Getting out more: in retrospect

So the Crosscountry train in which I’m sitting is flying along the tracks, carrying me home. There’s time to gather random thoughts together. Every long distance trip teaches its own lessons, so what were mine?

The first is that I was underestimating my level of fitness: the easy first day was probably wise, but, distance-wise, days 2 and 3 were a bit too short. I was arriving shortly after 2pm, so unless serious hills are involved, I should be aiming at 55 miles plus per day from day 2.

The second is that I need to revise my prediction of road conditions along the following lines: if a B-road is straight, and there isn’t something bigger in parallel, then traffic will be fast, if not heavy.

Thirdly, in retrospect, I think it should have avoided the Rochdale Canal route out of Manchester, gone around the eastern hillside edges of the city instead, then joined the canal at Littleborough. Sustrans really should think about declassifying the Manchester city stretches of the route, which are substandard – although there are some wonderful mill buildings between Manchester and Rochdale, especially at Failsworth. Still, I’m fit enough to make more use of small hill roads than I did, and as a result I probably missed more countryside in days 4 and 5 than I needed.

Fourthly, I’m really glad I forked out for those Schwalbe tyres – there were no punctures, and hardly any mechanical problems at all (just the aforementioned spoke-tightening and an adjustment of the front deraillier limiting screws to stop the chain rubbing at bottom gear).

Fifthly, my 27-year-old tourer remains as good as I can imagine for this kind of trip. The renewed power-train with its wide gearing ratios proved absolutely adequate for the variety of terrain and the load carrying. I’m very lucky to have it. If I were doing a longer, international tour with camping gear, I’d need something different, but what I have suits my choices just fine.

Lastly, I certainly need to get out like this more often. I last toured in 2010, which is too long ago. At my age, I need more, not less of this kind of physical challenge. I also love this kind of solitude: notwithstanding the blogging and social media in the evenings, I’ve been on my own with only my thoughts and tunes going round in my head for most of the past six days. It’s a good way of being me to myself, and I actually quite like my own company – which is reassuring…

… But enough for now.

Facebook vs Blog

I guess I’m not alone in being a weaker blogger because of Facebook. For me, it’s a sense of communication: blogs are big, silent things which only “talk back to you” when you get some comments. Comments are the payback of blogging frequency. The strength of blogging is that it provides a chance to really think, rather than just making a lighthearted comment or contributing to a string of comments. Blogging potentially offers depth, but the cost is that you have to think of something to blog about. It’s a discipline.

Facebook is another approach to communication: quick bursts (though not as short and quick as Twitter) which invite responses from shared friends or extended friends-of-friends. Facebook is a sequence of short, brief re-encounters. But I am left thirsting for meaning. True, there’s no discipline required: just a random dip into the hubbub of communication. It’s a more effective way of staying in basic contact with your friends, with instant feedback. But the cost is depth.

My blogging frequency has been affected over the past two years by life events (two job changes) and the arrival of Facebook in my life. But after two years on the thing, I am missing something of the discipline of structuring my throughts. So here’s the first blog post for a while.

I also want to find a way to share various thoughts and discoveries with students and friends who are interested in listening/conversing. With blogging, you have to imagine a kind of “audience” which relates to the current construction of “you”. Well, I think that both I and the potential audience have changed over the past couple of years. I am no longer a full-time parish priest. I’m a lecturer in worship again. And the context of thought (and my half-imagined “audience”) has changed also. When I started the blog, the whole Emerging Church phenomenon was running high and blogging was one of the best ways of engaging in the conversation. That has changed – and some perspective from me on what that change is is more than overdue. Also, I am no longer in a position to provide live perspective on parish ministry from my immediate experience.

Yet on more than one occasion over the past few months, I have detected within myself the desire to share some thoughts with a certain body of readers: both students (past/present) and others. I’ve wondered about starting a new blog, but I’m rather nostalgic about this one. So here’s a few posts and references for you.

Return to Trinity

The big wheel of life has turned right around as this September sees me begin, for the second time in my life, a new academic post on the staff of Trinity College in Bristol. It’s a fascinating experience, returning to an institution which I left over 10 years ago. Trinity is bigger than it was when I left and has developed its activities in a number of different ways.  It has developed context-based learning, for people who are training to be Church leaders: this gives them the opportunity to spend a significant part of their time working as an extension of a local church’s ministry team (and there are a variety of types of context available, from urban to rural). It has recently developed a non-residential part-time course which is taken by a variety of types of student, some of whom are training for ordination locally, while others are preparing for, or resourcing their existing Christian ministry. Finally, Trinity now has an open learning section, that offers courses for people living just about anywhere. This is an exciting combination of activities, which will make the college able to adapt to the changing needs of the Church and the changing opportunities which technology provides.

