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Still preoccupied by Occupy

12 October 2012

A year ago next week, Occupy set up its tents outside St Paul's Cathedral. Ed Thornton tells the story, and examines the fallout


Camping out: scenes outside St Paul's last autumn.

Camping out: scenes outside St Paul's last autumn.

AT ABOUT 7.20 a.m. on Sun­day 16 October last year, Canon Giles Fraser turned up at St Paul's Cathedral to find a police cordon on the steps, guarding the cathedral.

In the churchyard area in front of the steps, several hundred anti-capital­ism protesters from the Occupy move­ment had set up camp. They had arrived the previous day, almost by accident, having been prevented from entering Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's, where the London Stock Exchange is located. They would remain for an­other four months. 

The Occupy movement rose to promin­ence a month earlier, when protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park, New York City, near Wall Street. The movement's core criticism of global capitalism was encapsulated in its "We are the 99 per cent" slogan, which alluded to the concentration of wealth among the top one per cent of income earners.

The movement demanded whole­sale change of the neo-liberal eco­nomic order, which, it said, had generated colossal inequalities. Oc­cupy camps sprang up in dozens of cities around the world, connected with one another by means of social-media sites such as Twitter. It was a protest movement for the 21st century.

On that Sunday, however, a more immediate problem was at the forefront of Canon Fraser's mind: how would worshippers enter the cathedral for the 8 a.m. communion? 

He approached the police officer in charge. "There were about a dozen protesters sitting on the steps. I said: 'If you [the police] come down, I'll ask the protesters to come down, and we can get everybody in [to com­munion]. I didn't ask the police to leave the environment, just the front of the steps."

When the police agreed to his re­quest, Canon Fraser received a round of applause from the protesters. They then asked him two questions: are we welcome at communion? and do you believe in the right of people to protest peacefully?

Not surprisingly, Canon Fraser answered both in the affirmative. Shortly afterwards, a BBC reporter asked him what would happen if the pro­test­ers stayed a long time. "We'll see how it goes," he replied.

His comments were interpreted by protesters as an invitation, on behalf of the whole cathedral, to stay. But Canon Fraser's colleagues in the cathed­ral Chapter were less sanguine about their new neighbours, who rapidly appeared to be assembling a small metropolis. Before long, Porta­loos, cooking equipment, and a lib­rary had been set up; and academics visited to give lectures on global capitalism in the "Tent City".

OVER the next week, public state­ments from the Dean of St Paul's, the Rt Revd Graeme Knowles, and the wider Chapter betrayed increasing an­xiety. On 17 October, they ap­pealed for daily life to be allowed to continue "without serious interrup­tion". Two days later, they indicated that they might have to close the cathedral, and asked: "Is it time for the protest camp to leave?"

On the afternoon of Friday 21 October, Dean Knowles convened a press conference in the Chapter House, and announced, "with a heavy heart", that the cathedral would close that day.

The cathedral said that it had received health and safety advice that gave it no lawful alternative but to close. Its refusal to publish the advice, however, invited speculation that there were other reasons for the closure, such as the fall in revenue caused by the presence of the camp - something that the cathedral strenuously denied.

A Christian member of the Occupy camp, Tanya Paton, having toured the site with fire-brigade officers, was puzzled by the stated reasons for the cathedral closure. "We did everything that the fire brigade had asked us to," she says.

Despite a plea from the Dean and Chapter that they "withdraw peace­fully", the Occupy protesters had no intention of leaving any time soon. The movement was rapidly growing in numbers and influence. Smaller camps were springing up outside other cathedrals, in cities such as Exeter and Sheffield.

Occupy's methods sat uneasily with some, but the movement's dis­quiet with the inequalities generated by global capitalism struck a chord with many, especially in the media. Occupy London would issue a series of demands, including one to the City of London Corporation, the muni­cipal governing body of London's financial centre, that it should become more transparent.

THE following Wednesday, 26 Octo­ber, the City of London Corporation, which owns part of the area in front of St Paul's, said that it had received legal advice about removing the camp. That afternoon, the Dean and Chapter voted to support legal action to remove the protesters.

Canon Fraser dissented from the Chapter's decision, and handed in his notice immediately. "I loved the place, and I loved my colleagues, and it was a huge matter of regret to have to leave," he says. "But not for one moment have I thought that I did the wrong thing."

It was not long before camera crews were outside his home, seeking to track down the cathedral canon now cast by parts of the media as a modern-day Wat Tyler.

On Friday 28 October, the cathed­ral reopened for the lunchtime euchar­ist. Shortly before, the Dean and Chapter - now minus Canon Fraser - made public its decision to join the City Corporation in taking legal action to clear the site.

