A plea to St Paul's: follow Christ's teachings and support #OccupyLondon

London's tent city is on sacred land - the skirts of St Paul's Cathedral. The Cathedral's position on the occupation will be crucial for its future. Will it remember Christ's mission to free the oppressed and bring good news to the poor?
Richard Murphy
21 October 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

The ‘occupy’ movement is, I think, here to stay. Of course I may be wrong, but it doesn’t feel that way. And although the occupation in London started with the intention of demonstrating outside the London Stock Exchange it’s done something potentially a lot more powerful by ending up outside St Paul’s Cathedral instead. 

Some, including in the Guardian, have suggested St Paul’s has played a strong hand, especially when Rev Cano Giles Fraser told the police they were not needed to defend the cathedral - but I have strongly disagreed. In my opinion the Cathedral has got its management of this situation seriously wrong, from the moment it refused as the reported owner of Paternoster Square to let the protestors near their original objective onwards.  

Before I go on, I should declare three things. First it’s probably fair to say I am the leading tax blogger on the left in the UK. Second, I’m an Anglican and regular Quaker attender who professes to be a Christian. Third, I’ve been on the marketing committee of a cathedral in my time, when I lived in Ely, so I know something about cathedral finances.  The combination of experiences taints what I have to say, significantly.

The first and most important of those issues is, as far as I am concerned, what faith demands in this situation. Let’s be clear: St Paul’s is first and foremost a church. As such it exists to promote the teachings of Christ and in my opinion the purpose of that ministry was declared by him in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his mission when he said (Luke 4.18):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

For those in doubt about the economic relevance of this, the phrase ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ refers to a Jubilee – a forgiveness of debt that happened in Jewish law every fifty years. How relevant is that for the present time?

And for those also in doubt about the economic message of the gospel then each and every evening at St Paul’s as part of Anglican evensong the Magnificat is sung (Luke 1.46-55) part of which says:

My soul magnifies the Lord……,
He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.

Now I make no request that you believe any of this - that’s up to you. My point is that St Paul’s does: if it did not it surely would not be singing this every day, or declaring Christ’s mission to be its work?

In that case my argument is a simple one. I know that there are those who argue that the Occupy movement does not know what it is about, but that seems entirely wrong to me. The message of Occupy is simple (even if the delivery will be complex); it is about defending the 99% from the abuse of the 1%. In that case this is a movement that sides with the poor against the rich He will send empty away.

If that is the case, it is wrong to argue, as many have, that St Paul’s has a duty to now consider its tourist income or even the sensibilities of those wanting to worship who do not wish to face the reality of life around them. The duty of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s is to be outside its doors, on the steps with the protestors. And it is their duty to use their opposition of authority in the City of London to call to account those who surround them who are abusing the poor, as the whole structure of the City is intended to do.

To put it another way, it’s time for the church – every church in the UK – to say where it stands on this issue and declare it has, in the words of the late Rt Rev David Shepherd when writing in 1983, ‘A Bias to the Poor‘ (a phrase that irritated Thatcher so much – just as Shepherd intended it should). Which also means that in my opinion St Paul’s has to provide the Occupiers with shelter when the police attack protestors. And that ministers have to stand beside protestors if they are under threat of arrest. And that the church has to attest that what is happening in our society is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong: I know this is hard. Giving up £22,000 a day is an ‘eye of the needle’ moment. And offending its neighbours in the City is not going to be easy – but the Good Samaritan is the guide there. And what the Church has to realise is that this is an epochal moment; a time when it has to show that its faith is not just for Sunday but for Monday to Saturday too.

And that’s why St Paul’s can’t sit back on this issue. It has a choice. But if it believes in what it preaches, if it walks the talk, then it has no choice. It has to fling open its doors to the protestors and say ‘you’re welcome here – stay until your job is done’.

And if it fails to do that? Well, give the National Trust a call and tell them about a redundant building needing a new use near Paternoster Square.

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