The turmoil at St Paul's cathedral over last couple of weeks has been astonishing to watch. For those who haven't been following it, the story goes something like this ...
Protesters from Occupy, an organisation who believe the current economic system is unjust, set up camp outside the cathedral. Cathedral staff talked freely with them about their aims &, when the police tried to move them on, Giles Fraser (the Canon Chancellor, the second-in-command, as it were) intervened to prevent it. The protesters were on cathedral property & the possible use of violence to remove them would not be condoned.
A week later things had changed.
The cathedral authorities had decided the presence of the protesters was a health & safety hazard. So they closed the doors of St Paul's for the first time since the Blitz. And then they joined with the local authority and started legal action to have the protesters moved. On legal advice, they also stopped all conversations with the protesters.
Giles Fraser resigned, saying that the possibility of the use of force in removing the protesters was not something he could go along with. Many people in the wider Church of England supported his stance - it seemed that St Paul's was siding with 'the establishment' rather than with the ordinary people who were protesting.
Somewhere around this time the doors of the cathedral were re-opened and services resumed, with no more mention of health & safety problems. 6 days of closure meant the cathedral had lost something like £120,000 in entrance fees, almost enough to keep Holy Trinity open for a whole year!
A couple of days later Graham Knowle (the Dean) resigned. As head of the cathedral authorities, he felt that ultimately the controversy was his responsibility, & the best way to move things on was for him to stand down. Richard Chartres (the Bishop of London) was asked to help sort things out.
Initially the bishop announced that the legal action would continue. But within 24 hours he announced a change of course. The legal action was stopped; conversations with the protesters were resumed.
What a complicated mess, what a PR disaster!
Occupy's presence outside St Paul's cathedral gave the Church of England a chance to engage with a real & pressing issue of the day - the problems of the economy, here in this country & internationally. I'm not saying that Occupy have a good case or a bad one - but they have a case worth discussing & thinking through.
The Church of England was given the chance to show genuine leadership in a moral debate of interest to many people; to get away from endless internal arguments on gender & sexuality. Instead we shot ourselves in the foot - we blew it!
Having said all of this, I wonder how we at Holy Trinity would have responded if someone had set up a protest camp outside our front doors!
As a postscript ... I think Giles Fraser would make a great bishop. He showed leadership & wisdom, & was prepared to stand by his principles. And, if you notice, the cathedral ending up doing what he had been proposing on day one of all this: protecting the protesters from the prospect of unnecessary force, & talking to them.