I was extremely sad to hear about the devastating fire that has destroyed so much of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. But I immediately found myself questioning just how much – and whether – we can grieve for a building. The loss of life at Grenfell Tower in London was a much greater human tragedy in so many respects and perhaps these very different events can and should evoke different responses?
I have visited Notre Dame and thinking about it brings back particular and personal memories, and so, like millions around the world, I do mourn its loss and fervently hope that in due course it will be restored. By contrast, I knew nothing at all about – indeed, had never heard of – Grenfell Tower until it was engulfed in flames and the avoidable deaths, injuries and other losses became a national scandal. This was a tragedy that quite rightly prompted anger, protest and calls for change. (Some of this may also prove to be true, of course, in the aftermath of the Paris fire if negligence or carelessness prove to have been involved.) But what both events share is the loss of community that accompanies the destruction.
Nobody lived in Notre Dame and no one died in what should have been their safest place, but I was reminded today – less than 48 hours after that fire, when spending a day in one of our British cathedrals – that it will have been at the heart of a vibrant community of service, caring and outreach. We will probably never know how many people’s lives will spiral downwards – or even end in despair – because they could no longer access the peace and solace they were used to finding in the aisles of the Paris cathedral, and which helped them to cope with difficult lives. We will probably never know how many people will miss out on a life-changing experience of the presence of something holy, conveyed through the craftsmanship of stonemasons and the stories in stained-glass windows, or through a friendly word from cathedral guides or clergy. So I think we can rightly mourn – perhaps not so much for the fabric of the building but for the loss, albeit hopefully temporary, of all that Notre Dame means to people far and wide, just as the surviving residents of Grenfell Tower will long mourn the loss of their close-knit community.
At the same time, we should continue to be angry and to campaign to ensure that all homes are places of safety and that neither negligence, greed nor war continue to rob people of their lives or their communities.