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Grenfell: After the fire, anger; after the anger, what?

08 June 2018

Alan Everett reflects on the year since the Grenfell Tower fire, and calls on the Church to inhabit its prophetic calling


Prebendary Alan Everett in front of Grenfell Tower, in December

Prebendary Alan Everett in front of Grenfell Tower, in December

AS WE entered the second week [after the fire at Grenfell Tower], support services became increasingly focused and streamlined. The official death toll was rising, and people were beginning to lose hope that their relatives were just “missing”. Places of worship and community centres were essential places of refuge.

There was a new tenderness in the air; friendships were intensified. This quality of gentleness was apparent in the contribution by a man called Richard. He travelled each day to be with us, from some distance away. At first, no one quite knew why he was cutting up empty plastic water bottles. Then we saw that he was making improvised containers for the flowers out on the street. He attached the containers to the church railings, to create a beautiful display. As flowers continued to be brought to the site, he made new containers, and kept them all watered. He did this for several weeks, preserving flowers that otherwise would have died in the baking heat.

We also felt a strong sense of togetherness at church. The congregation at St Clement’s is local; most live on the surrounding estates. Families had been evacuated. Some — especially those with children — had decided that they were never going to return. Recurring sounds and images afflicted a large number of residents. As we gathered on Sunday mornings, a quality of shared fragility was all too apparent. No one was surprised by sudden emotional reactions.

In the course of those first few weeks, we received a number of visitors at the Sunday eucharist. Some popped in, after spending time reading the tributes and the appeals for those missing on the railings outside the church. Others made a special journey to be with us.

Led by the Revd Andrew Willson [the co-ordinating chaplain at Imperial College, London], the church began to offer a vigil every Monday evening, and this continued to December. People came to light candles, and to experience a few moments of peace and quiet, in an intimate and prayerful space.

PA Prebendary Alan Everett speaks to the media outside St Clement’s, on 18 June 2017

However, communication with the outside world was problematic. Faith leaders were concerned that, if they did not speak to the media, other unrepresentative and self-appointed figures would take their place. In the autumn, the parish’s renewed engagement with the press created an issue for the ClementJames Centre, as it had committed itself to a media blackout. Not everyone understood that the church and the Centre were different organisations, with different roles and responsibilities within the community.

Even so, talking to the media — in time — seemed the right thing to do. Faith leaders were in a position to act as advocates. Public sympathy for residents fluctuated over the first six months. Some felt that the survivors were being given too much, and that there was an over-emphasis on the fire, as opposed to other major incidents: for example, the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena. Others exaggerated the extent of outside political interference, which had the effect of minimising the depth of feeling in North Kensington.

Faith leaders were able to speak about the suffering that they encountered, to help create a bridge between those most affected and those further away, to bear witness to what the community had experienced, and underline the wider implications of the disaster. For example, at the invitation of Prince Harry, Abdurahman Sayed, the CEO of the Al-Manaar Cultural Centre and Mosque, delivered Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on 27 December. This was one of many occasions when local faith leaders tried to deepen understanding, and to promote a culture of sympathy and respect. The impact of these interventions may have been minor, but we felt that any attempt to keep the issue alive was important.

However, the media often wanted a simple summary of what “the community” was feeling. This raised the thorny issue of representation. We had to be careful to ensure that we spoke only about what we knew. Journalists would sometimes want to be put in touch with survivors from the tower. But, in the early days, the majority were far too traumatised to deal with the press. On the whole, survivors did not come forward until four or five months after the fire, by which time many others had spoken on their behalf.

There was no single “community” of North Kensington: no one voice, no one perspective, but a multiplicity of voices — often very angry. This anger became increasingly apparent in the public meetings held throughout July and August.

Intended as opportunities for the sharing of information with residents, those chairing the meetings struggled to keep control. The first meeting was held at Al-Manaar, the second at St Clement’s. As the YouTube heading of a recording rightly observes, it ended in chaos. Thereafter, the heavy burden of public meetings was mostly shouldered by the Notting Hill Methodist Church, and it subsequently became the venue for the highly fractious Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee meetings. The church has a clear view of Grenfell Tower, and is a natural gathering point. The Minister, Mike Long, soon developed a significant community role.

