The Hillsborough report

Canon Roy Arnold

Away from the “More tea Vicar and can I tempt you to another slice of cake” image of the Clergy of the Church of England (and other denominations), there are many dark places where the clergy find themselves. One of the darkest places in which I found myself was in the midst of the Hillsborough Football disaster in 1989, now firmly back in the news after a twenty-three year struggle to disclose the truth about it all. I was not at the actual football match, but (as Vicar of St Oswald’s Sheffield at the time) I went to the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield shortly afterwards to see what help was needed. There I witnessed football fans desperately searching for friends, among the chaos of a hospital overwhelmed by it all.

Later still, I was in the Gymnasium at the Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground which had by then been turned in a mortuary with 96 body bags in neat rows, and photographs of the dead displayed on the walls. A team of Clergy and Social Workers met the families and friends who by then were arriving from Liverpool and other places. They were taken to the photograph wall and then to identify dead loved ones. I was there principally in my other role of Sheffield Diocesan Press Officer. Later in the week the then Archbishop of York (Dr John Habgood) came to visit Police and Emergency Workers who were pleased to accept his praise for their efforts. Little did we know that some of those same senior officers were cooking up a cover-up plan to shift the blame for the disaster from themselves to the football fans of Liverpool by, among other things, the alteration of reports of what had gone wrong.

Sadly, it almost natural for all large organisations to do this, like the Police in South Yorkshire and the Ambulance Services. Governments do it, and Doctors and Hospitals certainly do it, to protect their own skins. And of course the Church does it, as witness the cover up in the Catholic Church, and in the Church of the England, about the abuse of children. It seems to me that Systems and Large Organisations can became somehow evil, unless they are led by people with integrity (who are not easy to find). It is interesting to note from today’s Gospel passage (Mark chapter 8 vv 27-38) that Jesus he calls his contemporaries “an adulterous and sinful generation”. Well, it seems that things haven’t changed all that much in two thousand years: maybe because we prefer to ignore the Church’s teaching – the teaching of Jesus no less – about the Day of Judgement?

The release of the Hillsborough Report this week has been like a mini day of judgement, with cover ups and lies out in the open, apologies all round from the (then) editor of The Sun, and from politicians and senior police officers: so many people colluding with lies and half-truths. But the secrets of many hearts have been disclosed, and the truth is out, as it will be on the Day of Judgement, if what we believe is true. Our Epistle for today (from James chapter 3 vv 1-12) reminds us of the importance of integrity in leaders such as preachers and teachers – and, in fact, in each and every one of us. What we do not want is for Jesus to be ashamed of us when he comes with his angels. What we want Him to say is: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”, so that, as it said in today’s Psalm (116 vv 1-8), “we may walk in the presence of the Lord and in the land of the living”.

It is often difficult to end a sermon, but this morning these words from St Paul spring to mind: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8)

Not only think about these things but try to put them in action, in both public life and in our own personal lives – and then we shall perhaps deserve to hear our Lord’s “Well Done!”.

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Mark chapter 8 vv 27-38

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

James chapter 3 vv 1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.