I was awakened by the phone. It was a radio journalist asking for my thoughts on what had happened. I was confused, still groggy. What did they mean? “The bomb attack at the Manchester Arena,” said the voice.
I had gone to bed early and didn’t know anything about the tragedy that had unfolded in my city the night before, but was quickly brought up to speed about the maelstrom of grief, fear and shock taking hold. The inevitable had finally happened, too close to home. I lay there holding the phone.
I love the UK and I love Manchester in particular. In the years I’ve been leading Ivy Church, I’ve grown to love the character and grit of the people who live here too. But now the city was broken. So what next? What should I do? What could my church do?
Weeks later, I spoke with my friend Steve Hance, canon missioner at Southwark Cathedral. He recounted similar feelings. He was getting ready to go to bed when news broke of the attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, very near his home. The sound of sirens and helicopters grew louder as he scrambled to find out what was happening.
Tragic events always provoke as many questions for Church leaders as anyone else, so Steve’s words stayed with me: If Jesus had promised us a perfect, ever-improving world without trouble, we would have cause to complain – but the opposite was true.
The role of institutions such as cathedrals is to be open for all who are looking for a sacred space to process grief and confusion. But Steve’s cathedral was within the police cordon of investigation and so, for perhaps the first time in 1,500 years, it was closed for a week. In any case, people seem less likely to walk into church in the aftermath of a tragedy than they used to. Nowadays people mark their grief with vigils, candles and flowers at communal commemorations, and most of all on social media.
The world may increasingly feel like a war zone – from terrorist attacks to the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire – yet, I also believe the Church is being presented with an unprecedented opportunity. But how do you prepare to do ministry in troubled times of change, crisis and terror when we frequently wake up to a world that just got worse again?
The brave new world so many hoped for is being swept up in a culture of fear and recrimination. So instead we need a brave new Church that doesn’t wait for people to come to us, but goes to them.
Disciplines that transform
Henri Nouwen’s short essay, Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry, has been hugely influential in my life. It is based on a passage in Luke 6 which notes Jesus’ pattern of working in the world. Nouwen calls these the “three disciplines” by which followers of Christ make space for God to move.
Tragic events always provoke as many questions for church leaders as anyone else
First, Jesus spent time in solitude on the mountain, hearing from the Father that he is the beloved. Next, the Lord goes down, calls his friends together in community and the misfit disciples are all named. Finally, the community goes out with him to do ministry (or more accurately, to be ministry). Power goes out from Jesus to bring healing and restoration, while demonic powers are broken by his very presence. But this only happens because of the order that Jesus pursues: solitude, community, then ministry.
When I first read the article I was struck by how often I get the order completely the wrong way round. I get busy with all my ideas and activities of ministry. When they fail and I get frazzled, I complain to the community to try to get them to help me. Finally I go to God and moan that nobody seems to care!
I was a police officer for ten years. Part of what made it a great job was that you never knew what might happen next. I never imagined ministry would be the same, but what I learned in the police still applies. You don’t suddenly become a different person in an emergency – you’re who you usually are, more or less. The daily disciplines that structure your normal life will also determine your response to a crisis.
I have been humbled by people saying they think I responded well in the days after the Manchester attack. But if you are reading this hoping for a fully orbed strategy of how to deal with the threat of militant Islam (or its counterforce of right-wing hate), you’ll have to look elsewhere. I just did what I do – trying to listen and obey the next thing I think God wanted me to do. Like everyone, I get that wrong sometimes. But the one thing you can never get wrong is also the first thing we need do. Pray.
How much time do you spend praying quietly? So that God can speak to you and centre you? Most of us don’t have a regular quiet time, if we’re honest. The ever-pressing world of phones and emails ensures that we are always in reaction mode.
Ken Blanchard once said, “We all have two selves. We have an external task-oriented self that is used to getting jobs done, and then we have an internal, more reflective self that is very thoughtful. Which of those two selves wakes up quicker in the morning: our external, task-oriented self or our internal, reflective self? Of course, it’s our external, task-oriented self.”
Praying the 4 Ps
Pete Greig, leader of 24/7 Prayer, has wise words about what church communities can pray for when responding to terror attacks:
- For People affected – comfort
- For Police – wisdom
- For Paramedics – strength
- For Perpetrators – justice and mercy
More than ever, on that day I needed to resist the temptation to spring into task-orientated mode. I decided to first spend time with God before embarking on a day working out what tasks to do for him. I listened to Nicky Gumbel and read along with my Bible in One Year plan. I confessed my sins, received grace and offered myself fully back to God: “If you can use anyone, then please use me, Lord.”
My next thought was community. I rang my friend Glyn Barrett, who leads !Audacious, the largest church in the city. We agreed to gather that night with many other leaders in the city who meet for breakfast every month. We’d invite people into our churches. “Let’s gather at !Audacious and pray for Manchester,” we agreed.
