without her. Just as well I have plenty do to at the moment.

As I sat down outside in the shade to enjoy an afternoon cuppa, I heard light aircraft and helicopters busy in the area. There was a column of smoke rising on the western outskirts of the town. What at first I thought was an unusual film cloud clinging to the face of the Sierra de Mijas above and behind was smoke from a fire. This was confirmed when the helicopter appeared trailing a large bucket of water to dump at the site. After a hot summer, everything is tinder dry and the Protection Civil teams have to be vigilant to prevent brush fires getting out of control close to the suburbs. The column of smoke transformed into a column of steam, but long after the mountain looked clear again, the smell of wood smoke hung, not unpleasant on the evening air.

Around the urbanizacion in which this house is set, there are still acres of empty building land which await development. Since we've been here, on several occasions small teams of men have been out with strimmers cutting down and removing all dry brushwood in the vicinity. How tidy, I thought then. Now I realise how safety conscious people have to be in a crowded, arid urban area.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Last beach weekend

Saturday afternoon, we went to the beach so Clare could say she's been swimming in the sea once this year. She's been swimming in the pool belonging to the urbanizacion every day since we came, and it's really helped her regain her fitness, and a super sun-tan. I've joined her in swimming several occasions but was punished for diving in by wax blocking my eardrums leaving me with half my usual hearing.

There were three aircraft flying up and down off-shore this afternoon. Two were light aircraft towing advertising banners, only readable correctly from the beach on one pass, the other was a Guardia Civil seaplane, doing 'circuits and bumps' on the waves, collecting and then dumping sea water to refine the piloting technique so vital for fighting forest fires inland.

I was delighted with photos I took, although it was not without its awkward moments. Almost for the first time since I've been on one of the local, very family friendly beaches here, several women paraded unselfconsciously along the water's edge bare-breasted as the seaplane performed its manouvers. How to get the aircraft pictures with my Sony HX50 telephoto lens, without any of the women believing I was intent on sneakily photographing their proud assets? Keep on looking over their shoulders and keep the camera down until the last moment, I decided, and got away without scowls or unintended naughty snaps.   

This morning, I woke up early and drove to Benalmadena to celebrate the Eucharist there. I was unable to find a parking space close to the church, as it seems that there are still plenty of end of season car driving holidaymakers occupying spaces, although that should change soon. I found a space a quarter of a mile uphill, and was still on time for the opening up of the church. There were two dozen present.

Since my last visit to Benalmadena, the Revised Common Lectionary book, whose weak spine broke through much use over the decade, has been re-bound by a contact of Val's whose speciality is binding legal documentation, so it's now more robust that anything the CofE publishers are likely to produce any time soon!

Anticipating further problems parking in the church assigned parking space, I took the first vacant one I saw on the road approaching. No point in taking chances, and as the traffic on the return journey had been light, I was there ready to start in good time. The congregation was half the size it normally is in periods popular with British visitors. The autumnal 'swallows' have yet to return.

I cooked a paella for lunch with the last batch of frozen prawns from Clare's acquisition of favourite foods. The beach was noticeably quieter when we made another visit after siesta. Sun shadows cast by the tower blocks were emptying rapidly, small crowds lingering until the last moment in the patches of sun streaming in between the buildings, before packing for home.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Mijas fiesta night

This afternoon we drove up to Mijas pueblo for some last minute present shopping, something Clare loves to do when we're on holiday. We found the village streets decorated with festive lighting installations, celebrating the village patronal festival honouring the Virgen de la Peña, Our Lady of the Rocks whose shrine is in one corner of the promontory on which the first settlement was established in ancient times. The largest of the public squares was given over to a street market and fun fair. The church celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin on September 8th, and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th when the weather is somewhat cooler and more varied, so why not make a fiesta at a more congenial times, before the kids go back to school for the autumn term?

The terrace behind the parish church of the Immaculate Conception, on the promontory which  overlooks the sea plain contained a stage with a band performing, lots of tents selling drinks and snacks, and lines of tables for people to sit around and socialise. Many of the young women and girls were turned out in flamenco dresses, a beautiful sight, wearing their local identity with pride and dignity. It was a real family occasion with children playing freely in front of the bandstand, while their parents relaxed and chatted without any worry that a child might stray and get lost.

We decided to dine out in a restaurant we discovered back at Easter, called the ‘Secret Garden’. Behind what looks like a small tapas bar and restaurant is a courtyard, and beyond the courtyard is an extensive flat gravelled terrace under a canopy of trees, set into the hillside. There was a bar and a large open air barbecue grill served by two chefs. We had an excellent and reasonably priced evening meal in pleasantly cool surroundings, and for part of the time we were serenaded by a man playing classic Spanish favourites on a fine resonant acoustic guitar. Such a treat.

