Luke Miller describes how the Church of England responds to an emergency and its aftermath
The advice we give in the face of threats of terror is ‘be alert not alarmed’. Now that we have for a period of years been in a security state of Severe, meaning that ‘an attack is highly likely’, staying alert has been admittedly difficult. Response, when something happens, begins locally. Churches are encouraged to have ready their ‘resilience pack’: the box with tea and coffee, wind-up torches, a kettle, the basic first aid kit, phone chargers and the like. Be alert and ready to help if it is safe to do so, and not too alarmed to offer support. Now, however, we have to be alert to the fact that we might be target as much as place of refuge.
On 26 March Westminster Abbey became an impromptu gathering point for emergency services, exercising the same kind of ministry of welcome as we saw offered by parish churches during the 2011 riots. The Westminster attack was life-taking, and enormous in impact for the many who were injured, but it was limited in scope and over in seconds. Because of this it was not necessary for churches to become rest centres, but there was intensive work in particular places. To see the Chaplains to Parliament and the Metropolitan Police walking at the front of the funeral cortège for PC Palmer was a reminder of the extraordinary work that they did during the emergency. Rose Hudson-Wilkin in Parliament and Jonathan Osborne in Scotland Yard and the other Police chaplains had a huge and hidden pastoral work that day, made possible because it was founded on years of ordinary everyday care by which they had built trust and forged the relationships on which so much depended at the moment of stress.
I was once taking part in an exercise after which a very senior member of the London Ambulance Service was able to announce, ‘That is it, we can all now go home for the enquiry, tea and medals’, but for ‘Faith Responders’ (as we are known in the trade), it is in the recovery phase of an incident that we often have the most to do. The chaplains to St Thomas’s Hospital had not only to care for staff and patients during a lengthy period of lock-down, but also to deal with the fact that over 1000 of those in their care were interviewed by the police because they had witnessed the attack through the windows which look out across the lovely view to Westminster Bridge and Parliament.
We worked with the rather more centralised organization of the Faith Forum for London to draw together a photo-call for faith leaders on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields immediately before the vigil in Trafalgar Square, at which we all stood on the ‘stage’ behind the Mayor and the Home Secretary. Some of us were deployed into the radio and television studios or to give interviews to newspapers. In the wake of an incident much is about perception and the publication of images of cohesion. This is necessary for the newspapers and television news, for social media and for radio, and also to give out the messages that will stop anger spilling into more violence.
No images, however, will remove the need for real personal engagement. This is true both at the ‘top level’ where leaders’ gather, but even more so where it really matters, in the parishes and communities. Among local events, a vigil was arranged in Hackney, and a gathering of faith groups in Westminster. When something happens, we need to know our neighbour already, to have made friends before we needed them, and to have contacts before we have to depend on them. In the end all of our centralized planning depends on good, solid old-fashioned pastoral and community engagement at parish level. One of the reasons why the Church of England is such a crucial partner in the work of resilience is our ability to reach into every community, alongside our regional and national structure.
Phase three of a recovery is the long-term care of those who have been injured, bereaved, traumatized and saddened. When the medals have been given to those who are admittedly and clearly heroic in the moment, the continuing work of love, prayer, support, and pastoral care must go on, and this cannot be top-down, but only bottom-up. Across our communities parish clergy, chaplains, and all the faithful work together with our neighbours to offer the disinterested love and care of Jesus Christ to those for whom he suffered and died.
At London Resilience we are often asked what makes a truly resilient city. The most modern research shows that in the end resilience is not to do with splendid emergency services and fine organizational structures, swift response or good intelligence. What makes a city truly resilient is whether neighbour speaks to neighbour, whether local people support and care for one another, whether those who inhabit the same streets and use the same shops and transport network actually know one another and care for one another. In other words, what makes a truly resilient city is how far it is an image of the eternal city, the New Jerusalem in which Christ reigns, the Prince of Peace. There are lots of practical things to be done, but the most important thing that can be done towards true resilience is the proclamation of the Heavenly City and the invitation to all to become its citizens.
The Ven. Luke Miller, Archdeacon of London, chairs the Faith Sector Panel of the London Resilience Forum.