I often ask myself what the heaven is Church for? And sometimes the answer is, "You mean apart from making me feel good, guilty or foolish? The answer has to be, Not Much"
Then something really worthwhile happens, and I sigh with relief. I may be uncertain about lots of things I'm supposed to believe in, but THIS is really, really doing the stuff.
I am thinking about the churches in Gloucester and their response to harmful cutbacks in services for the poor. We've seen in Gloucester what happens in the health service when the resources are pared away until it can no longer cope. The hospital shuts down. Everybody hears about it, everybody cares, everybody gets mad, and the accountable officials have to defend their actions.
Sadly, not everybody cared, and very few people got mad when the Night Shelter for the homeless closed in February 2013. A few raised a shout when the Day Shelter went on January 3rd this year. Both, note, in winter, when they were most necessary. The County Council had a plan. When obliged, ie when a SWEP was called, they had a contract with Premier Inns to take the rough sleepers to their hotel in Cheltenham.
I doubt you know what a SWEP is. It's a Severe Weather Emergency Protocol. When the temperature is forecast to fall below zero for three consecutive nights, the Local Authorities have a statutory duty to provide shelter for rough sleepers. Except that a week ago when SWEP was initiated Gloucester County Council, and Premier Inns didn't.
You'll never guess why. In the first place there seems to be a lot of official bungling. Bearing in mind, the reason for closing the Night Shelter was because a robust plan was in place to ensure that no-one slept out in severe weather, it seems nobody at the official level knew who was eligible, where they were, and who was responsibile for getting the vulnerable into a place of safety. Because, basically, nobody in charge cares too much.
But the Christains know. At night they take hot soup and a sandwich to those on the streets, and during the day, the churches relentlessly hold the officials responsible for what doesn't happen when it should. A hero of mine is a wonderful man called Tony Hipkins, a volunteer who keeps on and on, quietly, graciously, kindly, asking "Who? What? Where? Why...?
On January 16th. Premier Inns, despite being under contract to do so, refused to take in the rough sleepers because - wait for it - they couldn't supply an address.(!) Or an ID. And the public servant responsible for finding shelter for these people said, " Premier Inns have refused them, I have no further responsibility."
There was nowhere for these people to go, except back onto the streets. In sub- zero temoeratures. Fortunately nobody died. Sadly, this isn't always the case.
I'm fed up with the softly, softly approach, so I am sounding off here, where all of 25 people will nod in sympathy or roll their eyes and say, "Here she goes again!" To the latter group I say,
It's time to get mad.
Somebody lives here. I took this photograph yesterday after leaving a fresh duvet. It's the doorway of an empty office block about three minutes' walk from Gloucester Cathedral.