Worship at the Abbey

Address given at the Christchurch Earthquake Memorial Service

27 March 2011 at 12:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Christchurch Earthquake Memorial Service

‘Neither death nor life will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Disasters whether natural or man-made, the effects of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, floods, tsunamis, mine explosions or collapses, leave us saddened and bewildered. Those of us not directly involved can only imagine the horror. Even so we are aware again how vulnerable we are as human beings in the face of nature and how conscious we need to be of the risks attendant on taking for granted human sovereignty over the earth. We cannot tame the seas. We cannot control the wind or the rain. We cannot prevent earthquake or volcanic eruption. All we can do is put in place limited protection against the worst of their effects.

During the latter months of last year and the past few months of this, we have seen all too many examples of natural or human disaster. Some have had amazing outcomes; some have not. In this interconnected world, the internet and associated means of electronic communication bring us instant information in a way that never was before. So now the whole world joins, albeit distantly and in a muted manner, in the joy of escape from disaster and the sorrow of the loss of human life. Only a few weeks after the world was rejoicing at the freedom of the Chilean miners, we were saddened to hear of the loss of 29 men in the Pike River mine in South Island. A few months ago, we rejoiced that, despite the destruction caused by the Christchurch earthquake of 4 September 2010, no lives were lost. Now we grieve that on 22 February 2011 not only was so much of Christchurch and Canterbury damaged or destroyed but so many lives were lost and so many more people seriously injured.

The world’s eyes all too quickly passed on from New Zealand to the uprisings and suppression in the Arab world and to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami with its terrible loss of life and destruction. But each life lost, each family grieving or displaced, is a cause of sorrow in itself. Whilst we might reel in horror at the thought of more than 10,000 lives lost in Japan, it is not our obsession with numbers that matters but the individual experience.

In September last year I am sure I was not the only person to give thanks to God for the fact that no lives had been lost. Now what should I say? The suffering Job was tempted to curse God and die. If we thanked God then, should we curse God now? By no means. There is always much amidst our sorrow and grief for which to give thanks. Giving thanks does not dishonour those who have died. Nor does it seek to minimise the suffering. It does recognise both the strength and resilience of the human spirit and the never-failing love of God.

There are amazing stories of the courage of survivors and of the bravery of rescuers. We have heard some today. For them all we thank God. We thank God too that in Christ he shares the suffering. As we heard in the reading from the letter of St Paul to the Christians in Rome, God ‘did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us.’ The Roman Christians were suffering persecution and want and were threatened with despair. Paul encouraged them to believe that nothing would separate them from the love of God. ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’

We thank God that, through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, he has conquered death. Everywhere the empty cross is a symbol of the triumph of life over death. Australian rescue teams presented the people of Christchurch with a wooden cross and bench fashioned from material salvaged from the badly damaged Christ Church Cathedral. The Dean of the Cathedral, the Reverend Peter Beck, who had given Australian teams permission to use some of the wood from the ruined cathedral in Christchurch's city centre, said, 'My heart is full of tears, tears of grief and sadness. And also tears of thanksgiving for you guys and many others who have come to our city to help us. You are amazing and thank you.' He said the bench and cross were a symbol of a new beginning. I have quoted from the Christ Church cathedral website. May the cathedral’s spire rise again to be a symbol of hope and of God’s love over the city.

Can Christchurch and Canterbury recover from the disaster? Can the city rise again? It will never forget - but it can and will rise. Some years ago I visited Napier in North Island. I was there for a wedding and was struck by the singular beauty of the Art Deco city, rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1931, just eighty years ago. I visited an exhibition and saw photographs of the ruined city and heard first-hand accounts of the experience of the earthquake itself and its aftermath. 256 people lost their lives. The tales of bravery and heroism I heard then have found their echo in Christchurch eighty years later.

I conclude with another echo, this time of the words Prince William used at the earthquake memorial service on 18 March in Hagley Park, when he said, ‘Kia kaha, be strong.’  I quote words from the letter to the Ephesians, ‘Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God.’