‘Occupy London’ is an ongoing peaceful protest and demonstration against economic inequality, social injustice and corporate greed, which began on the 15th October, with an encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral and one in Finsbury Square. The press and media have had a field day with this one , and St Paul’s Cathedral is currently closed ‘to ensure public safety’ during the current protests.
And then the headline news last night – the Dean of the Cathedral resigns – ‘position untenable’. I’m sure that would have sent some shock waves through the Church of England – well at least the clattering of some bone china tea cups; the odd rich tea biscuit might even have fallen to the floor.
It’s a brave move by the Dean – and a difficult decision to hand in your notice from a senior position in the Church of England – I should know – I’ve done it.
But will it really make a difference? Quite honestly, I’d have had a lot more interest in the storyline that the Dean had gone down to Millets, bought a tent, and pitched up on the Cathedral Green alongside the protestors.
Because that’s the real issue at stake here – the role of the established church in today’s modern society.
The Bishop of London explained that ‘there are many diverse voices in the camp outside St Paul’s, but among them, serious issues are being articulated which the cathedral has always sought to address.’
But what does the church actually stand for today? Does it represent the ‘poor and marginalised’ in society – or is it more concerned with its grandiose buildings, drapery and finery, and elaborate services? It costs £14.50 for an adult to visit the Cathedral (£5.50 for a child) and it attracts approximately 2,500-3,000 paying visitors per day (2011). In the Summer months this can rise to as many as 5,000 per day.
The links with the world of business and finance have already been made by the press with reference to the members of the Chapter and management of the Cathedral, but let’s not forget the House of Lords, and the key role they play in shaping and supporting the very Government policies the protestors are angry about. The Bishop of London is one of five senior Bishops who sits as of right as one of the 26 ‘Lords Spiritual’ in the House of Lords.
So what should the church be doing at this time – should they be out there alongside the supporters – or would that all be a bit too messy and complicated for them – not to mention a bit too uncomfortable (literally!) to sleep in a tent. The church seems to pride itself now on having created a giant ‘DFS’ style sofa that everyone can sit on together – ‘all welcome – cushions for everyone’.
But when the going gets tough – and it will – where will they be? I’m sure if some members of the church were asked to organise the story of Jesus and His redemption again, they’d suck their teeth, shake their heads, and think ‘ooh, crucifixion, that a bit drastic isn’t it, a bit gory for a Sunday afternoon. Let’s just put Jesus on the naughty step for half an hour, that should do the trick’.
However, another difficult question is whether a ‘peaceful’ protest is the best way to highlight a cause? Does a large crowd with banners and tents actually make a difference to public policy and debate? Certainly a slot on Question Time this week is hardly going to make much of a dent in our current social and economic problems. It is an interesting thought though that if Jesus were here today in person, covering His ‘Sermon on the Mount’ with large crowds of people around him – would he be ‘moved on’ by the police – or worse – arrested for inciting the crowd? Surely He would be better off opening a Facebook account and using social media as His vehicle of change?
The situation at St Paul’s can only explode in the days ahead – on track for a collision course between a protest that, whilst peaceful now, seems to hold the grenade pin that shouts ‘remember what happened in London last time we had riots’ – and a police force waiting to be given its briefing.
Will the church stand by as the police move in to break up the protestors – will it sign the paperwork that sparks a riot?
Or will it quietly close its large, ornate and impressive wooden doors and hope the noise and dust settles soon so that it can get back to ‘normal’?
In Mark’s Gospel (Mark 11:15-19) Jesus angrily clears the temple and says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of thieves.” God’s desire is to be in loving relationship with all people, and demands that God’s people live in ways that proclaim God’s love and justice. You can hear God’s voice insisting on justice and caring for the poor throughout the Scriptures, with a mission call to reach out to those outside the church doors.
Surely the real question facing the church is the one posed by the banner held by the protestors: ‘What would Jesus do?’ And on that question, the church appears to be strangely silent.