The Bishop of Kensington has suggested that it’ll take more than...
Bishop Graham Tomlin delivered the 2018 Premier Lecture tonight on the need for repentance following last year's Grenfell disaster. Here's what he said in full
The Grenfell Tower fire was a seismic event in our national life. Not only was it the biggest loss of life in our capital city since the Second World War, it also shone a spotlight on issues of social inequality and the provision of support to some of the more vulnerable in our society in a way that very few other events have done in recent years. The last year has seen a huge amount of activity, both from within the local community and from groups coming in from the outside. It has seen intense political debate sparked by the fire, and the extraordinary process of mobilisation of the local community to address the issues that they had voiced many times, but were rarely heard until recently.
The Public Inquiry and the Police Investigation is beginning to get to the bottom of the unanswered questions and it seems a picture is gradually emerging from the fog. Over the coming months, we trust that we will arrive at some measure of truth with regard to what caused the fire, and where ultimately responsibility lies. Tonight however I want to think about the longer term question of how community can be rebuilt after such a tragedy, and what we learn as we reflect a year on from that terrible night last summer.
A Different Tower
At one point in his public teaching, Jesus spoke about another disaster involving a tower which led to the tragic death of a large number of people. The story comes in Luke’s gospel: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ It’s a harsh saying, but it seems that at some point during the re-building of the grand Temple in Jerusalem, which was happening during those few years of his public ministry, a tower collapsed, killing 18 people. This clearly also had a significant impact across the nation, and naturally people started asking what this disaster meant, and what it said about the society in which they lived.
Some suggested that it pointed to the sins of the victims, that they were somehow ‘more guilty than other citizens of Jerusalem’ - otherwise why did it happen to them and not others? There is sometimes a tendency when disaster strikes to point the finger at the victims, and assume that there must have been something wrong with them and their way of life. We saw that pattern very clearly in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, when blame was placed firmly on the supposed disorderliness or drunkenness of the Liverpool fans attending the game, until the truth came out more recently, which showed this was not the case at all.
Jesus in the story rejects this approach. He says this: “those who died when the tower in Siloam fell – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’” He refuses to blame victims, but instead calls for a kind of radical national repentance, for a re-examination of the deeper things going on in that society, and for a radical turnaround of attitudes, otherwise more such disasters will continue to happen. When disaster strikes, it doesn’t say anything particular about those caught up in it, but it does give us an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia - literally, a changing of mind. It involves a recognition of patterns of behaviour that were, basically, wrong. The Public Inquiry will, we sincerely hope, indicate where proper guilt lies, and lead perhaps in certain cases to appropriate punishment. But, punishment of course, does not necessarily lead to repentance. Our prisons are full of people who are convicted of crimes but not necessarily repentant of them. So yes, there will be a need for repentance for those who are found to have been directly responsible for the tragedy. However I think Jesus here is pointing to a deeper repentance.
If the Inquiry produces its results, culprits are identified and perhaps given prison sentences, that would satisfy a certain need for justice, or even revenge, but it still would not resolve anything fundamental. If we allocate blame, punish the guilty, and then carry on as before, then there is no guarantee that something like this will not happen again, or even more, we will perpetuate the deeper conditions and attitudes that led us to this point. We might even issue new types of building regulations, or safety measures in construction, but even that I suggest would not be enough. The kind of repentance that Jesus calls for, and indeed the Grenfell Tower fire calls for is deeper - a radical look at the way we live together in our society. Scapegoating is a classic way of dealing with tragedy but it does not work in the end. This involves all of us. As Andrew O’Hagan put it in a long article in the London Review of Books recently: “In all the loosening of cares and controls and emergency services, it’s not just the current government but a succession of them that lie behind those deaths, and who, if not all of us, voted such vulnerability into existence? No one did well. If civic life is dead, with a 24-storey tombstone beside the Westway, it died in the times in which we too lived, and by the values we lived by. The point of a society, if we have one, is that when bad things happen, it’s everybody’s concern.”
Grenfell is such an opportunity that we dare not let pass. If we were to carry on as normal, with our social attitudes, our economy, our institutional life, our approach to housing and community unchanged, we would be missing a huge opportunity to address some of the deeper issues in our life together, not to speak of refusing to heed the call of Jesus for true repentance. If we are really interested in re-building community after Grenfell, we need to think about how we will do that and what kind of community we want to build.