What has not changed is its institutional commitment to Christian mission. But the outside world has changed since I left, with the UK Church having less and less influence upon its culture. Trinity is very committed to the re-evangelisation of these islands, as in the UK (and Europe more generally) the Church faces critical challenges which are of strategic importance to global Christianity. In many respects, we are facing problems today which other parts of world Christianity will face in coming decades.This task requires both theological and spiritual commitment of the highest order, so it’s important that colleges like Trinity, which seek to resource the Church through training, do so with that same level of missional commitment to a deep spirituality and intellectual excellence. So it’s not surprising that I’m so excited to be part of what’s going on here.

At the same time I miss my many friends at St Michael’s. The staff there have all been wonderful colleagues to work with and immensely supportive. Peter, the principal, in particular, was a tower of strength throughout my time. Those who follow this blog may remember the hassle we had with our house-move, one effect of which was that we abandoned our plans to move to Monmouthshire and bought a house in Bristol instead. This meant a 3-hour daily commute for me, so when I was offered the job at Trinity, it meant more time to commit to doing the job and a huge time-burden lifted. Nevertheless, I had a good time at St Michael’s and wish everyone there my best wishes and love. In particular, I will continue to pray for students I taught there as they enter and develop their ministry in the Church in Wales. A very committed and impressive bunch they all are.

A year in retrospect

2009 was not the busiest year for this blog. As you can imagine, there’s something of a story behind that which I am now sufficiently distanced from to be able to tell. It’s been a year of ups and downs and at times the downs were almost overwhelming. Looking back over the year’s posts, I’m amazed, in retrospect, that I managed to put out the number of posts that I did.

Ups

One was definitely the chance to move back into theological teaching when I took up a new job as Dean of Non-residential Training at St Michael’s College in Llandaff. I had missed being a teacher of theology over the past ten years and this is one of those things I think I’ve been put on the planet to do. So, although I now miss the rootedness of parish church life, I have the chance to teach again, which is lovely. I’m currently teaching a course in Worship at Cardiff University, which is a very different experience to teaching in a theological college. Also, directed non-residential theological studies is very enriching – people are so motivated and enthusiastic.

Another up was the satisfaction of seeing both of my children at University, with Jonathan doing joint honours Philosophy/History at Sheffield and Caroline doing Biomedical Science at Manchester. Both conveniently located for walking breaks in the Peak District.

Downs

There were two: one was my wife being ill around this time last year, which was very worrying at the time. She is well and healthy again now, but neither of us would wish to go through something like that again in a hurry. We are very thankful for vigilant doctors.

The other one, which though less intense, was more dragged-out, was the saga of our house-move. We had planned to move over the border into Wales so that we both had an equal-length drive between our respective places of work. Eventually, we decided to buy a new-build house. However, one week away from the move date in May, our solicitor called us to say that they had been unable to register the title of the property because part of it was erected on unregistered (ie. unowned) land. Further legal investigation followed, which showed that the house was therefore not worth the money agreed. So we had to pull-out. There followed five months of legal dispute between ourselves and the building firm. There was a horrible point in late May when we were facing the need to buy another house, but with our deposit still being held by the builders and the possibility of having to move out of the house we were in. We had to instigate court proceedings and eventually, the deposit came back, then, after many more months, costs – the legal part of which were nearly £12000 by the end. In the meantime, we had to unpack a house (the diocese, who owned the vicarage, were brilliant) live out of boxes for several months and buy another house. They say moving house is one of the highest stress-points in life. Well, we (almost) did it twice this year. Being one of the parties in litigation proceedings must also be right up there amongst the most soul-destroying activities on the planet.

I realised this year how cumulative stress ultimately gets to you. Add a few little other things, like empty-nest syndrome and the stress (alongside the enrichment) of starting a new job and for a good bit of the summer I was in a bad place. But, thank God, things don’t stay like that forever.

Ups again

We ended up in a lovely, lovely house, this time a victorian one in Bristol, around the corner from lots of good, old friends. The builders settled our claim out of court two days before it went before a judge in October. Although we miss our children and are looking forward to them coming home for the vacation this Christmas, Sharon and I are loving the space, flexibility and relaxation which come from being ‘just a couple’ again. Empty nests are not really empty, when you can both spread yourselves around a bit, and there’s also always a bit of space to squeeze up again when the kids come home. We had some wonderful support from our friends and family and learned to live on a tight budget, with a simple holiday spent camping.

