Carla Carlisle on protests at St Pauls

Mine is a mixed marriage. My husband faithfully attends our parish church. He likes the early service, the one without music, although, on High Days and Holy Days, he joins me at the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. Ah, the cathedral. My father, a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, a man whose life was shaped by the parish year, reckoned I was a ‘Cathedralist’. He worried that I was too attached to stones and music, to bells and candles, to stained glass and the ethereal voices of choirboys; too dependent on incense for my spiritual high. When I took him to a service at St Paul’s, he pronounced it ‘daunting’. Afterwards, over Dover sole at Sweetings, he praised the cathedral’s ‘dignified magnificence’, but he thought it would be ‘easier for souls to get lost there than ever to be found’.

Those words came back to me as the tents and events around St Paul’s unfolded. I don’t doubt the clergy has been daunted by the unexpected encampment. What I regret is that those in charge of the life and ministry of the great church have been like lost souls, too bewildered, too embarrassed and too feeble to speak with conviction.

Starting with The Rev Dr Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor. For the non-Cathedralist, it may come as a surprise that the Canon Chancellor is in charge of teaching in the cathedral. Rev Fraser was also the director of the St Paul’s Institute, responsible for the cathedral’s engagement with the City of London as a financial centre. So, who on earth was in a better position to negotiate, preach, think, educate about the financial mess we’re in? If not the Canon Chancellor, then whom?

Well, perhaps the Dean of the Cathedral. The One in Charge. The Dean, The Right Rev Graeme Knowles, who resigned on the grounds that his role had ‘become untenable’. Untenable?
Don’t get me wrong. My own political past-integrating segregated churches in the South and marching against wars in Vietnam and Iraq-might suggest sympathy for the occupiers. My fury at those who bailed out banks with no strings attached turns me into a wolverine, but the vague and loony demands of the protesters in their made-in-China tents, with their Pret A Manger sandwiches, lattes from Starbucks, visits from Vivienne Westwood, lectures on the Cuban economy and evening cinema, turn the encampment into a Theatre of the Absurd. Treating these campers like noble Freedom Riders is lunacy.

Meanwhile, the sign ‘What would Jesus do?’ blows in the wind. I’ll start with what He would not do. I don’t believe He would walk away because the job was ‘untenable’. Nor would a ‘fear of violent eviction’ lead him to quit. I think it’s safe to say that Jesus would have stood on the steps and preached to tent dwellers and City workers alike. He would have urged them to go into their communities, to be useful, to spread the Gospel of helping the poor. With His sense of fun, He might also have reminded the campers where the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England are located.

Recommended videos for you

In the desire to be tolerant, I recall a more robust Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, who wrote: ‘There are not so many crazy, so many sickly men, men that so soon grow old in any profession, as in ours.’ I also think of another Cathedralist, St Hugh, who rebuilt Lincoln Cathedral after the earthquake in 1185. Hugh, who trained himself ‘to see the King in the Beggar and the Beggar in the King… To laugh spiritual laughter… To call the bluff of false reverence. To reconcile with ready wit… To be cool at the showdown & at the showdown of death to see Heaven’. I pray for church leaders at St Paul’s to have the courage to stand up for their building and the courage of their ministry, which is to serve equally the tourist and the pilgrim, the king and the beggar. The courage to scatter those who would stand in the way of that ministry. Now is the time to be cool at the showdown.

* Give Country Life for Christmas and save up to 40%