Wednesday, 2 November 2011

'Occupy London' pits bishop against bishop in Church of England

Today I paid a visit to the 'Occupy the London Stock Exchange' protestors who have camped out outside St. Paul's Cathedral in central London. It was a fascinating visit, I sat in on a 'general assembly' and also observed a conversation between an occupier and a banker that was being filmed for a British TV station. But what is perhaps the most interesting to me about the Occupy movement in London is the strange standoff it's not found itself in with the Church of England.

The 'occupy movement' has spread from its initial manifestation in August at Wall Street in New York to cities around the globe. On 15 October activists in London decided to stage their own version in the city's financial quarter ("the city"), the second most important financial centre in the world after Wall Street. They initially tried to occupy Paternoster Square, which is where the London Stock Exchange sits. But because the UK courts had already granted an injunction against public access to that particular square, police blocked their access to it.

So the 3,000 protestors moved to the nearby small open space next to St. Paul's Cathedral, the massive domed city landmark in the city built by Christopher Wren in 1697. The police surrounded the protestors in order to protect the cathedral. But the canon of St. Paul's told the police to leave. He said the church had decided to allow the protestors to protest peacefully on their land.

The encampment quickly grew in size, growing to 150 tents within two days. This apparently caused some panic in the church administration, and on 21 October the Dean of St. Paul's announced that because of "health and safety" concerns the church would have to close its doors to the public until the protestors voluntarily left. It was the first time St. Paul's had closed its doors since the blitz during World War II, and the decision got huge media attention. It was clearly an attempt to shame the protestors into leaving.

But it didn't work. The protestors remained, and in what was deemed an "embarrassing U-turn" by the British media the church reopened their doors two days later. What has followed has been a huge row within not only St. Paul's itself but also within the Church of England leadership. The Dean and the Canon of the church clearly could not see eye to eye about what to do about the protest. The canon eventually resigned, saying the Dean was planning to allow the protestors to be forcibly removed by police, which he regarded as contrary to the church's message of social justice.

The dispute then spread to the highest levels of the Church of England. The head of the church (after the Queen of course) Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams came out on the side of the protestors. He said he sympathises with the "urgent larger issues" the protestors are raising and says their presence on the church property is an important voice that needs to be heard. Williams has consistently been a controversial archbishop, coming from the liberal wing of the Anglican church. Williams was the co-founder of a Left-Wing student group as a student at Oxford and was an outspoken critic of capitalism, according to the Evening Standard.

But there is a more orthodox wing of the Anglican Church that is keen to see Williams go. Shortly after the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed his support for the protestors, the Bishop of London Richard Chartres said that the protestors should be evicted. Chartres, who represents the conservative wing of the church, is seen to be a top contender to take the position as head of the church.

The St. Paul's chapter is still meeting to decide what to do about the protestors, but at this point it seems most likely that they will not endorse any move to forcibly evict them. People are now estimating that the camp could remain there for years, remaining both for the 2012 Olympics and for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

So now, depending on how you look at it, either the protestors have become pawns within a power struggle in the Anglican Church, or the church has become a pawn in an anti-capitalist movement. Editorials, even from those on the left, have accused the protestors of shamefully taking advantage of the church's hospitality, and insisting on staying even though it seems to be serving no purpose except tearing apart the Church of England.

Speaking to some of the occupiers yesterday, I was curious if they felt any embarrassment or shame about the fact that their decision to stay is causing such drama within the church, and even resignations. But everyone I talked to saw no reason to be ashamed. They said that it's natural for them to receive the support of the Anglican Church, one of the world's most progressive religious bodies (it also includes Episcopalians in the US). They said they didn't agree that they are putting the church in an awkward situation. They said they see the church as a natural ally and felt supported by them. Interestingly though, I asked each person who I spoke to whether they considered themselves a member of the Anglican Church. Not one said yes.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with all of these Occupy protests across the world. I'm on the train back to Brussels now and I'm hearing that there is violence happening in Oakland connected with the Occupy protests there. Will the violence spread?

As for Brussels it seems like the indignados/occupiers have left, I haven't seen them here for about a week. As far as I know, there is no permanent occupy presence here in Brussels. Given all the important decisions being taken here, that seems frankly ludicrous when there are occupy movements in Dublin, Rome, and even Auckland, New Zealand. But I suppose it's typical of the lack of attention paid to policy-making in Brussels! Nobody even wants to come here to protest!


Leigh said...

"Many see the protestors as shamefully taking advantage of the church's hospitality,"

Bad journo. Who are these "many"?

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Good point ;-) Lots of editorials expressing these sentiments this week, even from self-identified lefties. This Evening Standard editorial from Wednesday for example