Tag Archives: christianity

St. Paul’s, The Protests And Occupy Taunton

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.

 

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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…

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All Saints Day 2011

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“Saint” is a weighted term nowadays, evoking images of solemn-faced men in brown robes, halos present but not smiles. That’s not a representative picture, of course, but a sense of otherworldly and unobtainable holiness surrounds the imagery; being a saint may be worthy, but it sure as heck doesn’t look like fun.

That’s why I appreciate the Methodist tradition of seeing all believers as saints, not because of their own merits but because of the grace of God; referring to Bob who puts the chairs out every Sunday as a saint isn’t about bigging up Bob, who might have got a bit hungover the night before and who swore at a driver who cut him up at a roundabout – it’s about honouring and testifying to the idea of redemption that forms the heart of the Christian message.

And so, on All Saints Day I can remember more people than just St. Paul (who I never met and who I always imagine to look like Alan Rickman); I can remember my grandparents and the way in which they all contributed to the church in different ways. I can remember my dad, and the way he’d sing along to cassettes of male voice choirs in the car.

I can remember all the people I’ve known from various churches who’ve passed away, friends and relatives and teachers. And it’s funny, but I can’t remember any specific lessons, but I can remember passion and tears and smiles and being given a pound but told never to spend it on a Sunday.

I can remember CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, who I might one day quote in a sermon but who I’ve definitely quoted in conversations about superheroes.

I can remember Johnny Cash, who comes to mind whenever I think about grace or the end of the world.

I can remember those who spent and sacrificed themselves on behalf of others because of a higher calling than that of materialism or fame or power.

I can remember Martin Luther King’s dream.

I can remember Charles Wesley and John Newton and whoever it was who wrote Be Thou My Vision.

I can remember Mike Yaconelli, who expressed such overwhelming love for God and life.

There are more, of course there are, and that’s why we have a day to remember them and to thank God for all they did. You can keep the halos and the relics and the paintings. Give me real saints any day.

 

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St. Paul’s and the Protests – Follow Up Post

A few days ago, like a gazillion other bloggers, I wrote a post about the Occupy London protests and the increasingly complicated relationship they have with St. Paul’s Cathedral. Almost overnight the church’s links with the Establishment have been thrown into relief – Cathedral staff have resigned (Giles Fraser, Fraser Dyer, Graham Knowles), legal proceedings have started and, most damningly, it appears that the St. Paul’s Institute has suppressed a report into the morality of bankers in order to avoid giving the impression it supported the protestors. All of this is against the backdrop of an International Labour Organisation report that claims we’re on the verge of an even deeper jobs recession at the same time that a law firm holds a Halloween party where the costumes of choice mock people who’ve lost their homes.

I don’t have much more to add to my last post on the subject, but I will say this: Christians have to grasp the nettle on this subject. We’ve tried to have it both ways for too long – we want to be a part of the Establishment when it suits us, but we also want to stand against it sometimes and we can’t have it both ways. St. Paul’s seems to want to serve two masters here, but a pretty important Christian thinker once warned this isn’t possible. And this isn’t just an issue for St. Paul’s Cathedral – this is something that all of us who claim to be Christians have to think, pray and act upon, because the gap between rich and poor isn’t going away anytime soon…

 

St. Paul’s and the Protests

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.

 

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Blog Action Day 2011: #BAD11

I am proud to take part in Blog Action Day Oct 16, 2011 www.blogactionday.org

I wrote most of this after my church’s harvest festival in September; when I discovered that this year’s Blog Action Day is all about food, I figured I’d give it a repost rather than reinvent the wheel…

Harvest is one of those services that feels more rooted in a particular social context than something like Christmas or Easter – it feels like something that comes from our rural history, the days in which everyone in the community was acutely aware of whether or not the harvest had failed. We’ve become divorced from that – refrigeration, air travel and supermarket mega-chains have conspired to hide the reality of where our food comes from (strawberries are available all year round, and how many rice paddies are there in the UK?), and so in that context, harvest festivals take on a new edge. Because the hidden aspects of our food often impact some of the most vulnerable people and environments on the planet.

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For instance, the need for space to grow this food also has knock-on effects – according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agriculture is the primary cause of deforestation, with the attendant ecological and cultural losses that come from the extinction of species and the threat to tribal cultures. Our commercial choices have ramifications for people a couple of continents away.

(It’s worth noting that one of the chief causes of the 1930s American ‘Dust Bowl’ was over-farming.)

That why organisations such as the Fairtrade Foundation are so important. In a world where people exist on a couple of pence a day, it’s a moral imperative to ensure they receive a decent income. A worker deserves a wage, not exploitation.

It’s not just about exploitation though, it’s about what happens when the harvest fails. We’ve all seen news pictures from the Horn of Africa, so I’m just going to point you to the Disasters Emergency Committee website.

And yeah, I can be cheesy – you can’t spell ‘harvest’ without ‘share’.

There’s a more specifically 20110918-184537.jpgreligious slant to all this as well – if God is creator (via whatever mechanism) of all there is, then respect for that creation and acknowledgement of God’s role in sustaining it should become part of worship. This is something that various branches of religious thought have lost sight of – certainly there seems to be a view among sections of American Christianity that the environment is there for the taking with no regard to the consequences – plunder not stewardship. Maybe that’s tied up with the USA’s roots in apocalyptic millenarianism, but as we’ve seen above, that sort of thinking has terrible ramifications. Churches need to adopt a view of the environment that’s rooted in love and compassion, not greed.

So like many other traditional services, there was wisdom behind the development of harvest festivals. In a world where most of us don’t a connection to the soil, it’s good that there are community events that seek to remind us that there’s more to life than concrete and shppping malls – and I’m speaking as a man who doesn’t walk through nearly enough green spaces. We need to take a moment to stop, look at all that we have, and be thankful, mindful that we’re part of a wider, greener world.

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