It would have been impossible to try to create that kind of community in the midst of the crisis, but we didn’t have to – it was already there. I have never ministered in a city where the church leaders love and honour each other like we do in Manchester.
I made posters to say “Church open for prayer” and opened the main Ivy Church building, on a busy main thoroughfare. But today the road was quiet. Mundane tasks and shopping seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds. The city was reeling.
Our sanctuary became an instant 24/7 prayer outpost. Candles to light, maps to pray over, Post-its to write on. I sat with Ivy members from the emergency services, including medics who told me of 16-hour shifts to operate on children and parents with the kind of injuries that battlefield doctors are trained to deal with.
But over the next few days I noticed something which may have very profound implications for the church.
When the 7/7 London Tube bombings happened in 2005, I was leading a church in Surrey situated on a similar main road. The signs went up and people stopped their cars and came in. Many from the area who never came to church would sit in the building to pray and process.
But this time, I observed very few people coming into the church who were not already our regulars, or brought by them.
Could it be that we now live in days where church may be the last place people turn, rather than the first? Instead we spend hours looking for answers on Facebook and Twitter and from politicians and pundits on the 24-hour news cycle, all the while knowing they have no answers, and that the last thing they provide is hope.
We can choose to sit in shrinking Christian communities bemoaning this new reality, while new sacred places form where people lay flowers on the streets. But Jesus still calls us from solitude, to community and finally with him as a brave new Church, into ministry.
Our churches are great places to gather, grow and find comfort. But the scary places are also where Jesus and his people should be found. Out in the crowd among the hurting who need a healer.
The day after the attack, it was reported the bomber had once attended Didsbury Mosque, just five minutes’ walk from Ivy Church. It is known locally as very liberal and open. Terror attacks always spark a backlash of hate, and my background as a community police officer told me Manchester was a tinderbox. The far-right English Defence League were in the city already, their co-founder, Tommy Robinson, filmed outside a mosque stirring up hatred against what he called “enemy combatants who want to kill you”.
When everyone else was coming to hate us, you came to our mosque to show us love
As I prayed again, a memory surfaced from a few months back. I had been bustling through Euston train station and saw an Orthodox Jewish man holding up a sign that said “Free Hugs”. I took him up on the offer, and that close embrace with a total stranger dropped something into my heart.
I said to my wife, “I think I might be meant to go around hugging people today.” She advised otherwise. Later I saw two young bearded men in their early 20s getting into a car. “Excuse me, are you Muslims?”
They stiffened as they looked at me and each other. “Yeah. Yeah, we are,” they said, nervously defiant for what vitriol might be about to come their way.
“Good! Today’s Hug-a-Muslim Day!” I declared. I hugged them, and they hugged me back. It was good. They drove away waving, nodding, beaming from ear to ear. I hugged another guy in the changing room at the gym. Perhaps that’s why my wife warned me off? “Thanks, mate, this means a lot,” he said.
I hugged a few more people that afternoon. I went back to our church later and hugged a few more people. The city was wide open – for hate, or for love.
I made another sign: “Hugs Not Hate – same street, same city, same grief.” I stood in the rain outside Didsbury Mosque as people gathered for evening prayers. They approached the man with the sign warily. What kind of protest was this? But then the men embraced me and told their young sons, “Hug him! Hug this man!” The youngsters didn’t look too sure, but I ended up hugging about 20 men on the way in and most of the rest coming out. Afterwards I was invited in for refreshments and sat a while as they scratched their heads and tried to come to terms with what had happened.
As Sunday approached, our staff team discussed sensible security precautions due to the heightened threat levels. I was leading the Sunday evening service and briefed the welcome team leader: “Nothing’s going to happen, but just keep your eyes open for people you don’t know. If they’re carrying something, ask if you can look in it.”
Two minutes later, he appeared with a confused face, pointing at the entrance door where a crowd of Muslims, some in hijabs and one carrying a big box, were waiting to come in.
They were also wearing “We Love Manchester” T-shirts. I told him I was pretty sure they were OK. The box contained a big cake they had made while fasting. They could not join us in eating yet because of Ramadan, but it declared “Thank you Ivy Church”. They sat respectfully through the whole of our worship service and I unashamedly preached about a God who loved the world so much he sent his Son to save it.
At the end, their leader asked to speak. “When everyone else was coming to hate us, you came to our mosque to show us love. We will never, ever forget that you were there for us in our darkest times. Thank you.”
The apostle Paul enjoins, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” What does that mean in practice? I am going to keep on trying to do the next thing Jesus tells me. I am no expert in Islam or Islamism, and happily defer to those who are. But I know how to love. I have two arms. I can hug. That’s ministry. And now we are all being called from the solitude and safety of our communities to show the world what answers a brave new Church can offer.
Anthony Delaney leads the Ivy network of churches and NewThing church planting network in Europe. His new book Rough Diamonds (Monarch) is available now