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, in an influential book entitled Good and Evil, argues that these two are not really equal and opposite forces, as we often think they are. He says this:
“all good thoughts, all good words, all good deeds I do consciously. All evil thoughts, even words, or evil deeds I do unconsciously. (p106)
“ evil is… all the moments in which we did no more than leave undone that which we knew to be good…. evil is lack of direction…” (p130)
We often think of evil as the product of devious people - dastardly rogues who always look a bit like Bond villains, stroking cats, thinking up some cunning plan to cause as much havoc as possible. The reality is much more mundane. Hannah Arendt (another wonderful Jewish philosopher as it happens), on viewing the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals, commented on what she called the ‘banality of evil’. The truth is that bad things happen not usually as the result of calculated, deliberate malice, but when we simply fail to pay attention, when we go about our lives thoughtlessly, carelessly, when we fail to listen and take care for the needs of our neighbour, because we are so wrapped up in our own affairs and interests. On this understanding, evil comes about in a rather unexciting and mundane way - as a result of simple thoughtlessness, literally care-lessness – a lack of care, or indeed a lack of love to our neighbour.
We all know from our experience how easy it is to drift into a way of acting and behaving, where incrementally, by small steps, a way of behaving is established where the unacceptable becomes acceptable, until suddenly something happens that reveals how far you have drifted. When the Australian cricket team were caught rubbing the ball with sandpaper in a blatant act of cheating, that was not just an isolated decision, it was one more step in a long process of bending the rules, stretching what was acceptable, until finally a line was crossed before they even knew it.
Although it is too early to allocate blame - that is a job for the police investigation and the Public Inquiry - there is a lot to suggest that the Grenfell Tower fire happened as a result of carelessness. No one set out to cause a fire, or to deliberately burn down the tower, but corners were cut, regulations were ignored, mistakes were made, materials used that were not properly tested. I suspect we will discover a network of causes that came together in a tragic web of neglect that brought Grenfell Tower to the point where it was so vulnerable in June of last year. Grenfell seems to have been the result of care-lessness, a lack of care.
Now carelessness does not seem very bad. Because we are all careless at times, it seems odd to identify it a source of evil. Yet there is a long philosophical tradition with its roots in forms of Platonic philosophy, and brought into Christian theology by St Augustine, that sees evil not as an active, positive force, a kind of equal energy over against goodness, but it is in fact an absence of goodness. It is a bit like a shadow – a shadow is not a ‘thing’ – it is simply the absence of light. Evil happens where goodness is missing, or to put it differently, where there is a lack of care, a lack of love, when we stop taking care of one another because we are too wrapped up in our own affairs – literally, when we are care-less.
Buber suggest that to do evil does not require much effort at all – it comes about when we fail to act out of love and compassion when we need to, carrying on doing what we feel like doing, with no thought to how that impacts others, and leaving our neighbour to suffer the consequences of our actions. On the other hand, goodness requires effort - it requires a constant and deliberate attempt to think hard about your neighbour, the effect of your actions on others, the consequences of the most ordinary things you do each day, or even thinking carefully how you might encourage, enhance or enrich their lives. While evil doesn’t take much effort at all, goodness requires an active, deliberate activity of putting yourself in your neighbour’s shoes, asking what it is that she needs, and how she might be affected by any particular event or action. Or, even better, it comes as a result of a habit of thoughtfulness. It comes about when we have cultivated habits of instinctively thinking of the effects of our actions on others, so it becomes second nature to us.
These days we hear a great deal about mindfulness. I wonder if we need to hear more about thoughtfulness, that habit of mind that always thinks about how we can bless and enrich the lives of our neighbours or the consequences of our actions upon our neighbours. How do we create a more thoughtful, care-ful society? How can such habits of thoughtfulness or care-fulness be encouraged? In other words, when we talk about rebuilding community, what kind of community are we trying to build and where do we find the resources to build it? And are our current ways of thinking about life and society up to the job?
The difficulty is that so much of our culture encourages precisely the kind of carelessness about each other that we have been discussing. The basic assumption that underlies most of our current social attitudes, the neo-liberal narrative that governs most Western societies, is that we are all basically unconnected individuals pursuing our own happiness or fulfilment, who choose to get together to form relationships, communities and societies. The primary purpose of those societies is to attain the greatest benefit for the largest number of individuals, and to guard the freedom of individuals to act and live as they choose, as long as they do not harm anyone else.
This libertarian tradition exemplified by thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, is rooted in the basic idea that people, as John Locke put it, should be able to “order their Actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit… without asking leave or depending on the will of any other man." J.S. Mill extended this into the idea that such freedom from all kinds of social restriction and expectation is essential for a healthy society, and that individuals should be free to do as they choose, as long as they do not harm other people, and do not infringe upon the rights of others to exercise their own freedom within their own personal space: ”liberty of tastes and pursuits… doing as we like… without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them.” This notion is virtually universal these days, so that we hardly even have to assert it to feel its force. There is, however, a problem with this way of thinking.
