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St Paul’s loses the plot

Posted on 01 November 2011, 3:54

I know the workings of the BBC are utterly mysterious, but when I got a call late this afternoon from the BBC News channel asking me to get into a studio and talk about the implosion of St Paul’s Cathedral, I was left wondering why they had chosen Ship of Fools for comment.

Bishop Nick Baines has helpfully blogged today about why the UK’s bishops have taken an oath of silence on the matter which even Tony Soprano would admire, and my guess is that since the media can’t get a cleric to talk, they’ve had to resort to lesser fry like me.

The request from the BBC was a bit urgent, since a third clergyman threw himself off Chris Wren’s famous dome today, careerwise. I think the Occupy London camp would have considered it a result if their protest had prompted a few bankers to leap to their deserved doom off the NatWest Tower, but the cathedral resignations have probably been as much a surprise to them as to everyone else.

As far as I can discover, Graeme Knowles is the first Dean of St Paul’s (and there have been a lot of them, including the poet John Donne) to resign. Many of them have moved on to become bishops and even archbishops, and it will be fascinating to see what job the C of E rustles up for him next. Will the church reward failure in the same way as the banks?

St Paul’s has lost the plot. Their PR, which for Byzantine reasons is run from the obscure town of Brough in East Yorkshire by Rob Marshall’s 33rpm, was taken to the cleaners in PR Week a few days ago. Their fake concern about health and safety was exposed as a ploy to get the protesters out in the New Statesman. But worse than that, St Paul’s has lost the Christian plot, the whole reason it is there.

What happened two weeks ago on Ludgate Hill is that people came to church. The protesters turned up at St Paul’s by accident and decided they wanted to stay. There, on the cathedral’s doorstep, they set up camp. And in doing that, they gave the church a new congregation. Here was a fabulous opportunity for St Paul’s to shed a bit of pomp and hauteur, to bring the faith out of doors, to do some services outside, to be a bit spontaneous, to provide the protesters with some spiritual nourishment, to rediscover a connection with ordinary people, to have a conversation.

Lucy Mangan, the Guardian columnist, wrote about this fantasy version of the cathedral with real feeling last week in her piece, St Paul’s – embrace your new flock. ‘These are your people,’ she told the cathedral.

But instead of rising to the occasion, and to huge disappointment, the cathedral’s instinct was to shut up shop and get in the lawyers. It’s hard to think of anything more negative and dispiriting than St Paul’s actually shutting itself down. Christians around the country of all traditions have been left banging their heads against the wall in frustration at the sight of the church behaving so badly.

What makes it worse is that church leaders don’t seem to understand just how epically they are screwing up. (‘Screwing’ isn’t quite strong enough, but this is a family blog.) There was no word in this direction in Dean Knowles’ resignation statement, which was instead full of personal and institutional self-pity. And as Nick Baines knows, the silence of other C of E leaders is a huge let-down for Christians across the country. It’s actually a betrayal in the name of not rocking the boat. The bishops have lost the plot too.

It is hard to imagine Jesus in the Deanery, sherry in hand, consulting his lawyers. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine him in the camp, sitting in a tent, talking to the people who have no voice but who want to find it and be heard.

But beyond Jesus’ compassion and engagement with ignored people, there’s something else. Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple because they filled their own pockets by ripping off the poor. He was angry with them and treated them like the dirt they were. The Occupy London protesters are making the same point about the bankers, but the church, the advertised followers of Jesus, are telling them to shut up, pack up and go home.

With the welcome departure of Dean Knowles, St Paul’s now has an opportunity to reconsider its position and find not merely ‘new leadership’ as the Dean put it, but a new direction. Is it too much to hope that a cathedral could start taking some creative risks for the gospel? If St Paul’s fails to seize the moment, then its mission is lost, and its inspiring building an empty icon.

I’ve always loved St Paul’s – ironically, the church of the tentmaker. I’ve found it a place of wonder and mystery ever since my first visit to London at the age of nine. I believe it can recover its mission, but only if it dramatically changes course. Whether the people now in charge of this glorious architectural Titanic have the imagination and strength to steer it through the icebergs remains to be seen. They deserve our prayers.

