Ministry at Grenfell Tower

Gabby Thomas writes: On Wednesday 14th June, like the rest of the UK, I awoke to the most harrowing pictures of Grenfell Tower on fire. Like many others, when the circumstances began to emerge around how 24 storeys could burn to the ground that easily, I was utterly speechless: How could something so simply prevented be happening in our day? Whilst I have plenty to say about it, my purpose here is not to unpack the politics behind what’s happened, but to share a few thoughts on the response of English churches to this disaster, in particular, the response of the Church of England in which I am ordained. I am a curate in the Kensington Episcopal Area— in fact several miles out of town, but the diocese stretches out a long way.

Unable to get over on Wednesday and Thursday, I was kept up to date by friends who live within sight of Grenfell, by social media and by emails to all the clergy in the area. It was clear to me that the churches were really stepping up, offering donation space, food, clothes and water. On Thursday, all the clergy received an email from Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, suggesting that if possible we should wear our dog-collars and walk through the streets, offering a listening ear and prayer for those who wanted it. He said that people were keen to talk.

On Friday, I made it over to North Kensington and was quite taken aback by what I found. As I wandered about, locals grabbed my arm often accompanied by the words, “Excuse me, vicar” and began to share stories and ask me what church I was from. One man whose friend had died in the fire wanted to show me the photographs he has taken of his harrowing night. The need for me to look in depth at every single photograph (there were hundreds) was understandably very great. Another friend joined him and began to tell me about the sound of bodies falling from the tower, and how one man had fallen to the ground under the weight of catching a baby from a great height. I listened, with no response other than tears which I shed with their tears. I felt a strange mixture of sadness and anger at what they had experienced, whilst also being extremely glad to be there with them.

At one point, a woman spotted my collar and started thanking me for being part of a group of people whom she identified as being those who were standing with the community. She was extremely angry about the response of the local council and said, “you Christians have really stood by us and done what they should have done.” I felt really ‘proud,’ if that’s the right word, to be counted with those who stand by the ones who are suffering. Also, proud of my church, which in her response to this has been getting it right.

I really cannot do justice to the conversations and encounters; whether they were volunteers from afar or locals, the response to me in my collar was the same: people wanted to be held and to be heard. No one asked me for anything else, and in many ways compared to the people who were offering out free food and water etc. I was really only being present.

However, it was so clear that in addition to these other basic needs, the presence of the Church was, and is, vital. A presence that is not related to the past few days, but in fact dates back for centuries, embodied in buildings which are landmarks to many. For the people I spoke to, and I realise others might have felt differently, the Church symbolised a body of people who cared about the injustice they had suffered and would stand by them. They saw the Church not undermining their suffering with trite supplications, but rather standing with them and asking for answers.

On Friday evening, a service was held at St Peter’s in Notting Hill with the purpose of praying for and lamenting with the community. Christians gathered together to cry out to God and to mourn with those who mourn. Graham Tomlin offered his reflection on the experience of the past few days, not shying away from the reality of the situation; he spoke of being with a family as they received the news that their child had died in the fire. He noted the various moves through shock, compassion, grief, anger, and the need for hope. Again, as I looked around the full church, I felt a sense that what we were doing in providing a public space for lament and prayer, was really very important.

Going over again Saturday, I was struck by the subdued anger that rippled through the streets. People still wanted to talk, and were still very grateful, but they were also extremely angry. Quite so! I felt very aware of the need for safe ways to express anger and also that our response to the anger is so crucial. I was very pleased to see Bishop Graham gathering together a group of survivors, and accompanying them to Downing Street to tell their stories. This is how the CofE should be known. There are some very big questions of justice here, and I’m so glad that the Church has not shied away from them. And if we are to be faithful to Christ’s call, we must continue to ask the difficult questions.

Whilst of course, we must celebrate the incredible outpouring of compassion which has been visible on the streets, it is vital we allow a space for those who are angry and mourning, to be angry and to mourn. For those who have lost everything need a space to ask the questions, to name the injustices and to shout out to God. I recalled Psalm 88, and I could not help but wonder if we need a season, even if only a short season, where Psalm 88 guides our prayers.

I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.

For what’s significant about Psalm 88 is that it does not resolve itself in quite the same way as the other psalms. The psalmist closes the psalm despondently because in his particular situation, it’s the only adequate response. Of course it comes in a body of psalms which ultimately end hopefully; nevertheless the psalmist sees fit to close this psalm unhappily. I’ve always been grateful for Psalm 88 when times are tough. I’m not saying that we don’t need hope, or that we should not be preaching a message of hope, because we know that through the resurrection, death is not the end of the Christian story. Of course we preach hope. At the same time, the Bible does provide us with rich resources to draw upon in times such as these, resources such as the book of Lamentations, Job and the Psalms; resources which give us words with which to cry out to God when we do not have words of our own. It also shows us that there is a need sometimes to allow people to experience pain, knowing that God is with us in it.

