A memorial service has been held at a London church close to the scene of a devastating fire in a block of flats that resulted in the deaths of 72 people. Today marks the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, one of the worst peace-time disasters in British history. The congregation at today’s service in St Helen’s Church in North Kensington observed a 72-second silence in memory of those killed. The silence was also observed across the country in Parliament, all government buildings and elsewhere – including during the midday staff Eucharist in the chapel of the Anglican Communion Office, located just one mile from Grenfell Tower.
A year on from fire, the tower block remains a crime scene and is wrapped in white plastic sheeting. On all four sides of the building, the top four floors are covered by a poster with a green heart and the words: “Grenfell Forever in our hearts”. Last night the building was bathed in green light and will be for the next few nights. A number of other prominent London buildings are also being illuminated in green, including Lambeth Palace, the official London residence and offices of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Queen Elizabeth wore a green suit in tribute to the victims during an official engagement in Chester.
In addition to the 72 people who were killed, many more were made homeless – either because they lived in the tower or in neighbouring properties. Some are still without permanent accommodation a year on and have been staying in hotels.
The fire and its aftermath has highlighted the deep variations in wealth within London. While many people remain homeless as a result of the fire, within a very short distance lie expensive luxury homes which are empty – purchased by overseas owners as an investment rather than to live in.
The fire began in a faulty fridge but was able to spread rapidly because of changes to the structure of the building. These included the use of flammable cladding and the puncturing of fire-retardant walls to allow for the running of gas pipes and other services.
While the official response to the fire has been criticised, the work of faith groups has been praised.
A report by Muslim Aid, “Mind the Gap: A Review of the Voluntary Sector Response to the Grenfell Tragedy” said that many voluntary organisations, “however ill-prepared, stepped up to the challenge of meeting the needs of the affected community where the statutory authorities fell short, especially in the early stages.”
The report was produced in partnership with the Al Manaar Cultural Heritage Centre and mosque, the Clement James Centre, Notting Hill Methodist Church and the Rugby Portobello Trust. It highlighted a number of lessons that can be learned. Amongst its recommendations, it says that “in a major, complex disaster, local secular and faith organisations, although they may not have experience in emergency response, can draw on their local rootedness to act quickly and sensitively in line with the needs of communities they understand.
“This capability needs to be better appreciated and supported including in partnership with local authorities and national actors with expertise in emergency response.”
Another report, by the Christian think tank Theos, “After Grenfell: the Faith Groups’ Response”, stressed the need for preparation. It said that faith groups should “develop and practise their emergency responses” and “be confident about their ability to respond in a crisis.” It called on them to “develop and strengthen networks and working relationships and friendships with other faith and civic groups in the community.”
The Theos report also spoke of the need for visibility, and recommended the use of “uniform and/or other identity markers to ensure visibility, both for practical reasons of making oneself seen, but also as a means of establishing one’s faith group as present in solidarity with a community in crisis.”
This afternoon’s service took place in St Helen’s Church in North Kensington. The Parish Church, St Clement’s, opened its doors last night for a 24-hour vigil, “carrying the community in prayer through the first anniversary,” the Diocese of London said. “The church will be a place of healing and quiet, open to all.”
The Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, blessed a “Garden for Peace, Healing and Justice” at the Church on Sunday. “Like the tree of good and evil in the Genesis story, Grenfell Tower today stands as a symbol of tragedy, of pain and our failure to care for one another,” he said in his sermon. “Somehow that building was allowed to get to the stage where a small fire could so quickly get out of hand, with the resulting trauma that this community has experienced over the last year and the 72 precious lives that were lost as a result.
“Yet there is another tree – the tree at the end of the story, the one mentioned in the book of Revelation – ‘the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ It is a symbol of energy, prosperity, creation restored – the Christian hope that one day, evil will be banished, God will make all things right, that peace, justice and joy will reign. It is a symbol of life, just like the garden that we will dedicate at the end of this service.
“Yet how do we get from one to the other? How do we move from a symbol of tragedy and despair, to a picture of life and fruitfulness? That is where the third tree comes in. It is the tree that was cut down, and reshaped into a crude wooden cross, on which Jesus Christ, the Son of God was crucified, an event we recall every time we break bread & pour out wine, as we do today, to recall the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus.
“Christian faith tells us that when we grieve and sorrow, God does not stand far off watching, but comes to be with us right in the middle of that grief and sorrow. This week will be a painful and difficult one for many in this community. It will bring back harsh memories and vivid reminders of loved ones whom we have lost; the confusion, grief, anger of those days last summer and many since.
“Yet in the middle of that pain, we have this pledge that God meets us in it, and stands alongside us. According to this story, God is a Father who knows exactly what it is to watch a Son suffer and die, a God to whom we can therefore come with our sorrows. A small sign of that is this building, which, over the past year, has been a place at the heart of this community, where people have brought their tears, prayers, grief, longings – as we read in our gospel reading – like a shrub, where ‘the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ As this building stands in the heart of this community so God is present with us in our pain and confusion, offering us his presence and his comfort.”