Ruined and Rebuilt
Updated: Nov 14, 2018
I wish I could describe to you what it feels like to work in an almost 800 year old building every day. It is nothing short of sacred, where the history seems to physically seep out from the walls and you could be forgiven for removing your shoes in recognition of standing on holy ground. There are many stories to tell about St Ethelburga's. But I'll start with the building itself.
St Ethelburga’s is one of the few surviving medieval City churches in London. Its foundation date is unknown, but it was first recorded in 1250. It has undergone several transformation over the centuries: first in 1411, again in 1775, and again in 1932. It survived modest bomb damage during the Blitz of the Second World War and was restored in 1953, but most notably, it was the IRA bombing of 1993 which almost destroyed in entirely.
On Saturday 24 April 1993, the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA detonated a bomb in a tipper truck loaded with almost a ton of fertiliser, parked right outside St Ethelburga’s.
A coded warning was phoned from a telephone box in Forkhill, near Newry, at 9.17 and the bomb exploded at 10.30, sending a huge coloumn of smoke above the City. One person was killed, photographer Edward Henty, and about 40 people were injured. Damage to the surrounding commercial buldings, including the NatWest tower – then Europe’s tallest building – was massive and 500 tonnes of broken glass were eventually removed.
The bomb targeted the neighbouring commercial buildings, but 70% St Ethelburga’s was destroyed and it was not insured. There was considerable disagreement about what should happen to the ruins of St Ethelburga’s with some people advocating for it to be demolished entirely due to the extent of the destruction. Thanks to the vision and commitment of Bishop Richard Chartres, the then Bishop of London, the church was rebuilt in order to serve a new function for a new chapter in its rich history. As a tangible reminder of this very deliberate decision, the stained glass window was rebuilt using the many shards of glass from neighbouring buildings that were found amongst the ruins.
It has been 16 years since St Ethelburga's church, ruined and rebuilt, opened its door as a centre for reconciliation and peace. In that time, hundreds of thousands of people, from all walks of life and all faiths, have visited and benefited from the centre. For many, this building has become an iconic symbol of the opportunities for growth and evolution that are hidden within crisis and conflict. This story is at the heart of our approach to working with difference and disagreement: that what was meant to be an act of destruction was used as an opportunity for transformation into something beautiful. I am positive that is why the building feels so sacred, because every single mark and crack and layer in the walls inside the church implores us to stand amongst the rubble and ruin, to see beyond the destruction, and imagine the possibilities...