Whatís Coming Up
Sermon 28 August 2016 - After the Fire - A Message from Father Andy Wilkes
Well the world has been watching Selsey very closely this past week. And I say “world” deliberately. I am of course talking about the Selsey Academy fire. After our 8 o’clock service last Sunday morning I took a photo of the huge plume of black smoke as it rose past the church. I then posted it on Twitter, with a comment about prayers for those involved including the firefighters. Well, that photo was very quickly shared and picked up by the local press, and I found myself having to fend off phone calls from local radio stations as I prepared for the 10 o’clock service.
I did agree that the news agencies could use my photo, and because it had my name attached to it I could see where it went. And I said the world was watching us, because I even found my photo on foreign news websites written in Arabic! Then of course many more photos were taken by others, and they were much better than mine, and eventually we even had ITV down here on Monday morning. The interest from the press was widespread and understandable – this town had lost its only secondary school in a matter of minutes. The loss was devastating.
I spent some time on Sunday and Monday down at the site. I knew many of the local firefighters, although fire appliances came from as far away as Crawley. Hampshire also provided support, and I believe that Havant fire engine was the 4th or 5th to arrive. Eventually we had 14 fire engines and 2 aerial platforms – around 70 or so firefighters at any one time. On Sunday the Selsey crew were at the fire for a straight 81/2 hours with many of them coming back later that night and the following day. We give thanks for their dedication and commitment.
I also spoke to a number of the Fire Service officers and they were hugely thankful for the support of the local community. The Selsey Scout hall was ideally situated to provide a refreshment area for the firefighters and the police. And the Scouts were joined by the British Red Cross who ensured a constant supply of drinks as well as hot and cold food. Local people were turning up at the police cordons with armfuls of bottled water and snacks and the Co-op even filled a shopping trolley and wheeled that down the road. The response was amazing and the crews asked me to pass on a big thank you.
Thankfully also no one was injured by the fire or the subsequent explosions. Certainly, at around 8.20, those of us here heard a huge bang which sounded like thunder, which I suspect was a gas cylinder exploding. There was much speculation about the cause of the fire. The Daily M----- quickly reported that it was arson but that was rejected by the official fire service response of “complete tosh”.
It now looks increasingly likely that the fire was started by someone working on the roof and that the strong winds spread the fire quicker than it could be put out. The elements of earth, wind and fire definitely do not mix well! By the way I think we should also keep that workman in our prayers at this time. As I said no one was injured in the fire and that is a great blessing.
But Selsey has lost its secondary school and that is a huge blow to the community. Thankfully Seal School was able to supply a place for the Year 11 pupils to collect their GSCE results on Thursday. Here at St Peter’s we are liaising with the head teachers about possibly using the hall, or perhaps taking on groups who use the town hall, so that that can be freed up to provide space for pupils. That makes sense as it’s nearer. And so we continue to keep the teachers, the pupils and their families in our prayers as they face many challenges in the weeks and months ahead.
The shock of a devastating fire like this can sometimes feel like a personal loss, and the initial reaction is a little like mourning. We are shocked by the incident itself, the fire and smoke, the sounds of explosions, the wailing of fire engines and police cars. We worry that someone might have been injured or even worse.
Then there is the physical loss of the building itself. All that hard work by pupils, the art and writing, personal belongings, and so on. That is a real physical loss, the loss of actual physical things. But sometimes we mourn the loss of other, more emotional things.
While I was down at the scene on Monday a local woman came up to a group of firefighters to ask about a memorial bench and tree in the grounds of the school. It had been planted in memory of the tragic loss of one of the pupils. One of the firefighters asked where it was and took the woman’s mobile phone. He went around the building and found the bench and tree and took a photo of them. The bench and the tree were undamaged by the fire, and that photo brought great sighs of relief and comfort to the woman and the group of children with her.
Out of the tragedy and devastation we found a little bit of consolation and little bit of hope.
As Christians we believe in resurrection and new life. We believe that the present can be redeemed and that there is hope for the future. We must offer resurrection and hope as a response to this tragedy. The loss to the community is huge. The disruption is going to be incredibly challenging. But out of this situation, literally out of the ashes, will rise a new and better school, with brand new facilities. Future generations will not remember the old school, only the brighter and bigger school that will stand in its place.
Finally, as the letter to the Hebrews commands us, let us continue to show hospitality to others. Right in the spotlight of national TV and the press Selsey demonstrated exactly what offering hospitality looks like. I don’t think that in all my 25 years as a firefighter I ever saw such a positive response from a local community as I saw last Sunday afternoon. Selsey did itself proud, and I ask you to pass that on to those you meet.
But we don’t have to wait for a devastating fire to be models of Christian hospitality. Let us seek out every opportunity to do so. Today Jesus gives us the simple advice to take the lowest place at the banquet table, so that we might be invited higher. Humility is greatly rewarded.
Last week the people of this community modelled Christian discipleship and hospitality for all the world to see, let us continue to do so in the days and weeks ahead.