The current occupation of the area outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has captured the national and international media spotlight for a number of reasons. However, my interest has been stirred by the apparent dilemma that faces the St. Paul’s establishment. That dilemma, as I see it, is that the church, as commanded by Jesus, is supposed to be sticking up for the poor and needy, and marginalised in society. And that is exactly what the protesters outside the Cathedral front door are claiming to do. So in effect, both the protesters and the church authorities are “singing off the same hymn sheet” (so to speak).
So why the controversy?
Well, the answer to that question is best answered by other, more politically astute commentators, but I am intrigued that the Cathedral leadership seem to be unsure of how to handle the situation they find themselves in. First they shut the doors, then they open them again, then they threaten legal action to evict them, then they don’t. It all looks a little confused.
I am at the moment dipping into a book by Giles Fraser called “Christianity with Attitude”. It is a series of articles written by Giles for The Guardian newspaper, and extracts from his appearances on Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. Mr. Fraser, as you may recall, resigned from his post as Canon Chancellor at St. Paul’s in October. In an interview with The Guardian following his resignation, he said-
“I cannot countenance the idea that this would be about Dale Farm on the steps of St Paul’s. I would want to have negotiated down the size of the camp and appeal to those there to help us keep the cathedral going, and if that meant that I was thereby granting them some legal right to stay then that is the position I would have had to wear … I believe that we embarked upon a course of action that would lead to a place where I didn’t want to go.”
One doesn’t have to read too far between the lines to see that the St. Paul’s authorities (with the apparent exception of Giles Fraser and possibly a few others) didn’t want the protestors camped outside the cathedral. The possible reasons for this are many, but surely it is the command of Jesus to take a stand against poverty and the causes of poverty and injustice, and to stand up for the marginalised? Even if the cathedral did not accept the protestors’ apparent argument that the actions of the traders in the Stock Exchange were the cause of all of society’s current problems, isn’t there a case for supporting a peaceful protest to raise awareness of such issues?
A question of space
And if the answer to this question is yes, then what about considering creating space in our expressions of church buildings for such actions? In looking at how we might redevelop or rebuild our churches, or construct new ones, it is easy to consider where the “usual” things should go – dais, pulpit, font/baptistry, kitchen, vestry etc etc. But such things are all primarily internal fixtures and spaces, visible only when you are inside the building. What about a space externally, where the church can publicly express itself? Often the space around the outside of a building is resolved last – trying to squeeze in enough car parking and landscaping to satisfy the local planning authority. But what if it was considered at the same time as the internals – as a place to hold (for example) an outdoor Easter service? A prayer meeting? An area to wash cars and give out bacon sandwiches – free- on a Saturday morning? Even a place to hold a peaceful protest about a local or national issue, to draw attention to it? Or a place to invite other groups to protest over issues that are aligned with Christian values and principles of social justice and the eradication of poverty?
Too often, in my experience, we get excited about our expression of church as it appears inside the building in the form of fixtures and fittings, and even the style of worship. What about – when the opportunity presents itself – giving some thought to how we can express ourselves as a church body outside the church. If this is a thought that fills you with fear and dread- then it might just be that it is the right thing to do……
[hr]Colin Smith is a planning consultant and a member of Keystone Domain.