The price is right

[A 3 minute read]

She was embarrassed, at first, just to be there, had never been to a Foodbank before. She had recently started two part time jobs and was now earning less than she had once received on benefits and was finding it difficult to provide for her children. She was feeling the pinch. Her predicament is replicated across the country and throughout the world. So many people are paid less than a living wage, they aren’t paid enough to live. There will even be some employers somewhere who treat their workers simply as commodities, a means through which they can make and amass much wealth, their eyes firmly on the money.

In the gospel reading today (Matthew 26:1-4,25), Judas’ eyes seem to be on the money. He has access to Jesus, can lead the authorities to him. He can guide them to the garden where in secret, in seclusion, Jesus has slipped away to pray. But how much can he get from them? What do they think Jesus is worth – and what is Judas willing to take? It turns out that thirty pieces of silver is enough to comfort the linings of his purse. For him, of course, the story ends in disaster. Burdened with guilt, ravaged by regret, he tries to lighten his purse and lighten the load he now carries but they refuse the refund. He takes to a tree and hangs himself. He has lost everything.

As we spend more time at home, unable to meet with family and friends, unable to go freely about our business or gather as the church, perhaps there is a fresh appreciation of what is important, and what is necessary to life. In a world which so often measures us by what we have rather than what we are, Pope Francis once described consumerism as “a virus that attacks the faith at the roots” for it makes us believe that life depends on what we have, leaving us with no need for God.

As we take a move closer to the Triduum, those three holy days beginning with Maundy Thursday, may we enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ and create for ourselves a time of turning away from what we want and think rather about what we need. In doing so, we can grow in a spirit of generosity, sharing what we have with others, entering into the their poverty, and bringing the riches of the good news of Jesus and the fruits of his love. And how much is his love worth? Its cost can be seen in his outstretched arms on the cross where the only thing consumed is sin and death.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf

(The Kingdom by R.S Thomas)


It’s no joke

[A 3 minute read]

Thank God for those who make us laugh! In the depths of difficult times, as people struggle with unusual circumstances, with sickness and anxiety, social media is awash with funny videos and cheery clips to make us smile. I once heard a comedian say that people laughed more eagerly not in the brightly lit room of a club but in the dim light, in a darkened room. People, he said, laugh more freely and in a less self-conscious way when they are somehow hidden, unable to be seen or stand out, in the dim light, in the dark.

During the performance of today’s gospel reading (John 13:21-33,36-38) as Judas leaves the scene, steps out of that upper room to do what he has to do and to ‘do it quickly’, the gospel writer describes the scene in a stark and sombre way. ‘Night had fallen’. Perhaps, as Judas steps into darkness, he is, for once, more sure of himself , less self-conscious, more able to do what he feels to be the right thing. But there is no laughter.

Laughter will follow as the Roman soldiers mock Christ with a purple robe and crown of thorns, hailing him king, adorning him with spit. Laughter will come later as people mock Jesus, nailed to the cross, ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself.’ Perhaps there is something darkly humorous, too, in the kiss of Judas, an irony too much to take, a sick joke. But for now, there is no laughter

Jesus, as it happens, is deadly serious. Perhaps, now, they need to dim the lights for Peter, prior to Judas’ departure, had shown how self-conscious he was, embarrassed at the thought that Jesus should dare to wash his feet. When Jesus tells him that unless he washes their feet they can have no part in him, he loses his sense of embarrassment, and causes an embarrassing scene by insisting that Jesus washes all of him. And now he is lost again, hurt by the accusation that he will desert Jesus. In the dim light he feels so self-assured, heckles him across the table, ‘I will lay down my life for you,” he declares. Jesus is ready for a put down. ‘Lay down your life for me?’ asks Jesus. ‘Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’ Peter is stunned into silence.

As Peter is drawn deeper into the mystery of Christ he is also discovering more about himself. Slowly, he becomes more self-aware, more alert to his shortcomings, more conscious of who and what he is called to be. The closer we are drawn to Jesus, the more we become aware of ourselves, who we really are, and what we can be. In the dark hours of the Prayer of the Church – Night Prayer or Compline – there is a time for self-examination, to review the day, to reflect on what we’ve done and who we’ve been – an invitation to be free and easy with the Lord, as we lie on our bed ‘through the watches of the night, in the shadow of your wings (Ps 63:7)

Love is in the air

[A 3 minute read]

“You can always tell when it’s one of the monk’s birthdays,” said the Abbot as he began one of his addresses. We were ordinands from St Stephen’s House, taking a retreat at Alton Abbey, a few dozen of us coping with cold rooms and faulty plumbing! The Abbot continued, “Yes, you can always tell, there’s the definite aroma of aftershave in the air!” Having taken a vow of poverty, the birthday celebrating monk in question, perhaps, valued the gift more than many would. He splashed out, or rather splashed on, a rare luxury. It was at the same Abbey, some years later, as a priest, that I returned for a retreat on my own. On one of these days I made my confession to one of the brothers. At the end, his penance was something strange, perhaps, but well received. “When you go home, I want you to go shopping, and I want you to buy something for you, something for yourself. Maybe a jumper or an item of clothing. Something for you.” It’s only now, twenty five years later, that I have connected the two in my mind.

It’s almost Passover, and Jesus is back in Bethany, at home with Mary and Martha (John 12:1-11).  During dinner, she pours out perfume upon the feet of Jesus, splashes out, splashes on, a rare luxury. The gift is costly, expensive and, to the objective observer, a waste of money, a pointless effort. Suddenly, the dinnertime atmosphere has changed as antagonism and anger meet the sweet aroma of Mary’s action which gets up the nose of Judas Iscariot. Soon, Jesus is talking about death and dying, about the burial of his own body. This is not the kind of after dinner talk any of them expected but Mary’s love has filled the room, and it is only love that drives Jesus to death, to his outstretched arms on the cross. In just a few days’ time, his body is dropped from the cross, given a rushed burial. It is only later, as dawn breaks, that the women return with perfumed oils and, there, discover the empty tomb and the power of love.

