FOR ONE of the worst of reasons, Peter Lawrence has one of the ten best-known faces in England at the moment. It is not something he would have wished upon himself, but since his 35-year-old daughter, Claudia, went missing more than five weeks ago, he has maintained a high profile in the hope that somebody, somewhere, has a fragment of information that might link to her disappearance.
It could even be members of General Synod, scattered as they are throughout the country. Claudia Lawrence is a chef at the Roger Kirk Centre at the University of York. The Archbishop of York remembers being served by her at one of the July sessions that annually take place on the campus. Others may make connections when they catch sight of one of the MISSING posters in circulation, see a press conference on television, or read another news item.
For Mr Lawrence, who is a steward and regular member of the congregation at York Minster, every avenue is there to try. We met at York railway station at the end of last week, before he travelled to London in readiness for an appearance on ITV’s This Morning the following day. With him was Martin Dales, a lifelong family friend and a Synod member, who is using his experience as a public-relations consultant to act as Mr Lawrence’s spokesman and media adviser.
Nothing has been heard of Claudia Lawrence since the evening of Wednesday 17 March, when she last phoned parents and friends in a completely normal way on her mobile. The police, who mounted a huge search operation and continue to look for leads, believe she could have disappeared while walking the two miles to work early on Thursday, or on the Wednesday evening itself. All agree that her disappearance is totally out of character.
Mr Lawrence, a solicitor, has undertaken to pursue the quest for information on behalf of the Lawrence family. His former wife, Joan, is a member of the congregation at St Mary’s Priory Church at Old Malton. Both are being supported daily by Canon John Manchester at Old Malton, who has known Claudia since she was a baby, and prepared her for confirmation.
Mr Lawrence’s hand shakes as he takes a drink of water. “It’s just a matter of getting the idea of hope out there. However we do it, we’ve got to keep hoping that somewhere out there someone will have seen Claudia, or seen something happening.”
The public profile is costly, even for someone who is used to speaking in public and who used to do a lot of advocacy. His Christian profile, and the news that the York Minster community was praying for the family, brought a savage attack last week from the Labour councillor of the ward in which Claudia lives, Paul Blanchard. Mr Blanchard, a declared atheist, jeered on Facebook: “Like praying is going to achieve anything. Of all the pointless things to do here, praying wins the prize. Time would be better spent out looking for her surely.”
Councillor Blanchard went on: “Is God on some kind of sick kickfest where he makes her go missing, sees how many people pray to him, and then decides to intervene based on the number of prayers received?”
Although the furious backlash he received prompted an unreserved apology on the web, the family have received no personal apology. “Councillor Blanchard is obviously a professed atheist and is entitled to his own views, but he is not entitled to express them in relation to Claudia,” Mr Lawrence says.
Dr Sentamu preached his Easter sermon in York Minster on the theme: “Sorrow turned into joy and fear into hope”. Quoting Councillor Blanchard, he pledged to continue to pray. And to search: he has included the Bishopthorpe Palace office number on the list of contact numbers for people with information. The Muslim community in the area is praying for Claudia at Friday prayers — even, says Mr Dales in gratitude, the people who run his local Indian restaurant.
The Minster congregation has been hugely supportive, Mr Lawrence says. “Some people don’t know what to say; some people find it difficult. Some say, ‘We continue to think about you’; some say, ‘We’ll stay hopeful’; others say, ‘We’ll pray for you’.” What he can’t cope with, he says, is someone flinging their arms round him and becoming emotional.
He describes part of his brain as totally numb, which is why he can tolerate looking at his daughter’s picture on the posters, or hearing her spoken of by strangers. The numbing followed the immediate shock of Claudia’s disappearance, when the thought was: “She’s around somewhere, and in 24 hours will turn up. Two or three days later, when they’ve finished the immediate search of the area, you realise that’s not going to happen. It’s very difficult to keep faith.”
Mr Lawrence and Mr Dales are grateful that the media have kept attending the weekly press conferences and are keeping the story alive, even though some weeks there is little new to report. They endured four hours of agonising waiting last week, when the police got in touch to say that a body had been fished out of the Ouse at Bishopthorpe.
It was not Claudia. The first thing the two men did was to extend their sympathies to the family of the dead woman. “All the time there is no news, there is hope for the family,” Mr Dales says.
“We plan things, and hope we’re not going to have to do them,” Mr Lawrence says. A reflective piece to camera at Mr Dales’s home on Good Friday showed him surrounded by close friends, and included an interview with Canon Manchester. It was another chance to put out the message: “Someone out there knows where Claudia is, and we hope that, whoever they are, they will search their conscience and inform either the police or Crimestoppers.”
Mr Lawrence is appealing for Facebook users, 25,500 of whom have responded on various sites, to recognise that, if snippets of information are going to be of any use, they must be given directly to the police or to Crimestoppers. Most people who have contributed to the Facebook page go by a username, making it impossible for anything to be followed up.
Meanwhile, Mr Lawrence is trying to keep working, eating, sleeping, and worshipping, although any pretence at normal life is impossible. “That’s where we live at the moment, or exist, or whatever. Something will happen,” he says. “I hope we can ring you up before next Friday and say you don’t need to publish this article.”
Police: 0845 6060247
Crimestoppers: 0800 555111
Missing People: 0500 700700
Archbishop of York: 01904 707021