Andrew Nunn reflects on the love of God in the wake of evil
I was having a pretty normal Saturday evening, like most people. I had some people staying, and the soon to be ordained deacon for St George the Martyr at the Borough, St Hugh’s and the Cathedral had come to join us for a barbeque. The preacher for Pentecost arrived to stay the night. The Deanery was full and we were in the midst of conversation. Then we received a text alert – something was happening in the London Bridge area.
It sounded serious. I put a dog collar on and headed down Bankside towards the Cathedral. My thought was that I needed to get the building open so that we could offer ministry and hospitality to people who were affected by what was happening. It was soon very clear that I couldn’t get far along the river, so I used some of the local back streets and alleys that I know and got to the top end of Park Street, where the Market Porter pub is on the corner.
There I was confronted by a large number of heavily armed police officers who shouted ‘Run, run’. ‘I’m the Dean’ I said. But they just told me to run. So I ran, back the way I’d just come but then redirected by other officers onto Southwark Street. It was there that I saw people lying on the pavement being tended by members of the Emergency Services and their family and friends. ‘Run, run’ was the constant cry and I ran until I found myself on the path that leads back to the Deanery by Tate Modern.
It was a living nightmare. I don’t mind admitting to you that I was scared. I had never seen anything like this. Ok, on the news, in the films, but not first-hand, not where I live, not where I minister, not in my parish.
We sat in the house not knowing what to do. Then I got a text from the Chair of the Bankside Residents’ Forum. Amir Eden is a young Muslim, born in Guy’s Hospital, living in the Cathedral parish, an ex-pupil of the Cathedral School and the London Nautical School. ‘I’ve got nowhere to go. Can I come to you?’ was his text. ‘Of course’ was my reply. So he came and took refuge in the house. And there we all stayed until Sunday.
You’ve read and heard and seen so many news reports about the aftermath of the attack that happened in the streets around the Cathedral. It is hard to imagine this happening in an area we all love so much, around our Cathedral Church, in the Borough Market that attracts millions of people a year. But it has happened.
Let me be clear. Those who committed these evil acts, these cowardly and vicious acts, were not acting in the name of God. They may have claimed that but we know that this is not what Islam teaches. They are not only seeking to destroy what we have and value and hold so dear, they are effectively destroying the very faith they claim to be proclaiming, they are destroying Islam.
Can there be any good news in any of this, can our hearts really burn with the presence of God in such horrendous circumstances? It is hard to say at this moment because as I write this we are still unable to access the Cathedral, still unable to get into the streets around the Cathedral, still unable to be the spiritual hub of this community that we have been for the last 1400 years. It is a huge crime scene and we are at its epicentre. But I have a few thoughts to help me at this moment.
In his book ‘Night’ Elie Wiesel describes his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. One day gallows were erected. A child was being hung and the other prisoners had been gathered to witness it. As the chair was kicked away from beneath the child a voice cried out ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ Wiesel writes ‘And from within me, I heard a voice answer; ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…’”
The incarnation means that Jesus was on those streets with the fun loving crowd thronging the Borough Market; Jesus was there as the attackers struck; Jesus was there as the injured were cared for, there as the distressed were comforted, there as the eyes of the dead were closed. Jesus was there being crucified, hanging from the gallows in the Borough Market. We do not believe in an absent God but a God who enters the mess of the world, the mess we have created, seeking to redeem it, seeking to resurrect it. And I have to believe that.
The second thing I have experienced is that of diaspora, of being separated from home and community. Our church buildings are not the church but they are where the church meets and where the hospitality of God is made real. Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity that will be a focus of many of our services on Trinity Sunday is popular because it celebrates the hospitality of Abraham and the generous and loving relationship that exists at the heart of God and should be incarnated in the life of the church. We live that out in many ways, but we do it at the Cathedral seeking to be a truly inclusive, orthodox and radically loving Christian community and we believe in doing that we reflect something of the nature of the wider community, something hated by the kind of people who plan these attacks on our society.
Not being able to go into the building has been very difficult and we cannot wait to get the doors open and our arms opened to receive our brothers and sisters who want to come in to experience the love of God, not least at the altar.
But the third thing is that being out on the streets, as all the clergy have been since Saturday evening, has made us aware of how resilient and hopeful people are and how much they want the church to be there with a message of Good News and with the compassion of God, able to articulate something on behalf of others that, perhaps, they don’t have the words for.
This is only the beginning for us. A new chapter for our Cathedral will begin as we get into the church, as we inhabit the streets, reclaim the neighbourhood, cleanse and heal and restore. But all of that is for another day. Now we pray the prayer that I wrote in the early hours of that terrible Sunday when terror came to our doorstep. Pray it with us, please.
Loving God, when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us
in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events,
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Andrew Nunn is the Dean of Southwark Cathedral. This article originally appeared on the Southwark Diocesan Blog ‘Hearts on Fire’. We are grateful to the Dean for his permission to use it here.