It was six years ago this month, but some scars do not heal quickly. The two planes came out of a perfect September morning sky, and nothing at all could have prepared the world for what followed.
St Bartholomew’s in Manhattan was, unsurprisingly, packed with worshippers last Sunday. I read the Gospel from Luke 14: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost...”
St Bartholomew’s represents the Christian faith along a strip of buildings that are all dedicated to a very different form of worship. Most of the world’s richest companies have offices within a stone’s throw of the church in Park Avenue, mid-town Manhattan.
Glass towers reach up to the heavens. Their foyers are studies in granite and marble, all expressing that same comforting message: your money is safe with us. But, as any Old Testament prophet would have known, this sort of security is an illusion. All things will fail — even these great temples to human ingenuity.
As it happens, 9/11 fell this year during New York Fashion Week. Strangely enough, I had an invitation to Robert De Niro’s party in a fancy hotel off Gramercy Park. It was all models, stylists, and showbiz glamour. I strode into the party, full of outward confidence and inner terror, waiting for the inevitable question: “So, what do you do?”
It came, but the reaction was so different from what I had expected. Unlike the bankers, these people had a real sense that all things are transitory. I suppose that is the starting point of the very idea of fashion. And, with that, came a surprising openness to talk of real solidity — of what is genuinely important. I liked this world precisely because it did not pretend to be anything other than it was. Happy are they who know their need of God.
It is odd to think of the brashest city on the planet as a place of vulnerability, but there is no doubt it is. This, coupled with its biblical scale, makes it a place where church works. Philip Larkin called church somewhere where “all our compulsions meet”. In New York, the compulsions are many and various: greed, fear, hope, need, grief, loneliness. There is so much to bring to God, so much to wrestle with in prayer.
At St Bartholomew’s, the service ended with what has become known as the 9/11 hymn, sung to the tune we use for “Eternal Father, strong to save”. “O Father, on your love we call, When sorrow overshadows all, And pain that feels too great to bear Drives from us any words of prayer; Enfold in love for ever more All those we love, but see no more.” Amen.
(c) Giles Fraser. The author is vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy. He is author of Christianity with Attitude. This piece is adapted from his regular column in The Church Times newspaper.