The protest has so far not been very focussed, in the sense that their aims are not very specific. But all of the protesters and all of the camps share one common feature. They all want to speak out against the apparent greed which has become, they say, a hallmark of big business and, in particular, banking. They want to see a change in which the power shifts away from business and the financial markets and back to the people. In the USA they have been using the slogan, “We are the 99%” to highlight the fact that the big businesses and financial institutions represent a mere 1% of the population.
In the UK we have become used to bankers coming in for strong criticism from the population because of the banking crash of 2008. This was caused by, what now is seen to be, irresponsible behaviour by financial institutions taking advantage of weak regulation leading to the whole banking system risking total collapse as it fell like a house of cards when the bottom card is taken away. The sense of anger has been compounded by a perception that the banks and the bankers have got away with little or no consequence to them. Britain and other countries bailed out the banks and the banks, having been rescued, have not responded by putting in place significant reforms to the way they work. They are accused of not investing in small businesses by failing to make funds available for loans; the bonuses paid to executives, which have so shocked ordinary people by their sheer size, seem not to have been cutback significantly; we hear stories of how staggeringly well paid individuals are able to manage their finances so as to pay little or no tax; while the rest of us are receiving no, or below inflation, pay rises, and in many cases pay cuts, executives are still receiving increases in their remunerations well above the rate of inflation - the bosses of the FTSE 100 companies were reported last week to have received increases of pay averaging 45%, and that on top of already enormous pay packets. And while the rest of us are facing real cuts in the value of our pensions these same executives are continuing to receive enormous pension funds. and when questioned their response seems to be little more than to suggest that we do not understand the market, or that we are envious, or that they need the generous incentives they are paid to drive the success of their companies.
Now, I suspect that most of us feel considerable sympathy with the aims of the protests. And many of us are certainly alarmed at the way in which the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our country is growing, and at the huge gap now between executive and employees pay. You don’t have to be poor, or left wing to be horrified at the way our biggest businesses businesses are changing.
And so back to St Paul’s.
Initially, the Cathedral were sympathetic to the presence of the camp. If not actually welcoming the protesters with open arms they saw no reason initially to have the campers deterred, intervening to stop them being removed when they set up camp there, having been turned away from outside the Stock Exchange. One got the sense that for a few days the Cathedral and the camp were getting along - one side feeling that they other had a valid point to make and the other side feeling supported. However, when it became apparent that the camp was not moving the Cathedral authorities became uncomfortable. They asked the camp to leave, which the campers refused to do. The Dean and Chapter then took the almost unprecedented step of closing the St Paul’s for the first time since the war claiming that “health and Safety” considerations had led to this action. The Chapter then started talking of taking legal action to force the camp to disband, with the obvious possibility that they would need to use a degree of force to remove the campers.
Shortly after this the Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser resigned saying that he had no wish to be part of a process which could result in the violent removal of the camp. A couple of days later one of the Cathedral chaplains followed suit. And later again the Dean himself, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, also resigned because he felt that his position was becoming untenable due to the criticism of the way the Cathedral had handled this whole business.
Throughout the whole sorry story there has been a sense that the Church ought to side with the poor in this debate - and I think in general it does - and that, I’m sure was the desire of St Paul’s at the beginning when they invited the camp to stay in St Paul’s Churchyard and resisted attempts to have the protesters removed. However, as is often the case, what seemed like a good idea at one time appears somewhat different with hindsight. Had the protesters disbanded after a week or so everybody would probably have felt that things had turned our very well - the protesters had made a point, the Church had been seen to support them, the Corporation of the City of London would not have a protest against all that they stand for on their doorstep, and nothing would have changed; the phrase “business as usual” would have been more than usually appropriate.
But the camp stayed ... and stayed. The Cathedral, I think, made a huge mistake in closing its doors, and then compounded that mistake by threatening legal action. It is not apparent that there was any sort of negotiation (I’m sure there must have been some, but it must have been brief and inconclusive).
Certainly there should have been a strong effort to persuade the camp to lessen its impact on the life of the Cathedral. but alongside that there should probably have been a genuine effort on the part of the Cathedral community to support the campers.
As it is the Church has been made to look foolish, especially because it has shown itself to be unsure about its commitment to the poor and has looked as if it is in the pocket of the rich and powerful. On the whole I think the Church has looked as if it wanted to appear to be supporting the camp, while not wishing, in any way, to upset the status quo.
This has had two main effects. Firstly the camp has been made to look as if it has been opposed to the Church - their message about the lack of transparency and justice in our financial systems has not been heard because of this. And secondly, the Church has looked less concerned with proclaiming the gospel than it has with trying not to upset anyone. (When I was first ordained I was told by the then Bishop of Malmesbury, Freddie Temple, “If you want to fill your Church, don’t preach the gospel; nothing empties a Church more quickly than preaching the gospel.”)
There are, for the Church of England, many benefits to being the Established Church, but there are also many pitfalls, not the least being that it is impossible to “serve both God and Mammon.”
This has been a hard lesson to learn. The Church has been diminished by these events. That is a shame because it is not often that the Church has the opportunity to make the gospel heard - and we’ve probably blown it this time.