PRAYER has been the main focus of churches in Salisbury over the past week, as the city comes to terms with the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the city centre.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in a serious condition in hospital after being contaminated with a nerve agent on Sunday of last week.
The pair, who had settled in Salisbury in 2010 after Mr Skripal was released in a prisoner exchange, were found slumped on a bench outside the Maltings shopping centre in the centre of Salisbury.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister announced that the Government had concluded that Russia was behind the attack, and unveiled a raft of sanctions, including the expulsion of 23 diplomats who were “undeclared intelligence officers”.
The UK would also cut off high-level contact with Russia and not send any minister or member of the royal family to the World Cup there this summer, Theresa May said. Earlier, on Monday, Mrs May described the incident as “a reckless and despicable attack”, and an “act against the UK.”
“I want to pay tribute to the fortitude and calmness with which people in Salisbury have responded to these events,” she also said.
The Parish Church of St Thomas and St Edmund, Salisbury, is a stone’s throw from the bench, and lies just outside the police cordon. Its Rector, the Revd Kelvin Inglis, said on Monday that it had been an “extraordinary week”.
“My first feeling was mild sadness that something unjust had happened, but then the excitement of espionage. But, as soon as they began to say people were very ill, the mood became very sombre in the city. There was a real sense of shock that something horrible had happened.”
In response to the attempted murders, St Thomas’s have set up a small prayer station for passers-by to sit, pray, and reflect if they wish to. At their Mothering Sunday service, they also prayed for the police and those affected, and then handed out daffodils.
Mr Inglis urged people present to pass on the daffodils to someone else, including the police officers working nearby.
“We have been praying all week,” he said. “We pray day by day for all the local businesses.” This was echoed by Gerry Lynch, the director of communications for the diocese of Salisbury. “Some of the traders around the courtyard have been very badly affected and have basically done no business last week. That’s one of the local pastoral worries. People whose livelihoods have been damaged.”
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, also urged his diocese to pray, during a sermon at the annual Rule of Law service at Salisbury Cathedral, on Sunday.
“It is not yet entirely clear what happened last Sunday, nor are we certain who is responsible, but today, on the Sunday after this serious attack, we pray for Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia; for Det. Sgt Nick Bailey [the police officer who first responded to the Skripals and then fell ill]; and for all who were contaminated by the nerve agent and have suffered sickness.
“And we give thanks for the emergency services — fire, police, and ambulance — and for our hospital caring for the sick.”
PATheresa May speaks in the House of Commons, on Wednesday afternoon
The Revd Craig Ryalls, the Rector of St Paul’s, which is half a mile from the Maltings, said that the city was carrying on as normal. The Skripals were thought to have lived in his parish, and so his congregation had been focused on praying for their recovery.
“It is slightly unusual when you go to the Maltings and you still see the key areas are cordoned off, but essentially it has been business as usual.”
Over the weekend, the authorities warned anyone who had visited either the Zizzi’s restaurant or The Mill pub, which the Skripals had also visited, to wash their clothes, in case they too had been contaminated by the nerve agent.
But on top of practical advice and reassurance, clergy in the city said that their main response had to be prayer.
Canon Paul Taylor, the rural dean for Salisbury, wrote in his parish magazine that although local churchgoers might be bewildered by what had taken place in their city, they could still help.
“How are we responding to local needs after the nerve agent poisoning on our doorstep? Perhaps more than anything that has focussed us in realising that this is a serious threat and has turned us to prayer for our city,” he wrote.
St Thomas’s are organising a large service next month to “reclaim” the area. Members of the emergency services as well as local shopkeepers will be invited on 15 April, alongside civic leaders, Mr Inglis said.
“The objective is to give thanks for what everyone has done and pray for the city and those affected,” he said. “The word I have been using is ‘reclaiming’; reclaiming the city for the common good. What I would really like to do is to go out to where they were found and have a ceremony out in the Maltings to reclaim it and cleanse it.”
Bishop Holtam said that the attempted killings had been a “violation of our community”, and that the St Thomas’s service would be an opportunity to pray for the healing of the city.