MANY people have described the reaction of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, to the Grenfell Tower tragedy as “remarkable”. I agree; it was. But few have understood how a small church in an impoverished part of North Kensington could have delivered such a swift, effective, and sustained response to an urban atrocity.
One suggestion has been that other churches came to the rescue. Although other Anglican churches made a welcome contribution to the deluge of volunteers, this is a profound misreading, which urgently needs to be corrected. The parish, and the parish alone, led — and continues to lead — the St Clement relief effort.
How is this possible? Almost entirely through the partnership between the church and its sister organisation, the ClementJames Centre.
This partnership is not new, but represents decades of outreach and care. The church and centre work so effectively together because we have been doing so for years. And, more important still, the social gospel that has born such fruit has its roots in the very foundation of the church.
St Clement’s was consecrated exactly 150 years ago as a result of the efforts of the Revd Arthur Dalgarno Robinson. Working unpaid, he built the church from his own funds, to serve people in the most desperately impoverished and exploited conditions. In recognition of his service, a local-authority ward is named after him.
The parish’s proclamation of the social gospel was given fresh impetus in the late 1970s by Fr David Randall. His community project was further developed during the ministry of my predecessor, the Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard, leading to the secular — though Christian-inspired — charity The ClementJames Centre. The national charity IntoUniversity also emerged from this initiative, and is also on site.
The ClementJames Centre, based in the parish buildings at the back of the church, serves 2500 people each year. It helps unemployed people to find work, immigrants to learn English, and children from highly deprived backgrounds to make the most of their abilities.
AS A result, when the appalling — and utterly avoidable — tragedy of Grenfell happened, we had on site a large number of staff, who have worked untiringly with volunteer support to attempt to meet the needs of those who continue to seek our help.
More significantly still, the centre’s work has taken the parish deep into the Muslim community — a community that has suffered grievous losses. Muslims trust us. They have turned to us for help; they have worked with us as volunteers.
People from all backgrounds and faiths have come flooding into the church, and the beautiful gardens at the back of the church, because they are well-known places of safety. That trust exists because of the care and compassion they have received for decades, not only from the pastoral rites of the church, but also from The ClementJames Centre. All have felt able to make the church and gardens their makeshift home.
A recent survey of local views of the ClementJames Centre shows that it has garnered trust from its association with the church, thus setting up a virtuous circle, taking us all deep within the wider community. This deep, trusting relationship with the wider community is one part of our strength.
THE other part is that we actually live here. Our church members, and members of the centre, have friends who have died or who have disappeared, as well as friends who, thankfully, have survived. Church members themselves have been evacuated from nearby homes. Some of them never want to return, because of the things they have seen and heard. Our children are aware of empty places in their classrooms. The trauma has hardly begun to emerge, and will live on for years.
Because our church members are local, they share it.
When the General Synod meets next week, I urge its members to use this opportunity to reconsider the significance and value of the parish church. I also urge those who speak about it to avoid the ambiguous and woolly term “local church”, but to speak proudly, precisely, and powerfully of the “parish church”. The parish church is a living icon of God’s love, connecting with people in ways that we hardly begin to understand and so often underestimate.
It is the parish church, open to the community and embedded in the community, which can alone bring hope — the hope that comes from day-to-day expressions of compassion and solidarity.
The Revd Dr Alan Everett is Vicar of St Clement with St Mark, Notting Dale, and St James’s, Norlands.