“The Church is a business like any other,” says 23-year-old Conor Murray, who has travelled from his home in Galway to join the protesters in London. “It felt that its commercial concerns were threatened by us being here. The cathedral earns £16,000 a day in tourism revenue. There are Tescos that don’t make £16,000 a day… This is a protest about the gross inequality of wealth in our society and the Church has shown its true colours.”
Conor’s words reflect a general feeling in the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s cathedral that this is a Church that has lost its way. The protest was never aimed at Christianity; it was intended to challenge the corporate greed of big business but, say the protesters, the cathedral’s reaction has highlighted just how pervasive the problem is in our society. Even the country’s national religion – an institution that is supposed to caution against worshipping Mammon, the false god of material wealth – expressed dismay when it had to close its gift shop and restaurant last week.
Michael Dickinson, 61, is an actor, teacher and ardent Christian from London who has taken to speaking outside the cathedral everyday to remind them of their spiritual duties. “God means good,” he declares dramatically to the crowd surrounding him, “and you cannot dispute the law which is ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. Is this church built for God or for Mammon? They charge £14 to go in there and extra to go in the whispering gallery… The Church has corrupted the teachings of Jesus.”
Pointing to the cathedral, a man from the crowd calls out in agreement: “That’s not a church anymore; it’s just a building.”
All around the camp there are signs of disappointment at the way the Church has behaved. A banner displayed ostentatiously in front of the cathedral reads, “What would Jesus do?” Posters pinned to railings show passages from the Bible, such as Matthew 6:24: “You cannot serve both God and money.” One tent has been designated the “Common Christian Council for Economic Justice.”
Nor is it just the protesters who feel this way. So far, three clergymen at St Paul’s have resigned over the Church’s plans to forcibly remove the campers from the site.
First to go was the cathedral’s Chancellor, Revd Giles Fraser, who handed in his notice on October 27 saying he could not condone the use of “violence in the name of the Church.” Although he stopped short of explicitly supporting the protesters’ demands, he made no secret of the fact that he sympathised with them. “Jesus is very clear that the love of money is the root of all evil… [It] is the number one moral issue in the Bible,” he said in an interview with The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger on the day he resigned.
The following day Revd Fraser Dyer, a part-time chaplain at the cathedral, also resigned from his position, saying that, “I am left feeling embarrassed by the position the Dean and Chapter have taken and I do not relish the prospect of having to defend the cathedral’s position.” Like Revd Fraser, he noted that the protesters’ concerns about corporate greed, “have much in keeping with the values of the gospels.”
Yesterday, Graeme Knowles, St Paul’s Dean resigned over the criticism of the Cathedral’s handling of the situation.
Several others have expressed concern, including Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Canon Mark Oakley, the treasurer of St Paul’s. Even if the protesters are inevitably moved on, the Church is likely to be shaken by this controversy for quite some time.
Conor describes the hostile reception he has received from some of the Christians who have come to worship at the cathedral but says, “There are many sincere Anglicans who I think are quite shocked at the behaviour of the Church hierarchy. It will be interesting to see what that comes to.”
Dave Robinson, another protester at the camp, sums it up: “It was never our intention to show up the Church but it’s happened anyway. I’m not religious and I’m grateful for their refuge in our first week, but surely the teachings of Jesus are more important to them than their corporate interests. Will they hold a summit after we leave? They should be doing that regardless.”