Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy London protest at St Paul's divides Church of England

Occupy London banner

The story of the so-called #OccupyLSX protest has evolved rapidly this week. You will remember that last weekend, having been unsurprisingly told they could not occupy the London Stock Exchange, the campaigners sought an easier target in the City and settled on St Paul's Cathedral. As the police moved in to prevent them, Giles Fraser (one of St Paul's senior clergy) stepped in and Quixotically asked them to move along, allowing the protestors to settle, and defending their right to do so peacefully.

This unusual incident drew a lot of publicity to both St Paul's and to the protest, the organisers being quick to exploit the incident. "We are occupying St Paul's!" said their official Twitter stream, "the vicar has given us his blessing and asked the police to leave." And therein lay the seeds of trouble to come.  The Cathedral put out a statement cautiously supporting the right to protest and asking all to respect the day to day work and worship, and not obstruct people entering the church.  The protesters continued to send out positive messages  about how supportive the Cathedral was, and basically on their side.

However as the week wore on, the beautiful relationship started to look a bit ragged. "Is it time for the protest camp to leave?" asked the Cathedral on Wednesday, this being one of those questions that is in fact a statement that the answer is "yes".  And by last night things had gone rather sour. The Cathedral announced that they had to close as a result of the camp, curiously blaming the presence of a number of camping stoves as the clinching reason. In return, the protest twitter stream turned rather nastily on its former friend, firstly stating the Cathedral was trying to oust them to protect its trading profit, and then (untruthfully, as it turns out) accusing the Dean of stopping the pay of his staff while continuing to draw his own.  By late evening, the conspiracy theories were out and about, saying that St Paul's is in the pay of City financiers who have forced this to discredit the protest: click here for an example, but please remember that the claim is completely unfounded and without evidence.

Now the issue seems to have neatly divided the issue the entire Church of England, with the Dean and Chapter the reluctant piggies in the middle. On the one hand are those who have little patience with the protestors, tending to see them as lightweight champagne socialists who would rather close down the one institution that showed them any support than pick a fight with their supposed targets, the banks. This group are largely those who criticised Giles Fraser for his original act of welcome, for example the right-wing blogger Cranmer.  In the other camp, as it were, are those who laud the protestors for their pro-justice stance, typically making frequent references to Jesus in the temple, as in this blog post.  This lot also criticise the Cathedral, but because they are not supportive enough and somehow tainted by the same love of money as the big financial institutions.

What do we make of all this? My first thought is that I'm uncomfortable with the rush to pour scorn on the leadership of St Paul's. Last night I used the term "armchair critics" and got taken to task. But I stand by the comment, while admitting that there are, of course, people out there who are well-informed and involved critics (including my correspondent, who knows what he's talking about). But it seems to me that most of those grumbling are the vicar or churchwarden of St Wilbert's In-The-Sticks, where the nearest thing they get to a sit-down protest is Mrs Miggins saving a seat for her friend Ethel at the carol service. It's far too easy to sneer at others when you are safe in the knowledge that you will never have to face what they are facing.

And then there's this question of what Jesus would be doing if he was there (or perhaps he is there).  I love this picture, I think it makes a powerful point, but it also should come with a massive health warning:

via @RuthieGledhill

The health warning is that it is notoriously easy to make Jesus say anything you want him to say.  Throughout history his life and teaching have been used to justify a vast range of political and religious views. Just select, from the rich and complex resource of the four Gospels, those bits that can be quoted in support of your cause, ignore those that can't, and bingo! You have the most influential figure of human history on your side. "WWJD" just doesn't work in polemical debate.

For what it's worth, here's my analysis of the situation at St Paul's. There's no need to invoke conspiracies of City bankers leaning on the Dean, invented by those who have read too much Dan Brown. My correspondent who took exception to the "armchair critics" believes that the Cathedral's mistake has been to be too passive, not proactive enough. I think he is right. I think that last Sunday Giles Fraser, and perhaps some others at the Cathedral, took the rapid, and correct decision to let the protesters stay. If they had not, they would have really deserved the accusation of collaborating with the powers that be. However, others in the Cathedral were less convinced. They disliked the camp's interfering with the orderly running of the institution, the possibly messy political inferences, and the prospect of a Parliament-Square style encampment taking root. And so we witnessed a collective failure of nerve as the Cathedral team could not agree on a policy. What began with a nicely balanced way of allowing the protest without actually taking its side, became paralysis and a desparate hope that it might just go away, and ended with the lame old elf'n'safety argument, the defence of choice for organisations dealing with issues that they have filed in the "too difficult" box.

But it's still the reactions of the rest of the church I find sad. Clergy and lay people alike have seized on the opportunity to use this to restate their already fixed political positions, without in any way attempting to engage with the issues at stake. I don't know what Jesus would do, but I do know we do him no favours when we attempt to press-gang him into our own party, left or right of centre as it may be. At least the Cathedral attempted to find a balance, even if they did find it difficult. Perhaps they have done us a favour, in reminding us that speaking with a Christian voice in the twenty-first century is not about cheap phrases and political posturing.

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

Thanks for your thoughts. This whole business has been on my mind, even on the other side of the Atlantic.

We have been blessed to have an extremely respectful relationship with our local Occupy movement, so I can say that relations between Church and protest camps need not necessarily be antagonistic.

But you're right, though. It's hard to appreciate the position the Dean is in without knowing all the factors at play.

Tim Chesterton said...

Thanks for this well-balanced piece, Charlie.