On a rising tide of feeling, questions at those summer meetings were thrown at the police and other statutory authorities. Each answer provoked a flurry of further questions, often at the same time. Those present wanted to know how many had died, when the final figure would be released, how many people had been in the building, why the investigation was taking so long, why it was proceeding as it was, how many had been brought in by the police for questioning, why no one had been charged with murder, and when evacuees would be rehoused. They raised concerns about money, about the quality of key-worker support for survivors, about air quality, and many other matters.

ALAMY Placards are held during the silent march to mark five months since the fire, in November

The inadequacy of building regulations, the process leading to the choice of flammable cladding, the council’s attitude towards the estates, government social housing policy, and a host of other issues were repeatedly raised, in these meetings and elsewhere.

Within three months of the fire, however, some wealthier residents of the borough began to say that a “them and us” attitude had emerged, with no apparent recognition that thousands of residents had been traumatised: both survivors from the tower and others.

We need to remind ourselves what we are talking about here. We are talking about those who stumbled over bodies as they struggled through heavy smoke in a state of terror down the single staircase, those who barely survived, those who saw the fire on the night, those who lost relatives and friends, those who exhausted themselves frantically searching for missing relatives, those who endured weeks of not knowing what had happened to the missing, those who heard people screaming, those who received graphic and harrowing final social-media messages, children who discovered empty places in their school classrooms, those whose balconies were covered in the debris which rained down from the tower, those whose doors were broken down, those who returned to neighbouring flats to find that there was no gas, those who would never be able to return to their flats, those who were evacuated to hotel rooms with distraught children, those many hundreds who were unable to sleep, who relived the event over and over and over again.

The first-hand trauma was extensive, and there was also the second-hand trauma experienced by those trying to help them, for whom the experience of listening and trying to provide some kind of support was exhausting.

The list of things to be angry about was extensive: the provision of only a single staircase in the tower, the absence of a fire escape, cheap cladding that went up in flames as if petrol had been thrown on it, inadequate building regulations, no sprinkler system, no safe spaces within the building, and the poor quality of care by the TMO [tenant management organisation], fuelling speculation that the council had a hidden agenda of wanting the estates to fall into a such a state of disrepair that they would have to be “regenerated” (to include private housing); the advice from the fire service on the night of the fire to “stay put”, and an inadequate access area for fire emergency vehicles, further hampered by the illegal parking of cars. And this list was by no means complete.

Anger can be a challenging emotion, and some of those lamenting the emerging “them and us” attitude may have been feeling defensive. Many residents on the estates also found the anger difficult. At the furious public meeting at St Clement’s, a number of distraught local people left, unable to cope with the level of verbal violence.

The disaster attracted people from outside the area, some of whom addressed the meetings, their contributions adding to the distress of residents. Demonstrations at the Town Hall, with a strong presence of political activists, raised the emotional temperature even higher.

Yet some wealthier residents in Notting Hill or Chelsea were startled to see the people of North Kensington in a state of emotional turmoil, speaking about their marginalisation. In one sense, this was only to be expected; many from the “south” rarely went “north”.

By contrast, residents in the south of our parish — around St James’s Gardens —were both appalled and sympathetic. Their response to the disaster was, in some cases, very generous. They were bewildered that a council which seemed to be doing its job well responded so poorly in the terrible first few days. Some would have housed survivors, had the council seen fit to accept their offers.

As the Vicar, I became a messenger, conveying news of the relief effort to those who wanted to help. At a couple of public events, I was asked to step to the front and speak. I was applauded — not for any eloquence on my part, but simply because people wanted to show support.

The Holland Park environment in the south of the parish was itself useful. Our summer fête in St James’s Gardens — thankfully, no longer smelling of sewage —was a wonderful, happy distraction, just over two weeks after the fire. Working with the PTA of our church school, the fête gave a welcome reprieve to a fantastically diverse gathering of over 500 people, many of whom were still in a state of shock. The committee later opened the gardens to survivors; the tragedy bringing people together.

The complaint about a “them and us” attitude was made by people who felt less personally connected. But this was not the only self-centred response to the catastrophe. Far worse, as far as residents were concerned, was the “grief tourism” which began on a large scale from the very first day. Some visitors were respectful, others less so, taking “selfies” in front of the tower. . .

REUTERS Bernadette Bernard, whose brother Moses died in the fire, accompanied by a friend Jackie Ledger, leaves the commemoration hearings at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in London, last week

THE idea that the church inherits a prophetic calling was strengthened by the Grenfell Tower disaster. When a publicly owned building is consumed by a raging fire, and when that same building stands for months as a tomb and as a site of trauma, the church is required to resource itself from Jesus’s fervour and authority.

