Peter Owen-Jones: The Church is well and truly in the dock

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The Independent Online

St Paul was by profession a tent-maker. He was also a Roman citizen, which gave him access to a certain degree of "diplomatic immunity" when he needed it. So it is a wonderful twist of fate that the London cathedral built in his name, whose grounds are now filled with tents, faces this dilemma: Is it part of the protected elit? Or is it with the tent-makers? Giles Fraser, the Canon of St Paul's who announced his resignation yesterday, has made it clear where he stands. The question for the wider Church remains.

The Church of England has always trodden a narrow path between serving the needs of the wealthy and those of the poor. As the national church, it has felt that it needs to be accessible to all sections of our society and that a problem arises when it becomes beholden to just one of them. But also as the national Church, it is effectively licensed by the state and the Crown.

The hierarchy of the CofE is appointed not chosen, it is selected not elected, a nice little arrangement that goes back to the end of the English Civil War. It is the state, Parliament and the Crown who pull the strings government the CofE's identity, a process of unnatural selection designed to garner against religious fundamentalism, the kind of which tore this country apart during the Civil War, and quite rightly none us would ever want to go there again.

The problem with these good intentions is that over the centuries what has evolved is a naturally cautious and inherently tepid Church. Very occasionally the mask slips and Archbishops confront the gathered parliamentarians in the wake of a conflict saying that war is always the result of human failure, or they point out that the current status quo is not something that any of us have voted for. But by and large we remain, as a church, suitably compliant and that is because we have been genetically engineered to be that way. None of us should be surprised that the Bishop of London and the Dean of St Paul's have asked the protesters to leave. They are simply fulfilling the terms of the job description that they have been selected for.

The Bishop of London has apparently offered to organise a debate as long as the protesters leave the Cathedral grounds. Both he and I know that that is just more of the same and will achieve precisely nothing. The days when the Church could offer to arbitrate over debates have long gone. We are well and truely in the dock now. I find it rather reassuring that after all these years, all of those politics, all of the posturings of the Crown appointments commission, out fate, it would seem, now rests with the tent-makers.

Perhaps St Paul should have the last word. "Fianally, beloved whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is any thing worthy of praise think about these things." There speaks a tent-maker.

Peter Owen-Jones is a Church of England vicar and the author of Small Boat, Big Sea

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