If you have been following the global progress of the Occupy movement you will know that several hundred tents have popped up in London’s financial district in a complaint against corporate greed, inequality and a lack of affordable housing. Like the New York encampment, Occupy the London Stock Exchange is well equipped, with generous sources of funding. And like the New York occupation (until this week, at least) it is not quite where it says it is: the Occupants’ first-choice location was the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, but when it became clear that that was not a realistic option they turned to a friendlier venue: St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The results have caused a small implosion within the Church of England. All of a sudden religion is part of the debate — which is especially surprising in the UK’s highly secular society (when asked “Are you religious?” in the 2011 census, 65% of the population answered “No”.)
Yet the church’s role came about by chance. When police informed activists that the London Stock Exchange was private property, St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is nearby, offered them a home. Reverend Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s, said he was happy for people to “exercise their right to protest peacefully.”
Although Fraser and others were supportive of the protests, the City of London Corporation felt differently and the Cathedral’s governing body agreed. The Cathedral shut down for a full week, because of concerns about health and safety. It was a historic moment — the last time this happened was in 1940, when Blitz bombs forced it temporarily to close.
Eventually the Cathedral’s Dean and chapter (which make up the governing body) said they would take legal action against the protestors for trespassing on private land (they have since suspended this decision). Then on October 27, Rev. Fraser tweeted: “It is with great regret and sadness that I have handed in my notice at St. Paul’s Cathedral.” The next day, Canon Pastor Fraser Dyer stood down, writing on his blog:
I appreciate that St Paul’s has its own means of speaking to the issue of corporate and financial conduct in the City, but am sorry that a way could not be found of – at the very least – continuing to thole [sic] the occupation of the precinct by those with a genuine and prophetic complaint that has much in keeping with the values of the gospel.
On Hallowe’en, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Graeme Knowles, quit for different reasons, saying that his position had become untenable because of all the negative press.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, Dr. Rowan Williams, was at first criticized for staying quiet. But, an erudite and liberal figure — he has taught at Oxford and Cambridge and strongly supports gay rights — Williams did come up with a response. Appropriately enough the article was published in the Financial Times and was entitled “Time for us to challenge the Idols of High Finance.”
In it Williams cited with approval a document that his colleagues over at the Vatican had compiled, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.” He argued in favor of a tax on financial transactions known colloquially as a Robin Hood Tax.
When was the last time the Pope published an economic document? Or the head of the Church of England wrote an opinion column in a leading financial paper? The crisis is stirring religious communities — often dismissed as irrelevant by both young people and financiers — into action.
Despite their regional characteristics the Occupations remain connected, and London officials have kept a close eye on what’s going on elsewhere. On Monday this week when I looked at the Occupy London website, protestors were merrily celebrating their one month anniversary. By Tuesday, as New York police successfully evicted the Occupy Wall Street crowd, the headlines changed, and it looks like Occupy London is now under threat.
How the Church of England will react is still an open question. But with some church members calling their actions “unchristian,” its clergy should probably consider the message on a banner hung outside St. Paul’s: “What would Jesus do?”