28 July 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
On 12th October 1984 a bomb exploded
You may recall it as it was at the Grand Hotel in Brighton
The explosion brought down a five-ton chimney stack, leaving a gaping hole in the hotel’s facade.
Five people died and thirty four were seriously injured
Among the five who were killed was Sir Anthony Berry MP who left a wife and six children
Among the injured was Margaret Tebbit who suffered severe spinal injuries. She has been in a wheelchair ever since
Although not seriously injured, Harvey Thomas, the Tory director of communications fell three floors and was left hanging above a five story drop
The bomber, Patrick Magee, was later caught by the police and subsequently received eight life sentences
He was later released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement having served fourteen years in prison.
The story of the Brighton bomb may seem an unlikely way to start any sermon
However, when I read the readings for this Sunday, I thought of this event as a twentieth century illustration
First a murder – not of Abel but of elected members of Parliament
The murderer however, like Cain, had a mark put on his forehead when he was condemned as “a man of exceptional cruelty and inhumanity” by the judge who tried him
Then, we heard of those who were angry
Those who had lost love ones, those who had been injured and those who had to care for the victims ever since
As in the New Testament reading, the Brighton bomber has been rightly condemned
But the Gospel reading this morning seems to provide us all with an enormous challenge
Although we are permitted to condemn we are also required to be reconciled
Reconciled before we approach the altar
As can be seen from the Brighton bomb, which matches the evil of the first ever murder, this is a most difficult, if not impossible, undertaking
The responses of many of the victims to the murderer are illustrative of the complexity of the issue
In the case of Sir Anthony Berry, his daughter Jo has made enormous effort to forgive the man who murdered her Father
After his death, when she was just 26 years old, she went to meet with the perpetrators to try and comprehend their point of view
In time she began to “understand” the Republicans and particularly their sense of powerlessness
Eventually, she met Magee himself and has been meeting with him regularly since 2000
They have become good friends and now often appear on shared platforms where they speak about conflict and conflict resolution
When it comes to forgiveness, Jo Berry said that she does not talk about forgiving Magee as it locks them into a “them and us” scenario keeping “me right and you wrong”.
An attitude, she says, “won’t change anything”
Although she has not forgiven, she has instead spoken of an inner shift within her which has enabled her to “let go of her need to blame”
In essence, although she has not forgiven Magee, the two of them have become reconciled
In the case of Margaret and Norman Tebbit, forgiveness and reconciliation has not taken place at all. Indeed, it is unlikely to do so
Lord Tebbit said this
“Terrorists can be let out of jail, none the worse for loss of liberty after a few years. But for victims the slate is never wiped clean. For my wife, pain is the ever present companion, disability the load she never ceases to bear”
Frank Gardener once asked Norman Tebbit
“Could you ever forgive the people who bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton?”
Norman Tebbit replied
“I could if they truly repented”
He went on to say
“To forgive people who have no contrition, no repentance is to make a mockery of forgiveness”
Although Magee regrets the suffering he caused he has not repented
As a result, Norman Tebbit and his wife have not forgiven and are in no way reconciled to the bomber
I don’t say that in any disparaging way. I think their position is wholly understandable
Finally, Harvey Thomas, the former director of communications, who found himself suspended above a five story drop
He began to write to Magee about a year before his release,
He offered forgiveness and sought to understand his side of the story
Part of his motive was to speak about his faith to Magee and to understand his point of view without condoning it
He said this
“After twelve years of praying about it, I felt that the Bible said that I should forgive as God forgives us. I therefore took the initiative and said “Yes I forgive”. Once it is forgiven then it is completely forgiven; it’s not forgotten, but it is forgiven…….. I wouldn’t suggest [however] others feel the same way”
And what of the bomber?
Magee himself has seen the consequences of his actions first hand and has also had the chance to speak with some of those who were affected
He now regrets the suffering he caused and said this
“I will always carry the burden that I harmed other human beings and I do very much regret that Margaret Tebbit has been confined to a wheel chair ever since”
Nevertheless, Magee says he does not deserve forgiveness and doesn’t ask for it
As he put it “I stand by what I did”
As far as he was concerned, the British Government was a legitimate target for political violence
“Why should violence just be the prerogative of those in power?” he said
“We were not the monsters the media made us out to be. We felt trapped. People forget that we were the underdogs. We had no other way. We believed that we had right on our side. We all felt justified” by what we did
Perhaps he too has a point?
The legacy of the Brighton Bomb illustrates the immense challenge of the reading this morning
In essence, what we are being asked to do is “forgive those who trespass against us”
But although we are called upon to be reconciled before we approach the altar, forgiveness can be far more difficult and complex than we might suppose
Forgiveness is defined as “ceasing to resent someone or pardoning someone” but
- Who forgives whom and for what?
- Is the perpetrator required to apologize and/or make restitution before we can forgive?
- What happens if we can’t (forgive)?
To add to the complexity, the Gospel writer uses the word reconciliation rather than forgiveness
This comes from the Greek word “katalasso” meaning “to change to an exact point”
Put simply we have to change our relationship with the person who has hurt us – but that probably requires us to forgive before we do so
But who was truly reconciled as demanded in the Gospel this morning?
- Jo Berry certainly changes her relationship with the bomber, but she did not forgive him
- Norman and Margaret Tebbit were unable to change their relationship because the bomber has not repented
- Harvey Thomas was the only person who forgave Magee but he was not badly injured
- And what about forgiveness (by God) of the man who carried out the bombing?
I do not know who is right and who is wrong in this whole ghastly episode
The Gospel, provides us with an imperative that is so difficult to live up to and who knows how any of us might react if we had been similarly affected? Perhaps you have?
But although I do not have an answer, I do know this
Each and every week we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”
There is probably no one among us who truly lives up to that demand but that does not mean we should not try – indeed we should all try and make our peace
However, before we approach the altar, we also say something very special in the Prayer of Humble Access
“We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy”
But despite our failures, God’s “property is always to have mercy”
Mercy on everyone, the grieving, the wounded, the reconciled and also the underdog