Thursday, 3 October 2013

Volunteering on Iona – a welcoming community

You have 2 hours and a half till you’re back to work. You’re not obliged to do anything in this time. You may sleep. You may go for a walk. You may go for a cream tea at St Columba’s Hotel. You may read. You may join the guests in their sessions. You may play cards with your friends.... You bump into a fellow volunteer who invites you to join a group of them heading over to Port Bann to swim (possibly) and just hang out on the beach. Why not? You grab your raincoat – just in case – and off you go, hands empty, but the air filled with conversation and laughter.

Spontaneity, freedom, and community characterise Iona. The spontaneity simply comes from living so much in the present moving from Saturday night welcome service, to Monday-night-ceilidh, to Tuesday’s pilgrimage, to Tuesday-night-healing-service, to the goodbye-mexican-wave as guests leave on Friday morning. But the time in between is used as you yourselves need and determine. By freedom, I don’t necessarily mean the freedom to do whatever you like – you are working according to a timetable after all – but a true freedom to be who God has made you to be. No living up to others’ ideals, or even your own ideals. But freedom, in its truest form. By community, I refer to the practical inclusion, support and love, but also to the common path we walk during our time on the island. There’s a unity of vision and an instant sharing of experiences and life. Community is built remarkably quickly as a new group of guests arrive and leave each week, but there’s always a sense of joining something far larger, something that has lasted decades and which is constantly evolving with the people that leave and join. “We have come from many places for a little while”.

The Isle of Iona is home to only about 130 residents, but with 100+ guests per week, up to 30 volunteers at any given time, and about 20 resident staff working at the two centres used by the Iona Community - the Abbey and the Macleod Centre - and the hundreds of touristy visitors that explore the island each day, the village becomes a hub of life. Iona Community members are dispersed across the whole world, although the offices are based in Glasgow (

The pilgrimage
I was only on Iona for six weeks, the shortest stretch of time one can volunteer for, working on the housekeeping team in the Macleod Centre. My working days consisted mainly of meal set-up (all except the food itself), clearing/washing up at the end of each meal, a constant stream of laundry ranging from bedsheets to towels to volunteers’ clothing, training guests in their chores during their stay, and on turnover days, cleaning the centre from top to bottom. Days off often involved trips off the island – once to the puffin island of Staffa, twice for walks/hikes around the Isle of Mull, once to Oban on mainland Scotland – or adventures around the island, joining the guests for the weekly pilgrimage or making my own way around. A short walk to the North End or elsewhere on the island could take you to what feels like the most secluded spot in the world. I rediscovered the joy of reading fiction!

 The vision for the two centres is to build a brand new community,of staff, volunteers and guests, each week. This involves worshipping together at the daily morning and evening services, eating together, sharing in daily chores or tasks, and making that conscious effort to get to know one another.  Community happens quickly, with a core  continuity of people each week, and its yet inherently different each week, due to the different combination of people engaging in it. It’s a dynamic, evolving phenomenon which brings so much joy and challenge to everyone who is part  of it. All are invited and welcomed to join!

Elinor Rhys

Saturday, 28 September 2013

i Church Training

Deborah and I (Cerys) have just spent 5 days at the Windermere Centre attending an iChurch web-site course and putting together our new church web-site.  It only needs a few more tweaks and it will be ready.  If you're impatient and want to see what we've done so far then visit

The course was very intensive hard work, yet satisfying in that we came away with our web-site up and running.

We were allowed some free time, which was spent exploring nearby Bowness and Windermere and shopping.  Deborah caught a bus one afternoon and explored the wonderful countryside in the Lake District.

One other important aspect that must be mentioned is the food! All meals were prepared for us - and very delicious they were too!

