St. Paul’s Cathedral stands as an iconic symbol of continuity amidst London’s ever-changing skyline. It has witnessed three centuries of social change, including two World Wars, which it survived unscathed. Not since Adolf Hitler’s blitz in 1942 has St. Paul’s been forced to close its doors.
Now Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpiece, located in London’s financial district, finds itself the epicenter of a debate about the future of capitalism. Around 200 protesters have occupied the Cathedral surrounds as Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests gather momentum and become international, spurred on by social media.
The original objective was to surround the London Stock Exchange on the other side of Ludgate Hill where St. Paul’s stands. Protesters vowed to stay for weeks, months, or even longer, like their New York counterparts.
The Rev. Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of the cathedral, initially declined to ask London police to remove the activists. The dean and chapter later announced they were closing the cathedral in the interests of health and safety. The cathedral is losing an estimated £16,000-£20,000 daily because of the closure. (Tourists pay an entrance fee.)
The protesters issued an open letter to the dean and chapter demanding to know exactly why health and safety regulations required closing the building. Also in the spotlight is Canon Fraser’s apparently unilateral decision to allow the protesters to stay. For now he has the backing of the dean, Bishop Graeme Knowles, who has said Fraser was “within his rights” to take this step.
The protesters say they intend to continue their occupation until Christmas, an action that would paralyze the cathedral’s rhythm of prayer and worship. It may, for instance, shut down Remembrance Day services Nov. 11. Meanwhile the Corporation of the City of London (the City Council) is taking legal advice about whether the protesters can be ordered to move. Certainly if the council initiated legal action it would to some extent take the heat off the church.
Clearly the church authorities are caught in a dilemma. The cathedral’s media spokesman, the Rev. Rob Marshall, has given the impression that the church is damned if it allows continued occupancy and damned if it does not.
He told Reuters the church had a long tradition of engaging with both the City of London’s businesses and its people and that while it welcomed peaceful protest it also needed to guarantee that worshipers and tourists could continue to visit. “On one hand, debate about the economy and financial structures is vital. But practicalities are the concern.”
For now the police have no powers to act. A few officers in fluorescent jackets are on the scene looking on as tourists, students, and office workers on lunch breaks visit the encampment, some exchanging views with the protesters about the global financial crisis and how it should be resolved. By no means are all of them hostile to the thoughts of the protesters.
The protesters do not appear to have a single leader. But as the days have gone by they have evolved a system of meetings in which they discuss tactics and vote on what to do next. Media reports suggest they are a disparate group of veteran campaigners, leftists, environmentalists, students and job-seekers. It is hard to discern a common cause. Their encampment includes a prayer tent.
There are, moreover, signs that the church may not want to see the protest broken up — not just yet, anyway. One protester told media he managed to get inside St. Paul’s for a service and, to his surprise, heard a sermon very much in sympathy with the concerns of the protesters. Some church voices have said St. Paul’s should have opened its doors and invited the protesters inside.
The Rev. Dennis Nadin, a retired vicar from Essex, a neighboring county to the east of London, told the protesters their message was “absolutely what God would be saying” because God had “provided abundant resources for everyone in the world, but they have been unfairly distributed in a way that means people are starving.”
The Rev. James Mercer from Harrow Weald, northwest London, told the media, “What I would say is that in the gospels, Jesus makes a courageous and subversive stand against the corruption of the powers that be, and against the implicit assumption that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. You feel Jesus’s anger in his protest, which actually wasn’t that peaceful. The heart of the gospel is one of outrageous generosity — and the greed that is protested here is not generous. That’s why I say: ‘Go for it, guys.’”
The Rev Sally Hitchiner, a curate from Ealing in West London, went to St. Paul’s Oct. 21 hoping to go to Evensong and found the cathedral closed. “As the other regular worshippers saw I was in a collar they asked me to lead them in a prayer.” She ended up being given the microphone with 200 protesters joining in, 100 or so of them kneeling. “I don’t know about the politics but I think it’s very important that we don’t stop praying on that site — whether or not the building can open,” she said.
They ended with the Lord’s Prayer, using the traditional form and its familiar petition: “Forgive us our trespasses.”
John Martin in London