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Church Leaders Resign amid London’s Occupy Protest

The resignation of Graeme Knowles as the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral caps – if it does not yet complete – a remarkably tumultuous period in the cathedral’s history.
It is really too soon to pronounce on exactly what has gone wrong and right, and who are the heroes and villains of this saga. But some things are abundantly clear.

First, everyone involved, including the protesters, appears to have acted with the best of intentions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury referred in a statement to “decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure.” Amen to that.

However, second, although the archbishop, Rowan Williams, says that such decisions can have “utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences,” these consequences were in fact quite foreseeable.

From the moment the Occupy movement began, it was clear that the London Stock Exchange would be on its hit list, and nearby St. Paul’s would inevitably be forced to take a position one way or another. Not long after the protest began, protesters set up camp outside St. Paul’s.

We do not know how soon St. Paul’s staff began planning for the inevitable; all we can say is “not soon enough.”

Third – and we are, of course, not privy to the inner workings of the Cathedral chapter, and to its interplay of personalities and politics – these events appear to demonstrate on a small scale the paralysis of the church (and not just the Church of England) when it is confronted with moral issues on which it has to do something concrete rather than simply offer an opinion.

There is among many Christians an instinctive sympathy with the sort of vaguely left-wing protest movement represented by Occupy London Stock Exchange – vaguely, because their slogans are not really informed by the classical political theories of the left.

Their opinions might be half-formed, if not actually half-baked. They are clearer about what they are against than about what they are for, and they are not even very clear about that. But at least they care.

It is this tendency to which Giles Fraser, chancellor of St. Paul’s, seems to have warmed, only to run up against the hard heads of those who worry about rodents and revenues.

This tension, perhaps, could have been resolved, but add a genuine concern about the potential need to use violence to clear the demonstrators, and the mixture becomes toxic.

The church cannot, ran Fraser’s argument, be seen to endorse the use of force to secure its income or its property, and so he resigned.

Now Knowles, who was at least prepared to contemplate a course that could have been portrayed in that light, has also resigned. The result is that no one, as The Baptist Times went to press, has been prepared to decide anything at all.

Apart from the very considerable personal pressures faced by those involved – and they do, as Williams also said, deserve our understanding and our sympathy – the really sad thing about this is that no one seems to have worked out a theological position that is able to cope with competing rights (of protesters, worshippers, the Cathedral institution, and local businesses) and apply it with humane rigor to this situation.

It is easy enough for theologians and clerics to offer opinions about a war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, churches of all varieties are in general reflexively and unthinkingly pacifist when there is a contentious intervention at stake, and strangely silent at other times – over Libya, for instance.

That no one has been able to sort out this relatively minor matter on the church’s doorstep represents a regrettable failure and ought perhaps to restrain them from opinions too hastily formed and too roundly expressed at other times.

And in case anyone is wondering: this is not a criticism of the Church of England per se.

It has its own mechanisms for dealing with such issues, which have not perhaps performed very well in this case.

But has any other denomination worked out an understanding of power, force, rights and responsibilities that would have served it better?

MarkWoods is editor of Britain’s BaptistTimes, where this column first appeared.