‘What would Jesus do?’-Occupy London: The Camp, the clergy and the crisis of conscience

‘A week is a long time in politics’. Given the pace of developments surrounding the Occupy London camp outside St Pauls Cathedral, one might be tempted to say Harold Wilson’s famous utterance has never looked more apt. Had this article been written just two days ago it would have had a completely different tone and would probably look laughably out of step with developments. If events continue at this pace, it probably still will. 

Only last week it seemed the end was nigh for the Occupy London protest camp pitched outside St Pauls Cathedral, whose authorities seemed determined to follow the line set by the Corporation of London’s legal team in serving the protestors an eviction notice which would result in their forcible removal, should they refuse to disperse peacefully. At the start of this week however, in the wake of the resignation of Graham Knowles, the dean of St Pauls, the church performed a complete about face and suspended its legal action against the protest camp. Yesterday the Corporation of London met with protestors and agreed to their presence on the site until the New Year. A battle decisively won by the protestors in the face of the juggernaut of the Corporations legal team, and an astonishing u-turn from the Church after two high profile resignations in what amounts to a de facto crisis of conscience. So how exactly was this remarkable turnaround achieved, and where does it leave us?

Stand-offs between protestors in occupation and landowners enacting a legal process to remove them are nothing new (see for example Brian Haw’s occupation of parliament square and the protracted legal battle to remove him). What is distinctive in this case is the pivotal role of the church as an interested third party and effective King maker. In essence the relationship is a triangular one, with the protestors and the Corporation firmly entrenched in opposition and the church drifting somewhere between the two, with the power to throw its weight behind either party swinging the battle in their favour. At the time of writing the church has swung dramatically towards the protestors and left the Corporation in an isolated position, forcing yesterday’s concessions. 

Not to do disservice to the gallantry of the protestors or the might of the city, but it is the role of the church which is truly fascinating in this saga, both as an interested party and the deciding power. The protestor’s aims are clear enough, to take back a part of the city given over to the rapacious demands of trading and finance and reclaim it for the humane purposes of dialogue, interaction and debate. Similarly the city is clear in its aims; rid the streets of these troublesome good for nothings and restore order to the streets of the square mile. 

The church however is in a rather more complex position. For centuries it has occupied a place in what George Monbiot has dubbed ‘the dark heart of Britain, where democracy goes to die’. Monbiot is referring to the disturbingly unaccountable Corporation of the city of London (ostensibly a local council like any other, but one in which businesses obtain votes equivalent to citizens and councillors are unelected). The corporation appeals to ancient rights and its financial might to justify its position above the regulatory powers and official scrutiny of the government of Great Britain. It is afforded rights and privileges starkly out of step with a modern democracy and provided a fertile seed bed for the deregulation which precipitated the financial crisis we are still labouring to escape. The church has colluded in this medieval system for centuries and indeed many from its ranks go on to become

the unelected councillors who represent the corporation. It is for this reason presumably that when the occupation started, the church threw it its lot with the Corporation in determining to remove the troublemakers from its doorstep. 

But then came the crisis of conscience; first one, then two senior members of the St Pauls hierarchy tendered the resignations. And of the protestors, city and church, the church blinked first. Stepping into the power vacuum, the Bishop of London made a dramatic and very public about face. Sensing that the symbolism of the church endorsing the forcible and probably violent removal of peaceful protestors was wrong, he suspended the eviction process, leaving the Corporation in an awkward legal position. 

I’m no man of religion, but it is easy to understand the moral crisis that precipitated the Bishop’s decision. Despite being in the sway of the Corporation it is clear that the church stands for many of the same values as the protestors.  One need only turn to some of the writings and pronouncements of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams to see that the anti-capitalist agenda of the protestors has a significant overlap with many of the bible’s oldest teachings. Williams has argued that the current system of massive financial trading and speculation which underpins the global capitalist order is fatally flawed. He has denounced its inherent risks and in built inequality.  He has warned against our tendency to reify the system itself; turning ‘the market’ and ‘capital’ into abstractions with the autonomous capacity to regulate themselves when in fact they are only the logical outcome of our inputs and designs, destined to fail if the calculations are wrong. Any one of these arguments could have come from the mouths of the protestors at Occupy London. What we might be about to witness is a powerful alliance between secular and religious critiques of capitalism, and so much the better. 

The leaders of our economies are trapped into the logic of the old system, the logic of TINA (there is no alterative) the logic which dictates the only way forward is technocratic tinkering. This is what we are witnessing at the protracted crisis summits of Euro and G20 leaders: in the face of financial Armageddon they seem determined not to contemplate radical alternatives. In an astute commentary for The Spectator Williams has argued that the bogus science of free market economics- which we have placed so much faith in- needs a strand of militant scepticism such as that which religion is subjected to; a Hitchins or Dawkins to debunk the gross myths our financial world is built upon. This is precisely what the Occupy London camp offers us. A space for dialogue and new ideas about the way our financial system should be run, growing symbolically at the very centre of the old system. It is both Hegelian and poetic in equal measures. And dissatisfaction at the current financial system is growing. What we are seeing at St Pauls is hopefully the beginning of a far wider dialogue about the relationship between the financial system and human interest and welfare. 

So what’s next for the Occupy London camp? Public assurances would suggest they will get their wish and stay until New Year, but I wouldn’t bank upon it. As the past weeks have shown the triangular nature of the dispute renders it highly volatile. For the protestors, the church’s crisis of confidence was timely indeed; snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The importance of these developments should not be underestimated; at the very least a moribund institution has been shaken from its slumber and against the background of financial turmoil, a bright light of hope has been lit at the heart of our financial district.

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