Simon Barrow

Tents that shake the establishment's complacency

By Simon Barrow
November 12, 2011

Alongside the supremacy of the monarch in statecraft and religion, the pillars of the Christendom order that has prevailed in much of Europe for a good part of its history have been governance, church and banking.

The vulnerabilities of these three have been thrown into sharp relief in recent weeks – not though the regular channels, but from the twin impact of a worsening crisis in the dominant economic order and the pitching of some colourful tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral.

As with the leadership of the Church of England, the main Westminster parties have struggled to know how to respond to the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, part of a global wave of protest against economic inequality and greed that has now reached over 80 countries and 2,000 cities.

Predictably, Labour leader Ed Miliband finally offered a wan smile in the direction of the protesters, the Liberal Democrats wrung their hands uncertainly, Prime Minister David Cameron pronounced the occupation “unconstructive”, and other parliamentary spokespeople suggested that they had no ‘positive alternative’.

In fact the Occupy initiative has produced proposals for reforming the City of London, established economic teach-ins through a Tent University, set up an embryonic welfare programme, brought academics and activists together, and highlighted reforms ranging from a Financial Transaction Tax (the ‘Robin Hood’ micro-levy which the IMF and many European politicians are also taking seriously) right through to access by the poor to credit markets.

Similarly, in the religious sphere, many commentators quickly suggested that the impact of Occupy on St Paul’s and the Church as whole had been “a disaster”. But just as the politicians’ criticisms often presume a monopoly of wisdom on the part of those who oversaw the very crisis that galvanised the protests in the first place, so complaints about damage to the Christian cause only stack up if it is assumed that a top-down ecclesial culture is the best or only shape the Church can take.

Viewed another way, Occupy has splashed ‘What would Jesus do?’ across millions of television and computer screens, got Christian ethics onto the front of most newspapers, gained St Paul’s more profile in a few weeks than it has achieved in many years, modelled alternative practices for a plural society like the ‘Sermon on the Steps’, and brought to the door of a Cathedral many people who have given little previous thought to what it seeks to represent. In any other context, this would surely be a huge success?

There is another twist, too. For the relationship between those establishments that have been shaken by the Occupy movement, and the protesters themselves, has proved surprisingly symbiotic. They are in opposition on some basic issues of principle, certainly. But in a strange way they also need each other to move forward. Alternatives are conceived in the shadow of that which they seek to critique, reform and displace.

Similarly, while political change is often about contestation, it’s also about recasting the terrain upon which the struggle takes place, and the way it happens. Tents may yet possess the mobility and flexibility to help do that – whereas our leading establishment institutions are mired in crisis, immobility and lack of public credibility.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular column in Third Way, the Christian magazine of social and cultural comment.

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