Thinking Anglicans

Not in its backyard

The following article is reproduced here by kind permission of the Editor of The Tablet where it appeared in last week’s issue.

Not in its backyard

The eviction of the Occupy movement near St Paul’s Cathedral is on the cards after the City won its case against the protesters last week. Here, a human-rights expert reflects critically on the role of the cathedral authorities in the affair

Wednesday last week, the High Court gave judgment in favour of the City of London in its ongoing effort to evict the Occupy movement, currently ensconced in tents and other structures around St Paul’s Cathedral.

Though the case had been heard over five days before Christmas, the result cannot have been any great surprise, with the law having appeared stacked against the protesters from the outset. Mr Justice Lindblom found that the law prohibiting obstruction of the highway justified removal of Occupy from public areas and that planning law did the same so far as cathedral land was concerned.

Of course, the protesters pleaded the right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act but to no avail: the European Court of Human Rights has always been reluctant to extend its protection to those who invade private property in the effort to get heard, and indeed has upheld evictions of analogous (albeit smaller) camps in Europe. So, too, has the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta, Canada. Lindblom felt disinclined to blaze the new path that would have been necessary to reach a different decision on the facts before him. The camp’s representatives have said they will appeal, but if permission is refused, their removal could begin as early as this weekend.

The cathedral authorities were not part of the case, but representatives attended the court hoping for a victory over the protesters, supplying evidence with that purpose in mind, but unwilling themselves directly to deploy the law. The City’s job was to do the wishes of its spiritual partners, the first part of which, of course, it has now done with hard-nosed elan.

The camp had arrived at St Paul’s in October last year when the Stock Exchange proved impenetrable. The police did not act initially, and the cathedral itself – in the ebullient and civil libertarian form of the canon chancellor Giles Fraser – was positively supportive. Services continued. The talk was of a presence until Christmas. Early compromises allowed visits to the cathedral to continue. The peaceful nature of the protest was acknowledged by all, the atmosphere good. Treated with respect and properly self-regulated, given, as Giles Fraser was later to say on Newsnight, “nice cups of Anglican tea … and a warm embrace”, a camp such as this might well have grown into a benign witness to the need for radical change, as the anti-nuclear Greenham Common women had done a generation before. And what a gift this would have been to a Church which was about to launch (in November 2011) its persuasive critique of city capitalism, “Value and Values: perceptions of ethics in the City today” (published by the St Paul’s Institute).

But then the church authorities changed tack. The talk was suddenly all of health and safety and of the risk of fire. The advice of professionals in these fields was immediately accepted, leading first to closure of the cathedral (soon shown to be quite unnecessary) and then to a legal action launched with the intention of expelling the protesters. By the time the City stepped in, the cathedral had lost both Fraser and the dean himself, Graeme Knowles.

All flourishing Christian organisations need to steer a careful course between Mammon and morality. On the one hand, there is the wealth, power and influence that flow out of such success, especially if it is millennia old (as with the Catholic Church) or backed by the state (as with Anglicanism): how can one bite the hand that feeds one if the food is so good and one’s corpulent body now so dependent? On the other hand, there is the unsettling example of Jesus himself – uninterested in money; dismissive of luxury and of worldly power; devoted to the needy (or, as we would say today, the disadvantaged).

Some Churches solve this problem by assimilating Mammon to morality – the good are good because they are rich, and vice versa. This is too obviously special pleading for the more thoughtful faiths for whom, however, the problem remains: how can they be rich and radical at the same time? These Churches usually manage to sidestep this dilemma by using their knack of fine rhetoric to call upon others to act. “Value and Values” is in this long tradition of noisy ethical talk. But when the chance came to live their words at modest inconvenience to themselves, the cathedral authorities failed to meet the challenge.

With this judgment now handed down, at the back of everyone’s mind will be the feeling that a rare opportunity has been missed for an heroic religious engagement. Either the camp will go quickly and brutally or the proceedings will come to resemble the Dale Farm debacle, with endless litigation, media summits, appeals, further clarifications of court orders and – eventually – a nasty moment when the camp is physically dismantled by the authorities.

If and when this does come about, the cathedral will have been primarily responsible. Had it adopted Fraser’s line, the protesters would probably be gone by now (as they had always intended), the institute’s report on the City would be a widely admired and much read document, and the Church’s commitment to economic justice would have been given a tremendous boost. Instead, we have this spectacle of a great cathedral acting not as a focus for Christian action but as a grand, religious Nimby.

The chance to undo this damage will not come about – opportunities of the sort offered by the Occupy movement are rare. No doubt there will be many more remarks such as that of the Revd Michael Hampel, canon precentor, who commented of “Value and Values” that “Action is a crucial goal of the protest camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. We hope that the telling findings of this report can provide a solid foundation for future engagement and highlight issues where action might be of mutual concern for all sides of the debate.” This kind of comment is so within the comfort zone of the Church as to be indistinguishable from complacency.

At Mass at the start of January celebrating the Epiphany, Catholic Christians had Psalm 71: “For he shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless. He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor.” What kind of an epiphany did St Paul’s offer the world this Christmas season?

  • Conor Gearty is professor of human-rights law at the London School of Economics.
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12 years ago

As we see with this latest ‘Doll’ piece being circulated to English bishops, the Church as an institution always comes first and before the people. People, sacrifice yourselves for the wider Church institutional project.

Rosemary Hannah
Rosemary Hannah
12 years ago

Oh well said! And it is a crying shame, and another missed opportunity, that every church worth the name is not offering Fraser every high-ranking post it has to offer.

Fr John
Fr John
12 years ago

I wonder how the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Westminster would have reacted to its square being occupied by these people!
Yes its OK in some ones else back yard, but not mine, but we can pontificate about it, and those being occupied

Father ron Smith
12 years ago

This article does make one think further about *What If* Canon Giles Fraser’s eirenic movement towards the Protesters had been welcomed by the Dean of St.Paul’s. If Giles’ behaviour has been acclaimed by a Roman Catholic writer; one wonders what might have the difference of outcome (if any) had the venue been Westminster Cathedral?

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