"THERE'S a crowd of
teenagers and several camera crews in the churchyard - I thought
you ought to know."
The anonymous call to the
parish office was taken by our youth minister, Kate Hatton, who
quickly realised that these were the friends of Georgia Williams,
the 17-year-old sixth-former from the local college who had been
missing for several days. Her friends, desperate to do something,
had been leafleting the town centre and appealing for help to find
her, and then decided to gather in a far corner of the churchyard
for a two-minute silent vigil.
Realising that the church
needed to offer something more than a corner of its churchyard,
Kate opened the building, lit some candles, put on some music, and
found a blank page in a book, which she put on a table outside the
front door - headed simply "Messages and prayers for Georgia's
family". Gradually, some of the teenagers began to write in the
book, and drift in and out of church in twos and threes. A few of
us loitered about, willing to listen and talk, but not wanting to
frighten anyone away. Several people spoke to us, while others
seemed to value the space.
While I was on the phone
to our prayer chain, one of Georgia's friends put his head round
the vestry door, and asked if he could borrow some Blu-tack to put
up a cardboard sign in the churchyard. It was such a small request,
but probably took a great deal of courage from a group of teenagers
with little or no contact with church, apart from using the
churchyard to eat their sandwiches in the lunch hour. I asked him
whether they would like to hold a vigil inside the church rather
than outside, and suggested that we could light some candles and
have a simple prayer.
We did not know whether
they would take up our offer, but clambered into the attic to find
some nightlights left over from the Christmas carol service, just
in case. In the event, we were amazed by the response, as about 40
of Georgia's friends came into church just before 3 p.m., and
joined a good number of our congregation who had also gathered to
It seemed important to
let the young people take a lead; so I invited one of them to say a
few words, and they asked whether one of them could sing a song
that he had written for Georgia. Offering the microphone to some
very emotional "not-yet-Christians" (with no chance to preview what
they would say) was a risk, and they seemed surprised and grateful
to be taken seriously.
After their vigil, I took
a photo on my phone and posted it on the church's Facebook page,
with a prayer that we had written for Georgia. It was the work of
only a few minutes, but when I logged on the following morning, I
found that the prayer and photo had gone viral on the internet, and
reached more than 42,000 people - on a page that, until then, had
had only 197 followers. The prayer read:
the light of the Lord shine and scatter this darkness as we lift
Georgia to you, O Lord. O Lord, you are all-knowing, you are
all-seeing. May she know your peace wherever she is. May she be
restored to her friends and family. And may this dark cloud over
this town be lifted. We pray that your presence will bring
refreshment in the midst of our despair. May we receive good news
of Georgia. In Jesus' name. Amen.
That evening, the news
broke that Georgia had been killed. We texted the leader of the
young people, and invited them back into church the following
morning for a two-minute silence and prayer. Inviting them to come
back when all hope was gone seemed a big ask. Yet they all came,
and, once more, we kept the church open for several hours for
prayer and reflection.
By this time, the media
interest was intense, and the prayer and silence at the opening of
our Sunday-morning service the next day was carried by both
television and radio. Another prayer written for that occasion was
printed on a card free by a local printer, and has been widely used
around the community in the days leading up to the funeral.
WRITING the address for
that funeral was hard, knowing (not least from our Facebook page)
that there were those who felt angry with a God they didn't really
believe in - a god who would stand by and allow an innocent, lively
teenage girl to be murdered.
I wanted to say that that
was not a god I believed in, either. The God I believe in knows
what it is to have his life brutally cut short at the hands of
others; the God I believe in knows from the inside the anguish of a
bereaved parent; the God I believe is not far from us, but, as the
Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is here with us now, giving us strength
to face each day. I also wanted to give a message of hope in the
resurrection of Jesus, and hope for the future of our town.
There was only one chance
to get it right - or to get it horribly wrong. So many people put
their trust in you at that moment: the grieving family; the school
and college, which closed early so that staff and students could
attend the service; the wider community, who turned out in such
numbers; the police, grieving for the daughter of one of their own
officers, while conducting the murder investigation. That is when
knowing that you are being prayed for really counts.
The day of the funeral,
last Friday, was incredible. We opened the church doors an hour
before the service, and, within ten minutes, the whole place was
jammed. It was only when I came out at the end of the service, and
saw the churchyard packed with the overflow of people who had
listened on loudspeakers, that I realised that the service had been
attended by more than 1000 people, and 10,000 more have since
accessed the text of the sermon on Facebook.
But the moment of the
service that will always stay with me was seeing Georgia's
courageous father hold himself together, as he read out a poem
posted on the internet by Georgia's friends. It ended:
all we have is memories,
And your picture in a frame.
Your memory is our keepsake,
With which we will never part.
God has you in his keeping,
But we all have you in our hearts.
The Revd Mark Ireland is the Vicar of All Saints',