In 1982, when I began training for ordained ministry, it was still quite common to hear people say that “politics and religion don’t mix.” At the same time, the Church of England was routinely referred to as the “Tory Party at prayer”. This changed in 1985, with the publication of Faith in the City, a report written by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Areas.

The controversy surrounding the report — some alleged that its authors were communists — indicated that the Church of England had found a new voice. The plight of those trapped in inner-city deprivation was powerfully articulated in the public realm. Faith in the City helped to create a space for faith leaders to speak about poverty and inequality, international development, and our stewardship of the planet.

We talk now of “theology in the public square”, and the Church understands ever more clearly that it has both a right and a duty to address concerns that we face, as one nation among others. In this respect, the international leadership of the Papacy is a matter of supreme importance: Pope Francis has become an extraordinarily effective advocate for justice and compassion.

Recent political developments have shown that many people feel both angry and helpless in the face of globalisation. Creating a connection between people and their governments is now an urgent political task.

Parish ministry gives credibility to those who speak for the Church about social justice. This is, in its own small but significant way, a step towards providing the type of linkage between communities and government that Western democracies usually lack.

Faith communities are locally grounded, and yet have access to a more visible public platform. In situations where they have worked hard to establish credibility and trust, they can help with processes of mediation: for example, in South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As we saw in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, they can also help the powerful to hear the voices of the weak. Of course, they do not do this alone. In order to be effective, they must work in partnership with others: humbly, and from a desire to serve.

The entire infrastructure of “national engagement” — all the way up to conversations with government, and high-profile services in cathedrals and abbeys — is ultimately justified by what the Church does in its parishes. Without a meaningful commitment to an inclusive local ministry, it might hold on to its buildings, and its tokens of power and prestige, but it would lack authenticity.

Yet the Church of England is now at a point where it needs to think very carefully about how to protect its ground-level activity. As it faces serious questions about its future, it needs to decide how committed it is to remaining the Church “of England”, or whether it is content to drift towards being the Anglican Church “in England”.

At senior levels, the imaginative energy of the past few years has been gathered around one particular concept of mission. In an attempt to reach new people in new ways, the Church of England has subtly downgraded the type of embedded, inclusive, “alongside”, incarnational parish ministry which provides a rationale for its status as the Established Church.

Are we clear about what parishes have to offer in the 21st century? Or are they principally seen as an inheritance from the past, with a long, interesting, and sometimes illustrious history, but serving no clear purpose today? Are parish clergy right at times to feel disregarded, as if their ministry is second-best — not really contributing to the big picture, necessary but rather dull? These, and similar questions, represent the proverbial elephant in the Church.

With declining congregations, structural reorganisation is clearly necessary. Those responsible for addressing this problem have a huge challenge, and some difficult choices. They deserve both our respect and our prayers, as they undertake a complex and at times no doubt dispiriting
task. However, many at parish level also feel dispirited: unable to generate a sufficient level of attendance to make them appear “successful”, and at the same time forced to shoulder an often expensive architectural burden, on behalf of both the Church and the wider community.

In this context, we need to find a gentler language of mutual respect, affirmation, and support. We need to be liberated from oppressive models of success, driven by a self-punishing urge to achieve unrealistic outcomes. The Church of England will find a purposeful and sustainable way forward only if there is a concerted and committed attempt to engage with emotional realities at every level, from parishes upwards.

In particular, poor parishes need to be freed from the idea that they are a financial drain which the Church can no longer afford. It is so easy for those ministering in deprived areas to internalise the message that they are the ecclesiastical equivalent of what some in the media savagely label as “benefit scroungers”. Given such spiteful stereotyping, those working and worshipping in poor parishes need to be told that they make a vital contribution to the Church, and are helping to shape its vision.

One way of doing this is to set alongside the current — and important — emphasis on evangelism a complementary emphasis on service and prophecy. Through pastoral care and the ministry of presence, parish churches become hard-wired into a wider community. There will always be occasions when a parish church emerges as an important focal point and resource. This happened at St Clement’s on 14 June 2017. But the Church’s contribution is not limited to traumatic events.

Congregations generally expect their clergy to have something intelligent to say about wider developments. They expect to be supported in their attempts to relate faith to a range of social as well as personal issues. Service and prophecy are a natural and inevitable part of a lively parish church; and often result in faith-based community initiatives.