These decisions - first, to close the cathedral, and then to take legal action against the protesters - pro­voked a storm of criticism. Con­vinced that his position had become untenable, Dean Knowles decided to stand down. On Sunday evening, after evensong, he convened an emer­­gency meeting of the Chapter at the Deanery. The next day, a state­ment was released, saying that he would stand down immediately to allow "new leadership to be exer­cised".

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, whom the Chapter had asked for "input", told the press conference that it was a "tragedy for a man who has served in a very distinguished way".

THE next day, the Chapter per­formed an about-turn, and an­nounced that it had "unanimously agreed to suspend" legal action against the protesters.

In the absence of a Dean, Bishop Chartres increasingly assumed con­trol of the crisis. He wrote in the Church Times that it was time to "get away from an in-house ecclesiastical agenda . . . in order to serve the agenda of the people of England at a critical moment in our history" ( News, Comment, 4 November 2011).

Bishop Chartres persuaded Ken Costa, the Christian investment banker, to set up a new organisation, London Connection, which would focus on ethics and the City. With some reluctance, Mr Costa accepted. Not much has been heard of the organisation since.

It was to take a ruling from the High Court, on behalf of the Cor­pora­tion of London, to remove the protesters, and the camp was finally disbanded by police on 28 February ( News, 2 March). Ms Paton says that the eviction was "for the most part pretty peaceful", although a group of Christian activists said that they were forcibly removed while praying on the steps of the cathedral.

One of the activists, Jonathan Bart­ley, a co-director of the think tank Ekklesia, filmed an interview with a police officer, who said that the police had been given permission to clear the steps by the cathedral.

The cathedral insisted that the police had not asked for permission from the cathedral regarding any aspect of the eviction, but confirmed that "we were clear that we would not stand in the way of the legal pro­cess or prevent the police from taking the steps they needed to deal with the situation in an orderly and peaceful manner."

FOR those who remained at St Paul's, the experience of those four months has had a lasting effect. The cathed­ral was on the receiving end of vehement criticism, not least from people inside the Church.

A persistent theme among critics was that St Paul's put self-preserva­tion before mission; that it did not show hospitality; and that it missed an opportunity to engage with the Occupy movement.

Symon Hill, a writer and member of a group of Christians who cam­paign against government cuts, Chris­tianity Uncut, was another activist who was removed from the cathedral steps while praying on the night of the eviction. He says: "It was the greatest opportunity for decades for the Christian Church to engage with people with the values of com­passion and social justice. . . The chance was thrown away because of the behaviour of the leadership of St Paul's, and other senior church figures."

The Revd Dennis Nadin, a retired priest who attended meetings be­tween protesters and members of the cathedral Chapter, says that St Paul's had been more interested in its own "domestic arrangements" than in the issues raised by the Occupy move­ment.

The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, who was one of the few bishops willing to comment publicly on the situation at the time, says that the cathedral "panicked" and missed an opportunity.

"A couple of hundred kids got a lot of camping equipment, turned up at St Paul's, and put up signs say­ing 'What would Jesus do?' It was an opportunity to search through that question."

SINCE his installation in May, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, who suc­ceeded Dean Knowles, has spoken at length with cathedral staff about what happened. He believes that the cathedral's critics have not taken into account the pressures that members of the Chapter, and other staff, were put under.

It was an "unprecedented" situa­tion that "none of us would be equipped to deal with", he says. "I suppose during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 something similar may have happened, but we can't draw on their experience."

Dr Ison contends that "people in the cathedral not only felt, but were, bullied by various people - not just people in the camp, but people from outside, whether in the Church or the outside world.

"Our staff suffered hugely from being verbally abused by people in and around the camp. . . There was the feeling that some people in the Church, whether ordained or not, jumped on the bandwagon of what Occupy was seeking to stand for, and were critical of St Paul's for being of the Establishment, without listening to the St Paul's side of the story."

From conversations with mem­bers of the cathedral staff, Dr Ison has concluded that they received "unclear advice". For example, they were told that they would be "personally liable for any disasters that happen in this situation . . .

"I do know that the Chapter took the decision to close incredibly reluctantly, didn't want to do it, and opened again as soon as they managed to find a way to do so. Nobody wants to close a church."

Lessons have been learned, he says. The Dean and Chapter went away, in June, to reflect. One lesson was about "the importance of com­munication - not just with the press, but also with partners and sup­port­ers of the cathedral, and other agencies".

Another lesson learned, he says, was the importance of maintaining good relationships with bodies such as the City of London Corporation, "not just when there's a crisis, but during the rest of the time as well".

DR ISON began a "vision work­shop process" last month, to work out what the "core mission" of St Paul's should be. He acknowledges that there are tensions between the part that the cathedral plays as a tourist venue and a centre of Christian worship, and between its ministries as a local church and one that is engaged with the City of London.

