I have just returned from visiting Enfield and Tottenham to see something of the wreckage left behind by the riots and to meet policemen and women who are in the front line of protecting our communities.
It is obviously vital not to stigmatise a whole generation. There are huge numbers of hopeful and high achieving young people in London but we do have a problem with a minority. Behind the opportunists who joined in the disturbances there is the reality of a criminal gang culture.
One of the difficulties for the police has been dealing with street violence, while under the cover of the disturbances and the arson, which could so easily have cost lives, highly mobile groups of looters have been on the rampage.
What has occurred should be condemned unequivocally and as the first of those arrested appear before magistrates and as stolen property is already being recovered, it is right to pay tribute to the bravery of the police who have regained control of our streets.
I am also immensely proud of the response of the church. In Edmonton and Stepney under the leadership of Bishop Peter and Bishop Adrian [who has had a challenging start to his ministry in the Area], the church has played a large part in reclaiming the streets for the overwhelming majority of responsible citizens by prayer vigils and public demonstrations of solidarity with other Christians and community groups.
At the same time our network of parish churches – real community hubs – has once again proved its worth. I visited St Mary’s Lansdowne Road which has been open fifteen hours a day with volunteers from the parish helping local residents who have lost their homes and serving refreshments to the police and council workers who are clearing up the mess in Tottenham High Street.
Opposite St Mary’s there is a block of flats reduced to rubble after being torched. One of the most appalling aspects of what has happened is the utter disregard for life and livelihoods shown by a minority of those who went on the rampage. They seem to lack the restraint and the moral compass which comes from clear teaching about right and wrong communicated through nourishing relationships. The background to the riots is family breakdown and the absence of strong and positive role models.
This once again underlines the vital importance of the work that the church has been doing through its schools where we share the responsibility for educating 50,000 young Londoners a day. In recent years there has also been an increase in youth provision in a number of our parishes including especially testing work with hard-to-reach youngsters. I have mentioned the work of the Christian charity XLP in many parts of London in this connection but I was especially glad on my visit to meet Charlie who operates from St Ann’s Tottenham. He is an ordinand and an ex–Marine whose gym classes on various housing estates are one of the ways in which he is offering a strong and positive role model through which Jesus Christ is touching the lives of alienated young people. The police spontaneously expressed their admiration of what he and other church based workers were doing.
Clearly we need to get the situation under control but after the guilty have been sentenced there is a long road ahead in creating hope for people subject to financial and emotional poverty and educational failure.
I know that many of you have been praying with renewed fervour for peace on our streets and “that we may honour one another and seek the common good”. Prayer is always at the heart of any Christian response to challenging situations. The Facebook page Pray4London created by two of our young clergy, Gavin Cooper and Richard Bastable, already has over 3,200 followers committed to pray and there are a number of prayer vigils which have taken place or which are happening over the coming days.
In addition to many special services, this Sunday 14 August at 6pm, the Eucharist will be celebrated at St Paul’s Cathedral with a special intention for peace and justice in London and the other towns and cities affected.
In addition to the churches and parishes in the eye of the storm there have been many encouraging examples across the Diocese of churches wanting to support them. Thanks to the generosity of a City donor we have been able to make £15,000 immediately available to Area Bishops to enable frontline parishes to respond to immediate needs without having to worry about finance.
A number of churchwardens and individual parishioners have been in touch wanting to give and have suggested retiring collections this Sunday. Any who wish to respond in this or other ways are asked to claim Gift Aid locally and send a cheque payable to ‘London Diocesan Fund’ for the gross amount to Diocesan House marked ‘Emergency4London’. This money will be used for immediate contingencies as well as to help parishes in reaching out to young people, and making the love of Christ visible especially to those caught up in gang culture. We are a people of hope and we want our children and young people to grow up with a sense of hope for themselves and for our world.
I have been deeply impressed by the vibrancy and generosity of some of our ‘poorest’ parishes and not least those in Edmonton and Stepney I have visited recently. By standing together as a Diocese and by mutual support and encouragement we can have a presence in every street in our eighteen boroughs and at every level in the life of London. One of the lessons of recent events for example has been the importance of the developing network of police chaplaincies under the leadership of the newly appointed Chaplain to the Met. Jonathan Osborne. We can all have a share in this work by prayer and generosity through the Common Fund.
I am so grateful for the many clergy and believers who have helped those in pain, bewilderment and loss over the past few days. It is our calling to be salt and light in London and I am proud of our church for responding to mostly mindless anarchy by lighting candles rather than torching buildings and by offering loving, practical help in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.