I’ve been writing a lot about the protests that have been sweeping the globe over the last few months, and I feel a complete fraud when I do – I’m not out there on the frontlines, I’m just another blogging commentator that hasn’t been teargassed or arrested or yelled at by the 99%. I was thinking of leaving the subject alone from now on, but then St. Paul’s Cathedral got involved with Occupy LSX…
The background: Occupy LSX was one of the protest movements that emerged in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Their original plan was to set up camp at the London Stock Exchange at Paternoster Square – however, as that’s private property, an injunction was taken out, forcing the protestors to relocate to the courtyard outside the cathedral, and there they’ve been ever since. And let’s not kid ourselves, it’s been messy – The Chancellor of St. Paul’s, Dr. Giles Fraser asked the police to leave the protestors in peace, an act which echoes the idea of churches-as-sanctuary, but the Bishop of London has since asked them to leave; the cathedral was closed due to ‘health and safety reasons’ arising from Occupy LSX’s camp, but now looks set to reopen, and yet Fraser has now handed in his resignation. The impression I get is that the most iconic church in the country has unexpectedly found itself in the middle of a situation that it doesn’t quite know how to react to – stand with the protestors because of Christ’s concern for the poor? Or stand aside from politics in order to concentrate on services and prayer?
But wait, this isn’t just about politics. This is about names and symbols.
St. Paul’s is an iconic part of London’s architectural landscape, but it’s more than that. The photograph of the cathedral’s dome surrounded by smoke and flames during the Blitz has become a symbol of the city’s – the nation’s - solidarity, defiance in the face of adversity and, well, hope. Towards the end of 1940, Churchill directed firefighters to make sure St. Paul’s survived the constant air-raids – “The Cathedral must be saved, damage to the fabric would sap the morale of the country.” After all, St. Paul’s becomes the focal point for events of national importance – celebrations at the end of the First and Second World Wars, for instance, and the funeral of Princess Diana. After 9-11, crowds gathered at the Cathedral to express grief and solidarity with America. St. Paul’s is a focal point for the nation, and so it belongs, not to the 1%, not even to the 99%, but to all of us. In this sense, the protestors should be allowed to stay, as long as the Cathedral can operate freely.
But that’s when St. Paul’s runs into another issue – the role of church and state. Whether they let the protestors stay or not, a stand has to be taken, and that’s where bits of theology will be thrown around. One idea is that the church should keep its nose out of politics, based on the biblical story of Jesus paying his taxes with the words “Give back to Caeser what it Caesers and give to God what is God’s”. Which sounds fine on the surface, but even the people who heard that first time around were perplexed – I guess it raises a sneaky question of what exactly Caeser – kings, rulers, politicians, the state – has claim over that God doesn’t. The original story sounds like Jesus evading a trick question by being smarter than those trying to trip him up.
Of course, the other Bible story that’s evoked by this is Jesus kicking moneylenders out of the Temple in Jerusalem. “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” he shouts as he overturns the tables of moneychangers and merchants, “But you have made it a den of robbers!” The message is traditionally taken as being that commerce shouldn’t become more important than faith, but maybe there’s a wider message than that. The moneychangers were set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the furthest point into the Temple that non-Jews could go; effectively, one of Jesus’s complaints is that merchandising is stopping people from getting to God, and I guess that extends to things other than money. As grace and accessibility to God is one of the themes of his teaching, I don’t think Jesus would be overjoyed at a church being closed by external forces.
By that same token, I don’t think he’d be impressed with a church charging £14.50 to get in.
With all that in mind, remember who St. Paul was – the guy who took the teaching of Jesus into the non-Jewish world. Symbols again – St. Paul’s should be accessible. If it’s not, well, there’s a problem.
But while we’re talking about Jesus, let’s not forget that concern for the poor was one of his key themes. Many say that he’d be standing with the Occupy crowds, and while I don’t think it’s quite that easy to associate him with any particular cause or politics, I think he’d sympathise passionately. After all, this is the man who started his public work by taking a mission statement from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Any church should work towards following Jesus in his concern for the poor, downtrodden and the oppressed, and St. Paul’s offering support to the protestors is a part of that. The church should be a symbol of hope for the hopeless and helpless.
But maybe the real conflict of symbols is across the street. Look at where the protestors orginially wanted to camp – Paternoster Square, hope of the Stock Exchange. Pater Noster is Latin for “Our Father”, or the Lord’s Prayer, and while now the Square is symbol of the economic establishment, it’s named after a prayer that’s radical and revolutionary – it fundamentally can’t be Establishment, because its second line is “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done” – God’s Kingdom, not that of commerce or politics or the media. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is about aligning your values to God’s, and if there’s one thing we can be sure of, a corrupt banking and finance system isn’t aligned with God and Christ’s concern for the poor.
I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that the whole issue with St. Paul’s, Occupy and the City of London is a battlefield of spiritual ideas, almost a race for the soul of Christianity in the city. Not only does the Cathedral have to figure out who it’s going to side with, but they need to do that in a way that is in line with how Jesus would act – uncompromising but full of grace, compassionate but outspoken. And those who work in Paternoster Square may need to remember the ideas and prayers embedded in the stones beneath them, as the idolatry of the corrupt makes nations and economies tremble. Whose will be done?
There’s a quick follow-up to this post here.