There may be occasions when we or others are misunderstood, maybe overlooked or undermined, when gifts go unnoticed, or they are derided, belittled, left to no use, given no worth. There are times, too, when we or others may need to be indulged, affirmed, have something for ourselves, be reminded of our worth, our value, our uniqueness. Mary has dug deep, she has given to Jesus a gratuitous gift, and in prophetically pouring the perfume upon his feet has declared her love for him. What a wonderful waster, Mary is! She has totally splashed out. Love is in the air.

Not so empty vessels

[A 3 minute read]

There are those moments, now, when people, from their isolation, sing together online or dance on their doorsteps at a distance. On a Thursday, we cheer carers, and some are armed with a percussion of saucepans or they whoop and whistle, the wind section of an orchestra of very different proportions. It’s quiet here. Like so many churches throughout the country and around the world, we’re closed for public worship, and the streets are robbed of our Palm Sunday Procession, no Hosannas to be heard. So, here,  there is an emptiness, and our lives feel emptier, too. Some have struggled or found ingenious ways to fill the time at home, to fill the void created by the loss of so many things we had taken for granted. And there’s the emptiness experienced, too, at missing out on the celebrations and liturgies of Holy Week and Easter which lie at the heart of our life together.

Today, though, in the Scriptures of the day, is a song of emptiness, of emptying, well known, well loved. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul seems to quote a hymn possibly sung by the New Testament Church: “His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” It’s a song of Incarnation and Salvation, celebrating the Lord who, to quote an unseasonal song, ‘came down to earth from heaven who is Lord and God of all.’

That Christmas song goes on: ‘With the poor and mean and lowly lived on earth our Saviour holy.’ Maybe the self-emptying of Jesus speaks to the emptiness experienced now. To get to Jerusalem, Jesus jumps on the back of donkey – what a strange Sovereign he is. He washes his disciples feet, submits to human authorities, accepts the cross. On Golgotha’s hill he is stripped even of his clothing, as naked as the day of his birth once in Royal David’s city. ‘But God raised him high,’ so Paul’s song goes, ‘and gave him the name which is above all other names so that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

We sing to make us happy or express how sad we feel. We sing in defiance, in protest, in praise or to lullaby someone to sleep. We whistle when we work, and spin a tune when washing our hands. What was it? Happy Birthday twice or the National Anthem or the Salve Regina? Take your pick! At times, though singing may be above us, beyond us. The Jewish people, exiled in Babylon, were once unable to sing. ‘We hung up our harps, for there our captors required of us songs…saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ They yearned to be on familiar ground again, on home turf, back where they belonged. And so we yearn too, yearn for us to gather together as the church again, to break the silence and the emptiness with a song or two! But wherever we are, there is always space for a song. Let this Holy Week be a Homely Week where ‘Hosanna’ takes root in our hearts and we hail the one who emptied himself for us and, in turn, fills our emptiness with his love and his life.

Barbed Wire and Blessed Gifts

[A 3 minute read]

One of the strangest, saddest, surprisingly moving movies I’ve seen in recent years is the Irish film ‘Calvary’ starring Brendan Gleeson as Fr James. Threatened in the confessional by a man who had been abused in his childhood by another priest, Fr James is given a week to arrange his affairs before the man will kill him on the beach. For a week, we watch him about his work, witness the burdens and heartache in his life. Introduced to the characters in the town, we are left wondering who is the would be murderer, and will Fr James keep to his appointment with death on the beach?

In today’s gospel reading from Mass (John 11:45-56) the plot is thickening against Jesus. The Pharisees and Chief Priest “were determined to kill him.” Meanwhile, the pilgrims from the countryside are looking out for Jesus. As they stand in the Temple talking together, they ask, “What do you think? Will he come to the festival or not?” Soon, in Gethsemane’s garden, among the olive groves and dozing disciples, we will see him wrestling and struggling with the pain of what is to come. In a moment of intimate and intense prayer he wants to wish it all away – “Yet not my will but yours be done.”

Many years ago in the 1990s, when life was very different for those diagnosed with HIV, a friend and fellow ordinand spent a week’s placement with a project in London. There in a group session, each person spoke about what being HIV positive meant to them. One person said, “For me, it is like having a gift wrapped in barbed wire.” So much in his life had changed. Perhaps he now viewed life differently, saw the world differently, valued friendships more, who knows – whatever had changed for the good in his life came also with much pain. Each of us will experience similar gifts in our lives, things which bring joy but are wrapped in barbed wire, clothed in thorns. “My joy is to love suffering,” wrote St Terese of Liseux. “I smile shedding tears, I accept with gratitude the thorns mixed with the flowers.” Most of us, perhaps, will never reach such heights of holiness and, at times may feel crushed by the cost of loving and living. To answer those pilgrims standing around in the Temple, yes, Jesus will and did and does come to the Festival – and, in doing so, has entered into both our sorrow and joy. His love has transformed and continues to transform us, changing the world, beyond belief. He has kept his appointment with death, so that we may live. Through flowers and thorns, barbed wire and blessed gifts, his wounds heal us, his death saves us, his resurrection sets us free.