All societies have to try to square a particularly tricky circle. On the one hand, they need to build good structures to allow for personal flourishing, so that children can grow into mature, confident adults, and individuals are free to develop their own character and personalities. At the same time, they also need to encourage good social cohesion – a sense of a community that works well together. The current state of play seems to suggest this approach to life perhaps seems to do OK at the first but, scores much lower on the second. There is a reason for this. And it all comes down to our understanding of freedom.
Judging by the state of modern western societies, this libertarian view allows a certain level of personal liberty, but doesn't serve very well when it comes to social cohesion. Basically, the problem is this: on this view of freedom, my neighbour, my wife, my children, my friends, or the state, are understood as essentially a limitation or even a threat to the exercise of my personal freedom. If freedom is my right to choose within my own personal space, as long as I don't tread on the toes of anyone else, this inevitably sets up the other person as someone who imposes a check on my ambitions, a boundary to my desires. They are also a possible source of incursion into my territory, and therefore potentially need to be resisted in case they tread on my dreams. The Other is a potential threat, and therefore someone essentially to be feared.
This way of thinking encourages each of us to pursue our own personal happiness as our primary purpose, and prizes independence – freedom from the potentially limiting influence of others. We live in the age of the cult of the self. We customise everything to make it unique to ourselves, whether our phones, our homes, or even our bodies. It is significant that when we made the technology available to take endless photographs from our mobile phones, what is the primary use to which this was put? You guessed it - the selfie! The difficulty is that if we have no need of each other, it is short step to not caring much about each other. and that makes it hard to build a genuine sense of community. As the philosopher Richard Sennett puts it: ‘A regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.”
Christians however see human beings differently. Christian theology sees human beings not so much as isolated individuals who might or might not choose to develop relationships with others. Instead we are first and foremost persons in relationship. We are like knots in a net - held together, and sustained in existence by the relationships between us. We are children, parents, aunts, uncles, neighbours, friends, before we are individuals. Our individuality is in fact constituted and shaped by the unique set of relationships in which each of us find ourselves. It is why loneliness and isolation is such a scourge and harmful for people.
When Jesus was asked the question, ‘what is the greatest commandment?’, or to put it in more contemporary terms, ‘what is the purpose of human life?’ he replied like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The purpose of human life is not to follow your dreams, to discover yourself, or to be yourself: is it to turn outwards from yourself in relationship to God and your neighbour. That is what human beings are made to do. And freedom, in Christian understanding, is not so much freedom to choose, freedom from the annoying attentions of other people, that leaves us free to pursue our own dreams, but freedom from anything that holds us back from being what we were created to be – creatures capable of love for God our creator and for our neighbours, however different, or annoying, they are!
This Christian account of human nature squares the circle of personal flourishing and social cohesion much better than the secular version. It says that we flourish as human beings best when we learn to forget our selves for a moment and learn to focus our attention on the needs of the person next to us. And in doing that we find ourselves, not by turning inwards, but turning outwards. It breeds healthy individuals. At the same time, a society built on that basic shift creates a vast mutual network of interconnectedness – a vision of the elusive sense of ‘community’ that we constantly talk about, but find so hard to create. Imagine a community where everyone was focussed on how to serve, bless and enhance the life of their neighbours? Imagine a community where you wouldn’t have to worry too much about your own needs because you knew your neighbour was looking out for them?
Libertarian individualism, our standard way of thinking about social relations simply does not have the resources to enable us to develop habits of carefulness or thoughtfulness towards one another, because it focuses our attention first and foremost upon our own happiness, not that of others.
The Christian view of social relations tells us that my neighbour is not so much a threat, or a limitation, but a gift. If my own individuality is constituted by my relationships, not my own inner elusive personality or choices, then without my neighbour I cannot become my full self. Putting it bluntly, if the purpose of human life is becoming someone capable of love, I need someone to practice on!
This is a radical, and counter-intuitive vision of social relations, where, as St Paul puts it: “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”
This social ethic, where our happiness is to be found paradoxically in seeking one another’s happiness not our own, where we are constituted fundamentally not by our individuality, but by our relationships with each other, has the capacity to nurture the kind of thoughtfulness we saw earlier as crucial to good society.
What would this look like if we were to adopt such a way of thinking about some of the key issues raised by the Grenfell Tower fire? And how might this approach help us rebuild community after Grenfell? I want to take a few examples to see how this might work.
