Bishop, Priest, Protester Arrested in Trinity Wall Street/Occupy Clash

To chants of “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard this afternoon led Occupy Wall Street protestors in climbing over the fence at Duarte Square, a property owed by Trinity Wall Street, the iconic Episcopal church now mired in controversy over its refusal to allow the movement to set up camp for the winter in the park.

[image credit: Episcopal Café]

Episcopal Café reported that Packard and Episcopal priest John Merz were arrested along with several other protesters. It had been hoped that a letter from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the #OWS community yesterday would sway local, diocesan, and national church leadership to soften their stance toward the movement on the basis of “the higher calling of Our Lord Jesus Christ—which they live so well in all other ways.” But by this morning, Tutu had seemed to backpedal, issuing a clarification on the Trinity Wall Street website that included a rebuke of those who might use his previous statement in support of civil disobedience at Duarte Square:

I also now challenge those who disagree with Trinity. My statement is not to be used to justify breaking the law. In a country where all people can vote and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property. Nor is it to reinforce or build higher the barriers between people of faith who seek peace and justice. My deep prayer is that people can work together and I look forward to that conversation.

For his part, Packard, who blogs as “Occupied Bishop,” disputed Tutu’s claim that “Trinity’s door to dialogue is open.” As he prepared to join the protest at Duarte Square, Packard insisted:

Readers, that is plainly not true. Even when Occupy tried over the past three weeks to discuss other prophetic alternatives there was no answer. And that condition continues as we board transportation for Duarte Park now.

It’s hard to imagine how the fervent prayers of so many involved in the conflict over Christian mission, social justice, sanctuary, and institutional authority now playing out at Trinity Wall Street will effect reconciliation among the parties, with police now, according to Twitter reports and streaming video, cordoning off the block and arresting more protestors.

Says the Rev. Canon Dan Webster, canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, who has written in support of the Occupy Movement, “Clearly the Episcopal Church is not of one mind about the Occupy movement,” and the situation at Trinity Wall Street has made the debate about social justice in the church particularly concrete. Webster continues: 

I think this comes under the heading, “To those who have given much, much is expected,” and that’s what Trinity Wall Street has to deal with. Like it or not…Trinity Wall Street owns the bulk of Lower Manhattan, they have the largest portfolio of any congregation in the global Anglican Communion, and they reap the benefits of the 1%…We have to do something now that brings a conscience to capitalism…

Protestors and supporters may have been wondering What Would Jesus Do? yesterday, but at this point the big question seems to be this: Will the Episcopal Church be able get itself out from under the weight of this public relations and missional debacle in time to celebrate the birth of the socially and spiritually disobedient Jesus Christ?

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