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After the Fire: Finding words for Grenfell, by Alan Everett

20 July 2018

Grenfell tested all that a parish church stands for, says Peter Selby

IF HEADLINES about serious failures have infected all of us to some degree with a feeling of guilt by association, then we must also allow ourselves some hopefulness and encouragement, along with inspiration and challenge, when we read of a fellow-Christian doing the Christian thing, a fellow-priest doing the priestly thing, in a place of high demand and overwhelming pressure.

Thirty-two very short chapters, with short sentences that make short paragraphs, convey something, perhaps, of the shortness of breath and the sapping of energy which came the author’s way on the night of that terrible fire and in the days, weeks, and months that have followed.

The first part of the book (Features, 8 June) is a description of what happened from the moment when Fr Everett was wakened from his sleep with news of the Grenfell fire, and set off with a colleague into what has turned out to be an ongoing sphere of ministry: of collaborative working with community organisations and leaders of other faiths, of worship, and of faithful presence in the midst of indescribable trauma.

Dealing with the piles of sometimes inappropriate gifts that poured in was, one senses, a particularly heavy and unwelcome demand, even while the instinctive generosity is affirmed.

The author takes us in the second part of the book from narrative to reflection, again with economy of words, on biblical and doctrinal themes that these grievous events brought into the mind of the one entrusted with the cure of souls.

It is in the third part that he engages his readers with the task indicated in the subtitle of the book, of finding words — of description, outrage, grief, advocacy, and hope — for Grenfell Tower. As the months go by and the independent inquiry accumulates words beyond counting, it will be at least as important that this slim volume records words from the time of the fire and its immediate aftermath, particularly with the poem that the author published just three months after the event. Different words will be needed at different times; it is good to have these from close at hand.

Almost as an aside, as though a subsidiary aim of the book, Everett speaks of offering a “stress-tested rationale for parish ministry”. Stress-tested? Grenfell? For all the awfulness of the fire, the grief, and the outrage that it rightly arouses, this book is an understated witness, the more compelling for that.

Those of us who have the image of the tower in flames imprinted on our memory may read here of the instinctive first response of the parish priest — to ensure that the altar candles of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, were alight with their constant message of God’s welcome and God’s presence, even as the drama outside unfolded; for what are “stress-tested” here are the Christian inheritance, the eucharistic life, and the priestly formation that can prepare a person and a community to respond to events beyond their worst nightmare.

What a reader might want to say to the author, the congregation, the surrounding community, the volunteers, the author’s bishop — in short, to all those whose offering is celebrated — yes, celebrated — by this book is that, while we feel the universal horror at what you have had to face, we thank you with all our hearts for the quality and the grace of the response that you were enabled to make.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

After the Fire: Finding words for Grenfell
Alan Everett
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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