Looking forward, we need to make sure that we continue to stand firmly beside those who will be attempting to rebuild devastated lives; whether we do that in prayer and/or financially, it is clear that support will be needed for more than these acute first few days. Our God is the God of everlasting faithfulness and our goal must be to embody the same steadfastness towards those who need it, especially steadfastness in our campaigning to make sure that this type of disaster never reoccurs. As we have been doing for centuries, Lord, we cry together, “Thy Kingdom Come.”

Revd Dr Gabby Thomas is curate at St Mary with St Alban, Teddington.

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19 thoughts on “Ministry at Grenfell Tower”

  1. Thank you Gabby Thomas and all your colleagues. You have shown a deep understanding that people need someone by their side. A wonderful witness to your faith.

  2. ‘And if we are to be faithful to Christ’s call, we must continue to ask the difficult questions’
    To be faithful to Christ’s call, and not be ashamed of him and his (sometimes highly unpopular) words, should we not also draw attention to the warning for all of us in what Christ says in Luke 13:1-5?

    Phil Almond

    • A highly inappropriate and insensitive comment Phil in the circumstances and i suggest that you need to talk this issue through with someone offline.

    • Phil: in the light of such a very good post by Gabby I feel ashamed that a fellow Christian could make the comment that you do. It’s insensitive and deeply unhelpful. I hope that Ian might consider removing it.

    • Hi Phil,

      If others, in the wake of this disaster, decided to vilify the residents of Grendell Towers by citing the tragedy as a prime example of divine wrath, then they should be humbled by Christ’s rebuke about responding insensitively to tragedy.

      Instead, it’s terrifying ironic that you would expect Christians to assume the role of those who encouraged the view that such extreme and sudden suffering should be interpreted and declared as an unmistakeable portent of the impending doom prepared for the ungodly.

      In Luke 13:1 – 5, the lesson from Christ’s response, on hearing of sudden tragedy, is that no moral high-ground can be gained by interpreting the demise of others in this way. People are won to Christ, not by abject fear, but by persuasion of the truth.

      In fact, it is specifically the all-too-common complacency among the religious which leads to spiritual improvidence and unreadiness to confront the inevitable turbulent and uncertain circumstances of the human condition and which Christ addresses, when he warns: ‘Except you repent. you shall all likewise perish’!

      • David
        ‘Instead, it’s terrifying ironic that you would expect Christians to assume the role of those who encouraged the view that such extreme and sudden suffering should be interpreted and declared as an unmistakeable portent of the impending doom prepared for the ungodly’.

        But ‘Except you repent you shall all likewise perish’ exactly does express
        ‘the view that such extreme and sudden suffering should be interpreted and declared as an unmistakeable portent of the impending doom prepared for the ungodly’.

        ‘Repent’ and ‘perish’ in the same sentence indicates that Jesus is talking about the Day of Judgment and he is clearly saying (‘likewise’)that the events mentioned are a picture of that Day. (Compare John 3:16).

        This warning of the wrath to come is part of the truth which appears throughout the New Testament, not least from Christ’s own lips, alongside the wonderful command and exhortation to embrace the sincerely offered invitation to submit to Christ in repentance, faith, love, obedience and fear, and so be delivered from that wrath and be brought into a new and living relationship with God.

        The reference in my post to these verses does not and was not intended to ‘vilify the residents of Grenfell Towers by citing the tragedy as a prime example of divine wrath’ but was to suggest that as well as doing all possible to help and support the survivors of the Grenfell tragedy, Christians should also echo Christ’s warning to his hearers that such events are a reminder of the wrath that faces us all, because we are all sinners, on ‘that Day’, unless we repent – that death may come upon any of us at any time, tragically and without warning, and so ‘flee to Christ, make no delay, for this may be your dying day’.

        Phil Almond

        • Philip,

          The suddenness of this tragedy is a reminder of the precariousness of life and that the only real security lies in Christ’s assurance of eternal life beyond the grave.

          However, Christ’s rebuke did not leverage tragedy as a ‘reminder of the wrath that faces us all’. Instead, Christ’s ‘repent or perish’ reminder (which is missed by your explanation) was a pointed criticism of self-righteous hubris exhibited by those who emphasised to him the demise of the Galileans at prayer as evidence of their condemnation by God.

