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Archbishop Justin's sermon at service for journalists killed in war zones - video

Wednesday 5th November 2014

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached today at a special service for fallen journalists held at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street - the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury has preached at the annual service.

In this clip the Archbishop says foreign correspondents are "the ones who witness the full horror of what is going on and dare to speak it." Watch the full sermon.

Read the text of the sermon below.

Isaiah 21: 6-12

Thank you very much for the invitation to be here today. It is an honour to be invited here, it’s a privilege to be here for such an important occasion.

We live in a world at the moment in which in many areas it feels as though the darkness is falling ever more severely on whole swathes and regions of the world, and in which the light of news very often seems to go out. Whole areas where there is fighting that is forgotten because there is simply so much of it. Whole areas which depend only on the likes of James Foley and Steven Sotloff to show some light on what is happening.

The front-line reporter is the one who sees first-hand what is going on. They are the look-outs, who stand on the watchtower, day after day and all night long, in the watches of the night. “Watchman, how goes the night?”, as Isaiah described it from two and a half thousand years ago. They are the ones who witness the full horror of what is going on and dare to speak it. The rest of us are one step, or many steps, removed – both from the adrenalin and from the agony. We rely on the reports. And the nature of the reports has become more and more immediate, of that we can be thankful.

I remember as a child being shown a letter from an ancestor who had been in the Charge of the Light Brigade, and wrote to his mother that evening to reassure her that he was alive and unhurt and to describe the battle. In those days things were heard by word of mouth, by propaganda. It was the bush telegraph, famously unreliable, exceptionally partial and profoundly delayed. 

Last week I was in Ghana, the 36th of 37 visits to provinces of the Anglican Communion - my wife Caroline and I promised to visit all 37 by the end of 2014. The province of West Africa covers not only Ghana but also Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. A few days before we went I read an extraordinary (and I may say sadly unremarked) report in The Times on Ebola in Freetown and around Sierra Leone. It bore adequate comparison, as a piece of writing, to the description of the plague by Defoe in his journal of the plague year, or Pepys. It was as horrifying as Camus’ La Peste. Last night there was another report on the BBC from Sierra Leone, again extraordinarily vivid, bringing into our own rooms the greatest public health crisis which the world has faced for many years, a plague of extraordinary proportions.

And the carefully measured tones in which the reporter in The Times set out what he did, or last night on the television, had the colour in it because of the brilliance of the reporting. Last Friday I sat and listened to the chief of staff of the UN team fighting Ebola, and because of the reporting I was able to sense much more profoundly what he was saying, and to see the urgency of it.

Those reporters are as much at risk as anyone in a war zone. They were careful not to get too close, I hope. But they were run the risk of many things, not only of contracting Ebola (probably a fairly low risk), but the much higher one of the psychological trauma with which they will live for years afterwards. And that is true of those who have been in war zones.

Some years ago, about six weeks after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was in Baghdad to reopen the Anglican church there. It was, as they say, an interesting trip. We were there the inside of a week. But while I was there I bumped into a well-known reporter from a television company. They were there for months at a time, living hard, working incessantly – very long hours – and constantly at risk. Last January we were in the South Sudan in a town destroyed by war, surrounded by bodies, burying them in mass graves. As we left, reporters were arriving. They were going the opposite way. They are the ones who come to mind when we read of Isaiah’s watchmen: ‘What of the night?’

Such reporting now is a far remove from the bush telegraph: precisely because the people who do it are not safely removed from the agony. The reality of disaster, of war and suffering, is brought to us in a completely fresh way. It may still occasionally lack accuracy – that is an inevitable part of being human – but what it lacks in one area is more than compensated for by immediacy. And immediacy means risk.

We are here today because of the moments when that risk turns into a reality. I started with looking at how we communicate, because how we communicate is driven by the communicators themselves. The reality of a world in which the horrors of the Ethiopian famine - that extraordinary report of many years ago now, reported by Michael Buerk - or of the Ebola this week and last, are conveyed extraordinarily powerfully in a new way. But the power of the communication demands that the communicator puts themselves in the place where they are a witness. Witnessing is profoundly costly.

So it is right and essential that in this darkening world we give thanks for those who witness, who light the lamp of truth where it is being snuffed out by so many. Not only by savage evil, by those who sell arms and convey lies; but by those who are indifferent and forgetful. It is right and essential that we give thanks for those who unlock the covers of the wells of compassion that can become available in this wonderful country of ours. Who challenge the complacency in which some people suggest we can live in our own country as though the rest of the world did not matter, and, if we are sufficiently inward-looking, that the rest of the world will not affect us.

It is right that the value of our common humanity is brought home to us by those who go to places that everyone else is leaving. We are not naïve; my experience of a few different areas of fighting and meeting war correspondents leads me to suggest, controversially, that it’s just a little bit possible that they are not all entirely saintly at every minute of the day. But there is an old saying in the Church, ex operandi operandum. Or to put it another way, the fact that the priest is all messed up does not mess up the sacrament.

Even where there are all sorts of personal things that one can say about those who go and report wars and conflicts, whether wars against disease or poverty, or the old-fashioned type where people kill each other deliberately and horribly; whichever it is, whatever they are like, what they do – and sometimes are hurt deeply mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually or even killed doing – what they do remains of extraordinary value, a God-given calling to inspire others to serve our common humanity.

To witness is to tell the truth. And the more horrific the circumstances, the more needful, the more precious, the more costly is the truth. But we believe, as Jesus put it, the truth is not cheap. As he said, the truth sets us free.

The words of the anthem that follow borrow two prayers from my 13th-century predecessor Edmund, who was exiled and died in Pontigny for his truth telling. Perhaps in our hearts as we listen to them we may echo their words as our prayer, committing ourselves and those whom we have loved and lost for their truth-telling into God’s hands.


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