Giles Fraser: 'I've spent my life on the naughty step'
The former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral is trying to find work after resigning over his support for the Occupy protest. But that won't stop him from saying what he thinks
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 22 January 2012
It's just after breakfast time and Giles Fraser is smoking his third fag of the day. Clad in faded black jeans and a baggy black T-shirt, he flicks haphazardly into a full ashtray on the floor and scrolls down the Twitter feed on his computer. As a morning ritual it is pretty familiar to scores of the jobless. Then again, the Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, to give him his full honorific, is unemployed.
True, he enjoys more comfort than your average jobseeker. Above his computer is an oil painting of St Paul's Cathedral, and the high-ceilinged study we're sitting in lies in the shadow of the world-famous church. "Christopher Wren built me a house," he chuckles, as I admire the 17th-century home that came with the job he has now given up.
Since his very public resignation from St Paul's last October over his very public support for the Occupy protest camp outside it, the 47-year-old cleric has been at something of a loose end. He is on gardening leave serving out his notice, and in the past month has been interviewed for two prominent jobs in the church and got nowhere. Now he is planning to take a less ambitious job in an inner-London parish.
"I'm sure there'll be lots of people who think I'm on the naughty step," he says, taking another drag on his cigarette. And isn't he? "Well ..." he pauses, before nodding. "I've spent my life on the naughty step."
Explaining the move, a definite backwards career step, he says: "If you're going to take a stand you've got to have a job that's congruent with what you believe in. There are a lot of people who climb the greasy pole of the church and find they're not happy when they reach the top."
Fraser's open face, with its protruding ears and eyes, could have been hewn from plasticine for a Nick Park animation, and his frequent explosions of laughter – often aimed at himself – are infectious. He is affable and likeable. But his outspoken opinions have made him such a divisive figure in the Church of England that he knows he will struggle to get another senior job. "It may be that in career terms this has made me a difficult figure for the church to know how to deal with. I struggle to live out what I believe in a way that has authenticity and is real to both me and the organisation that I'm a part of."
The City of London Corporation won the right in the High Court last Wednesday to evict the protesters. "In one sense you could see it as a victory for the corporation, but in another I think it's a defeat," Fraser says. "The idea that the only way you can engage with what's going on out there is through eviction is actually a failure of imagination. If it comes to a violent stand-off with bailiffs and the police, that'll be a very deep failure and it does look like that's the way it's heading."
For now, at least, the Wren-designed house in Amen Court is his while he serves his six-month notice period. Continuing to live in the street of ecclesiastical homes for cathedral staff has been "a challenge", Fraser admits. But he remains fiercely loyal to his former workmates. "I actually care a great deal for my colleagues. There's a loyalty I want to stick to. There's a solidarity you have to maintain, even in the difficult times."
The most difficult times may yet be ahead. If it comes to a point where the Occupy protesters have to be removed by force, Fraser is clear which side he'll be on. A group of some 200 Christians have announced they will form a "ring of prayer" between protesters and the bailiffs. He intends to join them. "Yes I would pray with them; it's very important."
The tension between the expected propriety of church life and his natural rebelliousness is clear. As he leans back with his feet on the heavy wooden desk used for work and study by centuries of clerics, he suddenly freezes, like a naughty schoolboy caught in the act, pulling a fag from his mouth and rearranging himself into a more respectable posture.
The study, which he claims is "relatively organised" at the moment, looks as if a team of forensics experts should be trawling for burglary clues. Piles of books flow from the shelves on to the floor; among the detritus beneath his desk are two balled-up discarded socks. On top of the books are several boxsets of The Vice – 18-rated – in a leaning tower of similarly rated DVDs.
He shares the grace-and-favour home with his wife, Sally Fraser, books editor of The Church Times, and their three children. He is already dreading having to give up the house and all the perks that go with it. "There are questions of material welfare which are quite pressing. You give up a lot and that's quite difficult. Working here, my boy is at the cathedral school for free; that comes with the job. But if I become a vicar it would cost me half my salary for him to continue there. So, for him, you think 'bloody hell!'. On the one hand there's continuity to give him, but on the other it's half my salary. I've got three kids and my eldest is in her GCSE year, so the idea of moving her now is a nightmare."
His relationship with money is uncomplicated, lacking the vague, Lord-will-provide faux naivety of some of his peers. His brother works in the City and was chair of the cathedral's finance committee: his criticism of uncaring capitalism comes from a position of understanding rather than from woolly liberalism.
Money is, he believes, a major sticking point for the church. "The church has always had a complicated relationship with it," he says, before relating the tale of St Francis of Assisi making a follower take coins in his mouth and drop them into dung as penance. He thinks Anglicans should be taking a stronger line to ensure they do not invest in multinational companies whose ethics have been questioned.
"The church should not have investments in exploitative companies," he says, adding that current regulations on such matters are flawed. "There's a number of red lines: tobacco, alcohol, the arms trade and pornography. That's all well and good, but I'm more interested in what the church is for and what it's trying to achieve, rather than boiling down an ethical perspective to just a few red lines.
"You sit there with a glass of chardonnay, having a fag, and think: is the real world really about not investing in booze and fags? Is this really the sum total of our moral vision? I do think it's very difficult to have an ethical vision of capitalism which is simply based on a rather diminished set of moral rules."
With so many opinions on how the church should be run, would he ever like to be in charge – to be, say, in Rowan Williams's shoes? "I certainly would not!" He explodes: "My word! It's worse than the England football manager's job. It's a job you can't win at. It's the worst job in the world. Poor man! The church is a perfect target for all sorts of discontent from any side. You're constantly buffeted by unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings."
So, with his church career pretty much on the back burner for now, Fraser has begun writing a book on the events of the past few months. He wants to call it "The Mask of Anarchy", in reference to the Shelley poem, which he sees as clearly applicable to the conflict between the establishment and the protesters representing the 99 per cent.
This is just one of the writing projects he is undertaking. Tomorrow he starts working shifts on the leader desk at The Guardian, which he plans to do for the remainder of his notice period. He also has a documentary planned with the BBC and will continue to do his regular slot on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day.
So, does all this mark the start of a life change? Has joining the jobless shaken his faith – is he beginning to turn away from the church? "No," he says, his tone suddenly formal for the first time in our meeting. "I'm a priest and I will want to exercise my ministry as a priest. That is essential."
1964 Born to Gillian Fraser and Wing Commander Anthony Fraser, a non-practising Jew. Attends Uppingham, a Christian public school, and is introduced to the Church of England.
1984 Completes philosophy degree at Newcastle.
1992 Studies theology at Oxford.
1993 Is ordained as a deacon and becomes curate of All Saints Church, Streetly. Marries Sally Aagaard; they have two daughters and a son together.
1997 Becomes chaplain at Wadham College, Oxford. Goes on to be a philosophy lecturer.
1999 Completes PhD at the University of Lancaster.
2003 Founds Inclusive Church, an organisation that campaigns for the inclusion of gay bishops. Becomes a member of the Church Synod.
2009 Made Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.
2011 Resigns on 27 October over cathedral's decision to evict Occupy protesters.
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