Thursday, January 29, 2004

Ten years ago an Irish Republican Army bomb (IRA ) destroyed St Ethelburga’s, one of the few surviving medieval churches in London. Now, it has been rebuilt as a centre of peace and reconciliation.

Ten years ago an Irish Republican Army bomb (IRA ) destroyed St Ethelburga’s, one of the few surviving medieval churches in London. It is where my parents were married in 1931 and I was christened. Now, it has been rebuilt as a centre of peace and reconciliation, very much as a result of the vision of the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who says, ‘Religion is a force in the modern world which can be part of the problem, but can also offer part of the solution. We hope that St Ethelburga’s, herself torn apart by sectarian strife, can play a small part in contributing to the peace and stability for which we long in the years to come.’

The new centre was opened by the Prince of Wales and is attracting attention for the quality and variety of its activities. Its director is Roland Smith, until recently Britain’s ambassador to the Ukraine. On the tenth anniversary of the bomb blast (24 April 2003) Smith wrote in The Times, ‘We offer St Ethelburga’s as a place of encounter between those who are opposed. For reconciliation to take place there must first be the opportunity and willingness to listen to different positions. But reconciliation involves not just the peaceful exploration of differences but also positive action to break down barriers. St Ethelburga’s is a place where stories can be told of how people from different faith communities have worked together to resolve differences and where those who have been involved in the transformation of conflicts can come together to learn from one another.’

The Centre’s programme started with a series of lectures on the theme ‘Faith and Conflict’ given by leaders from different religious traditions. Activities this summer have included seminars on areas as varied as East Timor and Colombia and the role of women in post-conflict reconstruction as well as a performance of a one-man show Shakespeare’s Visions, performed by Bruce Morrison as part of the City of London Festival 2003.

It is appropriate given its history that in July a series of talks and discussions ‘Facing up to Conflict’ was led by people whose lives have been personally affected by the conflict in Ireland and who point a way to reconciliation.

Jo Berry, whose father was killed by the IRA bomb that destroyed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, described how in November 2000 she met Patrick Magee, the man convicted for the attack. He had been given eight life sentences and was released in 1999 as part of the Good Friday agreement. She says that both of them are on a journey and both have been transformed by meeting each other. In 2003 they launched a charity, the Causeway Project, to help bring other victims and perpetrators together. The Centre hopes that Magee will speak at St Ethelburga’s.

Colin Parry, whose son was killed by a Provisional IRA bomb in the northern English town of Warrington in 1993, spoke of the work of the Trust he and his wife have founded to open paths to reconciliation with Ireland. The killing of two children and the wounding of fifty-six people evoked a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and support throughout Britain. In Ireland two hundred thousand people signed books of condolence. Warrington responded to the deaths by setting up a project to help the people of the town understand the situation in Ireland and to form a basis on which bridges of friendship and reconciliation might be built. Colin Parry says that it was their single-minded determination to make their son’s life and death count for something that has kept him and his wife, Wendy, going. The former Archbishop of Dublin, Donald Caird, says the town’s citizens have made Warrington a byword for gracious response in the face of evil.

Andrew Rawding, a former British army officer who survived two terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, shared his view that the road to forgiveness is not for wimps and includes the recognition of our own inclination towards violence and the desire for revenge. In one attack Rawding was injured and a soldier friend killed. He has reached out through letters to one of the gunmen believed responsible wanting. ‘I want to extend the hand of friendship,’ he says, ‘between two young men who have found themselves caught up in a situation that has caused suffering on all sides.’ He has not yet had a reply.

Rawding, who was ordained in July as an Anglican priest, said that he seeks to address the conception that forgiveness is either for the weak, or unattainable and unrealistic and therefore for the elite. Andrew recognises his own need for forgiveness and realises that he has deep anger and aggression that he traces back to his childhood before he entered military service. He was mugged and beaten up by two youths when he was a teenager. Rather than ignoring or denying this aspect of his character Andrew sees this as a positive force, that can be combined in his particular case with his military experience to be used in peace-making and reconciliation work. He sees forgiveness as being part of a journey, on a road paved with acts of peacemaking with fellow humanity. He is active with Crossfire Trust, a non-denominational Christian organisation working for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

As one whose Protestant family was expelled from Ireland in 1922, at independence, I was glad to be given the chance to introduce the series. It was my mother’s response to this experience that helped launch me into work for reconciliation. I spoke about her reaching out towards Catholics and also about the way forgiveness and repentance are being increasingly recognized as essential to the health of nations. I was able to speak of the initiative of the Prince of Wales in the Irish context. He had spoken in Ireland about the way our countries need no longer be prisoners of history. His words were described by the foreign affairs correspondent of the Irish Times as ‘the most significant of its kind since Mr Blair expressed apologetic sentiments in June 1997, over the Great Famine.’

St Ethelburga’s has a website where you can be updated on the work of the Center ( You can also read there the Prince’s remarks quoted in my speech and, if you are interested, my own remarks.