I have been trying to get to the bottom of the stand-off between some of the staff at St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Occupy London protesters. This is easier said than done. There’s a lot of lazy journalism out there, reporters who don’t bother to check facts, but content themselves with quoting others.
A reporter for the Independent, Liam O’Brien, spent the night with the protesters. There are 250 tents pitched around the cathedral, and two (disgusting) portable toilets. Most people head home every other day to shower. Contrary to what has been reported – ie that most of the tents are empty at night because people go home to sleep – almost all the tents are occupied at night. The cathedral bells chime every 15 miutes which make sleep impossible. There is a lot of kindness and some homeless people are fetching up there as it is their best option. However, many protesters are employed, and are taking time off work in order to support the demonstration.
At first when the protesters set up camp, the cathedral authorities welcomed them and refused to allow the police to move them on. Occupy London is protesting against ‘a crisis we didn’t cause’ (Peter Vaughan, a volunteer for the occupation). ‘Libraries are closing, services are being cut, young people are unemployed because there was no proper regulation of the financial services …’
Canon Giles Fraser, who was Chancellor at the cathedral, is on record as saying ‘I remain firmly supportive of the right of people to protest peacefully … the Christian gospel is profoundly committed to the needs of the poor and the dispossessed. Financial justice is a gospel imperative.’
Well said, Giles. So far, so good.
But then the cathedral decided to close. Health and safety reasons were given: potential gas safety, compromised fire exits, danger of fire from naked flames, sanitation and food hygiene issues, ropes attached to trees, bollards and lamp posts possibly causing injury, etc.
However, many suspected that the real reasons lay elsewhere, and people were quick to point the finger at the cathedral authorities, accusing them of siding with the rich businessmen in the city. This has been strongly denied.
It left a lot of questions, even so. Was it really necessary to close the cathedral? The protesters were peaceful and had made sure there were pathways between the tents for people wanting to visit, and there was even a wedding held there last week. So what is really going on?
The crisis deepened this week when the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, and the Dean of the cathedral refused to rule out forcibly evicting the demonstrators. They own the land where the protesters are camped jointly with the City of London, and are in discussions with the City about a legal challenge to move them on.
Behind the scenes, the cathedral staff are divided. Giles Fraser has just resigned, telling the Independent “The red line for me is that I am not able to sanction the use of force in the name of the Church to move the protesters on …” One of the chaplains has resigned too, for the same reason.
A number of people are quick to claim that Jesus would have taken this side or that. Many would say that we are more likely to find Jesus in the camp with the protesters than in the cathedral with the religious institution. Although he respected the religious institution of his day, he also challenged it where he found hypocrisy, and appealed most to the poor and dispossessed. So they might have a point, except that Jesus welcomed everyone who was interested in his message, both rich and poor.
This event does however shine an unflattering light on the problem of the Church of England. It is there for both rich and poor, and should not be taking sides. It has a useful role in challenging what is wrong in society and speaking up for those who are not able or don’t know how to speak up for themselves. But what I think of as the ‘establishment’ side of the church, the unacceptable and unpleasant side, where people seem to be more anxious about keeping in with the rich and powerful than in standing up for what is right, is somehow emasculating us as a church.
It becomes a fussy maiden aunt, peering anxiously at the world through the net curtains of incense and ritual, welcoming you to tea and cake, meeting well-bred friends for bridge, but not getting out there in the cold and the wet and getting her hands dirty.
This always makes me angry. It betrays the hundreds of thousands of Anglicans all around the world and in this country, who are deeply involved with people and their problems at every level of society. Not only Anglicans – all sorts of Christians. I have never been an establishment sort of person, and have always run a mile from situations where this attitude prevails. I don’t want to know. I don’t care if it means that I won’t ‘get on’ in the church. I find that attitude nauseating. I want to follow a Lord who spent his time teaching people to love God and love their neighbour, and laid down his own life while doing so. For me, the church establishment is a very secondary allegiance.
The cathedral is named after St Paul, who was a tent-maker. Before his conversion, he was a leading member of the religious institution. What’s the betting we would now find him outside, giving advice on how to mend the tear in your tent, than inside, being prissy with the maiden aunts?