St. Paul’s Cathedral Leadership Gutted as Occupy London Controversy Grows

Editors Note: As this story goes to press, The Guardian reports on Archbishop Rowan Williams’ response to yet another resignation from St. Paul’s, that of the dean the cathedral, the Rt Rev. Graeme Knowles. 

Last week the London branch of the Occupy movement spawned one of the biggest British religion stories of recent years. The reason is that the occupiers chose to pitch their tents on a pedestrianized area right in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s next to the London Stock Exchange, which of course is the point, but the land is principally owned by the cathedral. This choice of site introduced a religious dimension. The protest was asking the Church whether it sided with the hippie ethic of Jesus or the powers of this world.

The cathedral was faced with an unenviable dilemma—as Dan Shultz noted in these pages, we should not be too quick to cast the Dean and Chapter as Pharisees, for the right to protest should not trump all other considerations about the use of public space. The Church of England has genuinely been trying to foster discussion about reform of the banking industry—in fact St Paul’s has been leading such discussion. But how radical can an established Church be? Don’t its huge financial commitments mean that a certain realism is inevitable? This rather abstract question was suddenly tested by the protest.

One of the cathedral canons, Giles Fraser, expressed vague support for the protesters’ vague aims, and even asked the police to keep a lower profile. Fraser was already one of the best-known figures in the Church of England, better known than most bishops, due to his work as a writer and broadcaster with a populist, radical edge. The Dean, and the rest of the staff, were less welcoming of the intrusion, which they said was losing them £20,000 per day in revenue. The cathedral charges a hefty entrance fee of £14.50 ($23), which is no mere suggested donation; visitors have to pay up if they want to walk under its grand dome. (I think this is a bad idea; I once wrote an article about it here.) They declared the protest a safety hazard, as it blocked the passage of emergency services, and shut the cathedral to worshippers as well as tourists.

By closing its doors, the cathedral was hoping to pressure the protesters into moving on. It didn’t work. An intensely tricky situation was brewing: the cathedral had to look sympathetic to the aims of the protest, while fervently praying that it would not disrupt cathedral business for much longer.

The tense situation exploded last Thursday when the cathedral decided to initiate legal proceedings to evict the protesters. Fraser resigned from his post in protest at the risk of “violence in the name of the Church”—and so became the hero of the movement, a sort of Friar Tuck. It is also thought that he had written a report on the ethics of the financial industry that his bosses were suppressing.

Fraser’s decision to put principle first is hard to assess. If one works for a big powerful institution, isn’t it dubious to insist on keeping one’s hands clean when things get murky? As some have said, his martyrdom won’t exactly harm his career. On the other hand, the cathedral was perhaps drifting toward a public relations disaster, and Fraser was right to highlight the fact.

The result of his resignation is that the Church has received one of its worst bashings from the press of recent years. The bishop of London, a very establishment figure (a friend of Prince Charles no less), has been mocked for his patronizing attempt at conciliation: telling the protesters that the Church was doing important work on the issue, and that if they disbanded, he would organize a debate between them and the bankers. The left-leaning papers have expressed astonishment that the Church walked into such a major public relations disaster, and provoked the resignation of one of its few really popular figures. A Christian protest movement is also stirring in response to the controversy: a coalition of left-leaning Christian activists has promised a nonviolent ‘ring of prayer’ to defend the protesters if eviction threats are realized.

The strange saga has put the spotlight on the role of England’s established Church. Is it capable of expressing the Mammon-averse ethic of Jesus, or is it, despite some warm words about fairness, in cahoots with the plutocrats? Can an institution that has benefited from capitalism for so long remain in touch with the egalitarian vision it professes?

It has also put the spotlight on the stylistic failure of the Church. The fact is that Giles Fraser, by his ability to seem a regular bloke rather than a pious ponce, stands out to a degree that is embarrassing to the Church. Why do so few other clergy look at ease with the world around them? Fraser’s great media success has been largely due to his popularity with secular journalists (two affectionate profiles immediately appeared in The Guardian when the story broke). Journalists are amazed to find a priest who curses and laughs, and smokes and drinks. Why do the rest seem so timidly conservative, so awkwardly defensive, and so dull? An established Church that does not seem in touch with mainstream culture is in serious trouble. Ironically, Fraser’s blokeish charm has exposed the stiff awkwardness of the institution. A priest who seems like a fully rounded human being! If that feels unusual, what does that say about the Church? 

Fraser emerges from this as a potentially important religious figure. For he is a serious thinker as well as an affable bloke. The Church of England has lacked a major liberal voice in recent years. Since 9/11 especially, a spirit of cultural conservatism has reigned among the bishops, a reluctance to expose the established Church to searching criticism. But it is only through such self-criticism that it can re-engage British liberal opinion. If Fraser can provoke a new spirit of honesty, the C of E might be getting interesting again.

theohobson@googlemail.com'

Theo Hobson is a British theologian and journalist who is currently living in New York. He has argued for the reform of the Church of England and the renewal of liberal theology. His books include Milton's Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty.