The St Paul’s protests
Bells and yells
The church is more muddled than divided over the anti-banker protests
Nov 5th 2011 | from the print edition
On November 1st there was a dramatic reversal by the ecclesiastical authorities who control St Paul’s Cathedral, the precincts of which have been occupied since October 15th by protesters, placards and dozens of tents. The cathedral’s masters had originally urged eviction. But following the resignation of two senior members of staff (the first was Giles Fraser, one of Britain’s best-known lefty clerics, succeeded days later by Graeme Knowles, the dean of St Paul’s), they announced that they would not take steps to remove the malcontents—many of them civil servants and teachers in jerseys, quoting scripture and keen on recycling.
More reluctantly, the City of London Corporation, which co-owns the disputed space and represents the neighbourhood’s powerful commercial interests, said it would temporarily suspend its eviction efforts.
Richard Chartres (pictured), the bishop of London, who ranks third in the Anglican hierarchy, acknowledged that almost everything the cathedral had done in response to the protest had been a mistake. It had been wrong, he said, to close the cathedral’s doors—supposedly for safety reasons—soon after the protests began. (The doors have reopened and services are going on as usual, after some amicable repositioning of tents.) He spoke warmly of the clerics who had resigned.
But if the intention was to create the impression that the Church of England’s authorities were closing ranks again, it did not immediately succeed. Ever since the protests began, there were suspicions that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury—in earlier life a brainy academic with a liberal, bohemian streak—quietly sympathised with the protesters. More so, at least, than the bishop of London, whose forceful, confident and articulate manner suggests to some that he is more of an establishment type.
Both clerics have said things that betray a degree of intellectual sympathy with the protesters. But Archbishop Rowan put his cards on the table more dramatically on November 2nd by supporting, in an article in the Financial Times, a “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions of the kind favoured by France and Germany. David Cameron agreed that corporate greed should be curbed, and said the archbishop spoke “for the whole country” in saying so. But there was no sense in a handful of countries imposing such a tax; financial activities would simply push off elsewhere.
Bishop Richard, for his part, made clear that he was not about to issue detailed policy prescriptions for the world of finance: “The church doesn’t and shouldn’t claim ordination gives you a tremendously privileged insight into how to solve the euro-zone problems.” Asked whether that implied a difference between himself and his boss, Bishop Richard replied teasingly that he would study the Financial Times article with great respect, given its author’s credentials as a prominent European intellectual. As a proof of the two men’s continuing personal closeness, he cited their common interest in Russian Orthodox theology and culture—a topic on which the number of potential conversation partners is limited.
But despite the chaotic image it presented this week, the Church of England looks more likely to trundle on eccentrically than to break into establishment and anti-capitalist camps. Buildings like St Paul’s are part of the reason. No matter how compelling the demands of the poor and angry, which faction would ever agree to abandon the cathedrals?