9/11: Where the hell was God?

The Times is carrying excerpts from the biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. One segment is called: September 11, where the hell was God?. Archbishop Williams answers that God is in the midst of the suffering. All the easy answers about God were tested in the experience of being in the midst of the attacks on the World Trade Center:

On September 11, 2001, Rowan Williams was due to address 22 spiritual directors from across the US in a church-owned building next to Holy Trinity, Wall Street [New York], on ‘the shape of a holy life’, and reached the venue, 74 Trinity Place, at 8.35am. His host was the Rev Fred Burnham, director of the Trinity Institute, an educational foundation attached to the neighbouring church. The two went up to the 21st floor. Burnham was sitting in his office when the World Trade Centre’s north tower was hit at 9.03am; and even though Flight 11 came from the opposite direction (Trinity Place is south of Ground Zero), the noise sounded like a sonic boom. Burnham raced to the room where Rowan was and cried that ‘some cowboy’ had just gone through the sound barrier. Then came a scream: one of the secretaries could see what had happened through her window. Burnham, Rowan and the others joined her to look. Though aghast, they assumed that the crash was accidental.

After a few minutes of watching smoke spurt from the north tower and debris flying by, they decided to go down to the studio where Rowan would give his speech. It was not until the second tower had been hit that everything changed.

Suddenly, as Burnham recalled later: ‘We knew we were in the middle of a war zone and this was not a happy day.’ Burt Medley, one of his colleagues, suggested that the Archbishop be asked to lead prayers, and this happened almost spontaneously. Rowan’s words were like balm; the group began to feel more composed. Not only did he pray about the obvious things – the loss of life, the general anguish – he also began to lift up to God the anxieties of everyone in the room.

For 20 minutes they were able to watch a television monitor showing what was happening at the World Trade Centre, but then the first tower disintegrated with a colossal roar, 74 Trinity Place itself began to shake, and the monitor went blank. When it flashed on again a short while later, the group became more aware of what had happened. At the same time, smoke and soot began to enter their auditorium. The urge to move was confirmed by security staff, who came to guide them towards the bowels of the building via a service stairwell. It was thought that the absence of windows and air vents on this route would make respiration easier; but this hope proved to be misplaced. Some of Rowan’s companions went back upstairs to the nursery that was also housed in the building; there they found blankets, which they tore up and moistened with water, to provide impromptu face masks.

Scarcely able to breathe, yet convinced that the atmosphere in the street was more treacherous, Burnham felt close to death. ‘We were pretty much told to stay where we were and the most profound moment of the whole day, for me, was when five or six of us were gathered on the landing in the stairway, where the air had become virtually suffocating and I began to think, Well, it’s worse outside, and I don’t know how much longer we can tolerate this, maybe we’ve got 15 minutes, and beginning then to realise I would die.’

Elizabeth Koenig, a friend of Rowan who teaches at New York’s General Theological Seminary, now laid a hand on the Archbishop’s shoulder and said: ‘I can’t think of anyone I’d rather die with.’ At that moment Burnham felt enclosed in ‘a circle of love’ that he would never forget.

‘We were bonded for life. We became comrades in the face of death. And there was in the group a total submission and resignation to the prospect of death. No fear.’

Their thoughts of the hereafter were interrupted by screaming harbingers of the here and now. Police officers had broken down a back door of No 68 and were ordering everyone to evacuate, knowing that the second tower would almost certainly collapse soon. Rowan’s group descended two flights of stairs and emerged into a cataclysmic scene on Greenwich Street, parallel to Trinity Place. Everything lay covered in ash and shards and personal belongings – bags, books, shoes.

They began making their way towards the southern tip of the Financial District, from where ferries and buses were escorting people to safety. The distance was small – barely 700 yards – but before the group had covered a block and a half, the second tower came down. They turned to see the elephantine dust cloud sweeping towards them. Again, the group thought it highly likely that they would die and Burnham recognised Rowan’s courage. A woman on the staff of Holy Trinity was paralysed by fright. One of her colleagues asked the Archbishop if he would help; he put his arm round her and walked her down the street. They were breathless and coated with soot by the time they reached the Staten Island ferry terminal. The group approached a trailer with an open door and were welcomed inside by a group of construction workers. As in certain fictional tragedies, a macabre scene was briefly tinged with humour. One of the builders decided that everyone needed to turn to the Lord. He began to lead prayers himself, unaware that there were clergy by his side.

Half an hour later the air was clearing and the police began evacuating people on buses. The Trinity group were driven slowly up East River Drive, on Manhattan’s eastern edge, and down 32nd Street to the junction with Fifth Avenue. From there, Rowan walked to his hotel and was able to contact his secretary by phone and to leave a message for [his wife] Jane that he was all right. Over lunch and a bottle of wine, the Archbishop and Burnham began to shed tears. Burnham set off for home towards the end of the afternoon, leaving Rowan to work on a brief article for that week’s Church Times. ‘I’m obviously very glad to be alive,’ he wrote, ‘but also feel deeply uncomfortable, and my mind shies away from the slaughter.’

The following day he managed to reach St John the Divine Cathedral, where he was due to give a lecture, with time to spare. He was immediately asked to celebrate an unscheduled Eucharist at the high altar and agreed to do so. Burnham was inspired.

‘When [Rowan] got to the rubric for the homily he was totally surprised; he hadn’t expected to preach, so he preached off the cuff. He went back to an encounter that he had with an airline pilot on the streets at 7am that morning. The pilot said to him, ‘Where the hell was God?’ Rowan’s answer was that God is useless at times like this. Now that’s pretty shocking, but actually what he then went on to unpack is that God didn’t cause this and God [was not] going to stop it, because God has granted us free will, and therefore God has to suffer the consequences of this like we do. So in a sense he exonerated God…’

Rowan gauged each intercession so as to address a different facet of the disaster. At first the response (‘Hear our prayer’) to the invocation ‘Lord, in your mercy’ was quiet. Then Burnham sensed a swell of feeling throughout the congregation.

‘As they realised how he was touching them, each one individually, they began to shout their response and by the time he finished, the response was like a football game…I was standing there with tears streaming down my face and I could hear people on all sides of me sniffling…in a magnificent way Rowan had liturgically connected with the people. And it was profound.’

Read it here.

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