London – a resilient city

St Pauls in BlitzLondon is a great city. Through fifty years it has been my capital city, and I have lived my life in and out of it, walked its streets, enjoyed its parks, discovered its neighbourhoods, and bathed in its history. I’ve visited every Museum, queued up to get into Parliament, walked its art galleries, ridden almost every tube line, arrived at every major rail terminal, ridden in a black cab and numerous buses, seen the crown jewels at the Tower of London, and cheered the Queen down the mall. I was ordained in SW London twenty five years ago this September, and in recent years have enjoyed preaching in so many of London’s churches. When my work takes me away to other continents, there is no joy like the joy of flying in over the suburbs, seeing the Millennium Dome and the Shard, and coasting up the Thames to Heathrow, as I did this week. It is a wonderful city that welcomes you home.

Therefore those like President Trump who suggest that we are alarmed by what happened last night on London Bridge just do not know the place. There is something in the British spirit that looks terrorism in the face and carries on. London is a resilient city. We have lived through much worse. 351 years ago the old city of London burnt down, and the Corporation set to work to rebuild, raising the second St Pauls Cathedral from the ashes of the first. In Dickensian London, life had become unbearable in the ‘great stink’ of 1858, but London showed the way in building the great Victorian sewerage system, and in building the first underground railways as well. After the killing fields of the First World War, it was Londoners who had the vision to build ‘Metroland’, the rolling suburbs that brought the country to the city and were so celebrated by Sir John Betjeman.

Then came the Blitz. It is hard to comprehend what was visited on the same streets that we saw on our screens last night back in 1940. The area around London Bridge was London’s docks then, and they were relentlessly pounded by the Luftwaffe. A school full of children assembled for evacuation suffered a direct hit and hundreds died. Tonight I sat chatting to two members of our church, Hilda and Mary, who lived through the Blitz. Hilda worked in a fashion company in Holborn, and came into work to find the entire property razed to the ground by incendiary bombs. The two fire watchers on the roof had taken refuge downstairs in the walk-in safe, and came out alive, the building destroyed around them. Mary described how she walked to school, to be met by children returning home telling her the school was gone. After other air raids there would be empty desks in the classroom, and no one asked what had happened to that child. Then in 1944 came the doodlebugs, their engines stopping without warning as they crashed down. One fell on the Guards chapel near Buckingham Palace during the Sunday morning service, killing 121 people. A short distance away Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones was leading his congregation in prayer in Westminster Chapel as the bomb exploded. He paused, and then continued his prayer, after which his church secretary entered the pulpit to dust him down and he continued the service as though nothing had happened, so typical of the spirit of the blitz. Despite all that Hitler threw at it, London survived, and on VE Day Princess Elizabeth (as she then was) joined the crowds dancing in the Mall.

But the challenge of 1945 was: how could a city like London recover from such devastation? Yet it did. It took years to rebuild, but London hosted the wedding of the Queen and Prince Philip in 1947, and the Olympic Games in 1948. It is staggering to consider the determination that achieved that. In spite of rationing and austerity, we wanted to share our city with the world. The London I first knew in the 1970s wasn’t a great place to be. It had become a grey polluted place, and suffered many of the problems facing cities like New York and Chicago: falling revenues, empty properties, an economic slump. For us that was made worse by the IRA, planting bombs across the city, but that never made us stop taking the tube or getting on a bus. After the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978, when strikes paralysed the railways and rubbish piled up in the streets, London found ways to renew itself, and in the 1980s and 90s the East End was reborn (though please didn’t take Eastenders as representing London). Never was that more evident than in the London 2012 Olympics, proving that London is a welcoming city, home to people from all nations while still being at ease in its own national identity (as evidenced by the gloriously nutty and very British Olympic opening ceremony).

London has responded to Islamist terror in the same way that it responded to the Blitz and the IRA. Whether on 7/7, or in the wake of the murder of Lee Rigby, or after the attack on the Palace of Westminster, or in the wake of last night’s attack, Londoners responded with grit and grace, and with an overwhelming determination not to let normal life be stopped. Huge numbers of random acts of kindness have been reported, and the courage of the Metropolitan Police, the Ambulance Service and our brilliant London hospitals proves the strength of London as a city in dealing with trauma and terrorism. Most of the time, when you meet a London Policeman, he or she does not carry a gun. We like it that way, and we are glad that it is illegal to own handguns in Britain. For that reason you are much safer on the streets of London than you are in New York, Manila or Johannesburg.

But that is not to suggest that everything in London is just fine. It is a city of people made in God’s image, but a city that has turned from God to many different idols. For a tiny few that idol is violence excused as terrorism. For many more it may be the idolatry of wealth, or all kinds of religious belief systems that turn away from Jesus. London also has a particularly tragic problem with knife crime and youth gang culture. What London needs most of all is the redeeming grace of God in the gospel. In the eighteenth century Whitefield and Wesley preached in Moorfields and Tyburn, and the gospel changed the character of the city from top to bottom. In recent years, in the heart of London new churches have sprung up among minority communities, bringing the spiritual energy of African, Latin American and Chinese Christianity to London’s spiritual life. Some ethnic minority Christians have integrated well into long-standing London churches, enriching them and strengthening their life, putting passion into their prayer meetings and making them bold in witness. But there are still numerous neighbourhoods, particularly in East London but also in some suburbs, where the gospel has little impact outside the walls of some quite small churches. If you are reading this in another part of the world, and wonder how God could use you in reaching this great city, there is a great gospel work to be done here, if you are willing to come and understand London’s complex life and conversation, and become a Londoner yourself for the sake of the gospel.


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