An interesting article by George Carey, the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury on the St Paul's debacle in today's Telegraph.
The inevitable resignation of the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Giles Fraser, via the predictable medium of Twitter, is a sad day for one of our great national churches. But the departure of this able man, and now the planned reopening of the cathedral, should at least bring to an end the hand-wringing and posturing of the past two weeks. My paramount concern throughout has been that the reputation of Christianity is being damaged by the episode, and, more widely, that the possibility of fruitful and peaceful protest has been brought into disrepute.
The Blitz only closed St Paul’s for four days. By contrast, the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters, camped outside Wren’s masterpiece, managed to put it out of business for a week. It has been a debacle that should prompt urgent public debate both within the Church of England, and throughout society at large.
For countless others, though, not least in the churches, this was a hopeful sign that peaceful protests could indeed take place at a time when so many civil liberties have been eroded. Furthermore, it demonstrated that the Church is willing to play a sympathetic role in the lives of young people who are drawn to a movement calling for economic justice.
Like many others in the Church, I have a great deal of sympathy for the raw idealism of the protesters. Their contention that the banks have not paid an equitable price for the damage caused, in part, by their reckless lending and profiteering strikes a powerful chord.
However, after their initial welcome to Occupy, the cathedral authorities then seemed to lose their nerve. In daily-changing news reports, the story see-sawed between a public debate about the merits or otherwise of the protest, the drama of internal disputes at St Paul’s over lost income from tourists, and the ill-defined health, safety and fire concerns that caused it to close its doors to worshippers.
One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse ’elf ’n safety bureaucracy of urban legend. How could the dean and chapter at St Paul’s have let themselves get into such a position?
And what of the protesters themselves in this sorry story? Their intransigence, once the cathedral stopped welcoming them with open arms and began to plead with them to leave, did them no favours. Ironically, they started off fulsomely thanking the Church for allowing them to stay, but then repaid that generosity by refusing to leave when asked.
At a time when secularists are striving to drive Christian voices from public life with strident campaigns to abolish church schools and council prayers, and when workers can be suspended for offering to say a prayer for colleagues or for wearing a cross, it seems that on the doorstep of St Paul’s, of all places, yet another blow has been struck against Christian worshippers. In this case, “anarchist” protesters threatened the freedom to worship – one of our most basic and hard-fought-for rights – by forcing the cathedral authorities to halt public access.
But surely the protesters and the Church were, by one measure, on the same side? How could Occupy be unaware of the immense contribution of all the churches to justice and peace through international development and social services? The St Paul’s Institute alone has been addressing precisely the issues Occupy is raising.
Yet the very fact that they are prepared to continue their own protest at the expense of Christian worship in one of our greatest cathedrals surely gives the lie to the protesters’ claim that they represent 99 per cent of society. Furthermore, their determination to engage in an open-ended campaign in the churchyard is opportunistic and cynical. If their protest is truly against the tax evaders of the City and reckless banking practices, why are they not protesting at Canary Wharf, or on the thresholds of the banks themselves?
As the story developed, thermal images of empty tents seemed to illustrate the hollow nature of the protest movement. The emerging picture of spoilt middle-class children returning home at night for a shower and a warm bed begged questions about their commitment to their cause. It also seemed to suggest that the cathedral authorities in their initial welcome had been duped.
And what was the cause anyway? “This is what democracy looks like,” claimed Occupy’s opening statement. It explained that it was engaged in a process of public assemblies in a democratic process. But it is making up its demands as it goes along – truly rebels without a cause.
In some senses this is what our society now looks like. We are all protesters, even if we don’t take to the streets. We all have an inchoate sense that something is wrong and we have any number of culprits to blame – from Europe, to immigrants, to the banks, to politicians and media barons. Public distrust of the institutions of a civil society has reached an all-time high as the performance of some bankers, public servants and even recently some sections of our media has sunk to the lowest depths after waves of recent scandal.
And where are the ideas for restoring public trust and rebuilding our now fragile democracy? We are divided as never before, not into one per cent of the very rich, versus 99 per cent of the not-so-rich, as the protesters would have us believe, but into many factions and separate communities. Gone is any sense of an overarching narrative to form our identity as a nation. We have effectively forgotten who we are because we have rejected the very faith and heritage that set us on our way as a great country.
The story of the St Paul’s encampment, with its empty tents and hollowed-out protest, together with the uncertain note sounded by the dean and chapter, is simply a parable for our times.
It would be a tragedy now if, by the mismanagement of the St Paul’s authorities and the self-indulgence of the protesters, the right of peaceful protest and the urgency of widespread public debate became the subject of even greater cynicism and apathy. This opportunity to rebuild our ailing public life around gospel values of public service, self-restraint, equality, hard work and charitable concern for the poor, must not be squandered.
Protest has always been with us, particularly in times of crisis, and the churches have often been at the centre of popular movements and campaigns. In the past, the churchyard of St Paul’s was a well-known scene of public preaching which was often political in nature.
It should not be forgotten that this week is not the first time that St Paul’s has played an ambivalent and even wrongful role in the politics of protest. In the 16th century, a Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, publicly burned copies of Tyndale’s New Testament at St Paul’s Cross. Tyndale’s was one of the first translations of the Bible into the vernacular, and became the basis of the influential King James Bible, whose 400th anniversary we are celebrating this year.
I’m not convinced that the Occupy protesters were aware of the history of St Paul’s when they chose the churchyard for their encampment. Denied room at nearby Paternoster Square, they were pushed back to St Paul’s, where Giles Fraser offered them a warm welcome and preached a sermon that they saw as favourable to their anti-capitalist agenda. For many people, Fraser’s intervention struck a dissonant note. Rather than entreating the protesters to move on, he asked the police to leave the steps of St Paul’s and declared to the cameras that the protest was peaceful.