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Paul Vallely: Utopian, but raising the same issues

26 October 2011

Are we singing from the same hymn sheet, asks Paul Vallely

ON MONDAY, I went to the Not the St Paul’s Cathedral Service to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The service had been transferred at the last minute to South­wark Cath­edral after Wren’s great building to the north of the river was closed to the pub­lic because of the tents of anti-capitalist protesters.

After the service, I crossed the Wobbly Bridge between the two worlds. The encampment of perhaps 100 small nylon tents, with half a dozen little marquees, nestled in the lee of the north side of the cathedral and to the side of the steps at the great west door. Neat little pathways had been made between the tents. There was a wider fenced passageway to the entrance to the crypt. The north-transept doors, and the fenced churchyard around it, were clear. It was contained rather than sprawling.

Outside the food marquee was a board asking for donations, which began with soya milk and concluded with prepared meats. To the side, a different hand had added in capitals “NO MEAT”. This is a coalition of paradox, as its ragbag of demands demonstrated: from an end to bankers’ greed, NHS reforms, and McDonald’s hamburgers, to calls for action on climate change and new homes for the Dale Farm travellers.

What the protesters called a general assembly was under way. It had been advertised to start at 8 p.m., but a large group had gathered 40 minutes earlier. The protesters claim not to have leaders, but a woman was up at the front with a micro­phone, trying to resist moves from the impatient gathering to start the meeting early. She was un­successful. The meeting began, disenfranchising any­one who was due to arrive at the appointed time.

There was an emotional incontinence about that — and also about the subsequent proceed­ings, with their formula of hand-signals to in­dicate approval, or otherwise, of what speakers were saying before they had even finished talking.

But for all the irrational immediacy, and the lack of political coherence about their utopian idealism, the protesters were giving vent to a frustration that is felt by all who have lost their jobs, homes, or public services, or seen the value of their pensions slashed by two-thirds over the past three years thanks to the malfunctioning and injustices of the global financial system. And they were doing so, for all their physical and intellectual messiness, without any sense of threat or menace.

Few of them, one suspects, would have dis­agreed with the words of the hymn by Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith which we had just sung:

How shall we sing salvation’s song
When justice stands denied,
When greed and tyranny and wrong
Prevail on every side?
Shall silent fall our voice of praise . . . ?

Lines like those, and so many others from the scriptural readings of the days since the cathedral grounds were invaded, have leapt out boldly to ask why the authorities at St Paul’s have repeatedly failed to see that the demonstrators in their yard are raising theological and political issues that go to the heart of the Christian understanding of the need to stand in solidarity with the widow and the orphan, the poor and the oppressed.

Instead, they have treated the demonstration as a mere building issue with shockingly venal state­ments about income, tourists, and concerns about health and safety, which the fire brigade and Health and Safety Executive have conspicuously failed to endorse.

The Church has a prophetic as well as an in­stitutional part to play. It should be facilitating a dialogue between the protesters and the financiers about how capitalism can be made fairer and more just. That is one of the key roles of a cath­edral in the heart of global finance. The idea of ejecting the protesters by force is an abdication of that responsibility — and the abandonment of an important opportunity for witnessing to the values of the gospel.

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