Guy Jamieson: Response to a killing shows that goodwill predominates

The coffin of Fusilier Lee Rigby is carried from Bury Parish Church following his funeral service
The coffin of Fusilier Lee Rigby is carried from Bury Parish Church following his funeral service
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LIKE the vast majority of our population, I watched the news coming in of the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and went through various degrees of despair and revulsion.

Like many others, I breathed another sigh of disbelief at the extent of the savagery we were being asked to comprehend through the lens of the media, but which for most of us remained sufficiently distant to enable to us to carry on as normal.

However, on May 23, I had just returned to my vicarage after a funeral and a clergy meeting to be met by the Yorkshire Post and ITV on the doorstep, telling me that the Ministry of Defence had released the name of the Woolwich victim and that I had presided over the dead soldier’s wedding.

The concern of many in the media was that even this, one of the UK’s most horrific of crimes, would quickly become “yesterday’s news” so any delay in responding would be at the expense of the story’s impact.

At this point, it is worth saying that the vast majority of media organisations were good to work with, but I couldn’t help thinking that this, for some in my neighbourhood, would be anything but “yesterday’s news” for the remainder of their lives.

As a parish priest, I am more than aware that the social health of any community and neighbourhood depends on how we respond to news events like this.

I remember only too well meeting this young soldier and going on to prepare and officiate at his wedding. It wasn’t the first time that I have officiated at weddings involving the military, and I have grown to know something of the anxiety of the bride as to whether he would return from war zones after having given himself in such a profound way in marriage.

This has led to the development of a keen ear for the news of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will I recognise this name? Will I know the family?

At the funeral of Drummer Lee Rigby, there were many levels at which we were all touched by the way the service spoke to us, not least in its call to renew our attentiveness to a “news story” no matter how repetitive or familiar we may think it has become.

The funeral was a reminder of how the military are uniquely equipped to illustrate the significance of what has happened.

The unspoken language of military ceremonial has a prophetic and even poetic quality to it in that it helps you to see, and experience at many different levels, the consequences of war.

Military response to the loss of one of their own tells us all something about the fabric of life that we can quickly overlook and take for granted.

The sense of a family which is not necessarily blood related, and the inter-dependence of life are graphically illustrated, as is the wake up call to learn afresh the need to be attentive to the detail that makes up the bigger picture of life.

When the military surround a soldier’s coffin, carry, lift, move and process, it is an uniform action which gathers the senses of all those present and says “look, look more closely, refresh your attentions”.

The reality of life’s fragility and the savage capacity inherent in man, set against a context of warfare, terrorism, political and religious ferment, comes home to test our resolve to live out an attention to the details of life which make for flourishing local communities who in turn produce each generation of political and social leaders.

In the interviews that quickly followed Drummer Rigby’s death, I was mindful of the conviction that the seeds of recovery are already there to be found in our local communities.

Here in Halifax, as in many parts of the UK, the attendance at Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph services has increased dramatically.

In Halifax Minster, we were able to observe the recent Armed Forces Day in a way which kept us mindful of the conflicts engaged in day by day across the world, but which also helped the wife and son of Lee Rigby to be spoken to more closely of the support and concern of local people.

The test of any response to an event is not so much in the number of cards sent or money raised but in the change of culture and priorities in our neighbourhoods during the months and years that follow.

Immediate reactions to the killing of Lee Rigby were perhaps somewhat predictable. They can be found on a familiar spectrum of those who associate anything to do with Islam as something they simply don’t want “here”, to those whose disinterest makes for a stagnant community life.

These immediate responses are the ones which make for “yesterday’s news” but the news story which makes essential reading is the one that unfolds from within the families, communities and institutions.

The response from the people of Yorkshire and from further afield to the widow and son of Drummer Lee Rigby here in Halifax has been overwhelming, and has shown just how many people of goodwill dominate our population.

This became clear when I was contacted by business and Islamic leaders in Leicester and London to begin, and continue, what has been a joined up response of the religious traditions in local communities across the UK.

From the moment Lee Rigby’s name was released, there has been a joined up conversation between myself in Halifax, a colleague in Manchester (the home of Lee’s parents), Woolwich (the scene of the atrocity), Leicester and London.

Some of this conversation has been to gauge what might be the most appropriate forms of pastoral support for bereaved families on either side of the Pennines, while some has to co-ordinate expressions of support. “Project J”, as it has become affectionately known, aims to establish a trust fund for Jack, the two-year-old child of Drummer Lee Rigby and his wife Rebecca.

Members of the “Project J” committee recently came to meet the family here in Halifax to begin setting up the practicalities of the Trust, including leadership from the Islamic Society of Britain.

Now that it is under way, we can see how the practical support of the family has also been an expression of the world’s major religions being able to work as a single voice of the “believing community” of this nation.

For me to work together with those from the Islamic world was a way of working as the single family of the children of Abraham with those who suffer through no fault of their own.

While I don’t deny that Christian and Muslim understandings of the revelation of God are fundamentally different, I know that distinctiveness must be engaged with for the sake of peace, community growth, heath and cohesion.

My hope is that “yesterday’s news” will become part of the story of a community and nation’s identity; wiser, more attentive to the details that make up our identity, and joined-up in its compassionate love of neighbours.

• Father Guy Jamieson is a vicar for the parishes of St Anne’s and St Thomas’s in Halifax.