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Note, however, Archbishop Barry Morgan’s invitation to protesters to camp in Llandaf. Perhaps a disestablished church like the Church in Wales is freer on matters of conscience than a state church?

LJ, Tue 22 Nov, 23:37

It’s all been said – so just to say: thank you, for an incisive piece.

MarikaSoF, Thu 3 Nov, 18:30

Jean Millie: ‘nice’ comment! I agree.

MaryB, Thu 3 Nov, 14:52

Reading the codswallop about why St Paul’s Cathedral closing down makes me sad to be an Anglican. (And I’ve felt that about the denomination I previously belonged to.) Didn’t the Cathedral’s administration have any cojones that actually worked? What a lack of Christian witness at a crucial time of protest!

Kathryn, Thu 3 Nov, 09:27

Is it possible to be decent, good and… dangerous?

That’s exactly what Jesus was (well, and more!) so perhaps that’s exactly what Christians are meant to be, not ‘nice’. Jesus was not ‘nice’, he was tough but kind. Wise, determined and strong. What did Mahatma Gandhi say? ‘I like your Jesus but I don’t like your Christians, for not many are like him!’ (Something like that!)

Jean Millie, Thu 3 Nov, 01:51

“Simon Jenkins is on the News! Simon Jenkins is on the News!”, resonated around Casa Laird a couple of nights ago!

Good to see and hear a sensible, Jesus-following voice in the media. Represent! (as the young folks say).

Johnny Laird, Wed 2 Nov, 15:08

Would the reaction be the same if, say, the English Defence League had decided to camp outside the Cathedral? If this is tolerated, will the ground in front of the cathedral become a sort of Hyde Park Corner Mark II? If in future protesters decide that merely camping outside is not enough and that the importance of their cause warrants occupying the cathedral itself, would not the argument be made again (provided the cause was portrayed as agreeable) that the Church has gained a new congregation, and should embrace it rather than resist it?

Are we sure that this is a case of noble protest facing overbearing and insensitive power? Maybe it is rather of people threatened with character assassination for daring to resist bullies clothed as lambs.

What would Jesus have done? Let us remind ourselves of the second commandment. None of us can pretend to speak on his behalf on this matter, although we must make up our mind on the basis of the lights we have. He did mix with tax collectors, helped the Roman centurion, and came to offer redemption to all. There is a lot of sanctimoniousness in the anti-banker (and anti-bishop!) rhetoric, and a lot of wilfully self-blinding naivety in the support for the protesters.

Giorgio, Wed 2 Nov, 11:54

If I could just play Devil’s advocate for a moment (I’m sure you won’t mind) – Simon, isn’t your whole piece basically a moan that ‘the Church’ ought to do something?

While the Chapter were wrestling with God knows what issues and internal politics, there were plenty of Christians outside presenting the gospel, some through the medium of evensong! And there seem to be Christians among the protesters as well. Are they not ‘the Church?’

ISTM that for a few days the camp offered a glorious opportunity for Christians outside the traditional hierarchies to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into relational evangelism – before the place started teeming with clergy who then suddenly became the only Christians that mattered. :-(

Deans, bishops and vicars etc are tasked with running churches. The gospel is the responsibility of all of us.

Pam Smith, Wed 2 Nov, 04:52

Well said Simon – thank you! Historically, church leaders have focused on personal gain and the new heaven to appear. They have created hell for everyone else. The good news of Jesus includes justice and better life now for all – equally.

Rev. Takouhi Demirdjian-Petro, Wed 2 Nov, 02:59

Hmm… I’m trying to avoid controversy (I think James Thurber said coffee and controversy is bad for the health). I really don’t want to disagree, and Andrew W, I do wish you better health even if I do disagree with you – but surely London is not Rowan William’s jurisdiction, but as the A of C the whole Anglican Communion is his jurisdiction – so he should be speaking for the church. I’m writing as a (currently) non- churchgoer, but I long for the church to challenge received stereotypes, and this would be the bankers and the protesters. Render unto Caesar, isn’t it? There’s surely enough to critique. The church doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ and cuddly (see OT prophets, passim).

