I am told that everyone remembers where they were when President Kennedy died. I do not. But I know where I was when I heard of the Aberfan disaster. As its fiftieth anniversary arrives this week I recall its impact, the question I live with still and a man who has come the closest to answering that question for me.
I was preparing to go away for a half term break and when radio programmes were interrupted with the news that a school in a Welsh valley had been swamped by the collapse of a coal tip with the loss of many children expected. I think it was the first disaster that became the focus of intense media interest.
The account that unfolded was excruciating in its intensity and notoriety against a background of the courageous stoicism of the people who lived there.
At a distance both then and now I cannot make any claim that my reaction is of any importance. I am wary of the need, which has become more common over the years to plug into such events in other peoples’ lives to make them my own.
However, the question which Aberfan gave me cracked the smooth surface of my teenage faith: where was God in all that then?
Years of pastoral ministry later I know it is a question that I have confronted in numerous encounters with people lost in the mists of grief and others who honestly wish to work out a way to ask the question with faith in Christ intact.
So all I want do in this blog is offer the words of a priest William Vanstone who wrote for such pastoral encounters and developed a brave pastoral theology. This reflection is found in his first book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense written three years after Aberfan.
I should note that he pursues a version of my question .It is more to the point: how is God present in such times? So he wrote:
We do not believe, of the children who died at Aberfan, that God willed their death as a means to some greater good….. We believe that, at the moment when the Aberfan mountain slipped ’something went wrong’; God’s step of creative risk was the step of disaster; the creative process passed out of control… Our preaching on the Sunday after the tragedy was not of a God who, from the top of the mountain, caused or permitted, for his own inscrutable reasons, its disruption and descent; but of One who, received, at the foot of the mountain, its appalling impact, and Who, in the extremity of endeavour, will find yet new resources to restore and to redeem.
If the creation is the work of love, its ‘security’ lies not in its conformity to some predestined plan but in the unsparing love which will not abandon a single fragment of it, and man’s assurance must ne the assurance not that all that happens is determined by God’s plan but that all happens is encompassed by his love’.
This extract comes from English Spirituality From 1700 to the present day by Gordon Mursell.