The training given by Rebecca and Lawrence was first class. They steered us all - Bernie, Cerys, Colin, Deborah, Jacky, Ken, Neil, Sally -  from practically no knowledge to being confident webmasters.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A taste of Greenbelt

I spent the Bank Holiday weekend where I have usually spent it for some years now, at Greenbelt. This is a Christian festival held at the Cheltenham Racecourse. Its flavour is a bit like the Edinburgh Festival – loads of choices, something for everybody. You never come away feeling there was nothing there for you. You come away regretting some of the things you had to miss because they clashed with something else you didn’t want to miss, or because (especially at my age) you just didn’t have the energy for it all.
Because last year the rain caused serious problems, this year’s attendance was slightly down, at only(!) 17,000. Greenbelt draws all kinds of people, from over 80s to babies, but the balance is mostly towards the younger end. Most people camp in tents, some bring their caravans,  but I am among the “softies” who prefer to stay in a comfortable hotel.
There is nothing regimented or dogmatic about Greenbelt. It is a free festival of the spirit. There is music of all kinds – rock, Gospel, folk, old-fashioned hymns, classical. There are plays, films, art exhibitions and shops. There are talks on a wide range of subjects, and an opportunity to experience worship in many different styles – Catholic ritual, meditation,  Iona, TaizĂ©, a Quaker meeting, a Goth Eucharist – you name it!
This year we even had a taste of the Sunday Assembly, the so-called “atheist church” that was recently started in London and is rapidly catching on elsewhere. It is a blend of communal singing and talk encouraging people to “live better, help often, and wonder more”, but with no obligation to believe in God. I doubt whether any other Christian festival would give a platform to this organisation. Nor do I know of any other Christian festival in which the presence of gay and lesbian people, and events catering for them, is welcomed and accepted as part of the rich tapestry of Christian life.
Among the things I attended were: a talk by a bishop on the “emerging Church”; a talk by a historian on the significance of the Chartists, with samples of their hymns; a mentally challenging lecture on radical theology, and a symposium on the same theme; a forthright appeal for the full acceptance of same-sex relationships by the Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral; the above mentioned Sunday Assembly; a few musical performances, and a concert with the amazing jazz musician Courtney Pine.
The central event is the Sunday morning Communion, held in the open air. The vast congregation gathers in small groups sitting on the ground, with groundsheets and umbrellas just in case! I joined a group of about ten people from my former church in Leytonstone, and had a very happy time with them. The atmosphere was festive, and after praying, singing, hearing a challenging message, and sharing bread and wine we were invited if we wished to stay and dance.

Perhaps next year we can arrange for a group from St David’s to be there. I would highly recommend it.

Ray Vincent

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

So what's happening?

All has been quiet on the blog since the end of May. You may be thinking that we are  perhaps dumbstruck after  having to say 'farewell' to the Chambers family at the end of their inspiring ten months in our midst.

Well, sad as it was to see them go, we have not been moping about, awaiting better times!  In fact  a great deal has been going on.  The AGM in June meant  some changes on the eldership. The new elders team is  busily  involved in the process of seeking  a new minister.

We  were successful in being awarded a £500 grant  from the URC for  an 'Art talk' project and plans are underway for a launch in September.   Contact is being made with schools and community groups in Pontypridd, inviting them to  submit photographs which say something about our community. We hope to be able to offer workshops to help with the technical challenge of producing good photographs.

In March we shall stage an exhibition in the church, inviting as many people as possible to  look at, and reflect on  our community, Pontypridd, in pictures.

The  various visual contributions will be a stimulus for us as a church to  review what we see our role to be, (or  our mission to be) in our local community.

We have also received a £700 grant from the URC Mission and Development Fund which will enable us to send two people to a course at the Windermere Centre, to redesign the church website. We'll be holding an open meeting early in September, before they go,  for people to chip in their ideas about  for a new website.

We are pleased to see the church almost back to normal as the work  to install a new heating system is  almost finished. We can look forward in confidence to a warmer winter than the last one.. inside the building, at least.

And there has been another successful  Holiday Club. That deserves a separate  entry!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Farewell to the Chambers Family

On Sunday 26th May, Dan conducted his last services at St. David's Uniting Church in Pontypridd.
After the morning service most people stayed for a 'party' lunch and to share in the splendid cake that Kath baked.  Here are some pictures of the day.
Dan and family

Our gift to the Chambers - a Welsh Love Spoon

The Chambers' gift to us - or rather, for The Manse

The beautiful and delicious cake

Friday, 24 May 2013

Baptist Assembly, Blackpool 2013

I attended the Baptist Assembly this year as a representative of St David’s Uniting Church. The Assembly is a great gathering of Baptists from all parts of Britain. It is the official annual meeting of the Baptist Union, the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS World Mission) and various other Baptist organisations.

