St Paul's and Occupy: the vertical and the horizontal

St Paul's and Occupy: the vertical and the horizontal

It would be hard to imagine a more marked contrast of societal models than the one currently on display at the top of Ludgate Hill.

St Paul's Cathedral, seat of the Bishop of London and the site of state funerals and other national celebrations, is a powerful top-down organisation. A tourist attraction charging an adult entry fee of £14.50, it takes around £16,000 a day from visitors. It has a hierarchy of clerical and non clerical staff and its trustees are a roll call of what are so often called 'the great and the good'. That many of them are bankers and financiers might be seen as more than a little unfortunate in the present stand-off. It may seem harsh to describe Christopher Wren's vast baroque construction as Establishment made bricks and mortar, but whatever its other attributes, that is how it appears to the nation and to visitors from overseas on whose tourist agenda it figures prominently. Its responses to the Occupy protest have been leaden-footed, confused and deeply disappointing.

The 'Occupy the London Stock Exchange' protesters, now camped around the walls of the cathedral speak clearly, not just by their protest against corporate greed, financial carelessness in high places and the injustice of visiting the consequences of these evils on ordinary people, but by their determination to offer an alternative – one could even say transformative - means of managing a common life.

The General Assembly of the Occupy London movement offers an insight into the strengths of a 'horizontal' mode of government. Stating its determination to be “respectful and respectable”, it is consultative, consensual and egalitarian. It has addressed issues of safety (despite claims to the contrary from the cathedral), satisfying the public authorities over access for emergency services, sanitation and general issues of orderly behaviour.

This update of its discussions and procedures http://occupylsx.org/?tag=general-assembly makes clear the determination of the protesters to be as inclusive as possible in their decision making. Working parties report back on problems and consensual solutions are sought. There is a strong similarity with Quaker business meetings and although I doubt that many in the camp would describe themselves as 'waiting on the Spirit', their thoroughness, sense of responsibility and respect for each other, could well be argued to be an manifestation of that Spirit.

As with the Society of Friends, no individual (as yet) speaks for the movement. At this stage, the occupation appears to be focused not on the bullet point definitions which make life easier for journalists, but on creating a space where coming together to discuss, think, learn and formulate is valued. This collaborative, work-in-progress attitude is easily criticised by those who are attuned to more conventional processes. The predictable bullying of a young woman protester by Radio 5 Live's Stephen Nolan on Friday was an ugly reminder of the rigidity of this type of thinking.

Much has been written about the confused messages and about-faces coming from the cathedral over the last few days. Their statement (http://www.stpauls.co.uk/News-Press/Latest-News/Statement-from-the-Dean-... ) does more than any of the forgoing instances of confusion to point up the gulf between those protesting against greed and injustice and those who should – if true to their founder – have been standing alongside them without equivocation.

It seems that the Cathedral authorities have not understood that to place their concern that “ the daily life of St Paul’s Cathedral can continue without serious interruption” above the opportunity to stand with the moral cause of those opposing greed and injustice, is to have missed the meaning of the message of Jesus.

The Rabbi from Nazareth was as far removed from being an establishment figure as can be imagined. His risk-taking, generosity and inversions of the accepted have nothing to do to with protecting the interests of power or with enabling its comfort. The 'horizontal' style of relational thinking shown by the protesters makes a far better fit with the teaching of Jesus than does the 'vertical' mode of the Establishment.

Someone is sure to point out that when the vertical and horizontal meet, a cross is formed. That does not speak to me. But what does – loudly and clearly – is that the vertical forms a barrier while the horizontal is a path.

And as two pieces of news emerge this evening (23 October) - that St Paul's are considering seeking an injunction to move the protesters on, and that although the cathedral doors are shut, within the camp a prayer tent is open to all - it is time for faith groups and individuals to decide whether they will choose the vertical or the horizontal.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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