Unseasonal Weather

[A 3 minute read]

In one of his recent tweets, the comedian Frankie Boyle asked,  “Honestly, why are they still doing the weather? We’re indoors, mate!”  Two years ago, during Lent, many people were prevented from making it to Mass by the Beast from the East, snow drifts dragging the country to a temporary halt!  I have a memory, too, from years ago, when my grandfather lay in his hospital bed, that it snowed a little at Easter.  In this country, we are used to unseasonal weather, and for us, as Christians, this has been a strange season of Lent, and Holy Week and the Easter season will feel strange too.  For those of us who love the seasons of the Church, we have our own case of unseasonal weather.

The phrase ‘A Man for all Seasons’ refers to someone who is ready to cope with any possible event, and whose behaviour is always appropriate to every occasion.  As we experience this unseasonal weather, and prepare to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in a very different way, perhaps we can use the phrase for Jesus.  Yes, he is the Man, the God, for all seasons.  His actions, of course, weren’t always considered appropriate by everyone.  On Palm Sunday, he is hailed by the crowds as a King, and yet rides not on the back of a powerful horse but more humbly on a donkey.  On Holy Thursday, in that upper room, he breaks table etiquette and stoops to wash his disciples’ feet – an action which Peter finds, at first, quite inappropriate but soon accepts that if he doesn’t allow Jesus to do this he can have no share in him.

Over the next few weeks, we seek to share in Jesus, to draw closer to him, the Man, the God for all Seasons. It’s ok to ask for help, it’s ok to say we aren’t coping very well. It’s ok to wish that life was different.  But we also need to settle into this unseasonal weather.  The Danes have a saying,  “There is no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothing.’  To use a phrase of St Paul’s and adapted in the baptismal service, “You have been clothed with Christ and raised to new life in him.”  So, enjoy rummaging around in the wardrobe of your faith, dig deep, rediscover what it means to be close to Christ, to be clothed with Christ during this unseasonal weather.  After all, we’re not going anywhere, and neither is he. He is right here, come rain or shine.

A heart for the community

St Mary’s Church has, for many years, supported those who work with the homeless.  With the rapid rise in rough sleeping and their more visible presence in our community it’s time for us to take a more cohesive approach.  Last week, our Parochial Church Council adopted a Homeless Charter to strengthen and enrich our response to those who are homeless whilst also addressing the needs of the whole community.  Read on to find out more.

They were on my doorstep for an hour before I saw them on the CCTV monitor, settled in, head against the front door, feet against the school gate which only hours before the children had used to come to and from Mass. Trousers around the knee trying to find a vein.

She walked into Sunday Mass, sung when she shouldn’t have, watched others to know when to stand and sit, enjoyed the coffee and cake afterwards, the hospitality and welcome.  She settled in well, a resident of the Salvation Army hostel next door.

The Sunday before, another homeless woman, much younger, took up residence for twenty minutes and more in the toilet in the space where children were just gathering for their Liturgy of the Word.  It took a while to talk her out, the churchwarden chatting with her in the corridor for half of the Mass.

Bute Street is well travelled by many who are homeless, back and fore into Christina Street, or riddling their way through the maze of streets, across to the playing fields next to the Paddle Steamer Café, some with sleeping bag hoisted over their shoulder, moving fast, moving quickly, talking openly to others about “who’s down there” doing deals, oblivious or not caring about who overhears them.  One asks a child for money.

Some crouch in bushes or a quiet corner of a field, or on the under pass between Bute Street and the anodyne Lloyd George Avenue, or slip into the car park at St Mary’s, or behind the changing rooms of the football club, or shelter in the art work formed from the Industrial docks. 

The rise in rough sleeping and homelessness in Cardiff is created by many complex factors but knowing that each individual has their own story to tell with their own issues and challenges in life, how can we, as a community of faith, respond to them and to the needs of the wider community?

There are, for example, mixed messages about whether one should give money or food to individuals who beg, and each of us will have different opinions about what we should do.  For some residents, the last three years has felt like an onslaught as they witness drug deals and watch people jacking up close to their homes and on the paths to school, needles scattered here and there.   It  has become a common feature which can cause frustration and fear and anger too.   How does one hold together a compassion for those who are homeless with a concern for children and residents and an understanding for those who are caught up in the dirty business of drug dealing?

We recognise that each of them, in so many different ways, are vulnerable and victimised.  All are affected, and affect each other.  Being at the heart of the community with a heart for the community, we are concerned for all, regardless of who they are and are mindful of all the presenting concerns, and want to be able to respond in a  compassionate and cohesive way which is practical and realistic.  Recently the Parochial Church Council agreed to trial the adoption of a Homeless Charter which we will launch officially at our Mass on Homelessness Sunday on October 13th.

Charter Pic



Sometimes, churches and individuals may be uncertain about the best way to help someone who is homeless and who presents themselves with particular needs.  This invitation for churches to adopt a Homeless Friendly Charter will enable us to offer an informed and consistent response across the city, and allow our resources to be used more effectively for the good of the individuals involved.

The Pastoral and Leadership Team and other significant individuals of each church (as appropriate to the tradition and life of the church) will be expected to keep informed of issues affecting homeless people in Cardiff and the many services available to them.  We will enable this by sharing essential information and offering ‘Discovery sessions’ and up to date and seasonal information.

We hope this Charter will counter the negative and misleading narratives which are sometimes told about services which work with the homeless, and enable us to be an advocate for the homeless to the wider public, as we represent the story they have to tell.

It will also be a means through which we can put our faith into action, and to express our concern for the homeless in a tangible and effective way, recognising that many churches already do so much either through formal projects and partnerships or the charitable actions of individual members.

By exercising a common approach, the Charter aims to strengthen and enrich our responsibility towards one another – those that exist between the church congregation, homeless individuals, homeless services and the wider community.

