Thursday, June 26, 2003

A St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace will rise from the rubble.

My father was married at St.Ethelburga’s Church in the middle of the City of London in 1931. This was partly because it was almost next door to his office at 80, Bishopsgate but perhaps more significantly for him because its Rector was one the few Anglican ministers who at that time was willing to marry a divorced person. I was christened in this beautiful medieval church.

I found in my father’s papers a sketch he did of the Rector, the Rev Geikie-Cobb, at the wedding. In his handwriting on the back of the sketch - which was on a menu from Swan and Edgar restaurant in Piccadilly - were noted some expenses: Wedding dress £12.12.0, Coat £11.11.0, Hat £3.13.6, Dress £6.6.0, Dressing gown £3.3.6.

I was sad that in 1993, after having survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, St Ethelburga’s, one of the two remaining medieval churches in the City of London, was two-thirds destroyed by an IRA bomb which exploded 15 yards away, killing one man, injuring 51 others and damaging many Bishopsgate buildings. But I was very glad to learn that it is being rebuilt using much of the original stonework thatsurvived and restoring its familiar façade and the 18th century bell tower.

I talked with the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, who is one of those behind the restoration. He is excited that repairing the church is only part of the challenge they have set for themselves. The plan is to develop a new role for the church, a role, he says, ‘that will turn the damage into lasting good.’ A St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace will rise from the rubble.

The Centre will explore the role of religion in international affairs, seeking to further the contribution that faith communities can make. It will incorporate a memorial to those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of peace. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev George Carey, has spoken in the House of Lords about the project in the context of the work of an American, Doug Johnston, whose book, Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft, has helped remind those in government of the role of religiously motivated people in resolving conflicts. The Archbishop is a member of the Centre’s Advisory Council along with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, Professor M A S Haleen from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and Michael Binyon, the Diplomatic Editor of The Times.

Prince Charles who has a keen eye for what is architecturally sound has also given the project his blessing. He writes, ‘It seems to me so important as we move into the new Millennium that we find ways of realising the full potential of faith communities to contribute to reconciliation and peace.’ He welcomes the efforts being made to assemble an international Advisory Council for the Centre which will bring together representatives of all the great world religions.

Britain’s Foreign Office has recognized that in this changing world there is a vital role for the faith communities in a multi-track approach to peacemaking. It has given the project helpful advice and a financial contribution. It has just been announced that a senior British diplomat, Roland Smith, currently British Ambassador to Ukraine, will in October 2002 become the inaugural director of the St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. The Ambassador has spent much of his career attempting to reach across political and ideological divides. He says,

‘The important thing is to try to understand the approach of the other side and see how this will help you to build bridges.’ The work of the Centre will range from assisting international companies to understand the religious dimensions existing in their areas of interest to building bridges between faith communities and acting as a resource in the heart of London for many different groups involved in resolving conflicts. Businessman Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a winner of the Templeton Prize for contributing to progress in religious understanding, suggested at a City Livery lunch that St. Ethelburga’s might also be the most appropriate site for the memorial to the victims of the World Trade Centre atrocity? He pointed out that until it was bombed, the church contained a contemporary tablet to the effect that in 1607, Henry Hudson and his crew of ten men and a boy received Holy Communion there before setting sail in the Half Moon in the hope of finding a passage to the Orient via the North Pole. This took them up the river now bearing his name and flowing past the City of New York. The event was commemorated in St. Ethelburga’s by three windows, given respectively by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1928, by Citizens of the United States in 1929 and by Citizens of the British Empire in 1930.

Sir Sigmund said, ‘In the desperate days through which we are living, the re-building of St Ethelburga’s and its dedication to the concepts of reconciliation and peace is a reminder to us that we live in a world which is not devoid of hope; that while man can destroy, he can also create; that it is within our power to make things better.’

A public appeal has brought in more than £3 million of the £3.6 million needed and work has started on the rebuilding. Nearly a million pounds has been given by sources associated with the City of London, including gifts from 42 livery companies. The Times gave a great fillip to the project by making St Ethelburga’s Centre its Millennium Appeal (see The restoration should be finished by April 2003, the tenth anniversary of the bombing.

How times have changed--and not only in the cost of weddings! When I used to visit my father in his Bishopsgate office there was a rope which you pulled to make the lift take you up to the next floor. And of course he would never allow me to go up to the City without wearing a hat. When St. Ethelburga’s was built in 1450 it was the tallest building in Bishopsgate. Now it will be the smallest building in the street dwarfed by the modern steel and glass structures which house the companies that do business all over the world.

In an article in The Times Bishop Chartres wrote, ‘The City is reinventing itself and there is also a role for the Church in reimagining its role in the new millennium.’ In peace building it has become obvious that the efforts of diplomats and soldiers must be supported by the resources of business intelligence networks and of the faith communities.

There may be some readers who would like to contribute to this significant project. Viscount Churchill is heading the Appeal and the Appeal Office is at The Old Deanery, Dean’s Court, London EC4V 5AA. Tel: 0044-20-7248 3177 Fax: 0044-20-7329 4889.