Bishop calls for “national repentance” and a new look at the way we live together in remembrance of the Grenfell Tower victims

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower gives the UK a once-in-a-generation opportunity to become a more compassionate society, the Bishop of Kensington has said before this week’s second anniversary.

Graham Tomlin has called for “national repentance” and a new look at the way we live together.

He said a fitting tribute to the 72 people who died would be profound changes to our democracy, welfare, housing, neighbourliness and tolerance.

The bishop’s report, The Social Legacy of Grenfell: an Agenda for Change, sets out his agenda, based on conversations with survivors, bereaved relatives, councillors, community groups and activists – he has sent a copy to all contenders to be the next Prime Minister, in the Tory leadership election.

Dr Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington

He said: “When a disaster of this magnitude happens in our communities, it is an opportunity for national repentance, an opportunity to look at the way we live together.

“If all we do is to think about fire safety and building regulations, we will have missed a vital opportunity.” He wants to see more focus on the social factors which led to the fire and the long-term social changes the people hit by the tragedy would like to see.

“It is the task of politicians to come up with answers,” he said. “There is a great need for reconciliation in the country. We need things that can bring us together.

Learning the lessons of Grenfell can be a way of doing that. We need to ask what kind of country do we want to be post-Brexit?

“The community around Grenfell has a moral strength and a moral authority and deserves to be listened to.” He wants proper long-term consultation rather than “tick-box” exercises and less party-based representation.

He added: “People who might be excellent community voices, particularly from immigrant communities who don’t have a long history with our party system, feel daunted by the prospect and don’t even try.

“Local services should not be (imposed upon) a community or for a community, but with a community.” He wants the neighbourliness in the aftermath of the fire to be fostered.
Housing should be seen as places where communities grow, rather than economic units. Faith and community organisations are key, he said, adding: “If we do not act to support churches, other faith communities and community groups, we will lose a valuable source of social capital that holds our society together.

A man photographs a fire that has engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London.

“Some of the anger has subsided and has been channelled into a determination to see change. But it hasn’t gone away. The public inquiry has a hugely complex job, but people need some kind of resolution. It’s still very difficult.

“Grenfell is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look at what might be wrong with our social fabric and try to fix it. “It shone a spotlight on a series of issues that we were dimly aware of, and yet often ignored.

“In an episode in the gospels, Jesus was once asked a question about a tower that had collapsed in the city of Jerusalem, leading to the deaths of a large number of people. He was asked if this meant that this was some kind of judgement on those who had died.

“He answered ‘No: Those who died were no better or worse than anyone else’, but he then added one sharp warning, ‘but unless you change, you also will perish’. “In other words, when such an event happens, it can serve as a call for a kind of national repentance, a close look at the way we live together, the kind of self-examination that can lead to significant change for the better.

“My hope is that this report identifies a programme and agenda for change within our society which will be a lasting and fitting legacy to those who tragically lost their lives at Grenfell Tower on the night of June 14, 2017.”

The report on the first phase of the inquiry has been delayed and is now expected to be published in October.

One thought on “Bishop calls for “national repentance” and a new look at the way we live together in remembrance of the Grenfell Tower victims

  • 18th August 2019 at 2:02 am
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    A quick listen to a wiser voice from the past…

    Young Christians especially last-year undergraduates and first-year curates are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England hears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England…. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?
    If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society.Queen Elizabeth, King George VI, Winston Churchill for real though bearing a striking resemblance to those in The King’s Speech When we speak of England’s actions we mean the actions of the British Government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour; for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbour. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet. whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’

    C.S. “Jack” Lewis, “Dangers of National Repentance,” The Guardian, 15 March 1940!
    Cited from God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 189.

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