Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring!
Simon Morris reports on how the parish of St Mary’s, Tottenham, was affected by the recent riots
One can’t plan for a week like it. You have to cut your parish pilgrimage to Walsingham short because the carpet shop opposite the parish church has been destroyed by fire and the High Road is closed due to rioting and looting. St Mary’s leapt into action providing refreshments and a ‘retreat space’ for those directly affected by the violence and those immediately trying to make the streets safe. It was a testimony to the compassion of the congregation, which was humbling, as they kept the church open sixteen hours a day for six days. As one of the congregation reflected for the Today programme, it meant they could do something in what felt like an otherwise helpless situation.
I imagine it was a bit like the Blitz, but the danger was the enemy within and the fear of further violence was greater than the actual possibility of it. The determination to carry on was striking as people shared tales of where they were on the night and what they had seen subsequently.
There is a need for confidence in such situations, especially when dealing with the press â€“ not that a single week of such interaction made me an expert. I remembered Prime Minister Jim Hacker’s advice to Private Secretary Bernard Wooley about such interviews: ‘If you have something to say, say it; if they ask you about something else, say what you want to say anyway.’ It would have been easy to start making strident assertions about what caused the riot and what was needed for the future. I think it was right to try to avoid such statements, which can so easily be manipulated, and to stick to the good news of what St Mary’s and many others in the local community were doing for the cause of righteousness.
The much wider issue of communication is crucial in a crisis too. How many members of congregations know each other’s names, let alone their telephone numbers? I am lucky in that I inherited a thorough system for storing contact details; but keeping such information up-to-date is difficult. It was of crucial importance in telling people that we were going to have a ‘Bring and Share’ lunch after Mass the next Sunday at St Mary’s and to get volunteers to come to help keep the church open.
‘Keep calm and carry on’ was another motto that reverberated round my grey matter. The press likes to look for big events, speaking of ‘marches’ rather than processions and making headline news â€“ as BBC London did â€“ of ‘Mass offered for victims of riots.’ In reality this headline-attracting Mass was just that of the day; clearly praying everyday is not something the Beeb thought part of the Faith.
The Masses had, however, happened as normal in both churches the day after the riots; Mass had been offered every day in the parish as normal. One can’t be given over to hysteria in such situations and certainly mustn’t think there are other things more important than continuing to hallow time.
The streets needed hallowing too. As the High Road was reopened later in the week, one began to see exactly what had happened in the parish: the Post Office destroyed (and the flats above it, housing a baby I baptized but two months ago); Aldi destroyed (the roof collapsed, and ten days on we still don’t know if anyone was in it); on the first floor of the former jewellers shop, the only thing that remains on a few feet of burnt-out floor is a charred bookcase.
Re-dedicating the streets
And on Sunday 14 August we re-dedicated those streets to God. After the 10 am Mass we streamed out singing lots of hymns, from ‘Immaculate Mary’ to ‘Blessed Assurance’. Some two hundred of us were living witnesses of the faith and joy our blessed Lord gives to his flock. Everyone felt much better afterwards. And most of us then stayed for a ‘Bring and Share’ lunch â€“ which I had been told by some couldn’t possibly happen as not enough notice had been given: there was, however, more than enough food.
The Lord will provide. But the Church in Tottenham, and indeed throughout the world, cannot simply rest on her laurels. We cannot simply look to those who come on Sundays or to our own families and content ourselves that they didn’t riot or loot. We need to live lives that speak of the beauty of knowing God: it needs to be so contagious that such tragic acts of hatred and greed never happen again.