Thinking Anglicans

Guardian editorial condemns St Paul's Cathedral

The Guardian newspaper has tonight published an editorial which severely criticises the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s (and by implication the Bishop of London – see previous article).

City and cathedral: The whited sepulchre

The dean and chapter of St Paul’s risk playing the villains in a national pantomime

The last time St Paul’s Cathedral was so much in the news was the wedding of Charles and Diana: a vast if moth-eaten musical parade which ended very badly when the fairytale wedding turned into a marriage of unfaithful human beings. That helped turn the cathedral into a major tourist attraction, though it did nothing for the Christian message. Now another piece of theatre has swept it up, and with it won a turn on the national stage.

Protesters hoping to “Occupy the London Stock Exchange” were prevented from entering Paternoster Square, a shopping development which had been their original target, and instead have camped, in orderly rows, around the north side of the cathedral and across its main west entrance. This rather messy and absurd situation has handed the dean and chapter of St Paul’s a truly historic opportunity to discredit Christianity in this country. They seem determined to take it. They should think, and stop.

The dean and chapter appear to have decided that health and safety considerations mean they must be rid of the makeshift camp. These grounds are frankly risible. Pretending otherwise compounds the first mistake, which was to shut the cathedral altogether, rather than expose visitors to the sight and smells of a couple of hundred protesters. A cathedral isn’t really there for the tourists, even if it can charge visitors £14.50, as St Paul’s does. It is a place for prayer and worship. The congregations who come for these, the real purposes of the building, should remember that Jesus talked to publicans and tax collectors. He might even have talked to merchant bankers. He would certainly have talked to the protesters camped outside.

Aspects of the protest camp are silly and rather squalid. But it still represents a profound and important moral revulsion which the Church of England needs to take seriously. These aren’t the usual Spartist suspects. The sense that there is something outrageous, unjust and absurd about the world of modern finance has spread across the whole political and religious spectrum. Even Pope Benedict XVI has reinforced his predecessor’s teaching with a demand that the markets of the world be brought under human control. The Church of England needs to be part of this discussion, for its own sake and for the sake of the country. And that is done far more effectively by theatre and by conversation than by lecturing or even preaching. It is no use having clever bishops saying clever things that no one listens to. Here at St Paul’s right now, there is a chance to catch the attention of millions of people who would never listen to a bishop or recognise a Dean without a Torvill.

The protesters aren’t right about everything. A lot of the time they aren’t even coherent enough to be wrong. But the role of the church is to talk with them and to find out how their sense of injustice at the present slump can be refined and educated and brought out into the wider conversation. The cathedral has a chance to take Marx’s taunt about religion being “the heart of a heartless world” and try to make it true, and valuable. It must not fumble this.

If the dean and chapter continue their steps towards evicting they will be playing the villains in a national pantomime. There will be legal battles and, eventually, physical force. At every step, the cathedral authorities will be acting in the service of absurdity and injustice. Yet this is where the logic of their position is leading them. They must see this, and stop. Jesus denounced his Pharisaic enemies as whited sepulchres, or shining tombs; and that is what the steam-cleaned marble frontage of St Paul’s will become if the protesters are evicted to make room for empty pomp: a whited sepulchre, where morality and truth count for nothing against the convenience of the heritage industry.

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Father Ron Smith
9 years ago

A pretty tough editorial by the Guardian here. Sadly, though, they echo the point of view of many in this conflict. It would seem that the main reason for the Dean and Chapter’s insistence of the removal of the protesters is really all about the loss of revenue – from the extortionate fees gouged from the tourists whose interests is solely historical. In the meantime, the prayer-life of the Cathedral suffers. I do think that Chancellor Giles Fraser was right – in his initial dismissal of the police, in the interests of the protesters’ right to protest. However, the subsequent… Read more »

Nixon is Lord
Nixon is Lord
9 years ago

What did you think was going to happen? You wanted to embarrass the police with the demonstrators and within a week they ended up being an embarrassment to you.
Why isn’t someone outside talking with these campers on a way to save face?
Stupid. You must want to be disestablished by contempt and popular disgust.

Counterlight
Counterlight
9 years ago

Spot on. I love Saint Paul’s very much, and I’d hate to see it reduced to the status of a “whited sepulchre,” emptied of all meaning, a huge relic that got lost in a place that looks like downtown Houston while on its way to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The protest seems to me to be a golden opportunity for the Church of England to assert itself as a prophetic voice, to turn all of Marx’s taunts on their heads, and to be that “heart” in a world that really is heartless. So far, the Church appears to want… Read more »

Paul
Paul
9 years ago

An intelligent editorial. But St. Paul’s, with Giles Fraser on the team, is on the Daily Telegraph’s side.

Spirit of Vatican II
Spirit of Vatican II
9 years ago

If the Occupy movement has something to say about the economic crisis, why is it letting itself be diverted into a petty squabble about a cathedral?

Jerry Hannon
Jerry Hannon
9 years ago

This is a very sad situation, and the Guardian seems a better spokesman for the message of Jesus than the Bishop of London, or the Dean and Chapter.

It seems that the CofE, if this Diocese of London absurdity stands without challenge from elsewhere within the Church, is headed towards oblivion.

Yes, the protest situation is inconvenient and financially harmful in the short run, but there are far better ways to deal with the matter than what the Diocese has so far done, and the long run damage will only grow.

Father David
Father David
9 years ago

When the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s finally come to their senses and the doors of the cathedral are open once more may I suggest that as an anthem the choir sing “Fling wide the gates” from Stainer’s Crucifixion?

Richard Ashby
Richard Ashby
9 years ago

‘But St. Paul’s, with Giles Fraser on the team, is on the Daily Telegraph’s side’. The ‘Today’ programme has said this morning that ‘The Times’ reports that Giles Fraser has threatened to resign. As I said earlier it looks as if he has been sat on and been told to shut up. There is stil a way out of this situation and the Cathedral can choose to ignore or find a way around the so called H&S issues, open the place and engage positively with the protesters. Arguing that the St Paul’s Institute is already addressing the issues is completely… Read more »

Randal Oulton
Randal Oulton
9 years ago

>> Jesus denounced his Pharisaic enemies as whited sepulchre True, but I always felt that it was Joseph Conrad who made the phrase famous. Re the financial inconvenience, I see both sides: in being open the Cathedral must pay its heating and lekky bills, and sadly, the cost of living in London being what it is, I bet few that work there can do so for free, so their wages bills must be met as well. It would be great if we could live on free air, but sadly that would leave Inland Revenue little to collect upon to keep… Read more »

Erika Baker
Erika Baker
9 years ago

Spirit,
the movement does not let itself be diverted into a petty squabble about the cathedral but that is all the media are reporting. You need to go to Twitter and YouTube to see what the movement actually says and does.

At least we’re all able to follow them that way rather than have to rely on patronising and dismissive reports of people with their own agenda.

Murdoch
Murdoch
9 years ago

Telling phrase in the Guardian editorial: “the heritage industry.” Stately homes and all that. Is that what the institutional church has come to?

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