From high atop the western front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the stone figure of St. Paul looks down on the plaza below. St. Paul — a tentmaker by trade — has a clear view of the sprawling tents that have blossomed around the cathedral as part of the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement. The towers to the left and right of St. Paul are topped by pineapples — “a symbol of peace, prosperity and hospitality,” according to the St. Paul’s website.
If Canon Giles Fraser is correct, that peace and hospitality is on the verge of collapse.
Fraser is the Chancellor of St. Paul’s, whose job is described on the cathedral’s website like this:
The Reverend Dr Giles Fraser is Chancellor of St Paul’s and heads up the teaching office of the cathedral. He is the director of the St Paul’s Institute responsible for the cathedral’s engagement with the City of London as a financial centre.
Before coming to St Paul’s he was the Vicar of Putney, and prior to that Chaplain of Wadham College, Oxford, where he was also a lecturer in Philosophy. He has a PhD in philosophical theology and has published and lectured widely in philosophy of religion and ethics. He also lectures for the army on moral leadership in war at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham. He is a regular contributor to national newspapers, as well as having a weekly column in the Church Times. He is also a familiar voice on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
Yesterday Canon Fraser resigned as Chancellor of St. Paul’s.
His reason was that he believes that the cathedral and the Corporation of London are about to attempt to remove the protesters in a manner that will result in violence. From his interview with The Guardian:
“I cannot support using violence to ask people to clear off the land,” Fraser told the Guardian. “It is not about my sympathies or what I believe about the camp. I support the right to protest and in a perfect world we could have negotiated. But our legal advice was that this would have implied consent.”
Fraser said he decided to resign on Wednesday when he realised he could not reconcile his conscience with the possibility of the church and the Corporation of London combining to evict the protesters from the land outside the cathedral, some of which is jointly owned with the City.
“The church cannot answer peaceful protest with violence,” said Fraser, adding that it was apparent that the Corporation of London was clearer than the cathedral authorities about its desire to see the protesters moved on.
The Dean of the Cathedral issued a press release today on the Chapter (think “executive committee”) and their relationship to the protesters:
The Chapter has previously asked the encampment to leave the cathedral precinct in peace. This has not yet happened and so, following the advice of our lawyers, legal action has regrettably become necessary.
The Chapter only takes this step with the greatest reluctance and remains committed to a peaceful solution. At each step of the legal process the Chapter will continue to entreat the protesters to agree to a peaceful solution and, if an injunction is granted, will then be able to discuss with the protesters how to reach this solution.
Theirs is a message that the Chapter has both heard and shares and looks forward to engaging with the protesters to identify how the message may continue to be debated at St Paul’s and acted upon.
The encampment at St. Paul’s forced the closing of the cathedral for safety and health reasons. The crowd of tents made access by firefighters quite difficult, as well as threatened potential evacuation routes should there be a problem inside the cathedral. Cooking fires near the cathedral walls were also a problem. After the closing was announced, Fraser noted the tension between the right to protest and the responsibility to keep the cathedral and its occupants safe, and called the claims that the closure was financially-driven “nonsense.” But as Stephen Bates noted in yesterday’s Guardian, “The decision [to close the Cathedral] was compounded by legal advice that the clergy should not speak to the demonstrators, which undermined the chances of a negotiated settlement.”
I can see where that kind of advice — and the willingness of the Dean and Chapter to accept it — would make it tough for Fraser to carry out the duties of his position.
It’s kind of hard to be the Cathedral’s person “responsible for the cathedral’s engagement with the City of London as a financial centre” when the lawyers and the Chapter are saying “but for God’s sake, don’t actually engage with people wanting to talk about these matters.”
I share Fraser’s opinion that the apparent decision by the Cathedral to move against the OLSX protesters is one the Church will regret. In a dramatic move eleven days ago, Fraser provided a bold witness to the Church’s concern for the poor and the Church’s stand against the endless pursuit of wealth.
This isn’t new for Fraser — it’s partly why he was given this position in the first place. Said Fraser, shortly before taking up his post at St. Paul’s:
The Bible says a lot more about money and wealth than it does about sex. Despite the churches’ pathetic obsession with what people do with their willies, we ought to be a lot more concerned with what people do with their wallets. Indeed, many are perfectly happy to accept unquestioningly the apparently plain meaning of anti-gay scripture, yet, when they are faced with Jesus telling the rich man that the only way for him to get to heaven is to give all his money away, they duck and dive and allegorise. But despite this slipperiness, it remains true that the best way to assess what someone believes is to look through their bank statement. Forget fancy words and sermons, money is the way we mean it – or we don’t. Money is the sacrament of moral seriousness.
Despite its antiquity, the well-known Old Testament story of the people of Israel living off manna in the desert remains God’s object lesson in alternative economics. In contrast to the Egyptian economy, where many had become slaves to the acquisition of wealth stored up in large barns, in the desert God offers food that cannot be stored. Those who gather more manna than they need will find that it has turned to worms by the morning. There is no possibility of storing and hoarding. In other words, there is such a thing as having enough. This is what Jesus had in mind when he advised his followers to live like lilies and birds, who are singularly uninterested in piling up their wealth in barns – or offshore bank accounts.
Let those with ears — both at the London Stock Exchange and inside St. Paul’s — hear.
God’s blessings to you, Canon Fraser, wherever your faith takes you next. I think the Tentmaker atop the cathedral would be proud of your witness to those in the tents at his feet, as well as to those in the Stock Exchange and Cathedral offices.
photo h/t to Adam Stoner