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Fire-threatened church in Wennington had just celebrated repairs after a flood

22 July 2022

Sky News

Wennington Church, seen from the air on Wednesday morning

Wennington Church, seen from the air on Wednesday morning

A CHURCH that escaped a blaze during the heatwave on Tuesday had celebrated its restoration after a devastating flood just two days earlier.

Aerial shots on Tuesday showed how a wildfire in Wennington, a village in east London, had blackened the grass in the churchyard but left St Mary and St Peter’s Church apparently unscathed.

The Rector, the Revd Elise Peterson, was able to gain access to the building on Wednesday afternoon. Speaking on Friday, she confirmed that, although the church had filled with smoke, the medieval structure had escaped any discernible damage.

Members of the congregation were not so fortunate. The house of one churchwarden, Tim Stock, was one of the 19 destroyed by the fires in Wennington.

“Either your house is intact, or everything is gone,” Ms Peterson said. Several online fund-raisers have been launched in aid of those who lost their homes and possessions.

During the blaze, Mr Stock had opened the church to allow residents to shelter, before having to evacuate as the fire reached the churchyard and the building filled with smoke.

Just two days before the fire, Ms Peterson said, the congregation had been celebrating the completion of repairs to a flood-damaged portion of the building. The flood, which occurred shortly after Ms Peterson took up post in the benefice in 2020, damaged one of the side aisles in the Grade II* listed church.

The setbacks of floods and wildfires have been accompanied by the more daily challenges facing village churches, she said. “Do we have the people? Do we have the funds to carry on?”

“God is saying we need a church in Wennington,” she concluded on Friday, saying that she recognised the twin disasters as “signs of climate change”. The community’s response to the church’s narrow escape from the fires had given her encouragement, she said.

“People come to me and say: ‘I’m an atheist, I’m a pagan, but I’m glad it’s still standing.’ People see it as a sign of hope.”

Ms Peterson was not in Wennington when the fire started, but was conducting a committal at a crematorium in the area. Finding the village cordoned off by the fire brigade, she went instead to the other church in the benefice, St Helen and St Giles, Rainham, and opened it as a place for people to gather.

The next afternoon, she was able to enter the church in Wennington. “Although the church is untouched, it is still filled with smoke,” she said. “As soon as I opened the door it was overwhelming: immediately your throat is scratchy, and there’s a bitter taste in your mouth.”

Services in the benefice will be held in Rainham until further assessments have been done and the smoke has cleared.

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