Occupy Westminster Abbey

Occupy Westminster Abbey

This summer almost a thousand people will be ordained as deacons or priests in the Church of England. It is a season of celebration, but for many who look to the Church to be a beacon of justice and compassion, events at Westminster Abbey yesterday left them feeling extremely disappointed.

As priests and deacons are ordained the Bishop will say, "They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God's purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible."

On Saturday 28 June, a group of sick and disabled people arrived at Westminster Abbey hoping to get the support of the Church in their struggle to save services on which they completely depend.

Disabled people are afraid that the government’s closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) will mean many of them are forced into institutions because it is easier or cheaper than providing care in their own homes. To understand what this means, please watch this video. And this applies to all age groups: severely disabled people in their twenties or thirties fear spending the rest of their lives in an institution, or trapped in their own homes without adequate care.

Journalist Kate Belgrave was at the protest and reported, "Disabled people continue to fight for the ILF through the courts. Today, they attempted to take things to another level and set up a camp in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. The hope was that the church of England would see the point of this extremely serious and important protest, and help facilitate a protest camp and discussion. The lives of these disabled people will be threatened without that ILF money. It’s as simple as that.

"Unfortunately, the church seemed to miss that point – perhaps in its rush to get the Met on the line. Christianity was in very short supply at the Abbey today. Police poured through the gates to stop the protest and to stamp on tents, to make sure they couldn’t be pitched. They were very heavy-handed all round and must easily have outnumbered protestors ten to one."

The reaction on social media was extremely critical of the Church. What was very interesting was that many who commented had a very clear and positive idea of what the Church’s position should be. Many may not have been church goers, or counted themselves Christians, but they had a clear view that Jesus was on the side of the poor and the powerless, and they were crying out for the Church to be so too.

John McDonnell MP, who was at the Abbey to support the protest, tweeted: "Looks like Church of England has turned it's back on the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount as police surround disabled people at Abbey’ and ‘No contact from Dean of Westminster so it looks like at the most iconic site of Christian worship in Britain the Church is evicting disabled’. Financial broadcaster Paul Lewis tweeted, ‘Wonga shareholder calls police to clear disabled protesters off its lawn."

As it transpired, as evening fell arrests were threatened and police refused to allow food or medication to be taken to the protesters, so they were not evicted, they left of their own accord: to applause. The Church came out of the whole situation very badly. Al Barrett, a vicar in Hodge Hill Birmingham tweeted: "Yet again CofE’s public face is that of the oppressive, defensive neoliberal state and not the vulnerable."

Disabled People Against Cuts who organised the protest, commented: ‘The protesters had no option but to leave the site… many thanks to the church for chosing to protect their interests and their income from tourists over arguing in solidarity for justice for disabled people. #saveilf"

It was a great shame that the Church did not extend the hand of friendship and hospitality when it was so clearly needed.

For more information on the Save ILF campaign visit the campaign website

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Keywords: church | disability | protest
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