[LONDON] You do not need to be a close observer of the drama centered this past fortnight on St Paul's Cathedral and the protesters encamped there to notice today a great shift, one that carries strong implications for the relationship of Anglican Christianity with the world of finance.
Two weeks ago, on 15 October, activists inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York gathered in the square outside the London Stock Exchange with the aim of occupying it. When police prevented them, the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters turned to St Paul's Churchyard nearby, pitching dozens of tents in front of the Cathedral. (There are now about 200.)
There is a nice historical irony, incidentally, in the fact that it was precisely in this place -- at the Cross in St Paul's churchyard -- that in 1066 the people of London successfully negotiated with William the Conqueror, securing the rights and freedoms which today give global financial institutions astonishing autonomy from state control. It is this autonomy -- the perception that financial institutions are self-interested, unaccountable and arrogant -- which fuels the anger behind the protest.
But it is unlikely that the protesters -- whose demands are at best incoherent, and at worst contradictory -- would have lasted long or indeed generated much interest had it not been for the explosions inside the great Wren-designed church at the heart of the City.
Its governing body, the Cathedral Chapter (eight men and women, a mixture of lay and clergy), initially panicked, shutting the Cathedral's doors for a week, for the first time since the Second World War, citing health and safety considerations (which turned out to be trivial).
The Chapter allowed itself to be persuaded by the Corporation of London, the City's government, that they should refuse all contact with the protesters. Their minds turned to the losses the Cathedral - -which has 1.5m visitors a year, and large bills to pay -- was sustaining. The focus was on how to clear the protesters.
At this point the Cathedral's popular and outspoken canon chancellor, Dr Giles Fraser, resigned, saying he could not condone “violence in the name of the Church”. (Giles, a devotee of René Girard, the great Catholic thinker whose insights on the links between violence and the primitive sacred have influenced many theologians, said: "St Paul was a tent maker. If you tried to recreate where Jesus would have been born, for me I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.")
That was five days ago, when all the talk was of how long the legal process would take. But in the days that followed, the Cathedral came under intense criticism, mainly from Anglicans appalled at how the Cathedral's response to the protest appeared to have placed it firmly on the side of the bankers in a way, they said, that would have appalled Christ.
What happened next is not very clear, but I'm inclined to go with the account by George Pitcher in today's Daily Telegraph who writes that the Cathedral's Dean, Rev. Graeme Knowles, "thought the legal process was just a precaution and would, anyway, take months to play out ... When he realised that the City was going for a quick eviction ... the Dean wanted to back-pedal. The Corporation held his feet to the fire -- his only option was to go, and let a successor revise the strategy." The Dean stood down on Monday -- the second resignation in a week.
The resignation was the result of the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, being invited by the Chapter to take charge. The Bishop, wrote Andrew Brown, a veteran observer of the Church of England, "is a realist and a shrewd politician, and he knows that the dean's cause is lost, and his policy has been rejected by almost all shades of Christian opinion as well as by the country as a whole."
So it was that the Cathedral announced yesterday that it would no longer pursue legal action -- a move which opens up the prospect of the protesters remaining encamped there for a very long time.
But more importantly, it signalled that St Paul's was now willing to defend -- gently, elegantly; this is, after all, the established Church of England -- its autonomy from the Corporation of London. "It is being widely reported that the Corporation of London plans to ask protesters to leave imminently," the St Paul's statement yesterday noted. "The Chapter of course recognises the Corporation’s right to take such action on Corporation land."
The statement also signalled a whole new stance in relation to the protest, announcing that the Bishop had invited an investment banker, Ken Costa, formerly Chair of UBS Europe and Chairman of Lazard International, and backer of the Alpha Course, "to spearhead an initiative reconnecting the financial with the ethical."
Even Dr Fraser was vindicated. Mr Costa, the statement added, "will be supported by a number of City, Church and public figures, including Giles Fraser, who although no longer a member of Chapter, will help ensure that the diverse voices of the protest are involved in this."
The Bishop of London, meanwhile, appeared almost to place the Church at the service of a revolution.
"The alarm bells are ringing all over the world," Dr Chartres said. "St Paul’s has now heard that call."
One of the Chapter members was in turn quoted as saying that "legal concerns have been at the forefront in recent weeks but now is the time for the moral, the spiritual and the theological to come to the fore."
This morning it was reported that the Chapter had held the first formal meetings with the protesters -- something which they had refrained from doing on the advice of lawyers. The result has been a series of agreements that have made it easier for visitors to gain access to the Cathedral.
Today the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has entered the fray, with a superb analysis of the drama in the Financial Times. He writes:
The protest at St Paul's was seen by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign of diminishing. There is still a powerful sense around – fair or not – of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers; of impatience with a return to 'business as usual' – represented by still-soaring bonuses and little visible change in banking practices.
Noting that the protesters' demands had been vague and that "it is time we tried to be more specific", Dr Williams approvingly refers to the "bold statement" issued on Monday last week by the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, and its three concrete proposals for regulating the financial markets. The last of these was for a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT), which also goes by the name of Tobin Tax or Robin Hood Tax. I wrote about it last year here, not imagining that 18 months later the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury would add their names to the roll-call of celebrities and economists who back the idea.
The protesters are, naturally, thrilled at St Paul's conversion which, if not quite Damascene, has moved at a cracking pace over the last week. Emboldened, they are set to dig in for a long time to come -- possibly until the New Year.
Meanwhile: there, now, it stands -- an iconic cathedral in the midst of a square mile coterminous with global finance, ringed by tents of anti-capitalist protesters, pledging to reconnect ethics and markets.
Who knows where it will end?