We hope this charter will also, in time, grow outwards from our churches to be embraced by others so that whole communities can become Homeless Friendly Communities which are informed and welcoming and will respond in a way that helps to alleviate homelessness, and support individuals and those who work with them.

Perhaps those who adopt the Homeless Friendly Charter will be able to display a sign indicating that they are a Homeless Friendly Church.

We welcome people who are homeless and will treat you with dignity and respect. We offer friendship and accept you as you are.  We will talk with you and listen to you, and will try to understand your situation.  You are welcome to join us for worship but all people regardless of religion, race, gender, sexuality or disability are welcome here.  (We may serve as host to external organisations.  Please ask about the accessibility of these).

We will guide you to services which can help you with your specific needs.  If necessary and appropriate, we will liaise with them for you.  Our pastoral leaders and other individuals in our congregation commit to having an up to date knowledge of Homeless Services across our city and issues which may affect you so that you will receive a consistent, fair and honest response.   However, we recognise there are limitations to the help we can give.  Our community consists of all kinds of people some of whom have their own vulnerabilities but we seek to equip our whole congregation so that they will be understanding and supportive.

We aim to offer a safe environment for all.  All staff and members of our community of faith and all who visit and use our church premises (including those who are homeless) can expect to be treated with respect and to be safe from harm so that we can offer a welcoming and friendly environment, free from violence, aggression, bullying and fear.  We will report aggression, violence, anti-social  and criminal behaviour and damage to our property to the police.  Drugs are not to be used or dealt on our premises, neither is begging.  Each church works within its own Safeguarding Policies for children and vulnerable adults.

We will support you financially through donations to homeless charities and other projects in our city.  We are unable to give you money or pay for services directly.  Money will only ever be given (if available and appropriate to a particular church and at their discretion) directly to individuals in exceptional circumstances and after consulting and working with relevant agencies.  We value and will promote the work of those charities and organisations.

We have a concern for your physical, spiritual and emotional needs.  Each church has different resources available to them in terms of being able to provide food.  However, we recognise that some external projects which offer food also provide parallel services which can help you even further. We can guide you to these services and to the abundance of free food available across Cardiff but we will always attempt to help you at your point of need.

 We are unable to provide accommodation (except when this is made available by churches where formal projects exist). On occasions when people are rough sleeping on our premises, we will assess the risk to both you and others, and explore with you the possibilities available by liaising with various services and authorities.

 NOTE: This Charter acknowledges that there are many projects which specific church communities may already be offering to the homeless community and the many ways in which they presently support homeless services, and does not seek to conflict with them.

Standing Around at the Station

No city stands still.  But if you stand still long enough in Cardiff you will see how religions have shaped and been shaped by the landscape.  Here we explore a small yet significant corner of Cardiff.

Buses flow down Westgate Street, dock nose to back at stops along the way.  People come, go, dodge traffic, wait for the green light.  One man hurries towards Central Station, brushes past me, looks confused, takes a detour around the boards which block the usual route to get away as the ground beyond, the site of a former car park, waits, has waited, for a new transport hub to keep Cardiff moving.

On Rugby International Day, Westgate Street is awash with colour as rugby fans with painted faces overflow, spill out from pubs, gripping plastic pint glasses, the pavement soaked with beer, to raise the roof of the Principality Stadium, fill the space with hymns they do not sing elsewhere.

rugby wales online
Where the water flowed: Westgate Street on International Day (Copyright WalesOnline)

One third in Wales have no religion. That’s how the headlines went after the last census in 2011.   Within the Stadium you can seat all the adults who attend church each Sunday in the Anglican Church in Wales three times over.  And yet, there is a resistant flow of faith through Cardiff which has washed through generations, and continues still.  Two thirds of Wales have some religion.

At one time, water flowed here before the Taff was rerouted by Brunel in the 1840s to make dry land for a new Railway Station which opened a few years later.  The river had often licked the graveyard and spilled into the sometime Priory Church of St Mary’s Priory which stood where the Prince of Wales pub now stands, a subtle sandstone shape sliced into its Wetherspoon side.

Photo 27-02-2019, 13 25 28

Then came the great flood of 1607 when the water did its worst.  There had been prior warnings and earlier floods but the money meant for the upkeep of the weirs and walls, the bridges and quays had already been diverted elsewhere.  Moving money from one service area to another is not a modern phenomenon as governments prioritise, stretch the budget, try to make the money work which is done these days under increasing public scrutiny.  Investment comes and goes, keeps Cardiff moving.

And so to that Norman Lord who crosses the border into Wales, emerging hot on the heels of Harold’s demise in 1066, takes residence in the castle, rebuilds the walls around him.  By the beginning of the twelfth century, Robert Fitzhamon has built the Priory Church of St Mary. The Normans made their presence felt in stone.  Here, the Priory is peopled with Benedictine monks from Tewkesbury Abbey, although by 1221 they are withdrawn, leaving just a Prior.  Soon, Simon, the last known Prior, is recalled to Tewkesbury leaving the care of the parish to a Vicar, the church having become the Parish Church of Cardiff some time before.

Forty miles away to the west, Fitzhamon slices his border with one of his own twelve knights, his brother Richard de Grenville, who gives rise to Neath Abbey in 1129, reputedly designed by an architect called Lalys, a Muslim hand and mind put to work, cultures exchanged, technology shared.  Whether he was a convert or a conscript is left only to our imagination.

Fly to North Wales and one can see the hand of a Muslim convert in some of the churches of Anglesey, with Muslim inspired patterns in windows and tiles in churches fashioned from the pocket of Lord Stanley of Alderley who took to Islam in 1862.  Centuries later, a single coin from Offa’s reign in the second half of the eighth century with Muslim Arabic inscriptions will come to light in Rome – casting further light on an earlier interaction with people across the seas, religions rubbing shoulders.  The minting of the coin has many possible reasons, some more fanciful than the other.

