This past week has seen a whole lot of angst and anger at an apparent volte-face by St. Paul's Cathedral to the 'Occupy' protestors in London. Police prevented protesters who hoped to 'Occupy the London Stock Exchange' from entering Paternoster Square; the protestors simply camped around the north and west sides of the cathedral, which sits cheek-by-jowl to the Stock Exchange. At first, Canon Dr Giles Fraser of the cathedral chapter welcomed the protestors and told the police that no help was needed. Prayers were offered for both the protestors and the police, intriguing and impressing many people involved. Then, St. Paul's closed its doors to the public, citing health and safety concerns. There are reports that the closed cathedral is losing around £16,000 in revenue every day that it remains closed, and that, should protestors remain, major national services (including Remembrance and Christmas Day) will have to be celebrated elsewhere. The Bishop of London issued a statement saying that "the time has come for the protestors to leave, before the camp’s presence threatens to eclipse entirely the issues that it was set up to address." Protestors seem bewildered, and some in the press have launched vitriolic volleys against the cathedral and the Church of England. What are we to make of how the Church should relate to 'Occupy'?
The first thing I would like to say is that I don't believe the cathedral chapter has lost its nerve or caved into pressure from city heavyweights. Without doubt, health and safety is and should be a concern, as is the raising of enough money to maintain a national church. That is not to say that the cathedral chapter has excelled in public relations -- in fact, they have proved disastrously bad at communicating to both protestors and the press. But to accuse priests of undoubted stature, intellectual verve, and social commitment of political quietism is plain inflammtory nonsense.
Yet, there remains a sense that the wider Church of England is losing a Gospel opportunity. Too few bishops, priests, and parishes seem to be exploring the relatively popular discontent with the economic status quo. What do we, as the Church, think the economy is for, and how can we engage with the disparate streams of protest? That is not to simply say that the Church should agree, carte blanche, with any protestor, but living in the heart of a protest surely gives time and opportunity to occupy the debates. The Bishop of London rightly pointed out in his statement that "the St Paul’s Institute has itself focused on the issue of executive pay
and I am involved in ongoing discussions with City leaders about
improving shareholder influence on excessive remuneration." But what ongoing discussions might we have with the protestors?