During the process he has met almost 400 people, including staff, volunteers, and people from the City, "to talk about what their hopes and dreams are for St Paul's". It is intended that a "vision statement" will be drawn up by Christmas, "which will then provide the basis for more concrete strategic planning for the future".

Steps have also been taken to assist staff after the experience of the Occupy crisis. For example, the ser­vices of an external chaplain, who has experience working in mental health, have been taken up by some members of staff. 

The question what, if any, legacy has been left by Occupy's en­counter with St Paul's, and with the wider Church, is a complex one. Oc­cupy activists have received a mixed recep­tion from churches. A group of activists who took part in a "pilgrim­age for justice" walk to Canterbury Cathedral, over the summer ( News, 11 May), found some congregations very hospitable - offering activists beds and food, for example; but others, the activists said, were visibly un­comfortable with their presence at services.

CANON FRASER says that the Oc­cupy movement "tapped into a wide­spread public discontent with the way in which the City of London seemed to be acting like a cartel for its own good and wasn't contribut­ing to the public good".

Before Occupy rose to promin­ence, many churches viewed econo­m­ics as "a bit dull", and the preserve of specialists. Now, Canon Fraser says, "there's a different mood. People do think this is an important subject for conversation, and churches know they have to be in­volved in this."

The Vicar of St Michael, Stoke New­ington, the Revd Dr James Law­son, who visited the Occupy camp, says: "We're the emergency ward for capitalism in the inner cities, but no one names the disease. Hopefully, that has changed. People might see more clearly how destructive capital­ism is."

Dr Wilson says that the public looks to the Church "not so much for nuggets of economic theory, but a meta-level questioning of where you get your values from. There is a much more general searching among people, a feeling that the whole deal we've been running for a while is run­ning its course, and the game's up."

Events run by groups such as the St Paul's Institute appear to be more popular than ever. About 1500 people filled St Paul's in May to hear Professor Michael Sandel speak on "the moral limits of markets" ( News, 1 June; Features, 15 June). Occupy activists have been invited to speak at the cathedral, which suggests a greater willingness on the part of the cathedral to engage.

But some say that debates are not enough. Ms Paton, for example, spoke to a group of clerics at the St Paul's Institute: "It was an interesting discussion, but for me personally I couldn't see how this was ever going to make a difference. You can sit in meeting rooms talking until the cows come home, but unless you're actual­ly prepared to stand up and chal­lenge the system, and say we need to have something changed, what good is it?"

"DEBATE and dialogue", Symon Hill says, "are really important; but Chris­tian churches have to go be­yond hosting debates to standing alongside those who are under attack - the poorest and most vulnerable people in society."

Not all Christians, however, are in­clined to join protest camps, nor to get themselves arrested. A middle way between cosy debates and short-term direct action might be found in the work of groups such as the Con­textual Theology Centre (CTC), based at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, in east London. During the Occupy protest, CTC facilitated a series of "community conversations" on the financial crisis.

This is not, however, simply a talking shop, the spokesman of CTC, Andy Walton, says. "When churches form alliances with other institu­tions, such as trade unions and residents' associations, they can bring pressure that brings about real change in their community. The Living Wage campaign is one such example. Other campaigns include lobby­ing against pay-day lending, and the proliferation of gambling shops on high streets.

"One of the flaws of a model that is a kind of fleeting protest rather than a long-term broad-based alli­ance of institutions rooted in the local community is that you don't have that staying power. It takes time to identify what people think the prob­lem is in the local community. . .

"We should all be working, praying, acting, for a more just, holistic worldwide economic system, but there are a number of obvious steps on way to that that we should be getting on with now."

THERE is no sign that the behaviour of banks and international institu­tions will escape the Church's radar. A report published last year by St Paul's Institute, during the Occupy crisis, Value and Values: Perceptions of ethics in the City today, suggested that bankers were largely immune to criticism from the Church: 76 per cent of the 515 bankers interviewed for the report disagreed - most of them strongly - with the statement: "The City of London needs to listen more to the guidance of the Church" ( News, 11 November 2011).

But the submission from the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Division (MPA) to the Parliamentary Commission exam­in­ing banking reform ( News, Leader, 28 September) suggests that the institutional Church is deter­mined to take the bankers to task.

The submission compares bankers to Dr Harold Shipman, and asks whether "the whole orchard needs replanting". It calls on the banking sector to show "contrition" for past failures, and to rediscover "a culture of the virtues".

The presence of the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Justin Welby, on the Commission suggests that the Church is well-placed to exert influ­ence over what steps are taken to reform financial institutions in the UK. The MPA's forceful tone in­dicates that the Church's voice is becoming more radical.

Occupy turned an uncomfortable spotlight on the flaws of global capital­ism and, allegedly, of the Church. But it may perhaps be the Church itself that will now hold the bankers to account.

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