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London vicar ‘hangs on to hope’ after arson at Palmers Green

23 February 2024

J. Thomas/Geograph

St John the Evangelist, Palmers Green, was set on fire on New Year’s Day

St John the Evangelist, Palmers Green, was set on fire on New Year’s Day

FORENSICS have confirmed that arson caused the fire that extensively damaged St John the Evangelist, Palmers Green, in north London, on New Year’s Day. The police are also investigating a seven-month campaign of misogyny and hate crime directed at the Vicar, the Revd Julie Coleman. A person has been escorted from the church on several occasions.

The church is known for its community outreach, notably its foodbank and the work with refugees that it runs from The Ark, in its parish centre (News, 5 November 2021). Ms Coleman says that she implemented a “zero-tolerance” approach to the anti-social behaviour that was rife in the area when she arrived three years ago, and works closely with the local council and police to build relationships.

The fire, started by the high altar, damaged stained-glass windows and artefacts, was hot enough to melt the candles, and had been nurtured like a barbecue, forensics found. Police told Ms Coleman that, had she gone into the church when it was ablaze, she would have been asphyxiated. “What’s sad is that it was started in the most sacred part of the church,” she told the Church Times last week.

“We’re hanging on to hope at the moment: it might only be tiny sparks of hope, but the encouragement we’ve had has given us the strength to dust ourselves off from the haters and to keep going while praying for peace in the world we’re all part of.

“I’m aware that people are fighting through their own personal protective challenges after the fire; others have had to cancel things like weddings and baptisms. We’re working really closely with our architects and with Ecclesiastical Insurance and our builders. The Bishop of London has been great, coming out to see me and my children; and the police and fire services have been so supportive.”

The church is likely to be closed for six months, while work and worship are transferred to the parish centre and The Ark. Ms Coleman has received support from other faiths and denominations: Muslim women from Afghanistan have made her a new chasuble to replace the one damaged by smoke; and a Roman Catholic priest has brought her new altar linen. Others have ensured that the family has groceries and hot meals.

Refugees know what it is to have pain. It gives us a common denominator, a bond. People who have been war-torn are now supporting me. I haven’t experienced as much hate as they have, but I’ve been on the receiving end of it,” she said.

Adversity brings resilience, but misogyny in the church and community isn’t talked about enough, she concludes. “I’m shocked that there isn’t support in the Church, and I’m hoping this draws awareness to it. I believe we can grow from this challenge.”

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