This year sees a change in the administration of the Union. The General Secretary, the Rev Jonathan Edwards, is retiring, and the Assembly bade farewell to him and approved the appointment of the Rev Lynn Green as his successor. This will be the first time a woman has held this office.

However, business as such is only a small part of it: it is mainly a kind of convention to inform and inspire us: a time of worship, Bible study, discussions and of course meeting up with friends. Part of the pleasure for me was to meet people from every one of the churches where I have worked as a minister, and to attend the Reunion of the College where I trained – wondering what happened to all the interesting old characters who used to come to these occasions, and realising that I am probably now one of them!

This year’s Assembly was at the Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool. About 2000 people gathered in the great hall for the main sessions and in various other rooms for seminars and informal meetings, and wandered around the numerous exhibition stalls.

The worship in the plenary sessions was very high-tech and lively, if at times a bit loud. I am sure it was appreciated by the many young people who were there and by those from some of the black-led charismatic churches that have recently joined the Baptist Union. However, there was a fair sprinkling of hymns that could be enjoyed by us oldies too. One night we had a great rendering of ‘Here is love vast as the ocean’, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t resist singing it in Welsh!

There were so many things happening that I can’t tell you about all of them. I didn’t have the stamina to go to all of them anyway. I shall just mention a few of the highlights.

Visitors from other countries brought some colour and challenge to the Assembly. Dr Ray Monze, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Zimbabwe, gave a very honest picture of the situation in his country and made us realise how blessed we are in Britain, and the wonderful way in which Christians in Zimbabwe are not only holding onto their faith in the midst of suffering and persecution but living joyfully. The main Bible studies were on Philippians, the letter Paul wrote while in prison, and it added a note of realism to be listening to someone who has so recently shared that experience.

Another visitor was Ben Franklin, an Indian of small stature and incredible energy who told us about how he and his friends were planting hundreds of new churches in Indian villages. At a late evening session he was fairly successful in teaching us a few simple choruses in Bengali.

An important part of the Assembly this year was the attention given to issues around sexuality. 
We have all heard about the fierce debates going on in the Anglican Communion. This sort of thing has not happened in the Baptist churches because we are not a centralised or hierarchical church that can, or that needs to, make decisions binding on everybody. We are a union of local churches who govern themselves and each act according to their own conscience. But what this means in practice is that controversial issues are usually not talked about in case of upsetting people. The Baptist Union Council this year made the brave decision to bring the issue to the Assembly. There was a seminar at which a hundred or more people heard the personal stories of gay men, lesbians and others who for various reasons have got involved in the issues around sexuality. Then there was a plenary session in which we were invited to break up into small groups to discuss the Church’s attitude to same-sex relationships. 

Naturally there is deep disagreement, and many Baptists struggle with the interpretation of Scripture on this issue, but my experience was that the whole session was marked by a spirit of graciousness and mutual respect, and I was surprised at how many Baptists are moving in the direction of the acceptance of faithful, loving same-sex relationships. There was a particularly  strong feeling of how tragic and wrong it is that so many gay and lesbian people feel that there is no place for them in the Christian Church. In true Baptist fashion, no resolution was brought forward for a vote. It’s a case of ‘watch this space’!

contributed by Ray Vincent.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A non-believers view of church

I came across an article written in the Welsh language magazine 'Barn'  by Beca Brown, a couple of months ago.  Beca had found herself, to her surprise, in a church. Even more to her surprise, she  quite enjoyed it, although she is a self confessed atheist.

Was she converted .. well no.    ' Am  I looking for something to fill the emptiness in my life?  Well', she says. 'aren't we all!'

What happened was that her 8 year  old son  was given an invitation  to Sunday School and wanted to go.   Rather than go with him (as she would for almost any other activity) she  thought of sending him on his own...  and then realised the stupidity of this.   Previous bad experiences of  church and of particular  Christians shouldn't get in the way of motherly duty.  