The Remains of Neath Abbey designed by a Muslim architect called Lalys.  Photograph by John Armagh – Own work, Public Domain,

The Crusades have coloured our concept of how Islam and Christianity first engaged with one another through the centuries, and can cause us to forget that friendships are more fierce than religious difference and political gain.  Global Politics, then and now, interfere sometimes, whilst children side by side in schools across the city here, at home, learn what it means to be different and what it means to be much the same.

One lunch time, at St Mary’s Primary School back in Butetown between the City Centre and the Bay, I was greeted by one of the children who pointed at me and exclaimed, “You’re Christian.’ That’s all I need, I thought, a confrontational six year old.   ‘Yes, I am,’ I replied, ‘that must mean that you’re Muslim.’  ‘Yes, he shouted.  He paused, and then he carried on, as excited as before, ‘Christians and Muslims love God!’  Ah, there he was, the voice of wisdom, wanting to make known what he knew of the world.  He knew who he was, and had a strong sense of identity.  He knew who or what I was, and that we were different but he could also express what we had in common.  For a moment, just one moment, I wanted to pick him up and place him on the global stage, for all the world to hear.

Now, the only known concrete remains of the Norman Priory Church is a well weathered stone corbel head fixed into the wall at the new St Mary’s Church at the top of Bute Street, adjacent to the school.  The rest was washed away or plundered, left to falter, fall.  Throughout Wales are far more illustrious reminders in stone of what the Normans did for us.  1066 is etched in the memory of these lands.

The flow of the Taff before it was rerouted by Brunel in the nineteenth century

It’s in 1066 that the new King William brings with him Jewish workers and financiers from across the waters to help build a nation, their labour and the linings of their pockets put to work in the castles of Wales.  Two hundred years later, in 1290, they are expelled by the King coined Edward Longshanks.  Out of pocket, and now out of the country, they return 400 years later with the inglorious Cromwell.  A new chapter will soon emerge in nineteenth Industrial growth, economic migration, and communities fleeing Russian pogroms, a foretaste of even worse to come.

Each year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, there is a civic gathering somewhere in the city, the city aware of an ever increasing need to remember the past and take caution from the present as genocide tries to rip the world apart.  Far Right Extremism is only a whisper or a word away.

And so, here, the secret, silent signs of the Abrahamic Faiths which make their marks in Cardiff, if only in subtle reference and gentle reminders, unknown, unseen by those perhaps who flow along the way where the Taff once was.  There is more to come.  There are stories to be told.

Across the road is Southgate House, a sign that here we stand outside the Medieval town walls as Cardiff, through the years, bulged in all directions, spilling out to the sea in the south and kissing the edge of the valleys to the north in a move of industrial proportions.  The valleys of South Wales will be transformed by an influx of people who make the dark and dangerous journey underground to pull the coal to daylight and send it the world.  Cardiff will suck up ships from the sea, and sailors will make this town their home and bring a new perspective to what we know as Wales.

The thirteen storey tower block overshadows the old Post Office which was built in the last decade of the nineteenth century and, next to that, further along Westgate Street, the old County Court Offices which turns its sulky back on the new HMRC building rising steadily in steel and glass as it tickles and flirts with the southern backside of the Stadium.  The building is now owned by the WRU but it’s been empty for years and, for some short time,  occupied illegally by an Anti-Capitalist group, banners and all.

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Southgate House, which stands on the site of Wood Street Congregational Church

Here, too, we stand on the edge of once-upon-a-time Temperance Town, with the largest congregational church in Wales which stood where Southgate House now stands.  Colonel Wood’s desire for an alcohol free community has long disappeared.  Wood Street Congregational Church began with unfortunate scandal, though, as fraud interfered with faith.   William Watkiss was the minister who cast his eye upon the building which, since its beginnings, had become both a music hall and a circus, where the like of Charles Blondin took to the high wires, horses leaped, men juggled, women rode horses, and the crowds were entertained.  He thought it would make an ideal building for his growing congregation.

From the wings walks Mr Ashton, a prominent member of his existing congregation.  He helps to purchase the building by proffering funds from local business men and other locals who lent their life time savings.  But in a twist of drama, when payment is due, Ashton simply leaves the stage, disappears, never to be seen again.  He leaves behind £3 and a carpet bag containing an old grey coat – his wallet heavy with £600 cash (equivalent to about £50,000) and about the same amount in goods, all on credit.

Wood Street Congregational Church

His disappearance makes it to the stage, played out in drama in a play called ‘Ashton’s Little Game’ and performed to a full house at the Theatre Royal, Cardiff’s first of many theatres, opened in 1827 in Crockerbtown – now Queen Street.  Fortunately, another church community, together with donations from generous individuals, saves Wood Street Congregational for Watkiss with an opening service on 28 September 1868.

In a world where entertainment is found in the palm of your hand, which connects us to the world –  and disconnects us too – the history and soul of Industrial Cardiff, and what we have made of it, cannot be understood without drama and music played out in the halls and theatres, the stones and names of which are scattered across the city.  ‘God bless this house. May it be the nurse, the feeder and the moulder of the Soul of Cardiff,’ said Mr Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the grandfather of Oliver Reed, and a leading actor and theatre manager of his day – after the opening performance of the New Theatre in December 1906, one of the few theatres remaining in Cardiff.  But this is the story of what faith has made of Cardiff, and what Cardiff makes of faith.

