My Dear Friends
Westminster Bridge 22 March, Manchester Arena 22 May, London Bridge 3 June, Finsbury Park 19 June… it's a pretty grim roll call, isn't it? And I read in the paper just a couple of days ago that the police reckon they have foiled five other terrorist attacks in the last three or four months, some of which were 'very close' to being carried out, perhaps even just a few minutes away, according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. Thank God (and pray) for our security services.
As if all that didn't generate enough public concern, fear and anger, we had the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June, which five weeks later is only just now receding from the news headlines.
I have lost count of how many candlelit vigils, one-minute silences and special church service services and prayer meetings have been held. Perhaps you know the old gag: "I wonder if God cares that I'm an atheist." When the chips are down, many who might normally describe themselves as "not religious" seem to suffer a crisis of confidence in their professed unbelief. They instinctively feel that church is the place they ought to be, that here they may find some comfort, strength and reassurance which is not to be had elsewhere. I remember that shortly after 9/11, the biggest terrorist attack this century, the Times journalist Anna Blundy reported on the packed memorial service in her village church (did anything similar take place in Waltham St Lawrence?) with a long queue afterwards to sign the condolence book. Evidently not a believer herself, she wrote:
"I do want my children to know all the hymns I know, to know the words to [sic]
the Lord's Prayer, to have somewhere obvious to go when tragedy strikes them."
Now isn't that last bit remarkable? Why is church an obvious place to go if you don't believe there is a God?
Naturally the last thing I want to do is to discourage such a person from coming to church in those circumstances. I believe that they are showing that they are not unresponsive to the Spirit of God speaking to their hearts and consciences. It may take a catastrophe to get them to pay much attention to him, but it is at least one good that God is able to bring out of appaling evil or accident. At such times those of us who relate to God in our daily lives have a special opportunity to tell the Anna Blundys of this world that, in the words of the hymn which I hope is one of the ones she knows, our Lord is our "Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend" who can be known and enjoyed all the time.
People who only turn to God in a crisis must reckon with the fact that in the ultimate crisis, the return of Christ in glory to judge the world, that option will not be open to them.
q On a less sombre note, indeed I hope a cheerful one, we will shortly be running a course for those interested in exploring the Christian faith. The course title says it all: Christianity Explored. In seven Wednesday evening sessions we shall study Mark's Gospel, with video input and time for questions and discussion. Oh yes - and food to kick off with! It's all designed to be friendly and relaxed, clear but not coercive, and I promise nobody will be put on the spot, expected to know stuff or be asked to read, pray or sing!
Your sincere friend and Vicar