Having faced the pain of the recent death of a dear friend,  Beca was, she writes,  looking for answers - ' not for God and not even for the ability to  believe in something better to come, but I needed  a different kind of comfort.  I needed to belong to something which is more than the circle I have created for myself over 40 years of living'.

This is perhaps one of our most deep seated and universal 'religious' needs - to belong to something bigger. It reminds me of  the  illustration used by Janet in a recent sermon about how young children draw their own portrait with a line underneath, for the ground, and the sun shining in the sky.   The picture expresses what  children know but could probably never say in words... that they are not free floating beings, but belong to something bigger.

The dilemma  that Beca then identifies is this:   'its a terrible thing not to believe and yet to want  a bit of  the comfort and social  life that  comes with chapel life...   there are obviously people like me who are looking for the inclusive experience  that chapel can give, a chance to share  and listen and   consider, and to be quiet for an hour in the middle of a busy life'

Sadly,  her past experience of sermons  has been less than encouraging.   They left her feeling  that 'I will always be second rate, and marginalised because of that'.

The Sunday Assembly is, according to its website 'a godless congregation that meets on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.' It's a bit like a church , but without God.

Is this the answer? Should churches 'play down' God so as to attract more people? I don't think so. Pleasant as the Sunday Assembly sounds, it isn't church.. If churches stopped being prophetic and challenging, as well as comforting and inclusive; stopped working for justice and peace, as well as being 'interesting'; stopped trying to 'connect' with God through prayer and worship; stopped trying to grapple with what the Bible means, and what Christ, through his Spirit among us, is calling us to be... then it wouldn't be church.

We need God for more than comfort and a sense of belonging, but (and it's a big 'but') isn't it time that we listened to the likes of Beca Brown, to understand which bits of 'religion' make the most sense to a confessed nonbeliever?

Beca Brown's article 'Mynd i'r capel (Going to Chapel) was published in Barn  No 601 February 2013

Thursday, 9 May 2013

What are we like?

'Rugged, proud and uniquely beautiful' is how Wales, apparently, is described from space.

Dan suggests that we, as a church, are  not exactly this, but rather 'strong, modest and uniquely beautiful.... and also terrifying to those outside!'.

I don't suppose we are particularly terrifying as individuals, but as a church we are, because to many people any church  is terrifying... and for all kinds of reasons.

There is the physical building, especially one like ours  which imposes a  brick  wall of secrecy  to anyone walking down Gelliwastad Rd, and makes  sure that only the very determined find a way in. Then there are  the things we do and say in church: the praying, sharing bread and wine, singing  words that sometimes don't make sense and sometimes make, perhaps, too much sense and threaten a comfortable world view.
And then, of course, is the presumed judgement on people's lives.  Churches are supposed to disapprove of everything that's fun, aren't they? And Christians think they are so much better, don't they?

St David's Uniting Church has the ingredients, says Dan, to be the kind of church that cares more about 'you' than it cares about the church! To be a church that offers a radical welcome.

We had asked Dan, as he nears the end of his  9 month period  with us, to offer some reflections on where we were as a church and  what we might build on for the future.    In a session that followed the morning service (and lunch) on 28th May, he shared some of his observations and thoughts.

'Technical fixes'   won't solve the underlying problem of a steady decline in churches over the last 45 years, but a couple of things that the church might usefully address are:

  •  Communication with the local community.   Are we 'Ponty's best kept secret'? We could  make better use of notices and banners, of social media and use our voices to let people know we are here, what  we are about, and that they are welcome.
  •  Sunday worship. Two traditional services on a Sunday makes big demands on any minister, and leaves less time and energy available for  actively engaging  with the wider community (and our 'vision' will require a  considerable amount of  community oriented work to be done).  Moreover, two Sunday schools, meeting simultaneously on a Sunday morning at  Church House and in town, misses the opportunity for children  to be part of a larger, vibrant community.
The most important question, however, is how to 'keep the sacred fires burning' and how to share these with others.   Dan's sermon on this, preached during  the morning service, can be downloaded from the church website. 

The church  needs to make 'adaptive changes'. It needs to be prepared to be the church differently, in order to serve, in the name of Christ,  the world as it is today.

