TWO cathedrals have resorted to taking legal action against the Occupy protest camps on their grounds, after repeated requests to them to move.
Sheffield Cathedral was scheduled to serve legal notices yesterday against protesters who have been encamped in the churchyard since 5 November. Bristol Cathedral served court papers on Wednesday morning against protesters encamped on College Green; a court hearing is scheduled to take place today.
Both cathedrals own the land on which the protesters are encamped, unlike St Paul’s Cathedral, which jointly owns its churchyard with the City of London Corporation. Sheffield and Bristol cathedrals both acknowledge the importance of the Occupy cause, but say that the camps have become a nuisance, preventing the public from enjoying the spaces and hindering the cathedrals’ daily activities.
The Dean of Sheffield, the Very Revd Peter Bradley, said on Thursday that the cathedral had been “given no choice”; he said that legal action was required “to clear the site in order to maintain the timetable” for the cathedral’s Gateway development project.
He continued: “It has always been, and still is, our intention to bring this difficult situation to a peaceful and mutually acceptable conclusion. It is with great regret that we have not yet reached a compromise.”
Dean Bradley said that, because the cathedral owns the churchyard, it is “liable for all activity on the land”. It was “becoming increasingly difficult to keep it safe and well managed, and open for everyone to enjoy”, and there were “continuing concerns about safety”. He described the camp as “a huge drain on our limited resources. We are currently unable to deliver the whole of our projected activities, and our important day-to-day ministry is suffering.”
In a statement issued on Thursday of last week, the Dean of Bristol, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, said: “Whilst we are committed to listening to the Occupy Movement, we believe it is now time that this stage in their protest came to an end so that a wider community can once again benefit from access to College Green.”
Both Occupy Bristol and Occupy Sheffield have not responded specifically to the prospect of court action. Both movements issued statements last week saying that efforts had been made to reduce the size of the camps and to make the space more welcoming to the public.
Exeter Cathedral, which is also unwillingly hosting an Occupy camp on Cathedral Green, has not yet resorted to legal action. A statement last Friday said that it would like to build “a genuine partnership between the Cathedral and the Occupy Movement”. The statement twice stated, however, that this would be conditional on the end of the “illegal encampment”.
The cathedral offered the protesters “the chance to site an ‘Occupy Exeter’ protest marquee/gazebo on a more prominent part of the Green, to use as a focal point for the campaign, to collect signatures, give out leaflets and host general assemblies and public discussions . . . during daylight hours.”
The Chapter of Exeter Cathedral was understood to be waiting for a response from Occupy to its proposal this week, which the Occupy protesters were due to discuss at a General Assembly meeting.
The approach taken by Exeter Cathedral is similar to that taken by St Paul’s Cathedral since it reversed its decision to take legal action. The Chapter of St Paul’s suggested a number of ways in which it could accommodate the protest outside, including allowing an information tent outside for a limited period, and permitting General Assembly meetings to take place on the cathedral steps (News, 2 December).
The protesters at St Paul’s continue to wait for a ruling from the High Court on whether they can remain.
After a five-day hearing last month, the judge, Mr Justice Lindblom, said that he would not rule before Wednesday of this week. As the Church Times went to press, there was no indication that a ruling was imminent.
In an interview with BBC2’s Newsnight on Thursday of last week, Canon Giles Fraser, the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, said that the Occupy protesters outside St Paul’s needed to work out an “exit strategy. They can’t stay there for ever.” But he criticised the City of London Corporation, saying that the protesters “probably would have gone by now” if it had not taken legal action. The Corporation had “really misunderstood the psychology of protest, which is that if you push against protest, protest pushes back.”