          John the Baptist and Christ had already declared the ‘repent or perish’ ultimatum throughout Judaea and that would have already been heard, understood and acted upon by ‘him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My [God’s] word’ (Is. 66:2)

          So, the gospel that we preach should reassure those humbled by the precariousness of life that God’s grace in Christ is sure: that ‘these are the ones I look on with favour’

      • I would also suggest reading Charles Spurgeon’s sermon entitled Accidents not punishments.

        He preached this message after two terrible incidents The first was on Sunday, August 25, 1861, when a nightmarish collision between two trains in the Clayton Tunnel (a 1.5-mile long tunnel between London and Brighton) had claimed 23 lives and severely injured hundreds (on Sunday, August 25, 1861).

        Barely more than two weeks later, on Monday, September 2, another train wreck in Kentish Town Fields (in North London) claimed 15 more lives.

          • Unfortunately not. However, I’d heartily recommend the anthology, Sermon Classics by Great Preachers, which contains the full text of Spurgeon’s stirring message.

        • I have found what looks like a genuine version of Spurgeon’s sermon on Luke 13:1-5, ‘Accidents not Punishments’.
          He makes two big points:


          I agree with that. My posts were not saying that.

          ‘II. Now to our second point. WHAT USE, THEN, OUGHT WE TO MAKE OF THIS VOICE OF GOD AS HEARD
          Two uses—first, inquiry and secondly, warning.’

          Within this second point Spurgeon said:

          ‘This is the proper use to make of these accidents. This is the wisest way to apply the judgments of God to our own selves and to our own condition. O Sirs, God has spoken to every man in London during these last two weeks. He has spoken to me.
          He has spoken to you. Men, women and children. God’s voice has rung out of the dark tunnel—has spoken from the sunset and from the glaring bonfire round which lay the corpses of men and women. And He has said to you, “Be you also ready, for
          in such an hour as you think not, the Son of Man comes.” It is so spoken to you that I hope it may set you inquiring, “Am I prepared? Am I ready? Am I willing now to face my Judge and hear the sentence pronounced upon my soul?” When we have used it thus for inquiry, let me remind you that we ought to use it also for warning. “You shall all likewise perish.” “No,” says one, “not likewise. We shall not all be crushed, many of us will die in our beds. We shall not all be burned. Many of us will tranquilly close our eyes.” Yes, but the text says, “You shall all likewise perish.” And let me remind you that some of you may perish in the same identical manner. You have no reason to believe that you may not also suddenly be cut off
          while walking the streets. You may fall dead while eating your meals—how many have perished with the staff of life in their hands! You shall be in your bed and your bed shall suddenly be made your tomb. You shall be strong, hale, hearty and in health—and either by an accident or by the stoppage of the circulation of your blood, you shall be suddenly hurried before your God. Oh, may sudden death to you be sudden glory!’

          In this passage Spurgeon, with far greater passion, eloquence and concern, essentially makes the point that I was trying to make in my posts.

          Phil Almond

          • Hi Phil,

            You wrote: but ‘repent or you shall all likewise perish’ exactly does express the ‘view that such extreme and sudden suffering should be interpreted and declared as an unmistakeable portent of the impending doom prepared for the ungodly’

            In contrast, your quotes from Spurgeon’s sermon don’t tally with this.

            He does make the point that life itself is inherently precarious. However, the suddenness of death, which Spurgeon describes, confronts both saints and sinners alike.

            Whether we repent or not, we can all perish from this life unexpectedly. The difference for those who put their trust in Christ is as Spurgeon describes: ‘Oh, may sudden death be to you sudden glory’

            In summary, Spurgeon is reminding his hearers about the precariousness of life and, in the light of this, the importance of constant readiness to meet our Maker.

            This is not the same as attempting to construe extreme and unexpected tragedy (which can befall anyone) as ‘a picture of that Day’, especially when it is in that Day that we in Christ will be granted eternal redemption.

  3. Very movede by your experience. I am a “retired” minister, now 80, living in a Devon village. Some people said to me they shuld not be showing this news all the time. I disagreed with them. Sitting there, watching the news and hearing people’s experiences, weeping with them, praying for them I felt that in some way I was supporting them.

  4. Here’s a Lament I wrote following Grenfell Tower fire and other recent events:

    No Words by Nick Waterfield

    No words
    Can stop the tide of tears,
    Mend the broken hearts,
    Or end the inconsolable pain.

    No words
    Can explain how, or why
    Some lives are apparently valued over others,
    Or why we get what we don’t deserve.

    No words,
    No words,
    No words.

    So let quiet fall,
    Let the sobbing and the crying be heard,
    Let tears tell the stories,
    And wounds and scars make noise.

    Soon there will be time again for words;
    But for now – listen!


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