Southwark Cathedral has had a twinning relationship with the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame de Rouen for over twenty-five years. It grew out of a personal friendship between the then Administrator of the Cathedral in Rouen and the Vice-Provost at Southwark. But from those beginnings, grounded in personal friendship and respect, has grown a much wider and deeper relationship. These kind of associations that we make with other parts of the Anglican Communion – Southwark Cathedral is linked with the Diocese of Masvingo as part of the wider diocesan link with the Anglican church in Zimbabwe – or other denominations or other parts of the world – we are also linked with the Cathedral in Bergen, a Norwegian Lutheran cathedral – are sometimes strong and meaningful, at other times struggling to find a purpose.
The relationship that we have with Rouen is an interesting one. Any Anglican-Roman Catholic link hits up against the fact of not being in communion at one stage or another and is always much discussed. I’ve been to a number of big events in Rouen – last year the enthronement of the new Archbishop – and seated in splendour and treated with honour – but unable to make my communion. I understand it and I respect it and I know that the desire, the passion for unity, comes out of the pain of disunity which itself is fuelled by the literal hunger for communion.
Yet, the relationship goes from strength to strength and becomes more real as it becomes embedded in true friendship. Yet there are interesting historic links as well. Just over a thousand years ago King Olav of the Norwegians, left London, after pulling down London Bridge next to the church which is now Southwark Cathedral, and was baptised in Rouen Cathedral. He then went from his Norman cousins in Rouen back to his own land where he converted his people to Christianity.
In 1431 at the age of around 19 Joan of Arc was condemned to death as a heretic and committed to the flames in the market place in Rouen. At that time Cardinal Henry Beaufort was Bishop of Winchester and living in the Palace alongside the Priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral). In 1431 Beaufort was present to observe some of the heresy trial sessions In Rouen presided over by Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais. He was present at the execution and so we’re told that wept as he viewed the horrible scene as she was burned at the stake. His arms and cardinal cap are carved into the stonework of the south transept of our cathedral.
So the links go back in history but are made real and alive today.
When we heard of the brutal killing of Fr Jacques Hamel whilst saying Mass last week in Rouen we were all horrified. This was a new level of terrorism. Christians, many, many Christians, have already been murdered by the so-called Islamic State. Indeed, when I was last making my way through the Coptic Church on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, there was a banner above the door showing the killing of twenty-one Coptic martyrs last year. But this murder was closer to home, this was in the city of our friends, this was an elderly priest doing what priests do on behalf of the world, offering the sacrifice of the Mass and being sacrificed as he did so.
It bore the marks of the killing of Blessed Oscar Romero in 1980, gunned down as he said Mass. The motivations of the killers in both instances might have been different but the effect was the same.
This is when, however, the relationships that we have become so much more real. Messages of prayer and support have been sent to Rouen from Southwark; messages of thanks and nuggets of news have been sent back. One member of the congregation has told me that all Muslims are being encouraged to attend a church in the city this Sunday as a sign of solidarity; others have told me that Muslim and Christian neighbours have been spending time together. One friend in the congregation sent me this message
‘These 3 days, the mass has been said for Fr Jacques in the Cathedral with about 400 people each day. Muslims are invited to come to masses on Sunday to share prayer with Roman Catholics. Let us hope this drama will help building peace. One in faith and prayer.’
In the midst of the trauma there are signs of hope.
The artist Monet who lived and worked close by to the city produced beautiful pictures of the towers at the west end of Rouen Cathedral; they are bathed in different colours. Now once more the city is bathed in the red of martyrdom, a colour it has borne historically. We stand with them at this time.
Fr Jacques’ funeral is in the Cathedral in Rouen on Tuesday. We will offer a Requiem Mass for him in Southwark Cathedral that morning. Communion, instead of dividing us will unite us, we will break bread together. As we pray for Fr Jacques and that love and mercy of God for him, which needs no prayers to secure, we pray for our sisters and brothers in Rouen, Christian and Muslim, ordained and lay, in that city of martyrs, witnessing to the God who transcends and transforms all things, the God of the Mass, the God of the meal, the God of broken bread and wine outpoured, the God of fast and feast. May priests still offer that ‘one true, pure, immortal sacrifice’ for the peace of the world and may we all receive the bread of heaven that gives true life to the world.
Lord, accept the sacrifice we offer
of bread and lives
as we accept the sacrifice you offer,
bread and life.