I was disappointed with Archbishop Rowan Williams' recent take on the Occupy protests. He said that they were "rather like that episode in Father Ted where the priests demonstrate with a placard saying 'Down With This Sort of Thing'". His criticism was that the Occupy message was "so general as to be undemanding" and that "I just feel we've got to do a bit better than that". I would like to respond.
Back in 1848, a huge crowd gathered on Kennington Common, on the edge of my parish. They were for the third time about to petition parliament to demand electoral reform. It was the final throw of the dice. Chartism had run its course.
Throughout the previous decade, the Chartists had been written off by those with political power. Thomas Carlyle described them as "wild, inarticulate souls … unable to speak what is in them". Others said their aims were chaotic and fractured, an unruly kaleidoscope of competing factions and absurd demands. "A company of seals" is how Charles Kingsley described them. And Elizabeth Gaskell patronisingly explained that she wrote Mary Barton as an attempt "to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people".
Chartism has a pretty good claim to be the first stirrings of mass grassroots political activism in this country. Many of the more progressive members of the great and the good thought Chartism had legitimate roots – not least in the crippling economic recession of the 1840s – but they expressed it badly. Their response was, in effect: "I just feel we have to do a bit better than that."
The C of E has not had a distinguished record responding to popular protest. In the 1840s there was no end of preachers lining up to condemn the evils of Chartism. My clerical predecessors in this very parish claimed that Kennington Common had become a den of iniquity, a public nuisance full of all sorts of insanitary goings-on, and that it ought to be fenced off to political radicals. Little wonder the Chartists reacted so badly to the established church, often turning up to the Sunday Eucharist to occupy the private pews reserved for the wealthy.
Of course Occupy and Chartism were different. But they also had much in common, and as we approach the first anniversary of the St Paul's protests it saddens me that the church's reaction to Occupy was so reminiscent of its reaction to Chartism. In both cases, popular protest was dismissed as incoherent and unsuccessful.
"Why did Chartism fail?" is one of those A-level questions students cut their teeth on. Perhaps "Why did Occupy fail?" will be one for a future curriculum. But neither did. Chartism did not achieve any of its set aims in its lifetime. But what it did was empower a generation to enter the political scene. It educated and informed. It posed the big questions of our moral and spiritual attitudes to exclusion with renewed vigour and passion. It wrested back politics and economics from the experts. And it was the children and grandchildren of this movement that founded Christian Socialism and the Labour party.
Father Ted was an unfortunate comparison. Knowing many who have been involved with Occupy, I see a group of people often exhausted by the personal sacrifices they have made, but determined to make a difference. Many have been looking to a nervous church for support. Mostly, they have not received it. Like the Chartists before them, the church has failed them.
Perhaps what Dr Williams said was a light-hearted remark. But, for me, this is not a laughing matter. We have got this wrong too often.
© Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral. He writes the column Loose Canon for the Guardian, from which this article is adapted with kind acknowledgements.