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July 11, 2005

The London Bombings: the response of a City of London vicar

Posted by Peter Mullen

What is the Christian response to the London bombings? Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen - the Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill in the City of London & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange - shares his thoughts on last Thursday's events.

Last Thursday's events were sensational and, in an age haunted and afflicted by a sensationalising and instant mass media, made more sensational still. My wife and I spent some time down by Aldgate tube station at what was called Red Incident Control. The parish priest at St Botolph's had given his church over to care for the police, ambulance and rescue people; and we were on hand to pour cups of tea and to be of any earthly use in a hellish situation.

One of the sordid complications of the terror was the repeated ringing of the telephone. The newspapers, avid for a closer acquaintance with the terror scene, had contacted the diocesan authorities. And those innocent lambs in the diocesan office kept phoning the Incident Control to ask if the press might be allowed to come in and do their work. Of course there is a legitimate place for news coverage, for searchlights in the fog of war. But the public interest is not anything the public is interested in. And the gathering of lurid reports and horrific photographs is not part of it. There is a distinction between information and prurience; and it is one always blurred over when there is blood about.

That is what I mean by the sordid aspect of the terror. And the sordid aspect does quite as much damage as the sensational and shocking aspects – because it lasts longer and it touches everyone. I met courageous men and women there, who had been down into Aldgate tube and so knew the worst. Police and ambulance. But also others you hadn't thought of: dozens of men in orange overalls who had been called to go down into the tunnel and put up emergency lighting. All were subdued and quietly horrified. Some were distressed, very shaken and somehow puzzled – didn't know where to put themselves.

That is something else which terror does: it infiltrates and intrudes deeply into a person. It interferes with a person's heart and soul. It is an interference just as disorientating as a physical molestation. And more severe because it is more subtle. The devil is not always the demon king: sometimes he does his malevolence gently. St Thomas Aquinas said something about this. He spoke of the banality of evil. And so it is. The devil is one part dirty lecher and three parts petty thief. Evil spoils our time together, wastes our time by forcing us to have to do what ought to have been unnecessary. All those people at the Incident scene having to hang around, half-occupied for hours and days. All a perversion of their life’s normal course.

So what is a Christian to do? What can we do? First, we don't need the soapy explanations of Mr Slope the senior clergyman turning up to justify the ways of God to man – though there's no stopping him, I'm afraid. But what happened last Thursday was not God's fault.

By the grace of God there are things we can do – particular and specific things, given to us by the great teachers of the faith. And these are the old virtues. Courage. There was plenty of that in and under the streets, in the hospitals, and among the bus drivers who ferried the injured to hospital. Courage gives us the strength to do our duty. We must not be cowed or bowed by these events. Courage must go hand in hand with cheerfulness, the Spirit of God inspiring our spirits.

Fortitude is courage dug in. The bravery of the moment must become the habit of a lifetime. Patience – perhaps the hardest of all when the justice we long for does not arrive; when the guilty go free and unpunished; and when we have to listen every day to explanations and excuses for the terror which are no explanations, no excuse. Patience is courage dug in for the long haul. Prudence governs all the virtues because it sets them in order and enables us to act in ways that are not only right but appropriate and timely.

We do not possess any of these virtues naturally. We must pray for them. The terrorist attacks must not be allowed to get under our skin, to corrupt our judgement as to what the terrorist deserves. These attacks must not undermine our confidence and love of life. We must go about the daily round not just grimly determined but determined to rejoice. The antidote to fear is the love of God – our love for him and his infinitely greater love for us. And this love must be encouraged to spread out into our love and care for one another – not in some horrible Schmaltzfest but in a renewed awareness that we belong to one another and that we are our brothers' keepers.

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.


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