Crucible of debate and dissent
Posted on 03 November 2011, 6:54
Yesterday afternoon I took the tube into London for a first look at the Occupy London protest camp. Walking with the crowds from the station to the cathedral, I fell in with a group of older men with posh accents, joking with each other.
‘Have you got your camping stove?’ asked one. ‘Have you brought the champagne?’ laughed another.
One of them quickly waded into the camp, loudly asking any young protestors who caught his eye why they weren’t working and how dare they desecrate this hallowed place.
But to my eye, the cathedral has never looked better, with colourful tents lapping up against the steps of the great west front, and with an impromptu community of young people bringing warmth and life to Wren’s often chilly looking building. I’ve posted my pictures of the camp on Flickr. Despite its hippy feel, the camp is highly organised, with tents for information, first aid and food, notices posted by the protesters’ assembly strictly banning alcohol from the site, and even disinfectant handwash dispensers gaffer-taped to a pole in the waste recycling area.
Everywhere I went, I was never out of earshot of debate. Capitalism, poverty, Jesus, the Kurds, freedom of speech, the church, corporate lobbyists, and much more, discussed loudly and quietly, passionately and rationally. I really love hearing debate on the streets of London. It reminds me of something from the days when the early church was debating the trinity, and a Greek theologian complained how the arguments had spilled out onto the streets:
‘If you ask a shopkeeper for change he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of the bread, the baker will answer, “The Father is greater, the Son is less.” And if you ask the bath attendant to draw you a bath, he will tell you that the Son was created out of nothing.’
Seeing large crowds milling around cathedrals was once a common sight. In medieval times, fairs were pitched around them, festivals were celebrated here and they were places of news, debate and entertainment. St Paul’s is a highly appropriate place for people to gather, protest and argue the big issues of the day, because that’s how it was for centuries. St Paul’s always was the cathedral of London’s common people, leaving Westminster Abbey to do its royal thing.
Just a few yards from the eastern edge of the camp is a monument marking the spot of St Paul’s Cross. Originally a stone cross where preachers stood, and later an open-air pulpit (see picture above), it was the place where Londoners gathered for several centuries in folkmoots, or general assemblies of the people.
Paul’s Cross was where you heard news and announcements and took part in debate and dissent. This is where victories were cheered, heresies condemned, Papal Bulls proclaimed, and where the people were sometimes required to swear allegiance to the king. Copies of Tyndale’s New Testament – the first section of the Christian scriptures to be printed in English – were rounded up and burned here by the Bishop of London in 1526. At Paul’s Cross, people who had fallen foul of the church or state were made to do fearful public penance.
But as well as being a place of propaganda and control, it also witnessed popular protest and new ideas. The revolutionary doctrines of the Reformation, which overturned the established Catholic faith, were first argued here before large and noisy crowds. London was converted to the Protestant faith at Paul’s Cross by anti-Catholic preachers. They made it the most famous pulpit of England.
In her book, Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons, Mary Morrissey says that access to the pulpit was controlled by three authorities: the Crown, the Church and the Corporation of London. Each of them had their own agendas and sometimes used the pulpit to attack each other. So it was here that the people of London were educated in conflicting ideas and interests and learned to make up their own minds.
It’s fascinating that the area where the protesters have camped is still owned by two of those authorities: the Church and the Corporation. Both were threatening to evict the camp, but the Church has now apparently dropped that approach, leaving the protesters to the all-powerful Corporation, which runs the City. George Monbiot gave an excellent exposition of its unrivalled powers a couple of days ago. It is a formidable foe. Even the government bows before it.
On my way back home, I stopped at the lonely monument where Paul’s Cross and all its tumult once stood. It’s in the cathedral churchyard and I have never seen any activity around it… until now. On the side of the monument is this inscription:
‘On this plot of ground stood of old “Paul’s Cross” whereat amid such scenes of good and evil as make up human affairs the conscience of church and nation through five centuries found public utterance.’
As then, so now. I hope St Paul’s Cathedral keeps its word and wholeheartedly embraces its young protesters, welcoming them to this home of English debate and dissent, and seeing their presence as an opportunity for well-argued mission. It’s a big ask for an established church to welcome dissenters, but this is also an invitation to engage in a highly visible way with the biggest issues of the moment.
Picture: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs