UK Church Leader Resigns Over Planned Removal of Occupy Protesters (Updated)

Lazy journalists might be tempted to write this story up along the lines of “Gosh, there’s even religious lefties in England!”

The canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, has resigned in protest at plans to forcibly remove protesters from its steps, saying he could not support the possibility of “violence in the name of the church”.

Speculation grew in the last 24 hours that Fraser, a leading leftwing voice in the Church of England, would resign because he could not sanction the use of police or bailiffs against the hundreds of activists who have set up camp in the grounds of the cathedral in the past fortnight.

Just after 9am on Thursday, Fraser tweeted: “It is with great regret and sadness that I have handed in my notice at St Paul’s Cathedral.”

Actually, in the US, the reaction to this might be something more like “Will no one save us from the wretched scum and villainy infesting our public squares with their dirty hippie colonies and their pointing out the myriad ways capitalism has failed the vast majority of citizens in industrialized nations? Oh, horrors!” And then we have to fetch the smelling salts.

For me, though, the interesting part of the story is how it points to the uneasy position of the church in modern society. Church buildings have always provided civic space in their communities. For a long time both in England and America, they often provided the only civic space. My congregation, for example, operated for many years a German-language schoolhouse. For some of that time, it was the only school in town. More broadly, many Americans are familiar with churches that host polling places or open up meeting space to the community. In Britain, churches continue to exercise considerable influence on social mores by operating schools.

All of which is a long way of getting around to saying that in a time of social upheaval, being the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the one responsible for the decision to move or not move the protestors, is not a lot of fun. Who are the primary stakeholders he should be responsible to? The regular worshippers, who may or may not want to pick their way through a protest to get to Evensong? The tourist throngs, who may be demanding pests, but who also provide crucial financial support to keep the building open? The City of London Corporation, who might or might not have legitimate concerns about an open-air encampment? The protestors themselves, who might be damn dirty hippies, or who might be modeling the social concerns of Christ himself? It’s a fearsome balancing act, and not one I would be eager to have forced on me.

Rev. Fraser has clearly decided that the church’s primary responsibility is to the protestors. Or rather, he believes that the church’s first duty is to prevent violence and the loss of life. Given how these protests have played out in many cities around the world, that’s not without merit. I suspect that if I were in his shoes, I’d take the same position. Violence in the name of the church is indeed not a good thing.

At the same time, no one should think it’s as simple as “There are protestors on the cathedral stairs. The church should join them.” In fact, the whole point of the “Occupy” protests is leveraging creative hijacking of civic space to get their message out. It’s a good tactic, but we shouldn’t be surprised that the masters of that space get conflicted at best and downright grouchy at worst when it’s taken over. That’s nowhere clearer than with churches, which exist to serve both their own community and the needs of the larger community.

For what it’s worth, if anyone wanted to organize an “Occupy Wayne,” we do have a nice open grassy patch that you could probably use. Problem is, I don’t think anyone would notice you were there.

Addendum: There have been some interesting developments in this story over the weekend.

First, as Jim Naughton accurately describes it, St. Paul’s “slow-motion train wreck” continues to claim victims. In addition to Giles Fraser, the canon chancellor and Fraser Dyer, a chaplain at the cathedral, the Rt. Rev. Graeme Knowles, St. Paul’s dean is resigning. (The dean is the cathedral’s big boss, for those of you unfamiliar with the jargon.)

This just underscores the delicate balance St. Paul’s has to keep. On the one hand, it has very real obligations to the City Corporation and to keeping itself afloat. On the other hand,

What is the value of a religious institution if it loses touch with what it was there for in the first place?

I’m assuming what happened to Knowles is that he lost the confidence of his board of directors, and decided he didn’t need the headache. Again, it would be easy to say, “Of course St. Paul’s should be on the side of the protestors!” But it’s always a good deal more complicated than that. I feel for the Rt. Rev., even if I wouldn’t have agreed with all his decisions.

Meanwhile, other Christian groups are picking up the slack:

As the storm of controversy over the handling of the Occupy London Stock Exchange demonstration deepened on Saturday, Christian activists said it was their duty to stand up for peaceful protest in the absence of support from St Paul’s. One Christian protester, Tanya Paton, said: “We represent peace, unity and love. A ring of prayer is a wonderful symbol.”

Christian groups that have publicly sided with the protesters include one of the oldest Christian charities, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the oldest national student organisation, the Student Christian Movement, Christianity Uncut, the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust and the Christian magazine Third Way. In addition, London Catholic Worker, the Society of Sacramental Socialists and Quaker groups have offered their support.

A statement by the groups said: “As Christians, we stand alongside people of all religions who are resisting economic injustice with active nonviolence. The global economic system perpetuates the wealth of the few at the expense of the many. It is based on idolatrous subservience to markets. We cannot worship both God and money.”

This, it seems to me, is messy, lovely Christianity at work. If the cathedral can’t quite get it together to protect the protestors, the slightly disreputable prophetic types will get the job done. Good show.