St Paul's dean quits over protest

  • @jerometaylor

The Church of England descended deeper into crisis tonight with the resignation of the most senior clergyman at St Paul’s Cathedral following weeks of internal rancour over the anti-corporate greed protests that have sprung up on the church’s doorstep.

The Dean of St Paul’s, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, made the shock announcement this afternoon after consulting with Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London. In a statement he said that his position as head of St Paul’s had become “untenable” as criticism of the cathedral “mounted in the press, media and in public opinion” in the wake of the furore surrounding the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest.

Bishop Knowles was regarded as the architect of St Paul’s tough stance against the tented protest village, directing the cathedral to temporarily close its doors for the first time since the Blitz and instructing lawyers to looks at ways of evicting the demonstrators.

Those decisions sparked widespread criticism within the cathedral itself and wider Anglican Church as well as prompting the resignation of two clerics who said they feared the forced removal of protesters would inevitably lead to violence on the cathedral’s steps.

The departure of the Dean prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury to break his silence over the debacle engulfing what is one of Britain’s most iconic cathedrals.

After receiving two telephone calls from the Bishop of London – who is often tipped to be a potential future leader of the Anglican Church – Rowan Williams released a statement calling Knowles’ departure “very sad news”. Significantly, he also added words that were partially supportive of the protesters’ aims.

Describing events outside St Paul’s as a reminder that “decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure can have utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences” Archbishop Williams called on his church to confront the issues posed by the global Occupy protest movements.

“The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St Paul's remain very much on the table and we need – as a Church and as society as a whole – to work to make sure that they are properly addressed,” he said.

Bishop Knowles and his wife Susan will now have to leave his grace and favour house near to Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpiece. His departure comes just days after Canon Giles Fraser stepped down from St Paul’s in protest at the stance its leaders – known as the Chapter – were taking towards the protesters.

Senior sources inside St Paul’s have told The Independent that – unlike Canon Fraser – Bishop Knowles felt compelled to quit over what he saw as his cathedral’s poor handling of the protest controversy, not because he ideologically disagreed with the direction the Chapter were taking.

What happens next will largely depend on the Bishop of London and Bishop Michael Colcough who, as resident Canon within the Chapter, will become an interim head of St Paul’s until a replacement is found.

At the press conference this afternoon the Bishop of London struck a defiant tone, insisting that it was only right for St Paul’s to explore what legal measures it might want to apply to remove the protesters. But he insisted that members of the Chapter were unanimously against the use of force.

“What the Chapter is absolutely clear about is that the last thing they would condone is the use of violence in securing the enforcement of any orders,” he said. “Any prudent organisation has to map and explore the legal territory because we don’t know what’s going to happen as this protest evolves.”

The Bishop was speaking less than an hour after the City of London Corporation fired the starter gun for a lengthy legal battle by serving protesters with a notice to clear any tents and equipment from the public highway within 48 hours. The City of London owns some of the pavements surrounding the cathedral whilst St Paul’s has indicated its intention seek legal eviction from the land it owns.

William Densham, a partner at international law firm Eversheds, which is not involved in the eviction, commented: “The protesters could make life difficult by playing the system in various ways but, ultimately, it will be a matter of time as to when they are eventually evicted.”

Occupy London Stock Exchange responded to Bishop Knowles’ resignation with a reminder that although they had disagreed with him, they had never called for his resignation.

“The management of St Paul’s Cathedral is obviously deeply divided over the position they have taken in response to our cause – but our cause has never been directed at the staff of the Cathedral,” the statement read.

Joel Benjamin, a 29-year-old protester from Vauxhall, said: "I am saddened that we've got a situation where members of the church are resigning. It's not their responsibility - it's about the financial system, it's not about the Church of England.”

Holy trinity: The St Paul's resignations

Giles Fraser: The first clergyman to resign: Canon Giles Fraser's decision to step down last Thursday sent shockwaves through St Paul's and revealed how deep the divide was within the cathedral. Mr Fraser, a regular on Thought for the Day and a church liberal, said at the time: "I resigned because I believe that the chapter has set on a course of action that could mean there will be violence in the name of the church."

Fraser Dyer: Although not as senior as Giles Fraser, the resignation on Friday of Fraser Dyer revealed the feelings of discontent among some of the lower ranking clergy at St Paul's. Dyer, a curate at St Peter De Beauvoir Town Church who did part time chaplaincy work at St Paul's said he was disappointed the cathedral was pursuing an eviction. "I wanted to join... with other clergy colleagues and church members who are expressing disquiet with the stance being taken by St Paul's," he said.

Graeme Knowles: The Dean of St Paul's stepped down yesterday partly in recognition that his leadership of St Paul's over the past two weeks has seriously damaged the reputation of the Church of England. "It has become increasingly clear to me that, as criticism of the cathedral mounted in the press, media and in public opinion, my positions... was becoming untenable," he said.