What Occupy means for post-Christendom church

From my point of view, one of the major stories from 2011 has to be the growth of the Occupy movement - which in many places, not least London, has shown itself to be more than a ragged protest. Rather, it is a movement looking to make a sustained, subversive impact on our dominant political and economic processes.

I have written about this in a number of places in recent months, including my column (http://www.mennoweekly.org/blog/byline/simon-barrow/) over at Mennonite Weekly Review in the US. Here is what I penned for them on 29 November:

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The close and apparently odd juxtaposition of the Occupy the London Stock Exchange camp and St Paul’s Cathedral, one of the city’s major landmarks, has proved an irresistible image for the British — and worldwide media — since the tented protest against economic injustice established itself there on October 15, 2011.

Different responses to the Occupy movement from the cathedral, from within the established Church of England and in other Christian communities have thrown up stark questions about the identity of the church and its message in an increasingly secular, plural society.

When the camp first appeared, an ebullient and forward-thinking senior staff member at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Giles Fraser, welcomed it in his courtyard as a moral gesture and as a sign of healthy democratic protest. But it soon became clear that others did not share his view. The cathedral began to talk officially about legal action against the Occupy encampment. Fraser resigned because of his strong opposition to the use of force against the protesters in the name of Christianity.

Then the dean closed the cathedral’s doors for the first time in more than 60 years (the last occasion was World War II), citing “health and safety” concerns. His claims soon unravelled, and he also resigned. The protesters had been diligent and cooperative, and the health fears proved unfounded.

Following more heated debate inside and outside the church, the cathedral re-opened, changed its view and is now seeking to find opportunities to cooperate with Occupy London — which for its own part has established widely praised educational and welfare initiatives to demonstrate that it is a laboratory for change, not a protest with no positive alternatives to offer.

The drama is not yet over. Now the unelected City of London Corporation, which primarily represents business interests in the financial sector of the capital, is taking its own steps to evict the protesters. For its part, Occupy London has now taken over a long-redundant office complex owned by Swiss investment bank UBS, and has used the additional site to launch a “Bank of Ideas,” examining economic alternatives to greed and corruption. It is also providing space for community groups and vulnerable people squeezed out by government spending cuts.

In the meantime, support for Occupy — who have now brought academics, financiers, clergy and celebrities into their call for radical change to the way the City of London operates — has grown substantially within the churches. Columban Catholic Missionaries, Anglican and Free Church ministers, Quakers, and a wide range of Christian social action groups have all pledged their backing.

For many of us, this is a great moment of opportunity. “Official” Christianity has diminished considerably in British public life. But the Occupy protest, far from being a “PR disaster for the church” because of the St. Paul’s squabble, as some claimed, has put faith, hope and ethics right back onto the media map. “What would Jesus do?” asks one of the most prominent slogans on the Occupy tents. That question has been beamed across the world and discussed on the front pages and leader columns of our newspapers. There has probably been more public discussion of Christian ethics in the past month than in the previous 20 years!

Occupy’s regular Saturday 'Sermon on the Steps' events have also modelled an alternative form of discourse that is about discussion and debate, rather than 'preaching from on high'. People disillusioned and disassociated from 'institutional religion' have found themselves on the steps of a cathedral, in dialogue with bishops and clergy, and urging church leaders to match Christian words with Christian action.

In many respects, the churches are re-learning key elements of the gospel message from those who would otherwise be outsiders to Christianity. The 'vertical' church of power is being challenged by a 'horizontal' movement of moral concern — one which, while it should not be uncritically 'baptised' (and does not want to be), is surely a sign to believers of what the shape, ethos and style of a post-Christendom, post-hierarchical church in Britain might begin to look like. The Jesus movement is about changing lives and changing the world. Neighboured next to a movement for change is the ideal place to rethink and redo 'church'.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the UK-based religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which is ecumenical but strongly attached to Anabaptist and peace church values and commitments.

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