There are some times and places that, no matter how hard we try, are impossible to erase from the memory. Many people of an older generation remember exactly where they were when they heard the news that US president John Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963. For me, one of the days I shall never forget is Wednesday 13 March 1996. For on that spring morning, life in the normally quiet Scottish rural city of Dunblane, only a five minute drive from my home, was changed forever by a crazed gunman’s brutal murder of sixteen young children and their teacher as they began what would otherwise have been just another day at school. The repercussions of that event spread far and wide. The world’s media descended on this small community, and in a matter of hours a place most people had never heard of was making the headlines in news bulletins on every continent. For some, it was a time of great tragedy and crisis, as those families who had lost the most came to terms with the fact that their lives would never be the same again. For the whole community, and for many more beyond Dunblane and Scotland, it was one of those defining moments when ultimate questions about the meaning of life and death took on a new significance – a time to reflect, and above all to do whatever seemed possible and practical in order to support those who were suffering. Within 24 hours, the streets of this tiny community were lined with floral tributes, children’s toys, and cards of condolence sent from people in distant lands, as well as those closer to home. Two days later, Dunblane’s ancient cathedral was packed to capacity not once, but several times, as thousands of people sought a place of quietness and spiritual consolation in the midst of their grief, and as a church leader in the neighboring city of Stirling I was invited to be part of those prayer vigils.
One of the things that struck me most in that situation was that, alongside the natural question, “Why do bad things like this happen to innocent people?” there was also a spontaneous outpouring of popular spirituality motivated not so much by a desire to blame God, as an almost primal need to discover again where God might be found within the terror and uncertainty of that awful moment. During that particular day, I must personally have prayed with literally hundreds of people whose lives were touched, and who sought solace in God. They were not, for the most part, regular church attenders, and it was a new experience for me to walk down the street and be accosted by complete strangers who just wanted to be held in silence and assured of God’s presence with them in their shock and sorrow. By the end of the day, I knew I needed some space to reflect for myself, and just before midnight I made my way from the cathedral to the school gates which had become a centre of devotion, transformed by the floral and other offerings placed there by residents and strangers alike. As I approached, the street outside the school was deserted apart from a handful of police officers, and a gang of youths aged, I suppose, about 17-20. As I watched, they took from their pockets sixteen small candles and one larger one – one for each dead child, and one for their teacher. Kneeling on the damp sidewalk, they arranged them in a circle, then carefully lit them, using for the purpose glowing cigarettes removed from their mouths with almost sacramental precision. They stood around the candles for a moment, until one of them said, “I suppose somebody should say something”. As they wondered how to do it, they caught sight of me, identified me as a minister, and called me over with the words, “You’ll know what to say”. Of course, the reality was quite different. As I stood there, tears streaming down my face, I had no idea what to say, or how to say it. Words had not been especially useful to me, or anyone else, in this crisis. So we stood, holding onto one another for a moment, and then eventually I spoke. I have no recollection of what I said. It certainly was not a formal churchy kind of prayer, but it provided the catalyst that enabled them to start praying. A question came first: “What kind of world is this?” Another asked, “Is there any hope?” Someone said, “I wish I could trust God”. “I’ll need to change”, said a fourth one. As he did so, he looked first at me, and then glanced over his shoulder to the police who were on duty. He reached into his pocket and I could see he had a knife. He knelt again by the ring of candles, and quietly said “I’ll not be needing this now”, as he tucked it away under some of the flowers laying nearby. One of the others produced what looked like a piece of cycle chain, and did the same. We stood silently for a moment, and then went our separate ways.
This story was included in John Drane, Faith in a Changing Culture (London: HarperCollins 1997), pp28-30.