Over a year after the fire, it is still too early to allocate definitive blame for the Grenfell Tower fire. Fingers have been pointed at RBKC, the fire service, the building industry, the government and many more. The Public Inquiry will hopefully get to the bottom of questions of responsibility and accountability. Yet the tragedy has shed light on one aspect of the way civil society works, or did not work at the time of the fire and since.

As is well known, the immediate response from the authorities in the aftermath of the fire was, as the Prime Minister herself acknowledged, ‘not good enough’. Local residents I met would have used a less polite phrase. The council was at the time largely invisible, the messages from government confused. In this vacuum, local community groups quickly filled the gap. Where the council and government stuttered, faith and community groups stepped in. Churches, mosques, community centres and the like opened their doors to provide the help that was desperately needed. Places of worship quickly became emergency relief depots and counselling centres, where traumatised survivors jostled uncomfortably with volunteers, journalists and chefs serving up food for these pop-up villages.

Volunteer relief effort
Volunteers help bring many supplies to survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster

A number of reports published around the time of the one year anniversary, from Muslim Aid and from the Christian Think Tank Theos, highlighted the lack of co-ordination. As these relief centres emerged, there was little co-ordination between them, and nowhere to rehouse the mountain of clothes and goods that were flooding in. Volunteers were left wondering what to do, and how to manage this community trauma and the spontaneous and overwhelming outburst of compassion that delivered far more than was needed ­– wonderful as it was. On the Friday morning after the fire, I was asked if I could facilitate a meeting between the Prime Minister and local residents. A few phone calls later, I found myself sitting in the local parish church, guiding a meeting between Mrs May and a group of survivors, local residents and volunteers, beginning a dialogue between local residents and the highest office in the land. Those conversations helped to kick-start co-ordinated support that began to reach those directly affected by the tragedy.

At the time, the Church played a brief but crucial role in making a connection between individuals and families and the apparatus of state power. And local groups such as churches, mosques, community centres and locally-based charities have continued to provide on-the-ground psychological support as well as hosting opportunities to grieve and remember. They could do so because they have deep roots in such communities. St Clement’s church, for example, within whose parish Grenfell Tower stands, along with its associated charity, the Clement James Centre, rose to the occasion as a result of many years of worship, witness and community building.

Outside St. Clement's Church Notting Dale Lane
Outside St. Clement's Church Notting Dale Lane
The Grenfell tragedy revealed a disturbing distance between government – both local and national – and the realities of local community living. But then again, maybe that is not too surprising. In an increasingly complex society, it is hard for those in government to know everything about life on the ground in local communities.

One result of the rampant individualism of our age is that there can seem nothing of any significance between the autonomous individual and the power of the state. Civil society needs community groups such as locally rooted churches, with the spiritual motivation and the local connections to offer and receive immediate help. They provide a vital link between the individual and local or national government. Civil society needs effective government: we need the state to manage, regulate and co-ordinate. Individuals deserve the opportunity to flourish and build their own lives. Yet, in between, we need local community groups of all faiths and none, which draw people together in smaller units where people have names and faces, and which can provide the vital link between local realities and those in power.

Inside St Clement's Church Notting Dale Lane
Inside view of St Clement's Church

At the time of the fire, we needed the council and the government to step in to provide the overarching co-ordination that could not be provided on the ground. Yet those authorities could not provide an open door at 3 a.m., an arm round a shoulder, people to pray and weep with, hope in the darkness, or a place to share pain and tears. Churches and other such groups hold our communities together. They provide a vital link between the individual and the state. We neglect them at our peril.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Tomlin, G. (2018). The Church and the State in the Shadow of Grenfell Tower. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/housing-after-grenfell/blog/2018/08/church-state-shadow-grenfell-tower (Accessed [date]).