St David's Uniting has already sketched out an exciting  new vision for  seeking and working  with  church and secular  partners, to make a difference in Rhondda Cynon Taf.  This new vision will give  plenty of opportunity to 'take stock', as it is thought  through and fleshed  out. It may naturally prompt changes, in response to new partnerships and  priorities.

These are challenging but exciting times, indeed.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Spirit of Creativity

Eighteen members and friends of St David's Uniting Church gathered for a weekend at Coleg Trefeca to explore  the 'Spirit of Creativity'. Through worship, creative bible study, practical  exploration, stories and  a lot of laughter we relaxed together and discovered the goodness of God in new ways!

 Photo   PhotoPhoto

You can listen to some audio reflections from  those who attended the weekend.

And you can see on this audiovisual clip what the different 'creativity groups' got up to,  as they explored  the way of music, the way of writing, the way of photography and the way of art.

Some of the photos taken by the photographers amongst us can be seen here  (you may need to wait for permission to be granted for  you to access this site) . And there are more  photos here.


Thanks to James for putting together these audio visual  records of our weekend.

Friday, 15 March 2013

This is our story: journeys of faith

Bible stories   have a natural place in worship. We have readings from the bible in our sunday services,  and these are often  'brought to life' by the preacher  in the sermon. By and large, however, the congregation's engagement with the bible is one of meditative listening , not one of  active exploration.

It isn't often that we have the chance to dig deeper into bible studies  as a group activity.  During lent we have been doing just this, together with members of Castle Square URC.

'This is our story:journeys of faith' is the title of the course prepared by  Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. Radio 4 and local radio stations have picked up the theme in their religious broadcasting.

Each week we have look at a story from the Jewish scriptures, and a connected New Testament passage.    For example we read of the Israelites' rescue from  Egypt, crossing the red sea, alongside the account of Jesus' baptism... and the meaning of our baptism.   We looked at Moses' saving the Israelites from an infestation of poisonous snakes by lifting up a  bronze serpent on a pole, and at  the reference in John's gospel to Jesus being 'lifted up' on the cross for our salvation.  We looked at the feeding of the Israelites on manna in the desert alongside the  saying of Jesus 'I am the bread of life', and the meaning of communion for a christian community.

Under the skillful guidance of Gethin and Dan, we we  encouraged to make connections between  central stories of the Jewish faith and  core themes of our Christian faith.  We did so in a way that took account of our personal experiences and the  life and witness of churches of which we are, or have been a part.

A small minority of people made it to every session; the majority dropped in when they could.. sometimes just for one week, and that was fine!

Our congregational traditions put great score on the power of people of faith coming together in the name of the Holy Spirit to ponder the Bible. In discerning Gods word in this way, and doing it together, we can discover 'treasure' which is inspiration for our lives. And  we grow, not only as individuals but as a community.

It isn't something we do very much at St Davids Uniting.  Perhaps we should!  Especially as we begin to explore a bigger vision for our church in this locality, it will be vital that we remain firmly connected with the roots of our faith, and with one another.

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Magic Flute

'Hail to a new dawn of wisdom and brotherhood.'
      That is the conclusion of Mozart's opera 'The Magic Flute', but to get there we go through a series of fantastical scenes and adventures.  We were treated to a magical evening by Opera Mint at St. David's Uniting Church on 2nd March.
      Imaginative use was made of the whole of the space in the chapel and even the font was put to good use as a hiding place! When the chorus sang from the gallery behind the audience it put us right in the middle of the action.  I saw this as quite appropriate, as in order to make sense of the drama and the various physical and metaphorical journeys that the main characters take, the audience is obliged to undertake their own journey in understanding.  At the opening we think we know who the 'goodies' and the 'baddies' are, but as the drama progresses we realise that things are not what they seem and we end up with our perception of good and bad being turned completely upside down.
      This is certainly an ambitious project for an amateur opera company, but it was clear that a lot of thought had been put into it to convey the story through action and expression and with the help of a few simple, yet very effective props.