At the crossing of the rerouted Taff, the short lived church of St Dyfrig stood, built in 1888 but pulled down half a decade later to give way to one of many re-imaginings of this part of town.  The area had become poor – too poor to attract investment to the Great Western Railway who had opened a new station in 1930,  and so the houses were emptied, people moved elsewhere. This is a common story.  Communities are sometimes left to rot so that the only solution is to up-root, redevelop, bring in the money, make the money work – for some, at least.

St Dyfrig’s Church, Cardiff – on its closure its patronage was transferred to the church of St Samson’s in Grangetown

Now it is being re-imagined again.  The new BBC Wales Studios stands squat and bold surrounded by a splatter of office buildings to create a new Central Square.   The Prince of Wales pub was once a Theatre before bowing out to the silver screen and many other uses since, from Laser play pounds to adult films and bargain basement shops.  Many historic buildings across Cardiff have disappeared, whilst others take new inhabitants, find new uses, fulfils new needs.  The bulldozers have moved in again, and post war buildings have succumbed to the growth of the city as they pull down St David’s House – the saint’s name sticks to several buildings, sacred and secular, across the city.  There is no standing around at the Station.

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Demolition of St David’s House, Wood Street – February 2019

Further West, just across the Taff in Riverside on Tudor Street, is the first purpose built Sikh Gurdwara in Wales which has stood since 1989, twenty years ago.  Push a little deeper into Grangetown, just around the corner, and the Hindu Community move across the road from its home in the former Jewish Torah House of Merches Place since 1982 to take up residence in a former Irish Club, its three towers raised above three altars within, and which opened more recently in 1993.  The building it vacated is now a home to a Pentecostal Christian congregation.

The Swaminarayan Temple in Grangetown (Photograph by AroundTheGlobe at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Sikh Gurwara Chris Downer
Cardiff: gurdwara and Sikh centre in Tudor Street cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris

Cardiff shifts and moves, and Faith Communities within the built environment wax and wane.  Some buildings are short lived, others find different uses, a new purpose.  Theatres becomes churches, churches become bars.  Others are torn down, fall down or are rebuilt on the same site or elsewhere to follow a faith community around the city.  And others jump from one religion to the other.  The built environment changes, moves on.  There is no standing around.

A tenner to you, mate

2016-06-19 10.06.03

Friday.  8.20am.  The rhythmic shunting of the earth to explore the grounds for a new school building next door has been vibrating for half an hour now.  Bute Street is waking up – been woken up.  There is a trickle of two way traffic as workers walk to and fro, taking the half mile route from city centre to bay.  It is too early yet for the school run.

Near the shops at Loudoun Square, at one of the corners of Christina Street, a solitary homeless man leans on a garden wall.  His arm suspended in a sling, he looks, walks in a circle, leans again, waits.  There are no drug dealers yet.  It happens sometimes, when there is a momentary pause in proceedings on this side of Butetown.  Maybe they’ve sailed across to the ‘Paddle Steamer’ or loiter on the edge of Canal Park.  Maybe the drugs have dried up for a while, as they wait for a new delivery.

Throughout each day, there is often a steady stream of homeless people making their way to Butetown.  A ten minute watch – and you can count a dozen as they turn into Christina Street, make a deal, and then scurry away.  It’s suggested that some people are injecting up to 8 times a day – you can do the maths yourself, work out the cost, imagine where the money comes from, imagine where it goes, a tenner a time.

The guy with a sling moves on, looks further afield, stops me as I walk back from the shops, asks if he can buy a cigarette.

In recent days, there has been a Twitter search for the moral high ground.  There are mixed responses to tents dispersed across the city centre, half a dozen in Queen Street, others spread across the Hayes and High Street.  This is a polarised conversation.  Some say ‘Tear them down.’  Others prefer to express a more patient way, and then there are those who jump from one pole to another.  All have a point to make.  But complex issues are not solved by Trump-like twitter posts. (LINK:

Two years ago when the streets gave way to the Championship League Final, there was the rumour, denied by police, that they had instructed homeless people, rough sleepers, to clear the city centre.  Other council officials I have spoken to accept that this was the case.

Watch what happens in the city centre around the tents and those who sit in doorways a hundred yards apart.  See coffee cups and fast food, sandwiches and money dropped into the hands of those who beg.  For some, it may be the tenth sandwich they’ve received that day.  Some people visit Cardiff armed with tents to distribute to rough sleepers, give them shelter, and inadvertently keep them on the street that much longer.

The gesture is well meaning, comes from a good heart and yet, quite often, the money invests in the industry of drugs, lines the pockets of some who make more money in a week than I see in a month.  And then there is the associated knife crime too.  A blade is never far away from a deal done on the street.

There are many services which reach out to the homeless – including hostels, emergency beds, support and advice services, drug services, and an abundance of food available at various times of the day and night at various points in the city.  What could they do with a tenner? (LINK:

“I’ve never known anyone beg their way off the street,” said Richard Edwards, CEO for Huggard, in a television news item.  The winter time raises the profile of homeless people, begs the public interest, gives homeless charities air time to get their point across.

It was recently announced that ‘FOR Cardiff’s’ Give Differently Campaign, a contactless payment point in the city, raised relatively little – in one year, £9,964 of which over half was a grant from Cardiff Council.  Many people support the homeless charities in lots of different ways, through donations and practical support but perhaps some folk, filled with compassion, prefer to give direct.  (LINK:

In 2018, the Huggard worked with 1,274 people, 649 of whom had slept on the streets of Cardiff last year.  But as one person is helped off the street, another soon appears.  There is plenty of floor space on the streets of Cardiff.

