Paul Vallely: Prayers and a shower of petals on a day of paradoxes

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The Independent Online

The vestments were red. Not the black that the church traditionally associated with death. Nor the white that symbolises resurrection and which is usual at funerals today. No, it was red, the colour of blood and martyrdom.

The vestments were red. Not the black that the church traditionally associated with death. Nor the white that symbolises resurrection and which is usual at funerals today. No, it was red, the colour of blood and martyrdom.

Some 2,000 people gathered in St Paul's Cathedral yesterday – among them the Prince of Wales, Prince Harry and the Prime Minister – for a service to mark the moment a year ago when the first hijacked passenger jet was flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, sending shockwaves across the globe in ripples which have still not died away.

The royal party was led down the nave of the cathedral by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, wearing a red cope stiff with embroidered figures of angels whose countenances looked demonic and warlike. Before them the crucifix, flanked by two acolytes, carried an image of Christ as the lamb who was slain.

The order of service proclaimed it to be a liturgy of remembrance and commemoration. Though the mood among the 50 families of some of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the atrocity was one of profound sadness, the message which the service sent out to the nation was more mixed. Especially so at a time when the public mourning for the dead is increasingly enmeshed with the possibility of war on Iraq.

It began with the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner". The singing swelled like a huge wave through the church, oddly dissonant with its message of moral defiance and its echoes of martial threat with its references to "bombs bursting in air" and so on.

The sense of ambiguity was continued by the US Ambassador, William Farish, who read a passage from Isaiah about good news and the repair of ruined cities in a tone so desolate and grief-stricken that it seemed that he, and perhaps his fellow Americans, could not quite believe it.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, tried to redress that from the other side of the special relationship with a bold and confident reading from Revelation about "a new heaven and a new earth". But the mood of contradiction remained unresolved.

God is love, said the next hymn, but there was talk of the fear of God too. And the paradoxes were built up further with a reading by Patricia Hodge from T S Eliot – a poet who was both profoundly English and also American. "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time," she read, "and all shall be well ... [when] the fire and the rose are one."

A silence fell after Lieutenant Frank Dwyer of the New York Police Department lit a candle at the exact time of the impact of the first plane on the north tower at 1.46pm British time. But it was broken by the eerie crying of a small child.

There was talk of the unhealed wounds of history and then a flurry of white rose petals began to shower from the Whispering Gallery 30 metres above the transept. They fell like snowflakes, some fluttering wildly, others dropping dead like stones or, perhaps some in the congregation thought, like the figures who hurled themselves from the New York skyscraper to certain deaths rather than be incinerated in the inferno.

The petals – from roses donated by flower-sellers in New Covent Garden when they discovered why the cathedral's precentor, Canon Stephen Oliver, had gone to the market at 4am the day before wanting so many flowers – fell on the altar.

Some landed softly on the tattered and torn Union flag, choked still with the dust of ground zero, which had been found by rescue workers on the site of the crumpled skyscrapers. It had been presented to the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, by Lt Dwyer at the US embassy yesterday morning.

The families of the British men and women who died in the World Trade Centre stood silently at the front of the congregation and looked up at the descending cloud. Afterwards, Colonel Michael Carrington, who lost his son Jeremy, said: "It takes an awful long time for 3,000 rose petals to fall, and that's an awful lot of people and their families."

The sermon by the Bishop of London was equally charged with unresolved complexities. "Our hearts go out to the families," he said, "whose private grief is constantly underscored by the public repetition of events now etched on the memory of a generation."

The bishop continued the paradoxes. There could not be "a shred of justification for the atrocity" and yet "the event also enhanced awareness of the interconnectedness of the world," he said.

Famine, Aids, poverty and violence all had to be addressed as a result. "Wisdom and love demand," he continued, "that just as much energy and resources should be assembled in attacking these scourges as are being deployed in the military action against terror."

There was even incongruity in the dismissal – the Nunc Dimitis was the haunting setting by Geoffrey Burgon best-known as the theme tune of John Le Carre's TV spy thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with its Cold War moral certainties.

Over it all hung the spectre of war on Iraq. Outside, where a crowd stretched 100 metres down Ludgate Hill, an anti-war protester punctured the silence, shouting loudly at the departing congregation. He was taken away by police, leaving the only sound that of a single muffled bell that tolled dolefully in the crisp, autumnal air.

It brought to mind the words of another poet, the 16th-century Dean of St Paul's, John Donne: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."