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The legacy of Grenfell

Marking the sixth anniversary of the disaster, Graham Tomlin looks to what its legacy needs to be.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Grenfell Tower, wrapped in a protective layer bearing the legend: Grenfell forever in our hearts
The Grenfell Tower protectively wrapped.
The blowup on Unsplash.

It is now six years since an electrical fault in a fridge in the kitchen of a fourth floor flat led to the fire in Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people – the worst loss of life in one single incident in London since the second world war. The rest of the country has understandably moved on, preoccupied by the COVID years, a cost of living crisis and the sheer pace of life, so that Grenfell has retreated to the back of our consciousness and conscience, yet for the bereaved and survivors, who live with the memory every day, these have been six very long years.

We are told the Public Inquiry will report early in 2024, so there is still more time to wait. Meanwhile, the remains of the creaking tower still stand by the Westway in north Kensington.

Whenever I speak to people about Grenfell, the most common question is ‘what is going to happen to the Tower?’

Yet there is the nagging fear from bereaved families and campaigners that once it is demolished, they, and their loved ones will be forgotten: ‘out of sight, out of  mind.’

The Tower left to its own devices would probably have fallen long ago. A damaged building like this gradually degrades over time, with the effects of gravity, weather, water seeping into the cracks which ice up in winter, leading to widening of those cracks, concrete falls and so on. As a result, there are over 4,500 props inserted into the building, keeping the creaking infrastructure standing. A large team monitors the building constantly, and it is relatively secure for the next decade if need be, despite the ongoing cost of the operation. The Tower continues to be covered with two linings of white wrapping plastic – an inner one which remains and an outer one that is replaced every year. Some local people would want to see the building come down as it remains a constant painful memory. Yet there is the nagging fear from bereaved families and campaigners that once it is demolished, they, and their loved ones will be forgotten: ‘out of sight, out of  mind.’ The ongoing presence of the building, standing alone by the Westway as a constant reminder to the thousands who travel into London each day, is one of the only ways they have to keep the memory alive.

So, looking into the future, what will the legacy of Grenfell be? Convictions of those found to be culpable may well follow and rightly so, if individuals or companies can be clearly identified as having deliberately acted in underhand ways that led to the installation of the highly flammable cladding, or carelessly caused this disaster.

Some people call Grenfell a crime. Some a tragedy. Perhaps both are right. So what do you do when a crime, or a tragedy occurs? What do we do as a society?

Grenfell was not an accident. As I said in my sermon at the fifth anniversary commemoration in Westminster Abbey a year ago, Grenfell “was not an unfortunate accident – it was the result of careless decisions taken, regulations ignored, an industry that seemed at times more interested in making profits and selling products than in the precious value of human life and keeping people safe in their own homes.” In Christian language, Grenfell was the result of sin.

When you recognise you have sinned, the way to begin to put things right is to repent. ‘Repent’ is a strong word, yet it talks about turning and going in a different direction. You recognise that you have done something wrong and you need to put it right. The last six years have revealed a pattern of cutting corners, deception and lack of care in the regulation of building safety. It has also revealed flaws in our housing stock. The government’s Levelling Up Bill gives some protection to those living in insecure blocks of flats, but does not yet protect innocent leaseholders from all the costs of remedying safety faults for which they were not responsible. Some leaseholders are in the fortunate position of having their developers agreeing to foot the bill to make things safe, but others aren’t, and are still facing high insurance premiums, remediation costs and are still waiting to see who will pay, how much will be covered and when.

The Earl of Lytton’s amendment to the bill offers protection to leaseholders by ensuring those responsible for safety defects at the time of construction pay up, or if the company no longer exists. The costs are covered by an industry levy, of money raised from those who have profited from cutting corners in the past, those on whom the Public Inquiry has shone an uncomfortable light. Passing an amendment such as this, that protects vulnerable leaseholders and places the costs on those responsible for them would be a fitting way to enact repentance, to ensure Grenfell is not repeated.

With a tragedy, however, you remember. The Grenfell Memorial Commission continues to meet and work on this very task. Conversations with the community continue and the desire is for a memorial that is peaceful, reflective, positive and respectful. A design team is to be chosen in the coming 12 months, with a view to a final plan being chosen by the end of 2024. The planning process and the building of whatever form of memorial is chosen will then start in 2025, to be finished some time later.

All this will take time and a further thing required beyond repentance and remembering - patience. A visit to the 9/11 memorial in New York recently reminded me how a memorial can help process and manage the pain of remembered tragedy and trauma. The site is comprehensive, respectful, dignified and unforgettable. The 9/11 memorial opened 10 years after the attacks, and the Museum, offering a detailed moment by moment account of the day and what led up to it, opened in 2014, 13 years after the event.

Remembering and repentance takes time and need to be done well. Repentance needs to be thoroughly thought through and enacted wisely. Remembering needs to emerge from deep reflection on what has happened and finding creative ways to being something positive and even beautiful out of tragedy. Neither need to be hurried, otherwise they will be done in a shoddy and off-hand way, which disrespects the memory of those who died.

For many, Grenfell may have dropped out of public consciousness. Yet societies, like people, are defined by the way they learn from mistakes and tragedies. Comprehensive building safety legislation and a dignified memorial that keeps the memory of Grenfell and those who died there alive for years to come will be the best legacy for Grenfell, even though it will take time. We are not there yet, but that future is worth waiting for.

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.