Church support for camps is tested by protesters’ conduct

by
09 November 2011

by Ed Thornton

THE Prime Minister said on Tues­day that people should “not be able to erect tents all over the place”, as the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral continued into its fourth week. There are now an estimated 2000 Occupy protests around the world, including several in the UK.

During an appearance before the House of Commons liaison com­mit­tee, David Cameron said that protest “is certainly a right that people have. But I have got this rather quaint view — you shouldn’t be able to erect tents all over the place.

“I think protesting is something you, on the whole, should do on two feet, rather than lying down — in some cases in a fairly comatose state.”

The protest camp outside St Paul’s has indicated that it might remain into the new year, after the cathedral reversed its support for a legal injunction to remove the pro­testers. The Dean, the Rt Revd Graeme Knowles, and Canon Giles Fraser resigned over the issue (News, 4 November). The City of London Corporation, which is the Highways Authority for the Square Mile, said that it had “pressed the pause button” on legal action to remove the protesters.

Occupy London said on Tuesday that its solicitor had “received a communication from City of Lon­don Corporation clarifying the terms of agreement proposed by the City of London to avoid litigation”. It said that the proposed agreement would be debated at the camp’s general assembly, and that “any response . . . may take a few days”.

In an online Church Times poll of nearly 300 readers this week, 45 per cent said that the protesters at St Paul’s should now disband their camp. The majority thought they should stay.

Senior clerics this week expressed unease at the way that St Paul’s had initially responded to the protesters. The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nick Holtam, told Salisbury diocesan synod last Saturday that the threat to evict the protesters “showed the cathedral as willing to use the power of the City of London to protect itself, which is the very thing that worries the rest of us.

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“Whilst it is not clear from the New Testament whether the Church is of, with, or for the poor, the Church isn’t credible if we don’t attempt something along one of those lines. St Paul’s seem not to have asked themselves that root question, and they lacked the in­stinct to respond to the great op­por­tunity of a crisis.”

The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock, said this week that he “was not alone in being astonished that the decision was taken to close St Paul’s”. The decision to reopen the cathedral, and the high-profile resignations of the Dean and the Canon Fraser “increased the im­pressions of chaos”.

In an article published on his diocesan website, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocks­worth, wrote of the “irony of care­ful, professional, well-meaning advice on managing a potentially dangerous and threatening situation closing the doors on the gospel prac­tices of hospitality, engagement and the patient building of trusting relationships.”

St Paul’s had, though, managed to realign itself, he said, “through some brave decisions, some cour­ageous public contrition, and de­cisive leadership from the Bishop of London”. This helped to “open up an opportunity for real debate on the matters that really do count”.

Elsewhere, about 40 tents popu­lated by anti-capitalism protesters are at present pitched on College Green outside Bristol Cathedral, about 50 yards from the head­quarters of Hargreaves Lansdown, a large financial-services firm.

Speaking on Monday, the Dean of Bristol, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, said that the camp looked like “a fairly permanent presence”: despite being asked, “there is no indication they are about to leave.” He said that the cathedral, which owns the land, and the council, to whom it is leased, “are co-operating”.

The cathedral had been used as a urinal the previous night, Dean Hoyle said, and a member of staff had been threatened verbally. He said that the Chapter supported the right to protest, but if there was further damage to the building or threats to staff “then our position might well change, and very rapidly”.

Replying to Dean Hoyle in an e mail on Friday, a protester from the Occupy Bristol camp asked if the Dean was alleging a member of their camp was responsible for urinating in the cathedral, saying there was "no evidence" to back this up, and that such a claim was "disingenuous at best". 

The Dean of Sheffield, the Very Revd Peter Bradley, issued a state­ment last Saturday on behalf of the cathedral Chapter, saying that pro­testers camping in the churchyard did “not have the cathedral’s per­mission”.

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The cathedral had been used as a urinal the previous night, Dean Hoyle said, and a member of staff had been threatened verbally. He said that the Chapter supported the right to protest, but if there was further damage to the building or threats to staff “then our position might well change, and very rapidly”.

Replying to Dean Hoyle in an e mail on Friday, a protester from the Occupy Bristol camp asked if the Dean was alleging a member of their camp was responsible for urinating in the cathedral, saying there was "no evidence" to back this up, and that such a claim was "disingenuous at best". 

The Dean of Sheffield, the Very Revd Peter Bradley, issued a state­ment last Saturday on behalf of the cathedral Chapter, saying that pro­testers camping in the churchyard did “not have the cathedral’s per­mission”.

Speaking on Tuesday, Dean Bradley said: “The Chapter’s view is very definitely that we respect their right to protest and we would not seek to clear it [the encampment] unless it became unsafe or there was harassment of people attending the cathedral.”

He said that the group of pro­testers was “quite modest” in number; about half were members of the Socialist Workers Party. “We are trying to set up an informal way of working with them. As it is a leaderless group, they are still for­mulating their views.”

Church leaders this week sug­gested reforms to the economic system, after the Archbishop of Canterbury last week reiterated his support for a Tobin, or “Robin Hood”, tax on financial transactions (News, 4 November).

Writing in the Yorkshire Post last Saturday, the Archbishop of York suggested that the Queen’s Honours “not be given to those who have already rewarded themselves most handsomely”; also that “a tick box should be added to tax forms which you would tick if you were willing for the amount you paid in tax to be made public”.

Dr Sentamu said that this would “encourage people to take pride in the contribution made through the tax system to the wellbeing of society, and . . . perhaps make people a little ashamed if they did not tick the box.”

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Ken Costa, the Christian investment banker whom the Bishop of Lon­don, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, invited to “spearhead an initiative reconnecting the financial with the ethical”, said that a “civic conscious­ness” was “awakening”, which “re­cog­nises that we cannot go on as before. There is now an urgent need to reconnect the financial with the ethical.”

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