Open the Doors . . .

Last week’s Church Times (13 October 2017) carries a story about an event titled ‘The Parish: Has it had its day?’ held at St Mellitus College during the week. The story opens like this:

The Grenfell Tower fire and the Parsons Green tube bomb showed that if the parish system did not exist, “you’d sure as heck want to invent it,” the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said on Monday evening.

Dr Tomlin spoke at the event about the two parish churches close to these two disasters. For example, St Clement’s, Notting Dale, is only a few hundred yards away from the Grenfell Tower. Its vicar opened the doors at 3 am on the night of the fire and St Clement’s “became a great centre for gifts, for respite for people who had been evacuated from the surrounding blocks and the tower itself.” The parish church in Parsons Green, on the other hand, “was a place in which people could go, sit quietly, take a breath when they were panicked as a result of this event.”

Even to those of us who observed the two events from the safety of our living rooms it was readily apparent that local churches played very prominent roles in the responses to the two events, and both churches and clergy were highly visible in the days and weeks following the Grenfell fire, in particular. We saw clergy and bishops speaking with survivors, politicians and media, we saw parishioners distributing food and hot drinks, and we saw piles and piles of donated clothes, blankets and furniture.

As part of the ‘Tragedy and Congregations’ project, the team has been interviewing clergy about their experiences of responding to similar disasters. The range of events has been very large – from sudden deaths of congregation members, to terrorist attacks and natural disasters – but one action has been almost universal in the context of these varied disasters; “I opened the church”.

A further theme that has emerged from these interviews so far is that clergy have been surprised at the positive reaction that they have received to the church’s involvement. Often expectations of public authorities are high after major disasters. When these expectations are not met the result can be mounting anger and frustration. The Grenfell Tower fire has been a parade example of this. Expectations of churches, conversely, have tended to be low, but have regularly been exceeded. Churches (and mosques and synagogues) are often to be found close by disaster sites and their clergy are in a position to respond quickly (more quickly than local authorities), while congregations offer potential bodies of volunteer workers.

This important role of churches in responding to disasters can make it all the more traumatic when disasters strike so close as to have the effect of forcing churches to close their doors. This was the experience of Southwark Cathedral, for example, following the recent London Bridge attack. The Cathedral might have offered an ideal focal centre for people responding to the attacks, had it not itself become part of the crime scene. Only last week, tragically, the death of a visitor who had fallen from the Whispering Gallery forced the brief closure of St Paul’s Cathedral. Neither of these examples comes close, however, to the experience of residents of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose cathedral was inaccessible following the earthquakes of 2011 until the erection of a cardboard cathedral in 2013.

These disasters aside, it is clear that the role of parish congregations in responding to major disasters is becoming more prominent. As this prominence grows it may be necessary to monitor and manage public expectations. Response to traumatic events can, in the short term, be invigorating and bonding for congregations. When trauma, or the response to it, becomes long term, however, the impact for both congregations and clergy can be very significant and the burden very heavy. These will be matters for the project team to ponder over the life of the project.