We walked the streets again after dark, admiring the decorations and festive activities. When we returned to the terrace behind the church, everything was closed and the last reveller had left. Lights were on in the church and the doors open. We looked inside and found it was full of worshippers, at ten o’clock at night. In the cool of the evening, the late, (or was it early?) Mass had reached the Gradual Psalm. We stayed as far as the Gospel, then slipped away, through streets, still busy with pedestrians, past the funfair to the car park, to make our way home.

The steep descent from Mijas pueblo in the dark isn’t the easiest of roads at the best of times, the dominant speed limit is 30kph, although there are also brief stretches where it is either 40 or 50kph. It was particularly important to keep within the limit, as a police car was following me. At a roundabout near the bottom of the steepest section, I was summoned to stop. I was asked if I was aware how close to the edge of the road I was driving, and seemed to be wavering.

The hard shoulder along this stretch of road is concreted (to assist with water run-off, I imagine) and stands out in contrast to the tarmac. What I didn’t notice was a broken white line painted on the tarmac in non-reflective paint, about 200cm in from the hard shoulder. The official edge of the road, in effect, if you could see it properly. I admitted to being unsure, not very confident on an unfamiliar stretch of road, and this was accepted. Another police car, unmarked, pulled in behind as well. My driving license was checked, and presumably the car’s details were checked out on someone’s mobile internet device, and I was sent courteously on my way.

I believe that checking my speed as I did all the way down was the chief cause of my wavering, as the speedometer is on the centre of the dashboard in this marque of Citroen car. Not having straight line of sight over the steering wheel, interfered minutely with hand-eye co-ordination and made steering a straight course around the bends more difficult than usual. I certainly know to beware of this on future dark nights.

Enthronement visit to the Rock

Yesterday afternoon a coach load of thirty of us, from Nerja, Malaga and Costa del Sol East chaplaioncies set out for Gibraltar to attend the Enthronement service for our new Euro-diocesan Bishop, Robert Innes. It was the first time for me to venture south and west beyond Marbella, and interesting to note the changes in terrain. The Rock of Gibraltar is occasionally visible in the distance driving along the coastal highway, then as the road descends towards La Linea, the neighbouring Spanish border town, it disappears from view, to reappear imposingly across the bay as one approaches the border.
We were able to enter with little delay, and were dropped off in a coach parking area just outside the town's fortified walls. The coastal plain is heavily built up with modern hotels, offices, warehouses, roads, and the outer defences thread through them. The Rock, at just under 1,400 feet high dominates the landscape, and modern architectural acretions to nothing to enhance the environment. It seemed strange entering the town and walking the main street, that despite the Spanishness of the older built environment, the English language is everywhere and prices are displayed in pounds sterling.

First duty for the clergy was to find the King's Chapel, where we were directed to robe for the service and procession to the Cathedral. This is a fine sixteenth century chapel attached to the Governor's residence, which started life as a convent.
The Royal Navy's resident Chaplain on the Rock is based here, Fr Mark Jackson, the fleet's oldest serving officer at 73, I was told. I was amazed to discover he was born and bred in Rhymney at the top of the same valley I was raised in. Bishop's Chaplain Archdeacon Meurig Llwyd Williams who was formerly in Bangor Diocese, and Paulime Smith, Chaplain in Almeria and formerly of Baglan in Llandaff diocese were also there from the Principality.

Fr Mark seemed a little bemused when clergy with luggage started to arrive. He'd been given little or no notice of the intention to use his place as a robing room. What had not been taken into account was the fact that the chapel itself is closed for repairs and most of his domain is a building site! But with characterstic good humour, all was coped with. A few people left their luggage in his inner office, and later on a couple of dozen of us crammed into both inner and outer offices to dress up for the service.

After arrival and finding our way about, there wasn't much time left for tourism, so we strolled the length of the main shopping street for a while, and then stopped for a coffee and a chat with Fr Geoff, Acting Archdeacon of Spain and Fr Patrick, Archdeacon of Eastern Europe, before returning to the King's Chapel to change, ready to process through the streets to the Cathedral, accompanied by two British Bobbies in uniform. Only the official photographer was allowed to take pictures durng the service so I only got a couple of exterior pictures beforehand. We didn't get around to visiting the building apart from the service. You can photographs of the celebration, courtesy of the Diocese in Europe press officer, Fr Paul Needle, here
The building is small, as cathedrals go, seating 5-600. Small though it is Gibraltar also has a Roman Catholic Cathedral as well. The architectural style of the Anglican church building is that of 'Mozarabic' revival, reminding me of the seminary chapel in Malaga, visited last March. It was built in 1832, consecrated in 1838 and given Cathedral status in 1842, when the diocese of Gibraltar was created. In size and scale it reminded me of St Mary's Bute Street, dating from a similar era.

