Many ways to mourn for Dunblane

This weekend offers us a chance to express our grief, says Richard Holloway

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One of the most moving times in my life was a morning I spent at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. Those who know the memorial will remember how simple, yet overwhelming it is: a long, low, undulating cliff of black marble on which are inscribed the names of every American killed in Vietnam.

That morning I watched hundreds of people engaging with the memorial in an extraordinary number of ways. Some just stood and rubbed fingers over the name of the one they had loved and lost; others shoved flowers into the cracks in the marble; yet others used tracing paper to capture a print of the loved one's name; many simply stood in silent grief looking at the only tangible reminder of a vanished life.

Death comes for us all but its effect is shattering and the death, especially the violent death, of the young is almost unendurable. One of the ways we endure is by acts of remembrance, sacramental gestures, ways of acknowledging, yet challenging, the evil that has befallen us.

On Thursday night, for example, my wife, Jean, chose her own way of commemorating those who died in Dunblane Primary School. She wrote a hymn, which ends with this verse:

When dark despair is all around

And falling tears the only sound,

Light one small flame of hope that still

You walk with us, and always will

Enfold in love ever more

All those we love, but see no more.

We must allow ourselves to weep beyond all consolation; we must act out loss, express it in movement, let our bodies speak the words we cannot find. That is why people bring flowers to the scene of a tragedy; that is why Dunblane Primary School today is blanketed with flowers and toys and heartbroken messages. We have to let our grief find physical expression. That's what we'll be doing tomorrow in churches all over Britain. People will stop what they are doing at home or on a walk by the river; they will hear the bells, look up and remember. And silence, perhaps a minute of silence at 11am throughout the nation, will be important as a way of gathering, not our thoughts, but our grief into wordless prayer.

In some places candles, maybe 18 candles, will be lit by children as visible but silent prayers. People will write messages and place them in pots before the altar; but not to be read. Maybe they will be burned after the service. And they must be honest messages expressing anger as well as grief. "Why?" "God, I hate you today!" "Shalom" "Forgive". "Heal".

And the churches mustn't use this outpouring of grief as a way of smuggling in their own message. We believe in a resurrection hope, a hope beyond all tragedy and regret. But we must also respect and stand alongside the hopeless, and allow their grief to express itself in its own way.

Many of them will be in our churches this weekend because they want to be part of the national mourning and because they acknowledge that churches, those "serious houses on serious earth", belong to everyone at times like this. They are places where our finitude and frailty can be acknowledged as in few other places.

I was in San Francisco the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, I went into Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill to pray. They had placed the Stars and Stripes, draped in black silk, in front of a catafalque. I found myself weeping and I was far from alone. Tomorrow we'll weep in churches up and down the land and maybe some will realise for the first time what churches are really for.

The writer is Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Jean Holloway, his wife, is a well-known hymn writer.

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