As winter sets in, extra cold weather provision is  put in place.  More than ninety additional spaces are provided in addition to the 216 hostel places for single homeless people, 78 emergency beds, and 390 supported accommodation units that are available all year round.

Ian Ephraim, from the council’s city centre outreach team, said the average number of empty emergency bed spaces was currently 15 per night – from 88 available spaces.  He said there had not been a single night when the provision was full.  (LINK:

It’s difficult to avoid stereotyping – and each person who has found themselves homeless has a different story to tell.  Their needs are complex, their lives often chaotic.  There are many reasons why some find it difficult to access services to help them off the streets, but the majority of homeless people in Cardiff have some drug related aspect to their lives.

“In the last couple of years,” says Richard Edwards of Huggard, “we have seen a huge explosion of drug users in the city with the homeless community.”

The news headlines capture phrases such as ‘Crisis Point’ – but even the definition of that phrase keeps changing, gets loaded with weightier consequences, as we discover afresh what ‘crisis point’ actually means.  Each turn in the statistics revisits a response that was considered some time ago and rejected.  This time, it’s safer places for people to take drugs, enhanced harm reduction centres, where people could inject drugs safely with medical supervision, keeping more people off the streets.  (LINK:

A few years ago, this was considered by Cardiff Council but it was decided that then was not the right time, and so it was put aside, waiting for the crisis point.  Time for a rethink?

There are, of course, consequences for all the individuals involved, and for others too – for businesses, visitors and investors, for local communities, like Butetown where the industry of drugs meets the demise of the poor, and children are brought up in an environment where it is now quite normal to see small cling film parcels passed from hand to hand, and notes exchanged in front of you, in full view, a game to be mimicked in the playground – Cowboys and Indians gives way to County Lines.

At Christmas, St Mary’s Church adopted two charities: Huggard and Tiger Bay Amateur Boxing Club – with the aim of trying to contribute in some small way to addressing two related issues which impact most profoundly on those who live in Butetown:  homelessness and drug dealing.  The Boxing Club works with young people from across the city to guide them away from drugs and dealing and into sports and fitness, teaches discipline and more healthy lifestyles, and provides some mentors too.  A recent report presented to Cabinet stated there was no correlation between cuts in youth services and a rise in drug dealing, but there is no indication of the evidence behind this observation.

The dealers, too, are not all Butetown born and bred.  They skirt across the bridge from east and west, across the bridge from Grangetown, Splott and other places around the city – for this is an easy place to sell, with a sitting clientele just a five minute walk away.  Last week, walking to the shops in Loudoun Square, a new kid on the block thinks he’s blown my cover, thinks I am undercover police.  Unfamiliar with my face, on three different occasions he calls out to me, ‘Alright, Officer . . .you’re a FED mate.” Think’s he is clever but simply betrays his own unease at the possibility of police who may move in again.

9.20am, an hour later, near the large decorative letters which spell out that this is Loudoun Square, our local councillor gathers with what appears to be other council officials.  They are as easily spotted as someone who is homeless.  Stereotypes abound.  He greets me, offers a handshake, tells me that CCTV cameras are due to be fitted around Christina Street within the next two weeks.

We know this won’t solve the problem, will just push dealers elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere, but it will give some people a release from the constant crack cocaine and heroin exchanges done on their doorstep, in their face.

Back home, the drilling in the playing field continues –waiting for a new St Mary’s School to find a home, as Cardiff continues to grow up and out.  Here, the pavement is well walked by tourists who seek the Bay beyond, by parents and children skipping their way to school, by city workers who walk between the water’s edge and the concrete, steel and glass of the city centre.  And there are those, too, who have left behind their tents and hostel beds, carry their complex lives and their tenner notes, dip into Christina Street where someone waits now with a bag of white.  “That’s a tenner to you, mate.”



175 Logo

On Friday December 14th, we celebrated the 175th Anniversary of the opening of the Church of St Mary the Virgin with a Solemn Mass, followed by fireworks, mulled wine and mince pies and which begins for us a whole year of celebrations.  Here is the homily preached by Fr Dean Atkins during the Mass.

Last year, when Cardiff hosted the Championship League Final, I was chatting to a policeman at the top of Bute Street. He was a cheerful, engaging officer who related to the public really well, and he was stationed at one of the road blocks near St Mary’s. The city was colourful, vibrant, bursting at the seams with football fans who gathered from the city centre to the Bay.

From the top of Bute Street, the police were guiding people to the Bay through Lloyd George Avenue though some seemed to prefer the alternative route along Bute Street. It was to one of these people that the police officer shouted, “Don’t go down there, love. It’s not very nice.” I smiled at him, and laughed a little. “Thanks for that,” I said, “that’s where I live.”

Those of us who live or work here, or are from here, tell a slightly different story!

In a biography of a former Vicar of St Mary’s, affectionately known as Fr Jones of Cardiff (and written in 1907) one of his curates who arrived in the parish in 1873, wrote this:
“There have been many changes since those days. It is to be hoped that Bute Street is improved. There were then parts of it along which it must have been a trial for a decent woman to pass.”

Yes, perhaps – in the industrialised late nineteenth century, there were some “no go” areas, and certainly parts of Tiger Bay it could have been be described as “not very nice.”
Today, we gather to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the opening of the new St Mary’s Church built in response to a rapidly growing population, as people were sucked up from the sea.

The former Priory Church of St Mary’s, whose spot is marked by a stone outline in the side of a pub of all places – in front of central station – was damaged by the swell of the river Taff in 1607 and bashed by the battles of the English Civil War. In fact, it had been prone to flooding for some time, made worse when chantry funds to maintain the walls and weirs were confiscated by the state. Diverting funds from one service area at the expense of another is nothing new!
It’s from one of the poems written to raise funds for the new building, one written by William Wordsworth – “When Severn’s sweeping flood had overthrown St Mary’s Church”, that we take our Anniversary theme:

Let the new Church be worthy of its aim,
That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice!