MaryB, Wed 2 Nov, 01:32

I could be excused for not expressing a view of the St Paul’s debacle – despite being an honorary canon of the Cathedral and a regular contributor to Ship of fools. The grounds for the excuse could reasonably be ill health; as I have been in and out of hospital all year I have been an absentee canon and a shipmate who has not been on board. A more useful and less whinging thing to say is that I cannot offer an informed opinion because I am out of touch and an ill informed opinion is just white noise or vacuous vox pop.

I can and will, however, offer character references for some of the participants and commentators of this sorry affair (though not for the newly resigned Dean or the Canon Chancellor as I do not know them) First, Simon Jenkins our host of this blog is probably the most honest and talented man I know (this does not mean I agree with him all of the time but it does mean I trust him).

Second, Andrew Brown (of the Guardian and I assume the author of an earlier comment) is a man with a great sense of humour; a scourge of hypocrites, he not only does his religious homework but writes like a dream.

Third, the Bishop of London is a leader, genuinely spiritual and an inspiration to all who serve with him (I wish he was my bishop).

This leads to final comment on the Archbishop of Canterbury. For some, his silence is deafening, but Rowan Williams has been admirably restrained. London is not his jurisdiction. Lambeth Palace is his pied a terre, not his soapbox; he is not much of an oracle, but he does put his money where his mouth is.

Andrew Walker, Tue 1 Nov, 21:39

Even if the Cathedral did not want to give the impression that they were “taking sides” in the Occupy issue, they surely could have heeded the biblical suggestion to “welcome the stranger”.

I wonder how people who actually worship at St Paul’s on a regular basis feel about this turn of events. Would it have mattered if the people were homeless or oppressed in some other way?

I’m reminded of so many other protests – Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement in the US… who did we see in front of those crowds? People of the church. Times have changed, apparently.

sabinesof, Tue 1 Nov, 21:39

The only positive exhibit of the Church of England in the City of London (previously exemplified by St Paul’s) was the picture of the Bishop of London sitting in the tea tent outside talking to the happy campers/demonstrators.

david robin, Tue 1 Nov, 20:40

Fantastic and well done Diamond. You were really the Diamond geezer last night. Talking for all us faceless and voiceless church people and others!

Do have a look at George Monbiot’s article today in the Guardian but not on a full stomach! It is really quite an eye opener I can tell yer.

Keep going Simon, we, in our house and our neck of the woods, are very proud of you.

Annie Weatherly-Barton, Tue 1 Nov, 19:38

The quickest way to clear the front of St Pauls (if that is the desired aim) would be for the clergy to move amongst the protesters and preach the Gospel and invite individuals to commit their lives to following Jesus – that usually gets people running for the hills doesn’t it?

Steve, Tue 1 Nov, 19:24

Drat - too late! Andrew Nunn has just been appointed to Southwark. Maybe he should have held off for a while…

Andy, Tue 1 Nov, 17:43

‘Engagement with ignored people’ Oh purlease… Since when were ill-informed banker bashers an ignored minority in the UK? It’s the protesters who have lost the plot.

Andrew Bower, Tue 1 Nov, 17:29

Well done, cogent pieces here and on news last night.

Wouldn’t it be great if the good folk of St Paul’s were to go out onto the steps and offer refreshments to the protesters – maybe it could be a regular Saturday event over the next few weeks, linked to support for a genuine public assembly style debate? Many Christians from around London and beyond may consider volunteering to help with this.

The world is crying out for some authenticity… about time the church found its creative prophetic voice?

Andrew Duff, Tue 1 Nov, 17:26

If the church now excludes this congregation on the doorstep then let them have their services outside. I recall reading of the great spat of churches in Strathclyde a couple of centuries ago that saw services being held in the fields around Kilmacolm and other settlements. Let’s hope the camp greets those who seek to remove them with songs and prayer, and actions which will leave those sent to do the deed (as it is certain that those who want the deed done won’t be getting their hands dirty) as perplexed as the Roman soldier over his place in delivering the crucifixtion.

Refreshing to read, and a hope that we can have faith and love for fellow man without the nuisance of organised religion, and the taint of embedded bureaucracy, politics, and the corruption that results form the need to gain advantage as a group or individual over others. 

I love the security code you’ve just offered ... bad16 ! Kismet or what?

Dave H, Tue 1 Nov, 17:14

Are we in leadership becoming like ‘Pharisees’?

Dr Steve Lewis, Tue 1 Nov, 17:12

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