Creating webs of connectivity and hope

by
28 July 2017

The Grenfell Tower fire has increased the visibility of religious leaders, says Chris Baker

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Trusted safe space for reconciliation: outside St Clement’s, Notting Dale, the Vicar, the Revd Dr Alan Everett, speaks to the media with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (centre), last month

Trusted safe space for reconciliation: outside St Clement’s, Notting Dale, the Vicar, the Revd Dr Alan Everett, speaks to the media with the May...

AS THE traumatic aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire continues to unfold (News, 16 June, 23 June), the rawness of the anger and grief of the victims of the disaster remains undimmed in the absence of obvious milestones to justice and restitution.

A recent Guardian report looked at the part played by the faith communities in the vicinity of the tower since the very earliest hours of the tragedy. They not only co-ordinated emergency relief and ongoing needs, such as bereavement and trauma counselling, but now act as a bridge of communication and outreach between local residents and the local authority.

Churches and mosques are trusted as safe spaces not only to kick-start the very delicate task of reconciliation, but also in which to hear and hold the rawness of the pain and anger still swirling within the community. It was, as the Vicar of St Clement with St Mark, Notting Dale, and St James’s, Norlands, the Revd Dr Alan Everett, pointed out on the Church Times website, not that churches came to the rescue: rather, the parish church and its sister organisation, the Clement St James Centre, were able to help so effectively because of the deep trust that they had built up over years with the wider community.

 

THE key to the power of these responses has been the renewed visibility of religion and religious identity (already very strong in the North Kensington area) to the external world, especially the media and politicians.

One of the most telling remarks from the Guardian piece came from a Methodist minister in the neighbourhood, the Revd Mike Long, who said that, until a month ago, he rarely wore his clerical collar. At 4.30 on the morning of the fire, he put it on, however, and has never taken it off for any public engagement since. “Now,” he says, “my role is much more public, and I need to be identifiable.”

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There are several ways in which this simple story resonates with wider issues. The first is about the confident re-emergence of religion and belief in public life. Where has this new valuing and relaxation regarding public religious identity come from, and how do we understand its value? Will we eventually see the same level of acceptance of other public religious symbols, such as the hijab, emerge, as part of the wider national healing and cohesion that could come out of the trauma of this event?

So much of what has emerged post-Grenfell is this idea that public servants — especially politicians and local authorities — are not being visible and, therefore, escape accountability. The past 40 years of neo-liberal “reform” has masked and occluded the idea of accountability and responsibility. Things just happen; public bodies have been stripped of their regulatory power and authority.

This now must stop. A new public culture must emerge where we choose to be identified as responsible for the accountable and fair running of the public sphere. When religious people proudly but unassertively wear their badges of office — making themselves publicly accountable to implement the values and ethics of their professional and religious identity — this sends an important message.

Then there is the issue of healing and cohesion. It is the public performance by churches, mosques, and other secular institutions and individuals of acts of compassion, solidarity, bridge-building, listening, and counselling, as well as denouncing, that create and restore webs of connectivity and hope.

The reason that so many bad and sad things happen in our society is that we have become disconnected — from each other, and from the environment, but also publicly disconnected from the values and traditions, beliefs and world-views that used to shape and inform the social order that we sought to build.

 

A MUCH needed turn to a sense of national purpose and direction will not come from shrill voices and policies designed to implement British values and demonise those who do not appear to conform to them. Neither can these values be taught in a formulaic and prescriptive way as part of RE classes in our schools.

As the report from the recent Malvern 2017 conference on nation-building reflects, Britain will not be stitched back together again by a “tick-box” approach to values and cohesion.

The values and principles by which we need to construct a new social order out of the ashes of tragic events such as that at Grenfell Tower are “caught”, not taught. They are embodied and performed at local levels.

Our job as public bodies is to reflect and celebrate them, and allow the hope and resilience that they inspire to remind us that the way we run our public life can no longer obey the blind logic of managerialism and algorithms. Rather, our public life is explicitly constructed on the principles of service, accountability, fairness, vocation, and trust.

Whatever our clerical collars are for us, whatever our means of publicly identifying our authentic and professional selves, for the sake of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, and for the sake of preventing catastrophes like it, we need to be loud and proud about who we are: not for the sake of a false pride — or even a false humility — but for the sake of being publicly accountable to one another, and making a transparent commitment to using our beliefs and identities to build a fairer and more interconnected world.

 

Professor Chris Baker is director of the William Temple Foundation. This is an edited version of a blog that was originally published at www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk.

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