In the event of a major incident, overall we are bidden to be alert but not alarmed, and to be vigilant. The UK Threat Level from international terrorism has been at ‘severe’ for some time, meaning that an attack is ‘highly likely’. There is no live intelligence to suggest that churches are specifically targeted more than other places. It is also worth remembering that our churches have sometimes been the focus of attacks with other motivations, because people are angry, or mentally ill, or have other issues: so we should anyway always be ready, and advice in the face of malicious attack is nothing new, nor is the call to be ready to help in other sorts of emergency from fires to flooding.
Churches as places of community focus
During major incidents, churches are places of shelter and hospitality. Recently we have all seen the wonderful work which has been done by churches in Kensington, Westminster, Southwark, and Finsbury Park. This is also not new: in 2011 in Tottenham, Stepney and around London churches stepped up, as they did on 7/7 at Aldgate, Euston Road and elsewhere, and on other more local occasions too.
There is a sense in which ‘you know what to do’ for all this has all been a simple response of love to a community in the face of trauma. The underlying advice for churches is simply to carry on doing what is done all the time, to be as engaged as much as possible and as widely as possible with neighbours of all faiths and none, and to stand ready to help if and when the need arises.
In this context, make friends when you don’t need them and have local contacts to hand. Make sure you know who your local police are; have contact with other local institutions, churches and faith communities. Through your deanery make sure that you know your Borough Emergency Planning Officer and, if they are local to you, the other emergency services. Then when something happens you already have the relationships on which so much depends, far more than on plans and formal structures.
Having a ‘resilience box’ in church is a good thing to do. It should have in it stuff for hot drinks; an up to date first aid kit; poster paper and pens so you can put up notices saying you are open; a wind up torch or two; a high viz jacket; maybe some mobile chargers of different types.
In the event of a major incident
On the day, fundamentally there is a need for an on-the-spot assessment of risk. If and when you hear that something has happened or is going on, ask yourself:
This implies some preparation – do you know escape routes? Where would you hide? Are you equipped with a phone or some other way to call for help?
If we are not a target, but something has happened locally, ask yourself is it safe to open the church? If so, do it. Even, perhaps especially, in the middle of the night. The results are often far beyond what we might expect. Churches have become HQs for the emergency services; places to wait while the traffic clears; somewhere to get out of the weather; hubs for Response Pastors; full-on humanitarian assistance centres. You can’t plan for all of that, but you can open the church and seize opportunities to help.
Call your archdeacon or bishop (if they have not already called you!).
Do what the emergency services ask – you will find that they are most grateful for the support we offer, and will only ask us to shut down if it is unsafe for us, or we are hindering their operations; but if they do ask you to go away, do what they say. A major incident site is dangerous and a crime scene. Our place is not inside the cordon being heroes, it is in the humanitarian assistance centre offering pastoral support.
If you hear of something and it is not in your area: call your area dean or archdeacon, who should have been contacted by those who are coordinating responses. Don’t just rock up unless you are asked — you may get in the way or put yourself in danger.
If you are called out, wear clerical dress (even if that is not your usual style — people need to see at once who you are and this is a world of uniforms); take a (charged up) mobile phone; have some ID. Very few boroughs now run the old Major Incident ID systems. You will not be allowed behind the cordon except in the very rare instance that someone has been asked for, in which case the people in charge of the incident will know who you are or have got someone on site who does.
If you don’t think you can face it, then be honest about that and say so, and don’t go.
The official advice to places of worship needs to be adapted somewhat, and it remains important to remember that churches are essentially public spaces and to be policed as though they were a park with a roof rather than being policed as though they were office blocks with reception areas
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