William Wordsworth
Sir William Wordsworth, who wrote one of the poems sold to raise funds for the building of the new St Mary’s

In light of the flood filled history, maybe it’s ironic that the Scripture readings this evening are full of images of a river washing through the Temple, flowing from the sanctuary – not destroying or harming, but bringing peace and fruitfulness and healing. A tsunami of love.

There are always breaking points – we are fragile beings who don’t always get it right. Sometimes, there are scars upon the landscape of our lives which never go away and remind us of that we are only a scratch away from pain. There is today, as in every day, a need for much healing in the lives of many people, ourselves included, and in so many communities, and in our country too.

This community has faced many challenges and changes throughout the few hundred years that it first began to be created, built on the back of South Wales miners, fuelled by coal and steel, and by those who travelled from far off lands to make this place their home. Living with difference, accepting one another, and rejoicing in the colour of each other’s lives isn’t something strange to this community, and we must never lose it. In fact, we must boast of it, and share it with others, and never allow walls to be built that will keep us apart, or keep us secluded from others. And any walls that have begun to be built must be gently dismantled. It’s one reason why we are involved in the Community Sponsorship of Syrian Refugees, working with our friends at Tabernacl and at the South Wales Islamic Centre. We are no strangers to strangers.

Far from Butetown being ‘not very nice’ – it has much to offer, and so much to bring to the world at large.

One lunch time at St Mary’s School, as the hall began slowly to fill with children, I was greeted by one young boy, probably about five years of age, who looked at me, and greeted me with a pointed finger, “You’re a Christian,” he said. “Yes, I am,” I replied. “That must mean that you are Muslim.” “Yes, I am,” he exclaimed, and then he went on. “Christians and Muslims love God!”

And for a moment I wanted to pick him up and place him on the world stage for all the world to see. He had a strong identity of who he was. He knew who or what I was. He knew that we were different. But he was also able to express what we had in common. I am grateful to the school, and the parish and for the wider community, for providing an environment in which this can happen. In a world, in a country, that is often so divided, we must listen to the voice of the little ones. We must listen to that boy.

For the last 175 years, St Mary’s Church has been a home to the Christian community in this place. In 1872, when Fr Jones came to this parish, he taught and lived the catholic faith. He brought many changes, some of which were resisted – but he persisted – not with an iron rod, but with a loving pastoral heart. His first sermon, when he climbed into what was then a large three decker pulpit at the centre of the chancel, took the biblical text ‘God is Love.’ And love flowed.

When he died, just a few years after his retirement, he was mourned by the whole of Cardiff. The streets from here to Cathays Cemetery were lined with people. He had laboured well, he had loved well.

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Fr Griffith Arthur Jones SSC, who became the Vicar of St Mary’s in 1872

I was conscious, when I came here, that I was the same age as Fr Jones when he arrived at St Mary’s. Life is very different for us today, although much the same. We are beginning to discover afresh what it means to be catholic within what is now the Church in Wales, and that comes with struggles, as I did for our forebears.

In recent years, Butetown has felt the impact – perhaps more than any other community in Cardiff – of the sad and dirty business of drug dealing and drug use, and the chaos and fear that can so easily divide and disturb a community, and the devastating affect it can have on the lives of individuals. We have witnessed a surge in homelessness, a rise in rough sleepers, and been touched by the complex and often chaotic lives of such people – and so our Christmas charities this year are supporting the Huggard Centre – and Tiger Bay Boxing Club which aims to offer young people a different way.

In the time of Fr Jones, catholic hearted priests across the country were ministering in so called ‘slum areas’ where many people lived in squalid conditions. In London, one such priest campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’.
Another ‘slum priest’ (Father Dolling) transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar.  “Who can separate the secular from the religious?” asked the priest.  “Certainly the Master did not try to do so.”

Why did priests like these – and Fr Jones of Cardiff – begin to connect Jesus with drains and dancing?

The answer lay in the Incarnation – the belief that God in Christ has got involved and continues to be involved in the grittiness of human living, something which we celebrate soon at Christmas.

Jesus has shown us that every area of life is the place where we find the divine, that God is present even in the places considered not very nice, especially in the places that are not very nice, places which can and do shine with the beauty and glory of the God who loves us.

And so we will and do, we must, have a concern for what’s happening in the streets, in the lives of those who could be treated better, who could be given a better share, a fairer share. For those who trapped in poverty or trapped by crime, those who feel the pinch, and the sting of injustice and inequality, those for whom their life span is expected to be shorter just because they were born in Butetown.

For the priests of the past it may have been drains. For us it may be drugs. Tomorrow, something else.

But there is always dancing!

A building such as this, of course, takes much time and money and work to keep it in good stead, and cracks sometimes appear which let the water in. Strong, sturdy walls, may very well be built to keep out the rain and flood waters but the walls must never be so firm as to keep back the water which flows from within, from the sanctuary, the waters, the river, which flows from God and brings healing. A Tsunami of love.

And so we continue to worship here, and minister from here, and look to the future with confidence and hope. We give thanks to God for all the blessings which he has lavished upon us. We accept the responsibility to help strengthen community life, to work together with others, to bring the beauty of God’s love to a broken world, and to recognise the beauty of God in our own wounds.

And above all to do this, and all this, in a spirit of joy. To be a joyful community, and for our joy to be infectious, like a great wave washing through the lives of others, and taking the city of Cardiff – and the world – by storm.