Ian Harris Otago Daily Times Dec. 9, 2011
On a visit to St Paul’s in London last month, I picked up a leaflet that summed up the dilemma in which the cathedral is embroiled over the tent protest on its forecourt. “Encounter the history and people of this nation,” it invites, “and witness the 21st-century church.” And on the back, an advertisement for the London musical We Will Rock You. Unfortunately, this 21st-century church was caught flat-footed as demonstrations against the corporate greed of the mighty financial institutions nearby rocked St Paul’s more than anything else in recent history. For the cathedral, the 200-tent city is an accident and an opportunity. It was meant to take place outside London’s Stock Exchange a few blocks away. But when in September the police thwarted the protesters there, they moved to the nearest open space, which happened to be the area in front of the cathedral.
St Paul’s flip-flopped, first recognising the validity of the protesters’ cause, then locking its doors in their faces, then seeking an eviction order on health and safety grounds, then backtracking to allow the tents to stay. The cathedral is clearly torn. It has benefited financially from local institutions and the City of London Corporation (which administers the central borough taking in St Paul’s), and the corporation wants the protesters out. It is also losing revenue because thousands of potential visitors (entry costs £14.50, or $29) are staying away. Tugging hard the other way is a banner challenging the Christian conscience: “What would Jesus do?” The cathedral’s choice is therefore stark. Is its priority property management? Or acting on the ethics of love and integrity in pursuit of a just society?
I wandered among the tents one Saturday, reading the statements hung on a mesh fence and talking to participants. They represented a jumble of causes. Environmentalists rubbed shoulders with Marxists, Christians with the Earthian Unite Forum, campaigners for a Kurdish political prisoner with Hare Krishna devotees handing out free meals, sensible folk with the marginally weird. But the core of the protest, in London as in 1500 other cities round the world, is a wholly reasonable anger that bankers whose machinations triggered the global financial meltdown in 2008 have been bailed out, leaving the rest of society to pick up the multibillion-dollar tab.
Adding insult to injury, in the midst of all this came a report that remuneration for directors of the Stock Exchange’s top 100 companies soared 49 per cent in the latest year, while ordinary wage-earners fell further behind. Budget cuts to social programmes also impact most heavily on the poor. The protesters I spoke to were not political revolutionaries, nor do they have a blueprint for change. They are rather seeking acknowledgment of the huge distress which the financial moguls’ drive for excessive profits has inflicted on society, and open debate about reshaping systems to advance human and ecological ends instead. One summed up his concerns as “corporate greed, money in politics, and the growing gap between rich and poor”. He thought change could be achieved within the capitalist system – “we’d solve a lot of problems if people only had jobs.”
The Christian tradition has a lot to say about greed, money, politics, the rich, and the poor. So, curious to see how St Paul’s was tackling the issues raised by the tent city, I attended choral matins next day. I might as well have been on another planet. The distant choir sang endless praises to a God conceived as royal, mighty and remote, its strains blurring in the cavernous acoustics of the vast cathedral. The sermon, full of lofty sentiments about “seeing with the eyes of the heart”, managed not to see what was happening on the church doorstep, or draw any connection between faith and the currents swirling in the world outside.
Sympathy with the protesters’ cause, though not necessarily with their methods, is widespread. Caught in the spotlight, St Paul’s leaders were gifted an opportunity to build on their image of the cathedral as “a place of pilgrimage and witness” – bringing the City and protesters together, steering the debate into more constructive channels, and seeking to “reconnect the financial with the ethical”, as some expressed it. One vicar commented: “At best the church’s role is to act as a counter-balance to the predations of power and the aching emptiness of materialism – to provide a different perspective on wealth and poverty. We have not been true to our calling.”
That takes the challenge way beyond St Paul’s, and into churches everywhere.