Leader: Wealth and safety: the St Paul’s dilemma

by
27 October 2011

TO GIVE them their due, the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s knew the reaction they would get when they cited health and safety as the reason for the closure of the cathedral. Their mistake last Friday was to treat this as a normal crisis: make the statement, get the official spokesman lined up, and plan to follow up on the Monday, when senior staff were next available for consultation. From this viewpoint, it did not seem to be a problem that the completed health-and-safety report would not be ready until late on Monday. Unfortunately, and pre­dictably, the story continued to develop throughout the week­end, and, without a robust and detailed defence of the closure, suspicion was allowed to grow that the Chapter had turned against the protesters, concerned more for its lost tourist revenue than for a courageous witness against the evils of capitalism. As a result, when some (not all) of the report was released on Tuesday, it was largely derided.

There is a view, whether of a person or an organisation, that a crisis reveals true character. In most instances, though, all it reveals is the ability to handle a crisis. It would be grossly unfair to judge St Paul’s on its difficulty in relating to an amorphous, leaderless, and some would say directionless protest group, while ignoring the cathedral’s persistent witness to the City of London. The daily round of Christian worship is, of course, at the core of this, but, in addition, the cathedral has increasingly engaged with City institutions, inviting them to reflect ethically on their conduct and assumptions. This network of relations, built up over time, makes it precisely the right place for the Occupy London protesters to articulate their anger at the undoubted injustices about which capitalism seems indifferent and upon which, many would argue, it is founded.

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A large element of the tented protest is gesture — and empty gesture, too, like many of the tents at night. This is not familiar ground to St Paul’s, but it is essential that it learns to operate at this level. Canon Fraser’s initial gesture of welcome as an alternative to a threatening police cordon was sound. Similarly, an attempt to remove the protesters by injunction would be disastrous, alienating a significant section of the Church as well as of the general public. If the cathedral can get its next gestures right, it can then attempt to contribute some substance to the debate, bringing the two sides together in a more organised (and more comfortable) way. This would be its best tactic if it wishes the protesters to disband; but it would be good if the cathedral aimed higher than that, channelling the energy of the protest into the Church’s existing challenge to the forces of materialism.

Friday: Since this was written, of course, we have heard about the cathedral’s decision to back an injunction against the protesters, and the subsequent resignation of Giles Fraser. We understand the pressure put on the Dean and Chapter to act in this way, but we continue to view such a move as deeply regrettable.

Friday: Since this was written, of course, we have heard about the cathedral’s decision to back an injunction against the protesters, and the subsequent resignation of Giles Fraser. We understand the pressure put on the Dean and Chapter to act in this way, but we continue to view such a move as deeply regrettable.

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