I’m still trying to get my head around exactly what happened at St Paul’s yesterday. Firstly there was a protest by anti-capitalist group, Christianity Uncut which took the form of unfurling a large banner on the steps of the cathedral declaring ‘Throw the Money Changers out of the Temple’. Then there were the four women who chained themselves to the pulpit during Evensong. Occupy had been invited to read a prayer at the service, but after Tanya Paton, of Occupy Faith, had read her prayer, the four women then proceeded to chain themselves to the pulpit shouting their own sermon; “In the fight for economic justice Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, but you invited them in and instead evicted us.”
I’m not exactly sure what the relationship between these two groups and their approach is, but that’s not really the point. These protests were held to mark the first anniversary of the start of last year’s Occupy protests in London. St Paul’s had rightly decided that it would be good to acknowledge this during the service but their limited attempt at reconciliation was clearly not seen as being sufficient. The four women eventually cut themselves free several hours later once the police had been called in. It was unfortunate that their actions interrupted a wreath-laying for a soldier. Symon Hill, a spokesman for Christianity Uncut later said they were “very sorry”. “We had no intention of disturbing the remembrance of the dead. We are sorry, and had no intention of disrupting worship.”
What I’ve been considering most since I heard this news is whether the actions by these groups were appropriate. We have to remember the embarrassing shambles St Paul’s made of things last year in the way they handled those demonstrating (My very first blogpost covered this), but things have moved on since then. The new Dean of the cathedral wrote a piece on its website last week reflecting on what had happened over the previous year and what had been learnt. This is part of what he writes:
‘The Cathedral did work with Occupy and the City, but it was not always successful, and we could have worked better with other people and organisations who have similar concerns, as well as making more use of the expertise available to St Paul’s. In particular St Paul’s Institute has been engaged in work around social justice issues since 2003, and we shifted our focus onto finance with a significant programme on ‘moral capitalism’ in 2009. Since the Occupy camp’s arrival last October we have hosted a dialogue with Michael Sandel on ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ which received an audience of 1,800 people on the cathedral floor, and seminars in partnership with other groups on topics such as the Welfare State, predatory lending practices, the new norms of Capitalism, and an examination of models for direct democracy that included a facilitator of Occupy London general assemblies. We are looking to develop further effective partnerships for the future.’
It shows that the cathedral authorities have begun to positively respond to what happened. In that sense the Occupy protests did achieve something as it’s highly unlikely this would be happening without the protests having triggering it. It’s easy for the Church to get complacent when it spends so much time concentrating on the day-to-day issues and although it should really be proactive in pricking others’ consciences and challenging injustice, sometimes the opposite needs to happen – it needs a rude wake-up call. Yesterday’s challenge again provided a reminder and the outcome was that the Dean agreed to meet the protesters in the near future to hear what they have to say. Hopefully these talks will be productive.
The aspect of these protests aimed at St Paul’s that I’ve struggled most with is what they are actually expecting of the cathedral and the church in the long run, if anything. If, as seems to be the case, they want banking reform and a change to the structures of capitalism we have in our country, then how much do they expect the Church to be able to change this? Shouldn’t they be focusing their energies on government or financial institutions? In that sense St Paul’s is a rather soft target and any outcomes will be limited.
Also, the use of the slogan ‘Throw the money changers out of the temple’ whilst having a resonance with the Occupy movement’s grievances against St Paul’s and their close connection to the City of London is actually an empty statement. When Jesus went into the temple and drove out the money changers, it was because they were taking advantage of those coming to worship God and offer sacrifices. They were using people’s devotion to God to make a profit. That’s not what I’m seeing happen at St Paul’s.
Rowan Williams recently gave his thoughts on the Occupy protests. He used the comedy show Father Ted to explain his exasperation with the protesters. Their language, he said, was “so general as to be undemanding… rather like that episode in Father Ted where the priests demonstrate outside the cinema with a placard saying Down With This Sort of Thing. I just feel we’ve got to do a bit better than that.”
I’m pleased that the Occupy protests shook those who ran St Paul’s last year and caused the church to re-evaluate its relationship with City financial institutions and how it deals with social injustice. However I dont’ think yesterday’s protests will move things on. They drew attention to their cause, but little else. If you want to see change, but fail to articulate where you see that change leading to, you’ll struggle to take others with you.
Jesus protested in the temple and as we’ve seen with Pussy Riot in Russia and the Occupy movement, taking your protest to the church doors and even inside, shouldn’t in itself be seen as unacceptable or inappropriate if you have a problem with what the church is doing. Churches though primarily exist to be places of worship rather than venues for cheap publicity stunts. A bit of respect shouldn’t go amiss.
Update (15/10 pm): There’s been an interesting Twitter conversation on this between Peter Ould and Symon Hill this evening regarding the accounts of what actually happened. You can read it here. Symon has written a blogpost about the events from his perspective and Christianity Uncut have posted a response to the media reports. David Ison, the Dean of St Paul’s has also written a letter to the Guardian explaining what St Paul’s has been doing in response to the issues Occupy raised. I’ll leave you to look into these further if you want to.