Knocking at the door of St Paul's

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
15 Oct 2012

In 1967, a year before his assassination, Martin Luther King preached a sermon about the parable of the man who knocks at his friend's door at midnight to ask for bread. He said, “Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never.”

He added, “And those who have gone to the church to seek the bread of economic justice have been left in the frustrating midnight of economic privation”.

A year ago today, the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp came knocking on the door of St Paul's Cathedral. They were there because the police had prevented them from camping any closer to the stock exchange. After an initial welcome, the door on which they knocked was shut in their face. The cathedral staff were split and three clergy resigned, but the cathedral gave evidence in court in favour of evicting the camp. On the night of the eviction, occupiers retreated to the cathedral steps, which were not covered by the eviction order. The police insisted that they must leave the steps too.

Along with four other members of Christianity Uncut, I was dragged from the church steps as I knelt in prayer. The cathedral authorities dodged journalists' questions about whether they had given permission for this. Then the City of London police commissioner stated in writing that they had indeed done so.

I have long been angry with the failure of Church leaders to follow Jesus' example of siding with the poor, especially at a time of austerity measures that punish the poor for the sins of the rich. As a Christian, I seek to love my opponents. But I had generally not counted church leaders among my opponents. That all changed on that cold February morning, when it became clear that the leadership of St Paul's Cathedral had finally taken sides in the economic crisis. They were siding with the rich.

Even then, members of Christianity Uncut were keen not to be diverted into attacking St Paul's Cathedral. In internal discussions, we reminded each other that we should focus on challenging government, corporations and the systems that uphold them, and not put our energy into attacking the church. Any challenge we made to the Church must be about challenging them to join us in our struggles, not condemning them for the sake of it. The five Christians who had been dragged from the steps asked the senior staff at St Paul's for a meeting "in a spirit of love and respect". Our letter was counter-signed by twenty clergy. Michael Colclough, the cathedral's Canon Pastor, wrote back, refusing to meet us.

Meanwhile, the cathedral broke its own promises about engaging with economic issues. They had appointed Ken Costa to lead an investigation into financial ethics. The fact that he was an investment banker undermined their claim to share many of Occupy's views. But Costa has produced nothing in all that time. Nor has the leadership of St Paul's managed to make clear statements about any specific aspect of economic transformation. To mark the first anniversary of Occupy London Stock Exchange, they allowed one occupier to read out one prayer in an afternoon service, a gesture whose tokenism speaks for itself.

In short, the act of witness that was carried out yesterday at St Paul's Cathedral followed a year of intolerable behaviour from the cathedral's leadership. It was organised jointly by Christianity Uncut and Occupy London, with a commitment to active nonviolence and a rejection of verbal abuse and personal hatred.

Yesterday, I joined with other Christians, and non-Christians, to display a banner on the steps of St Paul's, depicting Jesus throwing moneychangers out of the Jerusalem Temple. Inside, four women - Siobhan Grimes, Alison Playford, Josie Reid and Tammy Samede - calmly and peacefully chained themselves to the pulpit and read out a statement about economic injustice and the need for the Church to challenge it.

They did not, however, do many of the things inaccurately reported in the media. They had not "stormed" into the cathedral, as the Daily Express alleged (storming would be hard, as you would have to get past the counters at which you have to pay for entry). Nor had they "invaded" St Paul's (Daily Mail), as they peacefully joined evensong at 3.15 pm. They did not prevent anyone praying or otherwise engaging in worship. They certainly did not interrupt a wreath-laying for a dead soldier (as the Daily Telegraph reported). Indeed, some of the soldiers who were at the cathedral for the wreath-laying - which took place later in the day - told the group of women that they were supportive of many of the Occupy's movements aims. To be fair to the Daily Telegraph, they did at least point out that two of the women concerned belong to the Church of England. Much coverage did not mention that most of the protesters were Christians, nor that the action was organised by Christianity Uncut as well as Occupy London.

Alison, Josie, Siobhan and Tammy endured six hours in cramped positions, without eating or using a toilet. Their smiles to encourage and comfort each other were used in photos to illustrate "smirking anti-capitalists" (the Sun) and the claim that they regarded the protest as a joke (Daily Mail).

This was no joke. The economic crisis is no joke for the thousands of people made homeless by government policies (according to homelessness charities). It is no joke for unemployed people forced to work for their benefits rather than a proper wage, or for those who find it harder to find work because these workfare schemes reduce real vacancies. It is no joke for the hundreds of disabled people who have died shortly after being declared fit for work by Atos, for working class people priced out of higher education or for future generations who will reap the consequences of the environmental devastation sown by multinational corporations and the worship of economic growth. It may be more of a joke for the top one per cent of the population, whose income tax has been cut, and whose tax-dodging practices have drawn nothing more than empty words from ministers.

In this situation, thousands of Christians are seeking to follow Jesus' example of siding with the poor. Church leaders are amongst them. Sadly, other church leaders either defend the cuts or seek to remain neutral. But there can be no neutrality in a situation of injustice. As Desmond Tutu put it, if an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, and we say that we are neutral, it is the elephant and not the mouse who will appreciate our neutrality.

David Ison, the Dean of St Paul's, responded to yesterday's protest by suggesting that we should have engaged "constructively". Our request for a constructive meeting was refused seven months ago. He said we were pursuing an agenda of "conflict" with St Paul's. The cathedral had already pursued an agenda of conflict with us when it called in police to drag us from its steps. He accused of abusing the cathedral's hospitality, as if a church belongs to its leaders rather than to Christian people as a whole. That magnificent building was, after all, built with our ancestors' tithes.

In his sermon yesterday, the Dean said that people should work together to achieve economic change. I agree. But this cannot involve an alliance with people who are themselves driving exploitation, inequality and environmental destruction. I do not want to hate the rich, or to pretend that I am any less sinful than they are. I want to talk with them and listen to them. But if they are exploiting the rest of us, I will still resist them.

Jesus said he had come to “bring good news to the poor”. He challenged the rich to share their wealth. He did not encourage hatred for the rich and powerful. He talked with them and listened to them. But when the time was right, he used other tactics too. He was arrested and crucified following a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. His protest was against those who exploited the poor and justified it with religious hypocrisy.

Martin Luther King's words of 45 years ago continue to resonate down the years. Millions of people are still knocking on the door of the Church, seeking social and economic justice. If church leaders such as those at St Paul's Cathedral refuse to open the door, then other Christians must do it for them.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and a founding member of Christianity Uncut. He is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and his new book on activism will be published in spring 2013 by New Internationalist.

For links to more of Symon's writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

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