On Sunday the priest in charge of St Clement’s, North Kensington, was interviewed on the radio, describing the lack of contact his church, and other places of worship, had from the local authority while caring for those affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower over the previous few days. When a disastrous event occurs, places of worship have an assumed place in helping to deal with the aftermath. They provide space, shelter, and ready-to-hand networks of people to channel effort. What they lack is strategic oversight of whatever the event is: that needs to come from elsewhere, from a statutory body.
In 1968 we had floods in this part of Surrey. The then new-ish incumbent of Swanvale Halt church, Father Barlow, took to a dinghy to pluck residents out of their homes and take them to safety, and this did public perception of him no harm at all – he’d previously been viewed as a slightly dangerous Anglo-Catholic extremist who wanted to make the services at the church invisible with incense-smoke. People remembered it for a long time: I wish there’d been photographs taken. When we had (somewhat less serious) floods a few years ago, as a church we had no direct involvement, although one of our pastoral assistants worked very closely with groups of local residents campaigning about the painfully slow refurbishment of their flooded homes. Nevertheless we recalled the story of Fr Barlow and wondered what we should do as a church to respond more directly to any such event in the future. We discovered that almost every public space in the vicinity is registered with the local Council as a ‘designated place of assembly’ and there are also emergency generators round about too, so that puts any effort we might provide into perspective.
The point is that the local authority has, as it’s supposed to have, a plan to manage emergencies and in this part of Surrey that certainly includes interaction with the voluntary bodies in the area, such as churches. It happens here: why not in a western district of central London?