A week or so ago, I was nearly killed on my bicycle by a bus whose driver was not looking in the direction of travel. Mercifully he heard my shout just two inches away from me. I am so grateful to be alive, enjoying the blessings of a healthy wife, a lovely home, two children I am proud of, and the prospect of working out whatever amount of life is left to me in the best and most honourable way possible. For me, 2009 was about the fragility of life and the blessings it carries. I come to the end it with a strong sense of the value of what I have, and a sense of perspective (I hope) about its permanence. The blessings of life seem very tangible at the moment, as is the fact that none of this can be taken for granted. Now back to blogging …

New picture

The new head picture of this blog is Porthtowan Beach in Cornwall. We’ve stayed there on holiday now for the past three years. It’s one of my favourite places on the planet, as earlier posts will show. The sunsets are amazing – easily beating anything I have seen in California (too much fog where the scenery was nice; not enough scenery when the fog went away). The surfing’s good too. The Blue Bar tops everything off with tasty food and good beer.

I can understand why my American friends love the West Coast. In a country where most cities are land-locked, it can be amazing to visit a coastline where the sun sets over the ocean. We saw a great one from Point Montara Youth Hostel. Britons need to remember how lucky they are. In the UK, you’re never more than about 80 miles from the coast – something which has come to prominence in the excellent BBC series Coast.

So although I’ve seen some lovely places in California as we toured down the coast between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, the following places are, in my personal opinion, more spectacular coastline: North Cornwall – especially between Porthtowan and St Agnes; Gower Coast – especially Three Cliffs Bay and Rhossili; The South Hams of Devon, especially Slapton Beach; South Cornwall, especially St Just in Roseland. I could go on … Now if only we could export the weather of Southern California to Britain – consistent blue skies and temperatures of a nice 84 degrees Farenheit.

But back on Porthtowan – of all the beaches I’ve visited, I think it has the best sunsets.

The big wheel

The wheel of change has turned…

Next year, Caroline, my youngest, leaves school for university, following the route of departure taken by her brother Jonathan this September. So after twenty years with children in the house, Sharon and I will be living on our own – at least for university terms. We had earmarked this point in our life as a possible time for me to consider a job-change, as it would create the least disruption for other members of the family.

Well, that time has come. A few weeks ago, I was appointed to be “Dean of non-residential training” at St Michael’s College in Llandaff (Cardiff), with effect from the new year. For me this marks a move back into teaching, but with a number of important differences from the post I held at Trinity College nine years ago. I will be responsible for the theological education of people who need the flexibility of non-residential theological study. In addition, I will be teaching theology in the School of Theological Studies and Religion at Cardiff University and working with the Church in Wales and the Methodist Church to develop this form of training and the ministry it serves. St Michael’s is the main theological college serving the Church in Wales (Anglican), but it has developed and diversified over recent years to deliver an exciting and flexible set of theological courses. It’s a great team to be joining and the prospect makes me very excited.

However, this kind of change will also mean saying farewells, to the two parish churches I serve and to Foundation which I helped found a few years ago. This has been the part that brings sadness alongside the joy of a new set of horizons. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that churches should be decoupled from the personalities of their leaders, so my move, though it will bring all three communities some challenges, will also bring needed change and growth. Foundation, being a newish community, feels the challenge particularly, but it is also in a good place, with an effective and healthy constitution to weather this major period of adjustment. St Paul’s and Cotham, being more (usual?) parishes (actually, I don’t think “usual” is really the right word – as they’re highly unusual in most ways – but how else can I put it?) are more affected by my change from a structural point of view as they are used to having me work with them on a full-time basis. But again, I think changes like this bring opportunities and exciting times ahead.

At a personal level, it will also mean that the one other person who would be affected were I to take a job-change – Sharon – is able to continue in her present job, as we can commute from a new home in Monmouthshire to our respective places of work. So whilst we will move house, she won’t move job – which is good. So the next twelve months bring big change.

Getting up to date

Sadly, this poor blog has been taking a back seat for the last few months. The principal reason for this is that 4th August was “zero hour”, by which I had to clear my desk/life of anything I would need to do in work and in Bristol before leaving for nearly three months spent in California. I’m glad to say that’s now done, and my desk is genuinely clear. I’m now over 4000 miles away from my desk and I must say, it feels good.

The past two months have also been one of those times of change, where the priority of blogging has been eclipsed by other matters of long-term importance. Just in case there is anyone left reading this blog, I’ll discuss those changes in the post that follows. However, to anyone still reading this – thanks for your patience, and I hope to liven things up a bit now …

The Writer

Paul

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