Houses are for living in. Yet slowly over the years, housing has somehow become less about living than about legacy. With our focus on individual prosperity and independence, we have allowed a situation to develop where housing is more about investment and income, rather than shelter and community. The wholesale selling off of council houses in the 1970s and 80s, the rise in home ownership, and the difficulties in building new houses on a small island, has led to demand being higher than supply, which of course leads to significant rises in house prices, especially in desirable areas like London, where space is scarce, and demand for accommodation is strong. This of course has also led to high levels of debt, and the issue of social housing has been pushed further down the agenda.
If the primary purpose of housing is to generate of profit, or to ensure secure investments, then it is inevitable that other priorities will slip down the list. The experience of those living in social housing, such as Grenfell Tower, is often frustrating - calls for repairs are subject to long delays, the threat of redevelopment and gentrification hangs like a Sword of Damocles over people’s homes. In particular, in the rush to make money over housing, safety standards and regulation has not had the high priority that they should.
In other words we have allowed a housing economy to develop which is thoughtless, or care-less about the effect upon those who are living in public housing, a cocktail of factors which led to a situation in which something like Grenfell was bound to happen sooner or later. The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently argued that we need to refocus upon the purpose of housing - it is not there primarily to make money, or to offer secure investment for the future, but it is exists fundamentally to enable community to take place. I would add one more thing - housing exists to provide shelter, and the basic expectation of anyone living in housing owned by someone else, is that they should feel safe in their own homes.
Such a refocusing on the primary purpose of housing, would enable us to take a good look again at the way in which our housing economy works. For example it would involve another look at how affordable housing works. Most London Boroughs have a pretty even spread of social housing, affordable homes and private housing. In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), there was far less affordable housing than in other boroughs (and with current rules on affordable housing, even that was not very affordable!). The result was a very polarised community with these extreme disparities of wealth and poverty living so near each other which is bound to cause envy, and a sense of unfairness. We need to look at affordable housing and how it works in London, ensuring middle income people and families can live in areas such as Kensington & Chelsea and help bridge the gaps between the extremes.
I am not saying I have the answer, but such an answer can only begin with a commonly agreed purpose for housing – the provision of shelter and community. Starting from that point, we need a radical re-examination of the way our housing economy works, from the bottom upwards, starting with social housing, and the needs of the most vulnerable, and ending in the provision of higher end accommodation, rather than the other way round.
In November of last year, Bishop James Jones issued his long-awaited report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families. The title he gave it made a few jaws drop: ‘The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power’. What followed was a devastating exposé of the way in which the families had to endure years of demeaning treatment by those who should have known better. He put his finger on a tendency, when disaster strikes, for institutions to close ranks, and become more worried about the reputation of the institution than the people affected by the tragedy. The report has struck a chord with those who lived in and around Grenfell Tower.
The kind of self-absorbed individualism mentioned above has an impact not just on individuals but also institutions. It makes them defensive. And so we get the situation, well described by Bishop James Jones, of institutions that are more concerned to protect their own reputation and survival, than to defend the interests of the very people who they are meant to serve.
Bishop Jones’ report however focussed not so much on individual failings, but an underlying culture, which systematically left the Hillsborough families feeling belittled, treated as a problem rather than as people, with no regard for the trauma they had experienced. Talking to the Grenfell survivors and bereaved reveals similar feelings.
Many of our public institutions, rightly or wrongly, are experienced by those who are at the receiving end as exhibiting a type of culture that tends towards the patronising disposition of unaccountable (or even accountable) power. This culture often starts with a problem and tries to work out how to solve that problem. It then seeks to present that solution though social and print media to ensure everyone knows that the problem is being solved. Yet somehow in this matrix between institutions, problems and media image, the people who need the help can feel lost and ignored.
Now there are signs that things may be changing. The move to put the decision on the future of the site of the Tower into the hands of the local community, especially the bereaved is a good one – a sign that those in authority are learning not to hand decisions down from on high and instead listen to local feeling and allow that to dictate the way forward. Even though the Hackitt review did not recommend banning combustible cladding from buildings, in response to local concern, the government moved quickly to distance itself from that position. And most remarkably, the Public Inquiry has recently heard moving personal testimonies from people telling their stories of the fire – something no Public Inquiry has done before.
These are positive signs, yet they are only the beginning of the kind of change needed, towards more thoughtful, care-ful institutions.
There is a word for this: Humility. Basically we need more humble public institutions. Humility can seem weak or lacking in dynamic, but an increasing number of studies in leadership & organisational culture have identified humility as a key factor in healthy organisations. Humility is a fundamentally undefensive view of the world, which is centred not upon my own reputation but the needs of others, eager to learn and seeing others not as inferior but as intrinsically valuable.
