We are here for you in your pain
22 May 2018 IN: Bishop
The Bishop of Manchester, The Rt Revd Dr David Walker, delivered this sermon at the Civic Memorial Service at Manchester Cathedral. The service commemorated the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena terror attack on 22 May 2017.
Twenty two people lost their lives, over 800 suffered physical injury or bear mental scars. That is the one stark fact at the centre of today's service. All the discussions about emergency responders, security services, and the phenomenon of terrorism that have taken places in the aftermath of the Arena attack have only happened because a device exploded and people were hurt and killed. Today, we come together to go back to the heart of the tragedy, we come together with those who are still suffering its effects most keenly, we come together to assure them of the constancy of our care.
It's very appropriate that we gather in Manchester Cathedral, firstly because it stands in honour of a God who is himself constant and faithful. One of the most negative aspects of our society, is that while we sometimes overwhelm people with care and support in the immediate aftermath of injury or loss, we then withdraw, our interest taken off in other directions. Too often, just a few months on from a horrific event, those still bearing the pain are left feeling unsupported. Some are even made to feel guilty at not having "got over it" as rapidly as the rest of us would wish. This cathedral reminds us that God is not like that. It proclaims a God whose love never ceases, whose compassion never fails. God has no timetable for our recovery from tragedy. There is no date after which he expects us to have pulled ourselves together. He knows that the hurt we experience can last a lifetime. He is always ready to see our tears, to hear our cries, and to whisper his words of comfort.
In this cathedral we are invited to number ourselves among those who keep faith with the victims of May 2017. I know that the work of the Family Liaison Officers has been hugely important over this last twelve months, yet care and concern are not things we can simply franchise out to specialist providers and then assume we have discharged our obligation. If we cease to acknowledge our own ongoing role in supporting the victims and families of the Arena attack whilst they grieve and hurt over what has happened to them, we shall also fail in the practical tasks of building a society fit for them to live in.
In the days after the Arena blast, across a range of media broadcasts, I assured the world that Manchester would be there for the victims, for as long as it took. All who were affected have a lasting place in our hearts. You have become part of our story, and we will be part of yours. Yet quite soon it became clear that those most deeply affected by the tragedy were drawn from a much wider area than our immediate city and its surrounds. Only four of the 22 killed lived in the diocese that this cathedral serves. It's very appropriate that today's service is being relayed far beyond Manchester, including to cathedrals in other cities such as York, Liverpool and Glasgow. The Arena families and survivors will need the same love and care, over the years and decades ahead, even if they live and work far from this city. Support will need to be there for them in places where what happened on May 22nd 2017 is not part of the shared story of that community. Support will need to be given in villages and towns where the memory of last year will inevitably fade.
Rightly, much attention has been given to the families of those whose lives were lost that night. Theirs is the greatest loss, they are ones from whose arms someone deeply dear has been ripped away. They are the ones who will never see that loved face or hear that voice again. Yet I want us also today to remember those many others, whose lives were spared but who suffered long lasting, often permanent, damage in the attack. Part of the horror of the Arena attack was that it appeared to have been deliberately chosen as a venue that would be full of young people. Today they are one year into living with those life changing injuries, yet with many decades of continuing to do so lying ahead of them. Our society has rituals to mark a death, and to console the bereaved. We lack any equivalent for those who have lost limbs, suffered sensory loss, or will never recover their confidence again. Many of the hopes and aspirations they took with them into the Arena that night are gone. Today we mark and acknowledge their suffering, and pledge to play our part for their future wellbeing here on Earth.
There's another reason why I'm glad we are gathered today in this particular location. It's because this cathedral is a place of hope. It's a very well used building. We host festivals, stage lectures, hold concerts, show films, serve dinners, as well as maintain the rhythm of the Church of England's worship, day by day and week by week. When our ancestors planned and constructed these buildings, they knew what they were doing. You can't be in this place very long, whatever event you're attending, before your eyes are drawn upwards. And that's deliberate. We may be engaged in our work on Earth, but we must never forget the Heaven beyond us.
A few weeks ago, the world mourned the death of Professor Stephen Hawking. I had known him a little when I was a young graduate maths researcher in Cambridge, and even then he was a remarkable personality. Someone, in the days after he died, remarked that in heaven he would no longer be stuck in his wheelchair. It was a comment that deeply upset many who are living with physical impairments, because it gets to the heart of what it is to be human. For some, it implies that people who have such a condition, including those injured in attacks like Manchester's, are lesser beings, needing what is wrong with them to be put right. One of my relatives, a few years ago, was suffering from anxiety attacks. He was prescribed medication which removed the symptoms, but left him feeling blank and empty. He stopped taking the tablets. "My anxiety", he said, "is part of me. I'd rather have that, than the emptiness the pills replace it with."
I deeply believe that we are fashioned by a loving God, not simply to spend a short while on Earth and then be obliterated, but to reach our fullness and completion with God in eternity. Who I will be when I get there will not simply be the man I am at the moment of my death, but the totality of all my journey. To the extent that my strengths and weaknesses, my injuries and limitations are part of that completeness, they will be reflected in my eternal personhood. One of the most remarkable facts of the gospels is that when Jesus rises from the dead that first Easter, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, the wounds of his crucifixion, are still visible on him, though no longer a cause of suffering and pain. His death on the cross has been an essential part of his story, it cannot and should not be expunged from his eternal body. I reckon heaven's famous Pearly Gates are wide enough to be wheelchair accessible. I believe that if Professor Hawking wants to stay in his chair he's got the choice. If he sees it only as a limitation, he can get up and walk.
Coming back down from heaven to Earth, the point of all this is to challenge us to work well alongside those who carry life changing injuries from last year's blast. And if you don't share my theology, I hope you will still accept that imperative. For some victims the priority for the period ahead will be about rejecting and fighting the loss they have suffered. For others it will be about accepting a new direction for life, with some opportunities lost and new ones in their place. In both cases, relationships will be different, and friendships forged that would not otherwise have been the case. Yet each and every life has full and equal value. Our task as the wider community, gathered around the Manchester victims and their families, is to enable each to make their choices and live their life to the fullest extent. The monies raised by the Charity Appeal will help, but it will be our emotional support, in good times and bad, along with our utter determination to see them as not reduced or made of lesser value by their injuries, that makes the real difference.
A few days after the Arena attack, the Minister for Faith communities, Lord Nick Bourne, came to meet with a number of leaders here at the Cathedral. We gathered in the Regimental Chapel on the North side. It's the part of the cathedral that suffered most when a bomb fell on the roof during the Second World War. If you go in the chapel you will see memorials recording that occasion. Here, in this ancient building, is where Manchester remembers the significant moments in its history and pays its lasting respects to those it wants to see be honoured long after their lifetimes. Final decisions about memorials to last year's tragedy are yet to be taken. What can be guaranteed is that this place, so close to the spot where lives were lost or changed forever, will be here for all who wish to come and remember. By gathering here today, we hallow it for all times to come.
This cathedral is here. Manchester is here. And you, you who were hurt or bereaved twelve months ago today, are forever part of Manchester, forever part of us.