Worshippers came from as far afield as Helsinki, Morocco, Paris, Vienna and London, about 350 in all. The Bishop himself, it was noted, communicated every single person to come to the altar, a real pastor's touch. It was good to hear him affirm the unusual gifts and calling of expatriate chaplains, who must deal with so much diversity and change as a matter of course. You can find Bishop Robert's sermon to read here.

After the Bishop had blessed Gibralter from the Cathedral porch, we processed back to the King's Chapel. The reception, with drinks and a finger buffet, was held in the lovely enclosed courtyard of the Governor's residency next door. It was still lively as we departed for our coach at nine thirty, with Bishop Robert chatting with well wishers, holding his episcopal crozier, so that people would know where he was in the ever moving crowd of people socialising and networking. Altogether it was a lovely occasion.

The return border crossing wasn't quite so effortless. We were required to get out of the coach with all our possessions (for the Spanish border guards to inspect the coach for contraband, so the story goes) and walk through the control zone, then wait half an hour for the coach to come through the traffic jam of vehicles for inspection. Our passports weren't checked nor were we required to be searched at that late hour, when it seems the guards were watching footie indoors in TV. At least there was a cool and pleasant breeze while we waited. The Gibraltar peninsula is a little cooler than the mainland, due to the winds that blow up and down the Straights. I can't imagine what it would have been like had it rained, or been in winter. It was nearly midnight when the coach dropped us off in Los Boliches, and we were glad of the brisk walk uphill back to the Chaplaincy house, before late late supper and bed.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

End of Summer days

Early in the day as Summer draws to an end, the Sierra de Mijas is for a while wreathed in cloud, if not the coastal plain. Either way, it's still hot and uncomfortably humid, which slows us down and saps the motivation to do much. I'm thankful the parish car has air conditioning. Sometimes when I get in it, the surface temperature is over forty degrees, but after a short drive the system gets the interior temperature below thirty. 

We're not used to managing air conditioning in the house. Fresh air is more essential, so we cool the bedroom down to get to sleep, shut it off and leave the window open. We have yet to get the lounge air conditioning to work satisfactorily, and believe it's out fault for not understanding the operating manual properly, as it's different from the one upstairs.

Clare decided to auto-clean our high tech oven, and succeeded by guessing the operating manual in Spanish. I was set the task of translation into suitable English for inclusion in the Chaplain's house user guide with the use of a dictionary. It was an interesting experience which taught me a lot about how different languages express themselves when giving advice. 

On Monday, I had a call about officiating a funeral in Benalmadena, which I was unable to accept as it was to take place this coming Thursday, on which day Anglicans in Andalusia and Portugal will be gathering in Gibraltar Cathedral for the Enthronement of Bishop Robert Innes as our new diocesan Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

Clare and I went out for a meal at 'La Vieja Scuela' restaurant, where my last birthday banquet was held back at Easter. It's a lovely homely experience, and the food and wine are great, some dishes are cooked before your eyes on health and safety nightmare stoves in a space among tables where clientele can smell progress and watch the amazing art of a laid-back master chef at work in public. We shared the postres which adorned my last meal here, strawberries stewed in a black pepper sauce - just glorious. I started off with something different - black pudding, scrambled egg, raisins and pine nuts, followed by chicken in saffron sauce. Talk about a feast!

On Tuesday, I had a call about another funeral which I was able to accept, as the date proposed is a week Thursday. This will take place at Fuengirola cemetery chapel. It'll be my first visit there. I spent half an hour queuing to cash an expenses cheque in a bank in town at lunchtime. There were ten people on front of me and two cashiers working. At least it was cool inside. Afterwards, Bill and I met for a beer and tapas lunch and a long talk at the Central Cafe near the bus station, one of my favourite places to hang out in the town centre.

Wednesday morning I celebrated the midweek Eucharist for ten people. Next week, I was told, regular coffee mornings recommence, as more regulars return from Summer vacations in cooler climes. I was lazy this morning because of the heat, and took the cooler option of taking the car to church, in the hope of finding a parking place in the gated compound to which the church has access rights. I had a choice of several places. It's the first concrete evidence that transient visitors are no longer taking parking slots they're not entitled to because another family member has key access. Some at least have gone back home and to work elsewhere. Apart from this parking around town remains a residents' nightmare. There's never enough spare capacity around peak holiday seasons.