Seeking Peace – St Ethelburga’s Centre 23 October 2013
Saint Ethelburga’s Centre is a unique space in the City of London, building bridges both between and within communities. Their story is equally unique.
Walking through the City of London can be daunting. You would stand in one of the world’s financial capitals, surrounded by busy and distracted bankers often in a rush. You would be in the shadow of some of Europe’s tallest towers – 99 Bishopsgate, Tower 42 and 30 St Mary Axe (more widely known as the Gherkin). The City of London is one place where money, power and displays of wealth are all around you.
Saint Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace stands out here, not in the same way as the Gherkin, but almost in contrast to it. Its structure is that of a small church, though it has grown to include more than that. The façade is medieval in style directly opposite 99 Bishopsgate tower. It almost seems diminutive in contrast to the behemoths that surround it, but it gives off a sense of quiet confidence – the building has all the signs of being there first, long before stock markets and international banking. The wealth and the power of the City grew around this medieval church, affording it a respect that beckons others to do the same.
Perhaps an unaware visitor will allow their gaze to linger on the building for a few moments before moving on, but for those who stop and investigate further is a fascinating story, one that represents the power of faith in the modern world. The history of Saint Ethelburga’s stretches far back into British history. Saint Ethelburga, after whom the church was named, was a seventh century Abbess in England, known for her piety and dedication to the community – it was only natural that she would be canonised and revered. The church was named in her honour and opened in the thirteenth century. Even in central London, where land is a rare premium, the church remained. It survived the Great Fire of London. Though damaged, it also survived the Blitz. Its longevity was threatened however during the tail end of The Troubles, when an act of terrorism destroyed most of the church.
On the morning of 24th April 1993, two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s South Armagh Brigade drove a tipper truck into Bishopsgate, leaving it unattended as they were driven away in an accomplice’s car. The truck contained a one-ton ammonium bomb. The primary targets were the financial institutions of the Square Mile, following the precedent set by the Baltic Exchange bombing almost a year previous. When the bomb exploded, it injured 40, killed one, all but destroyed Saint Ethelburga’s and caused £350 million of damage that would push many financial institutions to the brink of collapse.
What remained of the church once the dust had settled was a ruin. The future of the church at this point was in question; Lord Templeman’s report in 1994 on churches in the City of London argued the majority should close. Given Saint Ethelburga’s destruction, it seemed that reopening it as a church would be counter-productive and unnecessary. Alternative plans were forwarded, but few held any weight. In the end, public support and the work of a small number of dedicated individuals who wanted to see Saint Ethelburga’s continued meant that it would indeed be rebuilt as a church, but with a renewed focus and vision. It would renamed and reopened as Saint Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.
It is now a non-profit charity, working with a variety of faith communities to further its self-professed aim ‘to help people build bridges across divisions of conflict, culture and religion’. Despite the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, it was unlikely the church was ever an intended target, simply collateral damage. Yet none can deny that divisions of religion played a role in The Troubles – Saint Ethelburga’s new mission consciously addressed this, using religion as a source for bridging gaps.
The Centre’s opening was well-timed. In 2002, following the events of 9/11, the importance of interfaith community work was seen as ever more vital to ensure communities worked together to tackle violence. Saint Ethelburga’s unique history meant it was positioned to lead on these issues. In 2013, it now leads a number of unique programmes that carve out future directions for interfaith in the UK.
Justine Huxley is Programme Director at Saint Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. I spoke to her about her work at the centre and where the programme is going in the future.
She spoke to me about the Centre’s latest programmes. The first is a workshop and services based around conflict resilience. Speaking about the project, Justine explained that the workshop sought to ask “how do faith leaders deal with conflict when it emerges within their own religious community – within a church, or a mosque or a temple?” Rather than ‘conflict resolution’ however, the Centre argues for the need to develop ‘conflict resilience’. Justine explained “We try to reframe conflict as an opportunity for growth”.
“Most people don’t enjoy being in conflict, their natural tendency is to resolve it as quick as possible. That means that they miss out on the opportunity for change that conflict can bring. Conflict is a clue that something under the surface is wrong.”
The conflict resilience training and services are by their nature multi-faith. Workshops are delivered in locations across London to faith communities, imparting the Centre’s approach on conflict management but also allowing space for faith communities to contribute with their spiritual teachings and reflections on conflict.
A second project Saint Ethelburga’s currently runs is called ‘Reimagining the Sacred’. The ongoing series aims to move interfaith work forward, creating new common ground. Justine explained that “interfaith work, a few years ago, had begun to feel like a private club that didn’t bear that much relevance to the outside world as it should have.”
“This is an attempt to try and see if we can find what is sacred about human life regardless of religion or lack of religion. Is there a shared sense of what is sacred on earth? And how we might join hands to protect that?”
Leading on Interfaith
Interfaith has been a large part of Saint Ethelburga’s work since its reconception. “In the past we did masses of interfaith dialogue on every theme under the sun, and then we paused and stepped back and looked at methodology and asked how we can contribute to the processes of interfaith. There is a big substantial community now of organisations linked together, interfaith networks are present across the UK, lots of faith groups are in conversation with each other. It was twenty years’ worth of work to get that network established, but then there was this question of “Now what?” and “How can this network be put to use beyond simply conversation?””
Reimagining the Sacred aims to do just that. By providing a common ground of what is important about human life, the Centre hopes there will be greater scope for faith groups to campaign and work together on issues of importance. The conversations and findings from the Reimagining the Sacred series will be accessible to those outside of London, internationally as well as nationally, through a range of online learning resources, allowing others to benefit from the conversations that took place at Saint Ethelburga’s.
Saint Ethelburga’s new mission as a centre of reconciliation and peace is still young; it only reached its ten year anniversary last year. For a church that has stood its ground for centuries, this is a mere moment. Should Saint Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace last as long as Saint Ethelburga’s the church, we can expect to see it play an invaluable role in Britain and indeed the world.
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