They let me thorough the police cordon on Sunday morning when I explained I wanted to get to Mass. “Father Chris sent a message to say it might have to be in the school hall, not the church…” I said hesitantly. “No problem: you can check for yourself – Father’s right over there” said the policeman, and there indeed was Fr C, serving mugs of tea to the crowd of policemen. A quick discussion with the inspector, and the decision was made “Yes, you can use the church – go right through”, and the “Do Not Pass” tape was lifted and we headed for the Rectory, Fr C carefully balancing the sugar and used cups on the tray.
On Saturday evening, in a savage attack, three men—shouting Islamic slogans and later identified as being connected to an Islamic terrorist network—rammed a van into the crowd at London Bridge, randomly crushing several people before leaping out to stab several more.
The attack came days after the atrocity in Manchester where over twenty people, many of them young girls, were killed by a bomb at a pop music concert.
London Bridge spans the river between the City on the North bank and the Borough on the Southwark side, and the attack happened at a busy corner where the Borough High Street meets the Borough Market. It was a warm evening and the pubs—including The Barrow Boy and Banker by the bridge itself, and the Market Porter further inland, together with the various cafes and restaurants—were crowded with large numbers of people gathered talking and drinking in the streets outside.
“Attacks out of the blue trigger panic in the capital” shrieked the headline in the Sunday paper I was carrying. Well, yes and no. At the Church of the Most Precious Blood, just off Southwark Street near the Borough Market, all was calm as the children’s choir practiced their singing and the congregation arrived in the church via the cordons in Redcross Way and O’Meara Street. Pentecost Sunday was celebrated in style with the first appearance of a beautiful new set of red vestments and altar frontal. Fr C had, the preceding week, urged the children to wear something red to mark the day, so there was a cheery display of scarlet hair ribbons and teeshirts.
That said, there was of course a solemn air. The choir caroled “I saw water flowing from the temple…” as we were sprinkled generously with holy water, and then the Gloria rang out in fine style, but at the Bidding Prayers we prayed for the dead (eight, at the latest counting at that time) and the badly injured (about 40) in the terrorist attack that had taken place just nearby. At the end of Mass we observed a minute’s silence, and prayed again for the dead: “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord…” Fr C had spoken in his homily about receiving the Holy Spirit and understanding the fullness of God’s forgiveness of our sins, the greatness of his love. “You’ll hear people say when an atrocity like this happens, ‘All I could do was pray’. But that’s the wrong way round. Prayer is the best thing: it’s not the last option, the last resort. It’s the first thing, the best thing. “
Of course people in the parish had been caught up in the events. Janey had been out with her family: “We was running down the street, trying to get home—and the police herded us into that hotel, back of the Market, said we had to stay there. The hotel was lovely – they provided sandwiches for us all, coloring books for the children. They was really nice. Then, about midnight, we were allowed out, and we got home safe.”
Fr C had warm praise for the police and the ambulance services: “They arrived within something like eight minutes and had the situation under control. I’d like to pay tribute to their courage, professionalism and skill. They deserve our full thanks.”
Apart from serving tea and making the Rectory loo available to the police as required, he had been busy arranging for an alternative venue for Mass. The 8 am Mass had to be cancelled and an email/text message went out to all on the parish contact list. “But I wasn’t going to let the big celebration of Pentecost just pass by,” Fr C said. “Plan B was to use the school hall, so I phoned the caretaker and the head teacher and so on—we were all set to use the hall but then after talking to the Inspector we were allowed into the church, so all was well.”
Britain, along with the rest of the Western world, has been getting used to terrorist attacks: this one seemed especially worrying, taking place during a General Election and with a vague sense of uncertainty in the air. Overall, the response has been to grieve for the dead, and to talk about the need for heightened security—although there has also been, among serious writers, some discussion about Western weakness and lack of moral cohesion in the face of Islamic ranting and slogans.
It really is rather absurd: we are under attack, and the very framework of our common life, our institutions and the values that have shaped our self-understanding are denounced by our enemies as they bomb us and commit random murders in our streets. And yet we are somehow not allowed to talk about it freely. There is some official verbiage about “British values” but these seem to translate mostly into a passionate commitment to same-sex unions and the invention of ever-new forms of gender ideology involving a pretense that being male or female is a matter of personal decision based on transient feelings.
There has been embarrassing silence from some (but not all) Islamic leaders who should be denouncing terrorism, and frightening aggression from lobby groups seeking to use current problems to push their own agendas on sexual issues. Meanwhile, counter-terrorism activity now includes street patrols by heavily-armed police and even soldiers—not a sight with which one wants to become comfortable. Not so long ago, we prided ourselves on our unarmed British bobbies and comparatively low rates of violent crime.
Popular religiosity mostly seems to involve placing stacks of flowers at the sites of a terrorist massacre, and organising fund-raising events for the victims’ families. And there is a real fear about speaking out on the subject of militant Islamicism: a recent police training-day included a mock-up terrorist attack in which the attacker called out “Allah Akbar!” as he plunged forward, was criticized as being bigoted and the police authorities subsequently apologized, on the grounds that it really wasn’t right to suggest that terrorists had any connection with militant Islam.
And we all seem to be hiding behind general ideas of staying calm and “not letting the terrorists get away with it”, along with a vague reluctance to think too deeply about the social and moral crises afflicting the West (family breakdown, drugs, astonishingly illiteracy among the students at our universities, a culture of me-first, a widespread inability to confront the realities of an ageing society) or to reflect on the spiritual void that is allowing horrible ideologies to develop.
That said, there is also a certain sense of pride in being a Londoner just at the moment. People are being neighborly, there is a feeling of unity, and a genuine desire to make bonds of friendship across any barriers of race or class or creed. And no one is cowering: Southwark’s pubs and cafes were crowded again on Sunday morning as I made my way to Waterloo station after Mass. A “Great Get-Together in Bankside”, with a barbecue and other events has been long-planned by local community groups and looks set to go ahead in a couple of weeks’ time although probably with some extra police protection.
A sense of history helps. A couple of days before the attack, I led a Catholic History Walk across London Bridge: we paused to recall the Viking battles that took place on the Thames, the most recent at the end of the 10th century. The sight of Viking ships bringing soldiers and settlers from Denmark and Norway struck terror into Anglo-Saxon England: violent, anti-Christian, savage, brutal, they were fierce fighters who took over whole areas of the country. They were, variously, held at bay, conquered, or allowed to settle on terms of treaty, all with varying degrees of success. Our bravest kings held firm on one thing: Christianity. By the time the violent Norse men had settled in various parts of France and Britain for several centuries, had long assimilated, inter-married with other groups, and become Christians, their Viking origins were lost and forgotten.
Keep the Faith!