The Occupy movement has really taken hold in the weeks since a group of protestors decided to draw attention to corporate corruption on Wall Street. One of the sister protests to this, Occupy London Stock Exchange, has made the news because of its complex relationship with St. Paul’s Cathedral, outside which the protestors have their camp. It has prompted questions about the role of the church and the interplay between religion and politics, and it’s clear that a lot of lessons need to be learned.
So maybe some of those lessons can be learned from another Occupy protest that’s set up in the grounds of a church. In contrast to Occupy LSX, this is the smallest protest movement.
Occupy Taunton is Steve Watkins, aged 56. Armed only with a large sign reading “Where’s it all gone, you idiots?” and a chair, Watkins has set up camp in the grounds of his local church. And yet he and St. Mary Magdelene Church seem to be avoiding some of the trickier problems seen by St. Paul’s.
For a start, the local vicar has flat out endorsed Mr. Watkins’ right to protest. This is something St. Paul’s has gone back and forth on, appearing woolly in the process (I’m not sure freedom of speech is endorsed if you’re involved in legal proceedings against protest at the same time). Notice that the vicar doesn’t automatically endorse the message itself, just its presence in the churchyard; there’s an argument, one I agree with, that the church should always be on the side of the poor. However, that means genuinely being on the side of the poor, not just saying the right things in interviews. Just say what you mean and get on with it – or, as the Bible says, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”.
Then there’s how Mr. Watkins and the vicar sorted out any issues over him protesting on church grounds – they went to the pub and talked about it. Much of the St. Paul’s thing seems to have been carried out behind closed doors and, subsequently, in the media. But there’s something biblical about meeting over food and drink – it’s one of the things Jesus kept getting in trouble for, and yet it was key to building relationships. I’d much rather see the church’s response to Occupy be written on the back of a beermat over a drink with some of the protestors than be published in a sixty page strategy document. Sure, the size of things in London might make that impractical, but I think there’s something in it. Hire a room, get protestors, clergy and bankers talking over a curry. Who knows, it might work…
The third potential lesson is Remembrance Day. I’ve said before that this is the most sacred day in the UK’s secular calendar and I stand by that. Mr. Watkins has said he’ll move on before Sunday, so as not to take anything away from the act of remembrance, and while I don’t suggest Occupy LSX do that, the way in which the protestors engage with remembrance services this weekend will be important, not least because of media portrayal. I don’t know if something’s planned, but if so, I hope it’s something powerful and respectful.
When all is said and done, I’d like to thank Occupy Taunton for somehow being very British about it all. Sometimes London seems divorced from the rest of the nation so it’s interesting to see how this plays out against the backdrop of pubs and country churches. And I hope we never forget that the large, powerful and noisy never forget that something powerful can be learned from the small and quiet…