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Published on November 1st, 2011 | by Ben Phillips
Image © [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="©Jason Reeve Photography - Occupy LSX on the steps of St Paul's, October 24th 2011"]Photo credit: Jason Reeve Photography[/caption] The news this afternoon that both the City of London Corporation and St Paul's Cathedral have suspended their legal actions against Occupy LSX serves only to remind us of the current state of play: two weeks on, the protesters are still at St Paul's, and two senior clergymen are not. The fact that Occupy LSX ended up outside St Paul's was an accident of urban geography in the aftermath of the police successfully thwarting the planned move on Paternoster Square, but the repercussions since October 15th leave no doubt that the Church of England is not an innocent bystander here. Rather, the resignations of Giles Fraser and Graeme Knowles show Anglicanism for what it presently is: an important battleground in the political and ethical arguments unleashed by the protest movement, and a religious institution experiencing another severe episode of self-doubt. As Riazat Butt writes in today's Guardian, Giles Fraser - the ex-Canon of St Paul's, who initially welcomed the protesters - delighted those encamped outside the cathedral with his 'cheerful disposition', whereas the ex-Dean Graeme Knowles' decision to close St Paul's for the first time since the London Blitz elicited 'incredulity and criticism across the Anglican spectrum and from protesters.' Indeed, Knowles, according to the Independent, '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.' It is this split within Anglicanism over what seems to many not just an incredibly obvious ethical judgement call, but an opportunity to fulfill one of the essential functions of a church, that has seen St Paul's go 'from being a national icon to a national joke', in Butt's words. With this in mind, the manner in which Occupy LSX stumbled upon St Paul's as an impromptu campsite now seems most fortuitous: in doing so, a protest against inequality and greed uncovered those diseases' sheer pervasiveness within our society. Sunny Hundal points out that many in Anglicanism's hierarchy have much in common ideologically with the protest - not least Rowan Williams, the very Archbishop of Canterbury whose lack of leadership the Independent now laments. Jessica Abrahams, on the Huffington Post, revels in the irony of Mammon's apparent triumph (St Paul's, she observes, 'expressed dismay when it had to close its gift shop and restaurant last week.') The Spectator's Theo Hobson goes further than anyone. 'What we are seeing', he writes, 'is the beginning of the death throes of the established Church.' I'm not sure I'd go quite that far. Still, death throes or not, this is another of those increasingly rare opportunities for the Church of England to demonstrate that it still has some spiritual validity and purpose. The opportunity is perilously close to slipping away.

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Occupy LSX: the Church of England’s crisis of conscience

Photo credit: Jason Reeve Photography

©Jason Reeve Photography – Occupy LSX on the steps of St Paul's, October 24th 2011

The news this afternoon that both the City of London Corporation and St Paul’s Cathedral have suspended their legal actions against Occupy LSX serves only to remind us of the current state of play: two weeks on, the protesters are still at St Paul’s, and two senior clergymen are not. The fact that Occupy LSX ended up outside St Paul’s was an accident of urban geography in the aftermath of the police successfully thwarting the planned move on Paternoster Square, but the repercussions since October 15th leave no doubt that the Church of England is not an innocent bystander here. Rather, the resignations of Giles Fraser and Graeme Knowles show Anglicanism for what it presently is: an important battleground in the political and ethical arguments unleashed by the protest movement, and a religious institution experiencing another severe episode of self-doubt.

As Riazat Butt writes in today’s Guardian, Giles Fraser – the ex-Canon of St Paul’s, who initially welcomed the protesters – delighted those encamped outside the cathedral with his ‘cheerful disposition’, whereas the ex-Dean Graeme Knowles’ decision to close St Paul’s for the first time since the London Blitz elicited ‘incredulity and criticism across the Anglican spectrum and from protesters.’ Indeed, Knowles, according to the Independent, ‘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.’ It is this split within Anglicanism over what seems to many not just an incredibly obvious ethical judgement call, but an opportunity to fulfill one of the essential functions of a church, that has seen St Paul’s go ‘from being a national icon to a national joke’, in Butt’s words. With this in mind, the manner in which Occupy LSX stumbled upon St Paul’s as an impromptu campsite now seems most fortuitous: in doing so, a protest against inequality and greed uncovered those diseases’ sheer pervasiveness within our society.

Sunny Hundal points out that many in Anglicanism’s hierarchy have much in common ideologically with the protest – not least Rowan Williams, the very Archbishop of Canterbury whose lack of leadership the Independent now laments. Jessica Abrahams, on the Huffington Post, revels in the irony of Mammon’s apparent triumph (St Paul’s, she observes, ‘expressed dismay when it had to close its gift shop and restaurant last week.’) The Spectator‘s Theo Hobson goes further than anyone. ‘What we are seeing’, he writes, ‘is the beginning of the death throes of the established Church.’ I’m not sure I’d go quite that far. Still, death throes or not, this is another of those increasingly rare opportunities for the Church of England to demonstrate that it still has some spiritual validity and purpose. The opportunity is perilously close to slipping away.

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  • Matthew Howard

    I would say that, as a Christian, I believe the 'Church' is the people, and not simply one Cathedral.

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