      For me, the strong character of Pamina came across very well and it was sung very confidently by Angela Brown.  Tamino and Pamina may have gone through their trials of fire and water, but I think the most courage was shown by Janet Powell as the Queen of the Night - especially in the extremely demanding aria 'Der Holle Rache', which trial she came through with flying colours.  James Stewart had a very warm bass voice in the role of Sarastro which was pleasing to listen to.  Other performances that I enjoyed especially were the three boys and Monostatos. However, I must admit that Trystan Francis just stole the show for me with his lovely clear resonant voice and witty portrayal of cheeky chap Papageno.             

      There were many other highlights - showing that the whole ensemble worked well together as a team. And not least of all was the skill and stamina shown by the two musicians accompanying and directing the singing - this was truly impressive.
      It is quite astonishing that such a remarkable performance should come to our 'little' chapel and that we had the opportunity and privilege to experience one of the most popular and greatest works of art of all time - created by the genius that is Mozart more than two hundred years ago!  
      I shall long remember this as a thoroughly entertaining and marvellous evening.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Lent at St. David's

During Lent a study group meets on Thursday afternoons following the theme of "This is our story: Journeys in faith".  It is tied in with the Sunday morning worship on BBC Radio 4.

Dan has also written a notice to us, thus:

Prayer is not asking for what you think you want,
but asking to be changed in ways you can't imagine.
Kathleen Norris (author; 1947 -  )

Last week Shelagh Pollard was here to lead us into the season of Lent.  Once again Christians around the world heard the story of how Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be with the wild creatures and the impossibly wild God who led him there.
Of course the forty days and forty nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism recalls the forty years the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from slavery by passing through the Red Sea.  For both Jesus and the people of Israel, the time in the wilderness was a test for their survival and their faith.  It was a time to understand at a visceral level what it meant to be called by God, chosen for a life of faith.  There were struggles, temptations, dangers and snares – a more harsh reality but otherwise not all that different from the challenges and surprising blessings we experience every day. 
Just as Jesus was called to the wilderness to figure out who he was and what he was meant to do, so we are called in this time of year to lean in and listen carefully to the voice of wisdom that calls us into fullness of life.  It’s a voice that often can get lost in the rush of schedules and the press of responsibilities and the drone of our own mind.  In Lent, we’re invited to walk with Jesus out into the spacious desert where the stars are bright and the silence allows us to listen more carefully.
This Lent, you are also invited in particular ways to step into the wild space of the holy and listen, consider, reflect.  Though we’re halfway through the Lenten series on Thursday afternoons, you’re always welcome to come: at St. David’s, in the Victoria Room, from 1:30 – 2:30.   Feel free to drop-in.
In two weeks, 17 people from St. David’s will travel to Trefeca for our Lenten retreat  The Spirit of Creativity.  There are a few rooms still available if you’d like to jump in.
As Jesus listened to clarify his call, so the work of this congregation now is to continue to listen to clarify the ministry to which you are called.  What will your priorities be?  How do you want to use your resources of time and energy and money?  How is this congregation called to be a life-giving presence to Pontypridd and the wide-world?  This is a time not only for first thoughts and opinions, but for careful discernment and prayer.
Of course, our regular worship on Sunday morning and evening is a time when we’re invited into the wilderness to listen, pray, tell stories, eat a little something and join the wild chorus of frogs, birds and the stones themselves which are known at times to cry out.
However you step into the season of Lent, may the Spirit of God find you wherever you are and offer insight, clarity and blessing.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

QI Xmas Carols

Have you ever seen the TV  quiz show QI, with Stephen Fry in the Chair?  Our Christmas service  on 23rd December, written by Iestyn and others, drew inspiration from this. I certainly  learned some quirky as well as serious facts. Well done for producing something to entertain us,  and to  enhance our knowledge and appreciation of carols and traditions that we tend to take for granted.

It was great to see teenagers and young people taking part as  QI panel members and younger members of Junior church singing extracts from carols, by way of illustration, at various points.  The audio visuals -  notably the infectious laughter - added to the entertainment, and must  have taken hours to put together.

The 'production' was first prepared in 2010 but we were unable to see it then because of snowy weather.

So all the better that we could see it this year, and it was worth the wait!