London – In a city where demonstrations of every kind are part of the daily syncopation, there has rarely been any with quite the same potential for amplifying the protesters’ cause as the one that has settled in recently on the historic forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, setting off a painful crisis of conscience for the Church of England.
For the last 15 days, St. Paul’s has been the backdrop for London’s counterpart to the Occupy Wall Street tent city in Zuccotti Square in New York. Here, the protest has taken on aspects of a medieval carnival, a jumbled tent city with buskers and rappers and clothing stalls and a panoply of banners and a makeshift cafeteria. There have been pet dogs, and a man dressed as Jesus declaiming against the usurers in the temple.
Where Princess Diana appeared to pealing bells after her marriage to Prince Charles, where a nation grateful for deliverance in war watched the caissons arrive for the funerals of Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill, beneath Christopher Wren’s great dome that stood defiant amid the smoke and fire of the Luftwaffe’s blitz, Britain’s anticapitalist battalions have pitched camp.
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Scores of similar encampments have sprung up in cities around the world, echoing the continuing protest in Wall Street’s heart against the bankers and corporate barons and complicit politicians the protesters hold responsible for global financial distress.
But few, if any, of the protests outside New York have had the resonance the St. Paul’s campers have achieved in Britain by choosing as their venue what many regard as the country’s most iconic religious landmark. With bishops squaring off against bishops, priests against priests, and the church hierarchy in disarray over whether to take steps to force the dismantling of the camp — not to mention Prime Minister David Cameron’s parachuting into the debate from 10,000 miles away in Australia, where he has attending a Commonwealth summit meeting — the St. Paul’s story has been front-page news and a feast for the television newscasts.
Campers have used the space at St. Paul’s as a modern Colosseum for dramatizing and projecting their case, or cases, since the issues earnestly debated among the tents run the gamut, from the causes of the banking crisis to the plight of the world’s homeless and hungry, anarchist dogmas, the virtues of meditation, and much besides. Like performers who have played less rewarding venues without ever hitting the big time, the protesters in the scores of tents have surprised themselves, as well as much of the rest of Britain, with the range of their impact.
The experience has been all the more striking for the fact that St. Paul’s was the protesters’ second choice. Their original plan was to establish the camp in Paternoster Square, a short walk from St. Paul’s, and an iconic location in its own right since it was established in an area obliterated by German bombing in 1940. One of the steel-and-glass towers overlooking the square is the London Stock Exchange, in the heart of the “square mile” of the City of London, which vies with New York for the title of the world’s leading financial center.
Along with the church authorities, the camp has a powerful adversary in the City of London Corporation, the local government in the financial district. It views the St. Paul’s protest, and a smaller satellite camp nearby for the overflow from St. Paul’s, as an unhelpful, unsightly presence at a time when London, as a financial center, is struggling. A slumping market, the loss of thousands of jobs and unease over tightening banking oversight planned by the Cameron government have banished the vaunted confidence of the City of London’s boosters, who before the banking crisis exploded in 2008 boasted that London had outdistanced Wall Street as a favored venue for investors.
Last week, the corporation went to court to seek an order dismantling the St. Paul’s camp as a breach of the historic right of unimpeded access to the country’s “highways.” Though the St. Paul’s encampment is concentrated on the cathedral forecourt, a pedestrian area in normal times, a corporation executive, Michael Wellbank, overlooked the distinction. “Protest is an essential right in democracy, but a campaign on the highway is not,” he told reporters. “Encampment on a busy thoroughfare clearly impacts the rights of others.”
On Friday, with protest leaders saying they planned to remain indefinitely, St. Paul’s officials chose to join in the lawsuit, precipitating an acrimonious debate within the Church of England, and among the protesters. The cathedral had already closed its doors, suspending tourist visits and religious services, a step not taken since World War II. Although it was partially reopened on Saturday, cathedral officials stuck to their demand for an end to the camp. Citing health and safety rules, they said the cathedral could not operate with protesters preparing meals over campsite gas cookers on the approaches, and blocking accessways that would be needed for an emergency evacuation.
One of the cathedral’s top officials, Canon Giles Fraser, had already resigned, saying he could not accept a forcible dismantling of the camp if the lawsuit is upheld. He was followed by a second cleric at the cathedral. (On Monday, a third official resigned as well.) Quickly, a wide rift opened within the church, with some, like Mr. Fraser, saying that the church’s mission to seek social justice should make it the protesters’ natural ally, and others saying the overriding concern had to be clearing the camp so St. Paul’s, which draws thousands of worshipers every week, could continue to operate.
The rift has added to deep divisions in recent years within the church and among its priests and bishops over the role of women, gays and lesbians. But the split over the St. Paul’s protest threatens to be more rancorous because it goes to the core of a theological dilemma the church has faced for centuries: whether, and when, as the country’s “established” church, with the monarch as its head, it should follow the social radicalism that Jesus demonstrated when he overturned the money lenders’ tables in the temple, or act, in effect, as a handmaiden of the prevailing social and political order.
One former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has sided strongly with Mr. Fraser. But Prime Minister Cameron told the BBC from Australia, “I’ve got a feeling that if you or I decided to pitch a tent in the middle of Oxford Street, then we would be moved on pretty quickly,” and London’s maverick mayor, Boris Johnson, concurred. “An excellent point has been made” by the protesters, he said, “but having made their point, it’s time for them to move on.”
On Sunday, in what amounted to a peace mission to the protesters, the bishop of London, the Rev. Richard Chartres, spoke to them from a lectern in the forecourt, offering a mixed message that reflected the church’s attempt to straddle its divide. He said he was “concerned that this should not lead to violence,” and repeated an offer, previously rejected by the campers, to hold a debate on their cause in the cathedral, but only after the tents have been removed. Then he signaled the depth of his own misgivings. “You have a notice saying, ‘What would Jesus do?’ ” he said. “That is a question for me as well.”