For the nation’s churches, the experience was a little more complicated. Many congregations, of course, were situated near the disaster sites and lost members or suffered as a result of these events in a whole range of ways. But something very positive for the churches happened over that period also. The nation suddenly discovered that churches were there, and that they had some quite valuable things to offer.
This was nowhere more apparent than in the devastating aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The difference between the responses of the local council and the churches (together with synagogues and mosques) could hardly have been more marked. Those things that residents immediately looked to the secular authorities to provide – places to congregate, cups of tea, food, emergency supplies, venues for meetings and media conferences, collection and distribution points for donations, a caring word or a hug – were provided instead by the churches. Here was a network of buildings with on-site staff, catering facilities and willing armies of volunteers that could be mobilised at a moment’s notice, even in the middle of the night. Black and purple shirts became familiar, prominent, sights on the news reports in the days that followed – immediately recognisable.
That is not to suggest that the experience was different elsewhere. Following each one of these events churches played a significant role – sometimes observable and sometimes behind the scenes – and this was not lost on the secular authorities in each place. Most cities, towns or areas have disaster-response plans that are made by local authorities, together with policing, fire-fighting and other civic and community organisations. In the past churches have been sometimes consulted and sometimes not. That has changed. Religious leaders are now typically central partners in the making of such plans and religious buildings are being marked for key roles. And now when disasters occur, for the first time, clergy are being invited inside disaster cordons, to counsel and support victims and responders.