Leading article: More right than wrong in the precincts of St Paul's

If the point is to highlight the injustice of capitalism, the tents cannot just be symbolic

Sunday 30 October 2011 23:48

As it nears the end of its second week, the anti-capitalist protest in the precincts of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London has exposed more divisions than it probably intended. Designed to highlight the iniquities of the international financial system, exploiting the proximity of the great basilica and the capital's financial district, the encampment has opened up differences of opinion within the clergy and, by extension, within the Anglican church.

Initially, St Paul's welcomed the protesters, in the spirit of Christian charity. As the tents proliferated and the occupation became established, however, the mood soured. St Paul's closed its doors for the first time since the Blitz, with officials citing health and safety concerns. Yesterday, the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Charteris, and the Mayor, Boris Johnson, joined forces to call time on the protesters. They had made their point, they said, it was time for them to leave.

It is not unreasonable for the protesters, and indeed the wider public, to ask whose side the church is on. In initially extending a welcome to the occupation, then withdrawing it, the Dean and Chapter at St Paul's resemble nothing more than a disgruntled householder or inconvenienced road-user. Nor is it the fault of the cathedral, or the Anglican church, that "health and safety" has become synonymous with a culture of excessive caution and a cipher, for many, of Britain's ills. But to cite "health and safety" as a reason for closing a mighty and much-loved building seems at once petty and an overreaction.

The protesters were not inside the cathedral; they were, and are, camped outside. Their tents do not even constitute a major obstruction to visitors. Public hygiene may be a concern, but it does not appear to worry tourists overmuch, who are flocking to see the camp – and boosting local businesses, even as they find the cathedral doors locked. The protesters have a valid point to make; it is not incompatible with tourism.

It also has to be asked whether it was wise for St Paul's to complain about the financial losses it was sustaining from the closure. Of course, the upkeep of such a major architectural monument is expensive. But many will feel that there is a distinction between a house of worship and a money-making enterprise and that, where substantial entrance fees are imposed, this line risks being crossed. It is not only the protesters who might be tempted to object: "Ye cannot serve God and mammon."

Has the established church, or parts of it, become too dependent on big money? Is St Paul's, in particular, too close, in a variety of ways, to the City? The answer to both questions may be no, but the official hostility of St Paul's to the tents of the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement – hostility which is reportedly not shared by all its clerics – does not mean they should not be asked.

Divergent opinions within the church have given the London protest an extra dimension compared with its counterparts elsewhere in the world, where the impact resides in the simplicity of the tents compared with the showy affluence of the financial world. In London, though, there are ambiguities in the position of the protesters, too.

Critics of the occupation have seized on police claims that many tents are unoccupied overnight. And while it may be true that those with personal and professional obligations cannot devote 24 hours a day to their cause, it must be said that a part-time occupation detracts somewhat from its credibility. If the point is to highlight the inherent injustice of capitalism – the have-nots in tents, the haves in their shining towers – the tents cannot just be symbolic. In such contradictions, rather than expensive lawsuits, may lie the seeds of this particular protest's end.

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