Thursday, 19 January 2012

Reflections on yesterday's ruling on the St Paul's Protest

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 Roman 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 dependant? On the other hand there is the unsettling example of Jesus himself – uninterested in money; contemptuous 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 side-step this dilemma by using their knack of fine rhetoric to call upon others to act. A prime example is the Report Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today issued by the St Paul’s Institute in November last year, an excellent critique of the ethical emptiness of global capital out of the mouths of financial services practitioners themselves.

But by the time this Report came out, the Occupy LSX camp had arrived at St Pauls, sparking a crisis of identity for the great Cathedral that supports this ‘challenging and well-resourced space for conversation’ (as the Archbishop of Canterbury had described the Institute in June 2010).

With eviction proceedings to remove the camp having yesterday produced a judgment against the occupy group, things are likely to get worse before they get better for the cathedral. At the back of everyone’s mind will be the feeling that a rare opportunity has been missed for an heroic religious engagement, for action as well as words.

It had all begun so promisingly.

The camp had only arrived at St Pauls in October last year when the stock exchange proved impenetrable. The police did not initially act, 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 witnesses 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 about to launch its critique of city capitalism.

Faced with an open goal, the senior church authorities promptly turned tail and shot into their own net.

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 protestors. When the latter action was suspended the more hard-nosed Corporation of London took on the job of clearing out the protestors, the custodians of the Cathedral whispering encouragement while trying to look the other way. By then the Cathedral had lost both Fraser and the Dean himself, Graeme Knowles.

The law appeared stacked against the protestors from the outset and the judgment yesterday can have come as no surprise, with both highways and planning law being deployed by the City to legitimise its effort to get the protestors removed, not just from the areas all around the Cathedral but from the Cathedral land as well.

Of course the protestors pleaded the right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act but that measure ws always unlikely greatly to assist. The European Court of Human Rights has been reluctant to extend its protection to those who invade private property in the effort to get heard, and the same has now proved to be true (so far as this case is concerned) of deliberate efforts to obstruct the highway for the same purpose. Lindblom J had the job of assessing the proportionality or reasonableness of the disruption as against its value as speech - and here again the background hostility of the Cathedral was likely to weigh heavily against the Camp.

With this ruling handed down, the case is already shaping up 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 protestors 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 the Value and Values report 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 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 has St Paul’s offered the world this Christmas season?

3 comments:

andria said...

Thanks for this Prof Gearty

Speaking as one in Occupation, I can safely say that we were not given any epiphany, though as a family there in the bosom of St Paul's we found a way to celebrate, people donated all the usual trimmings of Xmas and most of us did it without Sherry!
As for feeding the poor, that has gone on at our food tent since day 1, and frankly I am wondering whether, at this point, most of us, have been better example of Christ's message than many who reap the benefits of high level involvement in Christendom
We had a good relationship with the Cathedral for a while and there were even discussions about working Together to feed more poor. BUT in the end, the relationship between Church and City has won and we are left somewhere between the "Temple" steps and the Greedy bankers geographically and actually as one or two of the FSA itself has begun to question the way the banking system currently works:-)
So whatever happens to us out there, we know that we have begun a debate in the UK that will hopefully go on for many years.
Dare I even dream that we might Even end up with an economically more fair and just society?


With respect

Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt MSc

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