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From the archive: Bells ring nationwide to welcome Terry Waite

20 November 2017

Terry Waite was released on 18 November 1991, after being held hostage in Beirut for nearly five years. Here is how we covered his release, in the 22 November 1991 edition


Reunited: Terry Waite meets Lord Runcie at RAF Lynham, on 19 November 1991

Reunited: Terry Waite meets Lord Runcie at RAF Lynham, on 19 November 1991

by Betty Saunders

THE VIGIL for Terry Waite ended on Monday for the millions who have prayed for his release. When his vicar in Blackheath, the Revd Henry Burgin, put out the candle that had burned for Terry in All Saints’ Church for the last five years, he was acting for them all. But it was on Tuesday morning at Lyneham, when the plane came out of the mist with Terry sitting in the jump seat to catch his first glimpse of English earth through the driving rain, that the Church really knew the news was true.

“The prayers of so many people have been answered today,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said after news of the release on Monday. “Many people have been praying and hoping for this,” said the Archbishop of York. And on behalf of the Anglican Communion, Canon Sam Van Culin, the Secretary General, said: “All of us in the Anglican Communion have been aware of the plight of Terry Waite. Millions of prayers, literally, have been offered for his safety each and every day since he was taken captive in the course of his work.”

But the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Sykes, spoke for all those who expressed joy and relief over the events of this week when he said: “We should now pray all the more earnestly for the release of the last remaining hostages, including those held in Israel.” Terry Waite said the same thing himself, as soon as he reached Damascus.

It was in the parishes of England, where Terry has been in the intercessions week in and week out for the last five years, that excitement and thankfulness overflowed. They did not need the bishops to tell them to ring the church bells. Many, like St Peter’s, Barnstaple, in Devon, flung wide the doors and began to ring as soon as news of the release was confirmed on Monday; and the townspeople surged in to join the prayers of thanksgiving.

In Terry Waite’s home diocese of Chester (where his mother, Lena, still lives, at Lymm, near Warrington) the cathedral bells did more than ring on Monday night, they exploded with sound. By special permission, in spite of the risk to them, they were “fired”. All 12 ropes were pulled simultaneously five times — one for each year of captivity.

The other bells of Cheshire will ring this weekend, and Bishop Michael Baughen has asked for special thanksgivings on Sunday. “The news is wonderful. I am filled with emotion — overwhelmingly thankful to God, thrilled with excitement, and delighted for Terry’s mother, wife and family,” the Bishop said. “We are praying for Terry’s health and recovery after such a long time away.” Bells from most dioceses pealed out on Tuesday. The towers of London rang together at seven, to coincide with the time of a service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey.

“Terry Waite will return to his country, his Church and his family and friends as one of the most vivid modern examples of the saving power of Christ’s love,” said Simon Hughes the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Church of England affairs. Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi, recalled his meeting with the Archbishop’s envoy shortly before his capture. “I know how great was the humanitarian idealism with which he embarked on his perilous mission.”

But there was recognition that the ordeal might not yet be over; that painful adjustments may follow the euphoria as Terry Waite and his family try to pick up their lives again after what Dr Habgood called “this sad and wasteful interlude”. The Bishop of Ely cautioned: “With our thanksgiving we must continue to uphold Terry and his family throughout the traumatic adjustments that the days ahead will bring.” Dr Carey, now, at least officially, Terry Waite’s employer, appealed for “time and space and privacy” for the Waite family. Beyond that next phase, the future is not certain.

Will he go back to Lambeth? Even before he left on his last mission he was beginning to talk of moving on, perhaps to put his energy and experience behind some kind of humanitarian project. “He is still technically on our books,” Dr Carey said after the news of the release. “He is still employed at Lambeth. Whether he wants it (his job) back will be up to him and the Archbishop.”

Behind the apparent vagueness lay the fact that no one knew, on Monday, the state in which the Archbishop’s envoy would return. No one knows yet how long it will take him to return to normal life. There are fears that he may not allow himself enough time. And more than this, there is the thought that he might be involved in the business of writing and selling his story. Another factor is the arrival in office of a new Archbishop, which always leads to changes in the close personal staff. Terry’s old colleagues are no longer at Lambeth. With such considerations in mind, those who know the scene believe that (if he goes back to Lambeth) the prospect of his sitting at his desk and planning his next trip to somewhere or other is a distant one.

The Church Commissioners have continued to pay his salary as Archbishop’s Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs, but Canon Roger Symon has done the job as Acting Secretary since 1987; and without Terry Waite’s absorption in Middle Eastern affairs, Canon Symon has been free to serve the whole Communion more broadly. But Terry could still take back his old post, or there might be another one for him at Lambeth, or a new job waiting to be created.


Leader: A life that any Christian would be proud to have lived

TERRY WAITE’S STORY is a paradigm of the Christian life. His chief concern from the beginning has been for other people than himself. Those other people have not been humanity in the mass; they have been specific human beings. He has been fully seized of the Christian perception that every human creature is equally precious in the sight of God; as Lord Runcie said on BBC television news on Monday night, Terry Waite saw people as being at the mercy of impersonal forces, and he knew that this destroyed justice and humanity. He chose to use his gifts and opportunities to deliver individual sufferers from one impersonal force in particular: the rivalries of Mediterranean nations, expressed in the imprisonment without term or trial of randomly taken innocents. This work called for a high degree of self-forgetfulness; for the courage necessary to go alone into the presence of dangerous men; for a readiness to perceive the divine in those men, and explicitly trust them, and call forth with infinite pains an answering trust. In a number of instances, in the Lebanon, in Libya, in Iran, this process achieved results. Men and women had their liberty and lives restored to them. The work entailed the use of such help as came to hand: it also entailed, as all human endeavour must, misjudgements and failures. Early in 1987 Terry Waite showed his repentant self-renewal by attempting his most dangerous venture yet.

At this point the level of impersonal wickedness was too much for him, and he was himself taken prisoner. The captives he set out to free he found himself joining; and he was not allowed even the comfort of their company for four whole years. During much of that time he was in the dark, chained, in grief and fear and pain, and alone. It is a degree of tribulation inconceivable to ordinary experience. Terry Waite rose above it all. His first thoughts after his sudden release were of gratitude to all those people who had secured his freedom and his companion’s, of concern for other hostages held elsewhere, of fairness to his captors. Speaking in a spirit of pardon, Terry reported one of them as saying that they apologised and recognised that they had done wrong. The divine had stirred in them at last.

Terry Waite has shown that it is possible to witness to Christian belief and standards in the most testing of afflictions. His example has strengthened millions in their Christian service. The Christian community in the United Kingdom welcomes him home with joy and pride.


See this Friday’s Church Times for Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Terry Waite. The whole interview will be published on the Church Times Podcast - churchtimes.co.uk/podcast

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