At the same time, those occupying high-level positions are currently able to draw on ground-level experience to contribute to wider debates about public policy. The Church of England, however, needs to decide whether it is fully committed to maintaining — or better still, extending — its position on the national stage. If so, then it needs to speak much more affirmatively about traditional parish ministry, looking to promote good examples of community engagement.

Perhaps it should now begin using historic reserves to re-energise parishes with very high levels of deprivation — especially in dioceses facing a financial crisis. If we are, indeed, at a critical juncture — as some suggest we are — then the Church of England needs to reinvent itself. It is hard to see how it will be able to do this without a significant investment in the social gospel.

But, most fundamentally of all, we are challenged to embrace something far greater than organisational survival. While each of us has a duty to exercise responsible
institutional stewardship, we must constantly bear two things in mind: first, that, for Jesus, the Kingdom of God was a central proclamation; and, second, that his earthly throne was the cross.

Prebendary Alan Everett is Vicar of St Clement with St Mark, Notting Dale, and St James’s, Norlands.

This is an edited extract from his book After the Fire, published by Canterbury Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).


People behind the hurt, behind the healing

In the early hours of 14 June, last year, Gaby Doherty was woken by her husband, a priest, as he prepared to run to the scene of the fire

SOMETIMES, the horror of what I’ve seen and experienced hits me like a ton of bricks. I want my old life back, the life where the most important thing in my life was getting the kids to school in a clean uniform and feeding them three times a day. The life where I didn’t have to contemplate my neighbours lying dead in a pile of ashes. These are the times it really hurts and I think I’m cracking up. I used to have conversations in my head, and wondered if I was going mad, but that’s not true. It’s perfectly normal for grief to feel like this. Last week, I was angry; this week, I am

sad. Sometimes, I feel a bit of both, and I want to take it out on someone. At times, I have wanted to rant and scream and make up conspiracy theories so there is someone to blame, someone to hate, someone who will pay for all this death and destruction.

I hate conspiracy theories, but do I blame people for having them? No, I don’t. These are days when others’ pain and suffering counts. My pain and suffering counts, and no one outside can quite understand how it feels to be here. Moving past the horror of the building, we’re beyond anger at the Council — we want justice. Some of us want revenge. I want peace for all, but peace seems a long way off. Peace does not look like this broken, hurting community.

The most common thing I have heard people say is that they want this tragedy never to happen again. We want the authorities, the councils, the Government, to learn the lesson and to be safety-conscious, to protect the lives of those they are responsible for housing, even if they spend a fortune in doing it.

I want people to sit up and notice the appalling inequality in the UK. I want rich landowners, property developers, and builders to create beautiful, safe housing for everyone, rich or poor. I don’t want a situation where money determines how safely you sleep in your bed. I want the poor to be a matter for public concern, and not just stepped over by those who have ways of making problems disappear. I want Christians in the UK to be at the forefront of these changes.

I want social justice, and I don’t want to stop at this country: I want to see the world a fairer place. It isn’t enough to buy fair-trade products to help the world’s poor, or fling a bit of money to a charity every time there is a disaster. I want God’s justice to come to earth. I want to see the poor have justice, the hungry fed, and all people to have access to good food, housing, education, and health care. I want to live in a civilised society, and I have no idea how to achieve that.

This is my cost. This is my burden. This is the road of suffering that paves the way to the cross of Jesus. But beyond the cross, beyond the pain, beyond the suffering, is heaven — beautiful, glorious heaven, where we will be one with God and where finally all of this craziness will make sense.

. . . I would love to tell you that those who failed to do their duties were punished, that the criminals were caught, and that the world was a safe place again. But it’s not that easy.

This terrible tragedy in Kensington in 2017 highlights two issues.

The first is that bad things happen, and sometimes there are people making these things happen.

The second thing is that where there is tragedy, there will be people trying to make things better and heal the hurts. Hope is a real concept given to us by God to take us through pain and into a gradual healing. He uses a myriad of people to help out, and they may not be the people you expect them to be. They may be the homeless man giving his only coat, or the child who tips out her piggy bank, or the Muslim who welcomes the Christian to pray in his peaceful space, but this is real life. This is community, where we share humanity despite our diversity. When the worst happened, we all grieved. Then we worked together to try and rebuild our lives and to bring comfort to those most affected.

If this translates into lasting change, there will truly be hope rising from Grenfell.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15.13).

This is an edited extract from Grenfell Hope: Stories from the community, published by SPCK on 14 June at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.09).

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