Bishop James recommended a 6-point charter, for families bereaved through public tragedy. Many of the points are applicable to any organisation looking to be properly accountable and centred on the needs of those it serves, and to my mind these describe an organisation with humility at its heart:
- In the event of a public tragedy, activate its emergency plan and deploy its resources to rescue victims, to support the bereaved and to protect the vulnerable.
- Place the public interest above our own reputation.
- Approach forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way,
- Avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where we have fallen short.
- Ensure all members of staff treat members of the public and each other with mutual respect and with courtesy. Where we fall short, we should apologise straightforwardly and genuinely.
- Recognise that we are accountable and open to challenge.
It is good that RBKC, for example has signed up to this. However signing a charter is one thing, re-thinking the underlying organisational culture is another – yet this is what needs to happen.
And this is not just to point the finger at RBKC, or the government or the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), by the way. I am well aware that the Church of England, in its own approach to safeguarding vulnerable children and adults, has also at times acted in such a way that it seems we are more concerned with the reputation of the church, than the welfare of victims of abuse by members of the clergy. This is a bigger issue than any one institution – it is an issue for all of us.
The kind of repentance I am proposing involves a radical look at the way our institutions think of themselves, and the way they work. It means a reorientation, a wholesale change of culture, that does not see apology as weakness, and is determined to act solely for the benefit of people for whom the organisation exists. We need more humble and other-centred organisations.
The social differences between north and south Kensington are more complex than is sometimes assumed, but have been mentioned already and are well documented. The south of the Borough has some of the wealthiest streets in the country, while the north contains some of the most deprived wards in the nation. The fire shone a spotlight on the disparity of wealth and opportunity in our social life. Addressing that is a complex social and political issue, that there are perhaps things that we can do as individuals to begin a process of change.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it was remarkable to see the way in which the Kensington community came together. People from the north of the borough rallied round, as did those from south of the borough, often coming into streets they had never visited before, as did people from much wider afield. It was a brief moment when the barriers between us broke down, and we reached out to help one another in time of need. Somehow disaster draws out our common humanity, that deep instinct to care for one another’s needs, that sense that we belong together and are fundamentally persons in relationship with another rather than mere individuals.
That common humanity comes from a deep instinct we have that we are all fundamentally in the same boat. And that sense if fostered by a belief that we are all made in the image of the one God who created us, equally made, equally loved, equally valued. Losing that glue that held our society together can only erode the bonds that bind us to each other. Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher once wrote: “...the ideas of freedom and social solidarity... the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. To this day, there is no alternative to it.”
Loving my neighbour makes sense when I realise my neighbour is God’s beloved creature every bit as much as I am.
We need a revolution in care-fulness, that would make this kind of mutual care our regular way of life, rather than a brief response to an emergency. This means going back to that simple call to love our neighbour, whoever that neighbour happens to be.
We choose our friends, we do not choose our neighbours. In a multicultural city like London, our neighbour may look very different from us, in ethnicity, colour, faith, or in many other ways. In this context the differences don’t matter - we are called to love our neighbour whoever they are. That means a proper curiosity about each other, not being intrusive, but anticipating the needs of our neighbours, which means finding out about them. It means pausing before sending that angry vindictive tweet to someone you have never met. It involves that person in your office, that family in your street, that person you stand next to at the bus stop each day, and doing something as simple as simply crossing the road to talk to them, finding out about their life, what worries or concerns them, what hopes and dreams they have.
Try it. Imagine if rather than our usual London attitude of head down, don’t catch anyone’s eyes, avoid personal contact if at all possible, we made that step to enquire about someone else’s life, expanded our horizons, grew in sympathy for others that we might otherwise have dismissed. Just that simple habit, multiplied across individual relationships in our city, could go a long way to rebuilding a sense of common life and community.
The path of rebuilding community after Grenfell is a long one, but it applies not just to the immediate community around the tower, but also to the way we relate to one another across our whole society. Grenfell offers us the possibility of a moment of self-examination, of repentance and change. Repentance can seem gloomy word, but in Christian faith it is always the precursor to reconciliation, and reconciliation results in restored relationships, harmony and peace and well-being.
We need a new story, a new vision of life that sees us as those not made to pursue self-interest, our own dreams, and only to connect with others when it suits us, but as those who are fundamentally connected to one another, and made to care for one another, to find happiness in doing precisely that. The result would be a more thoughtful, and care-ful society, one where we have learned to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Graham Tomlin is the bishop of Kensington
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