by the Revd Canon Prof James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College, Salisbury
The last three weeks have been unsettling and at times disturbing that those of us who live and work in Salisbury. Sunday, 4 March 2018 changed the soil of this city. There was disbelief when reports first emerged of an assassination attempt on 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia. The Bishop of Salisbury called it a violation. No one could have anticipated that such a thing might happen here.
However, amidst the disbelief some commentators articulated a sense of déjà vu. As investigators moved in to a small area of playing ground adjacent to a shopping centre we were reminded of scenes of the poisoning Alexander Litvinenko at a restaurant in London’s Piccadilly, in 2006.
Understandably information and emerged slowly. The city became quite literally scene of extensive police and military investigation. Thankfully Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was one of the first on the scene has been discharged but the Skripals remain in a critical condition in our local hospital.
This is a crisis of significant proportions for Salisbury but also nationally and internationally. What are we to make of it? What questions might shape a search for truth and the work peace and justice here and beyond? While events and information moves quickly I have a deep sense of the darkness of this terrifying situation that we now face globally. Slowing down, and considering the evidence carefully is an imperative for each one of us. Commentators have been quick to make hasty judgements. People going about their work in Salisbury have also been ready to take refuge in slogans, blame and fear.
One of the most telling comments expressed in a supermarket queue from an older woman was this: ‘I didn’t come to live in Salisbury for this kind of mess and upheaval’. It was an understandable articulation of a desire to live peaceably without disruption and with a proper sense of security and belonging. Others have been more forthright about the necessity to control immigration and I have regretted the occasional comments about ‘foreign workers’.
The most significant uneasiness lies in the quality and timeliness of information. We were told that there was nothing to be concerned about only later to be informed by England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies that around 500 people could have been affected in the time window. To her defence while she continued to insist that the risk was low this was not the message we ‘heard’. Indeed the advice was to wash the clothing, and to put any items that normally be dry cleaned, in two plastic bags tied at the top and to store them safely. To add to this list we were asked that personal items such as phones, handbags and other electronic items were to be wiped clean with baby wipes.
This has all contributed to a deep sense of uneasiness and mistrust. One message at the beginning of the week and quite another at the end of the week. What was the risk? Are we still in danger? I know that this is had a devastating and significant effect on those who work in the public house and restaurant in question that Sunday. The ripples of nervousness continue to affect businesses and especially those near to the incident. Our local MP, John Glenn, has worked tirelessly to generate confidence in public safety but the threat and the fear remain. One person expressed this in this way – “I am not reassured because I do not know all the facts. What are the long term effects?”
This threat and fear is carried over into the national and international arena of political, social and economic life. The Prime Minister has told us that Russia was “highly likely” to be responsible for not just an attack on the Skripals, but of an “indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom”. We now know that the Skripals were poisoned by a chemical that is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok, which was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. The United Kingdom has taken action against Russia and this has resulted in counteraction. There is a central question running through all of this that shapes our view of the trustworthiness of the world and its life: ‘So what really happened, and who is telling the truth?’ Do our political leaders take considered decisions based on facts rather than conjecture and political opportunism? In this uncertainty who are we to trust?
I reflect upon this as the Church begins Holy Week. In all of this experience, we might wonder afresh about what it means to be an Easter people? What difference does faith make especially in our experience of sadness, fear and pain? Any seasoned observer of human nature will know that it is hard to shift and change people’s lives. In Salisbury we are reminded of the sheer fragility of life. Despite the refuge that we all take in easy or comfortable solutions or slogan there is little in life, which is certain, fixed, or secure. Faith must deal with what lies in our hearts and minds.
It is the task of the Church to open up our horizons and offer us an understanding of the world that captures imagination in both heart and mind. It is perhaps important for us to be honest about our resentments, our griefs, our hatreds and suspicions. Complacency and self-interest can so easily dominate the shape of the faith we live by.
In the gospel accounts of the resurrection, there is both fear and joy. Following Jesus is not a protection from the difficulties and challenges that face us in life. Being an Easter people does not mean that any of us will not require handkerchief to mop up our tears. All of us will know deep in our hearts what our lives, our world is like, and how much of a struggle it is. As human beings we have to deal with our fears and the reality of how little control we are able to exercise over circumstances and experiences.
It is into this condition of who we are and where we are that God can touch us with Easter life and hope. Easter peace is not the obliteration of our past or present, but the re-drawing of our lives into a new way of seeing. Faith can give us the opportunity for direction, redirection, meaning and depth.
As we live with complexity and uncertainty in Salisbury we have an opportunity to take this opportunity to work together in live for what is good. However partial limited our faith may be that always lies the possibility of transformation. We can be confident but we must safeguard against a triumphalism which does not listen carefully to human experience and its sensitivities. We can nurture faith that embraces doubt and in doing so can grows through openness and honesty.
Remember Salisbury in your prayers. Consider the longer view, the enduring truth that goodness is always stronger than evil. Love will conquer. Justice will prevail.
That will mean a change for us. It will also require a much stronger sense of the relational and our readiness to move on and beyond our internal dialogues and contestations to listen more carefully to human experience. We need space and time to share our story..
In the words of Desmond Tutu, a Canon of Salisbury Cathedral (and gratitude to the Bishop of Salisbury for sharing this with the City)
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.