We are an “unsuccessful church”, the exhausted Rev Alan Everett told me, as I persuaded him to take a break and have some lunch. He meant that they only get 30 to 60 people in the pews on a Sunday morning and that it wasn’t one of those whizzy Alpha course churches beloved by London bishops and their growth spreadsheets. Next to us in the church’s sunny courtyard, an extended Muslim family talked openly about their escape from the fire. “Our lungs are full of smoke but at least, thank God, we are all alive.” A church worker told them where to find new shoes and clothes. It felt like a refugee camp. Perhaps it was a refugee camp. And hanging over the whole scene, Grenfell Tower, black and enormous. It stands as a biblical-scale condemnation to a whole society.
Listening to Everett, it struck me that “opening the doors and turning the lights on” was precisely the difference between the church and a local authority that had become arms’ length from its residents, continually dealing with local people only through intermediary organisations such as the locally much-hated Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. The nicest thing I heard about the royal borough from local people was that it had outsourced its care for the poor as a cost efficiency. The worst, that it was deliberately running down its stock of social housing so that they could eventually bring in the developers.
Of course, parishes like St Clement are only superficially unsuccessful. Its secularised charity arm, the Clement James centre, helps thousands of local people every year, into work, into university. That’s why the parish is so trusted locally. “We are called to share in the brokenness and the forgottenness of the people we serve,” the vicar explained. In poor parishes, the job is to keep the doors open and the lights on. And this being permanently present is no small thing. Not least because, as Christians believe, the light will always beckon people out of the darkness.