The Dean of St Paul’s throws Jesus out of the temple
It beggars belief that the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral have surpassed the disruption to Divine Worship which Hitler inflicted with his bombs. Throughout the entire Second World War, St Paul’s was closed for just one day to permit a brave soldier to disarm an unexploded bomb. That was a genuine health and safety issue. Today, we are six days into a closure because of a few dozen tents pitched in Paternoster Square, many of which are aren’t even occupied.
It is perfectly possible, for those who can put one foot in front of another, to navigate your way through this quaint canvas village: there is, in truth, nothing obstructing the determined worshipper’s path to the House of God. But ‘Health & Safety’ has been invoked outside, so the gospel cannot be preached within. It is a bizarre model of Christian leadership which voluntarily abandons the pulpit on the off-chance that someone might trip over a tent peg. Indeed, there is a higher risk of twisting your ankle on a snow-covered Paternoster Square, but the Cathedral does not close every Christmas on ‘Health & Safety’ grounds.
His Grace has sympathy with the protestors: they are concerned about poverty and rail against greed. Good. So did Jesus. Their heart is in the right place, even if their protest isn’t. They are sheep without a shepherd. The Stock Exchange is not the cause of the global economic crisis: it would make far more sense for them to occupy the Bank of England or Parliament Square, for there the decisions are taken to tax, spend, loan, print money and set interest rates. It is politicians and bankers who have sunk us into this morass: those who trade in stocks and shares are not the cause.
It is not every day that His Grace can praise Alan Rusbridger and The Guardian, but on this matter they are spot on. Aside from the quite unnecessary swipe at the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, the article is lucid and accurate. Mr Rusbridger writes: ‘This rather messy and absurd situation has handed the dean and chapter of St Paul's a truly historic opportunity to discredit Christianity in this country. They seem determined to take it.’ It is a sad and sorry day when Christ’s mission is expounded more accurately in the pages of The Guardian than in London’s foremost Cathedral Church:
A cathedral isn't really there for the tourists, even if it can charge visitors £14.50, as St Paul's does. It is a place for prayer and worship. The congregations who come for these, the real purposes of the building, should remember that Jesus talked to publicans and tax collectors. He might even have talked to merchant bankers. He would certainly have talked to the protesters camped outside.God speaks through whomever He wills, whatever the person’s faith or lack of it. The story of Balaam (Num 22-24) suggests that the Lord is prepared to speak truth through a numb-skulled, money-grabbing seer, and even through his ass. Whether Balaam be a sinner or saint, a believer in the One True God or not, there is no doubt he was inspired to speak the mind of God and impart a vision of Israel’s destiny. Alan Rusbridger is more ass than Amos, but today he speaks prophetically to the Church of England. God must have some foreknowledge that The Guardian is required reading for CofE bishops. We must pray that their eyes may see and their ears may hear.
Aspects of the protest camp are silly and rather squalid. But it still represents a profound and important moral revulsion which the Church of England needs to take seriously. These aren't the usual Spartist suspects. The sense that there is something outrageous, unjust and absurd about the world of modern finance has spread across the whole political and religious spectrum. Even Pope Benedict XVI has reinforced his predecessor's teaching with a demand that the markets of the world be brought under human control. The Church of England needs to be part of this discussion, for its own sake and for the sake of the country. And that is done far more effectively by theatre and by conversation than by lecturing or even preaching. It is no use having clever bishops saying clever things that no one listens to. Here at St Paul's right now, there is a chance to catch the attention of millions of people who would never listen to a bishop or recognise a Dean without a Torvill.
The protesters aren't right about everything. A lot of the time they aren't even coherent enough to be wrong. But the role of the church is to talk with them and to find out how their sense of injustice at the present slump can be refined and educated and brought out into the wider conversation. The cathedral has a chance to take Marx's taunt about religion being "the heart of a heartless world" and try to make it true, and valuable. It must not fumble this.
If the dean and chapter continue their steps towards evicting they will be playing the villains in a national pantomime. There will be legal battles and, eventually, physical force. At every step, the cathedral authorities will be acting in the service of absurdity and injustice. Yet this is where the logic of their position is leading them. They must see this, and stop. Jesus denounced his Pharisaic enemies as whited sepulchres, or shining tombs; and that is what the steam-cleaned marble frontage of St Paul's will become if the protesters are evicted to make room for empty pomp: a whited sepulchre, where morality and truth count for nothing against the convenience of the heritage industry.