The Bible is full of tales of the unexpected: God constantly overturns our secular expectations. St Paul’s was never the target of the Occupy London protesters, but it has been given a chance to re-imagine its mission at a time of painful adjustment for the whole country.
In the 20th century, the cathedral was a symbol of freedom: the dome surrounded by a pall of smoke became an expression of London’s resistance to Nazism. The public outcry at the recent closing of the doors reflects the place St Paul’s has held in the popular imagination, as well as the continuing sense that Christian churches should be places of welcome and hospitality, where people engage with issues of truth, justice, and equality, in the context of the worship of Almighty God.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if you are in charge of a building in which thousands of people assemble regularly, it would be negligent not to be very serious about practical considerations. One of the reasons why the Chapter eventually decided to suspend legal action was because of the advice that its members had received that their case would be gravely weakened if they engaged with the protesters. This put them in a situation that, as pastors, they found intolerable.
Talking with the protesters, I have been very struck by their constant reference back to the story of Jesus Christ — by Christians and non-Christians alike. One of the things that is clear is that the current financial turmoil is not just a matter of fixing things technically. Justice, equity, and the flourishing of human communities are themes that are intimately connected with finding a way forward on better foundations. The story of Jesus Christ is a reference point for so many of these debates.
St Paul’s stands at the heart of the City of London, whose profits have produced tax revenues that have flowed into a correspondingly high level of public expenditure. The generation of wealth is not intrinsically wrong: it is essential to fund many of services that we all take for granted. But how wealth is distributed is a subject with which we should properly be concerned.
The Church should resist the temptation to become a dull echo of any political ideology. There is nothing in ordination in particular that gives us a privileged insight into immensely complex questions such as the stability of the euro zone.
We can, however, help to give complex technical debates a wider moral and spiritual context, which puts the focus on human and societal flourishing over and above the bottom line. We can also bring together those involved in finance and government with representatives of Occupy London and other organisations for a fresh round of the public conversations in which St Paul’s already has experience.
Commentators have derisively written off the Church, and the Church of England in particular, as having nothing to offer, with a tale simply told of dwindling congregations; but the appetite for examin-ing some of the great questions that face us as a world through the Christian prism suggests that we are on the verge of a challenging but very significant period in the history of the Christian community.
Besides making general moral points, we have to get down to the detail. St Paul’s, in its strategic location at the heart of the City, is in touch with a large number of people with expertise in this area. The value of the ministry of the cathedral in every aspect comes into sharp relief in such circumstances.
This is why I have asked Ken Costa, a respected figure both in the City and the Church, to develop work that has already been going on connecting the financial and the ethical. I am glad that Canon Giles Fraser, although he has stepped down from the operative Chapter, has agreed to be involved in this work; his contribution will help to ensure that the diverse voices of the protesters are included.
St Paul’s iconic status means that its mistakes will be as high-profile as its opportunities, but one of the consequences of what has happened is that the debate that can be brokered by the Church is receiving greater attention.
I believe that this is a moment in which St Paul’s, and the Church in general, has been shown how it can get away from an in-house ecclesi-astical agenda and its passion for elaborating defensive bureaucracy, in order to serve the agenda of the people of England at a critical moment in our history.
Christians are used to near-death experiences — they are part of our story. So is the phoenix, carved above the south door of St Paul’s, with the cathedral’s motto: Resurgam.
The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London.