This evening between 500 and 600 Christians from across Rotherham gathered in the Minster in the heart of the town to pray together. It was a remarkable gathering.
Nine days ago an independent report was published. The report revealed over 1400 instances of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2003. The town is in shock. People feel dismayed, ashamed, perplexed and angry. The effects will be felt for years to come.
This evening the Churches came together simply to pray and to begin a process of healing and rebuilding. There were two separate gatherings earlier in the evening in one of the local parks and outside the offices of Rotherham Borough Council and people walked from there to the Minster.
The ancient church at the heart of the town was full with standing room only. Every stream of the Christian church was there: Methodists; URC; Baptist; Pentecostal; Black Majority churches; Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Coptics and Community Churches.
The gathering was not a service in the normal sense. There was no singing, no sermon, no formal readings. Groups of priests and ministers from the different churches led prayers from the heart in a whole variety of styles.
There was a whole range of emotion in the prayers. People expressed anger, disbelief, compassion for the victims, care for the whole community, and questions of different kinds. We prayed for the police and the local Council. We prayed for community cohesion and for the Muslim communities. We prayed for the welfare of the whole of Rotherham. We prayed (movingly) for the victims and yet also for the perpetrators. We prayed for a change of atmosphere across the town. We prayed for the ministers and pastors who will lead their communities forward. We prayed for the safety and security of children and young people. We prayed for a new beginning. We prayed.
Those who came were young and old, women and men, from different races and cultures and backgrounds.
This was the largest prayer meeting I’ve been in the five years I’ve been Bishop of Sheffield. It was also the most heartfelt and passionate. There was urgency and sorrow and hope.
It’s just a beginning, of course: the beginning of a long process of rebuilding. On Tuesday the Minster will be open all day (as it normally is) but with an invitation to all the people of Rotherham to come in and sit for a while and pray and reflect on what has happened. We will dedicate a special prayer space as a focus for the months to come.
It’s just a beginning but after nine days of reflection on these appalling events, it was a small sign of grace and hope and a willingness to see things change. Please pray for Rotherham.