I BROKE off last week just at the exciting bit: the Bishop of London had not yet announced his U-turn, although it was obvious that this would happen, and the papers had not yet reported or digested it.
When they did, the response was interesting. Loudest was The Guardian, which has taken the Occupy protests as its own. Alan Rusbridger, who had earlier interviewed Canon Giles Fraser at length — even lending him a shirt to be photographed in (as opposed to the T-shirt in which he turned up at the office) — went down to Dean’s Yard and got an interview.
It was notable, perhaps, for getting “Chartres” and “ferret” into the same sentence, right in the middle of the front page. “The Rt Rev Richard John Carew Chartres exuded an aura of benign ecclesiastical calm having performed the most dramatic reverse ferret in modern church history.
“‘Reverse ferret’ is, technically speaking, a term used in Fleet Street, just down the road, to describe the moment when an editor executes a startling editorial U-turn.
“But it was the bishop who brought off a remarkable tactical volte face. Stepping into the shoes of the recently-departed dean of St Paul’s, Graeme Knowles, Chartres decided to suspend legal action against the protesters who are camped out barely a hundred yards from his sitting room — and to disregard the legal and health and safety advice which had previously led to the closure of the cathedral.”
The same day, the Financial Times had a long article from Archbishop Williams (“Bishop blesses Vickers” read the plug on the front page, in a reference to the Vickers Commission) which had obviously been co-ordinated with the decision across the river. This once more pushed his proposal for a “Tobin tax”, and coupled it with the Vatican’s beliefs. He also defended the cathedral’s confusion:
“First, the Church of England is a place where the unspoken anxieties of society can often find a voice, for good and ill. If the Church cannot find ways through, that is not an index of its incompetence so much as of the sensitivity of such matters.”
IT WAS a commonplace of the arguments last week that the Church of England had come out looking foolish. I am not sure that this is true at all. Of course, there had been a lot of entirely justified criticism of the decision to shut the cathedral. It is difficult to imagine anything that could have made the authorities look more foolish, powerless, and out of touch.
But the point is, surely, that these mistakes were eventually understood and rectified. There was a great deal of praise, much of it without irony, for both the men who resigned, precisely because they did resign. That is, in itself, a marked and salutory contrast to the behaviour of the bankers.
But there is also a sense that the Church, in its muddled way, was reflecting our own muddle and trying to come to the right conclusion. In particular, the protests did revive the idea that the Church of England was a proper place for ethical debate.
I think it is, at the moment, the only sort of Christianity that can be. The reputation of the Roman Catholic Church which is unpopular at the best of times, has been so badly damaged by the paedophile scandals that what it says about anything else, will not now be heard at all. The distinctively Evangelical churches are going to make idiots of themselves, yet again, over same-sex marriage.
(In this context, it is worth noticing a piece by Alan Craig in the Church of England Newspaper, denouncing the “Gaystapo”, the “gay Wehrmacht”, and “the pink jackboot”, which contrived to look bullying and hysterically frightened at the same time.)
But the Church of England lumbers, absurdly, on. What seems to have happened with the occupation reminds me of the radio panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, where participants are asked to start singing along with a song, the backing fades, and then after a period of squirm-making unaccompanied song, the backing track returns, almost always out of time with the singer. What happened outside and around St Paul’s seems to me to have been the return of the backing track.
As Dr Williams pointed out later, rather ruefully, the proposals in his FT article were hardly new. In fact he called for a Tobin tax a year ago. No one took any notice. This time, he made the front of the FT. That is why the protests mattered so much. They let the country think about the things that the Church really cares about — and though the cathedral fumbled the chance, it did not, in the end, quite drop it.