It is now clear that the authorities at St Paul’s Cathedral were complicit in this morning’s violent eviction of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp.
Along with several others, I was dragged by police from my knees as I prayed on the steps of the cathedral. My Ekklesia colleague Jonathan Bartley was kicked in the back as he was similarly removed. An Anglican was pulled away as she she sat with her hands held prayerfully together. A Quaker activist was hauled down the steps as he called out the Lord’s Prayer.
The situation was of course far worse for those who have made their home in the camp over the last four months. They saw it viciously ripped down in front of them.
The eviction order applied only to land owned by the Corporation of London. It did not apply to the cathedral’s land. The police said at the time that the cathedral had given them permission to forcibly remove people from the steps. Today there have been conflicting reports about the extent to which the cathedral sanctioned the action.
The Cathedral Chapter published the following statement this morning:
“In the past few months, we have all been made to re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play. We regret the camp had to be removed by bailiffs but we are fully committed to continuing to promote these issues through our worship, teaching and Institute.
“The cathedral is open today and set aside for prayer and reflection. The cathedral is accessible to everyone. The area currently cordoned off is for essential repairs to damaged paving. Clergy are available throughout the day for pastoral care and support.”
The statement adds insult to injury. I am truly offended by being told that “the cathedral is accessible to everyone” when I was three times removed while attempting to pray there last night (twice on the steps and then again for being “too close” to the steps). I am pleased that “clergy are available throughout the day for pastoral care and support”. Where were the clergy last night, as people sat crying while their homes were destroyed?
The statement led BBC Radio 4 to report that “St Paul’s Cathedral has expressed regret..”, but this can give a misleading impression. The statement expresses “regret that the camp had to be removed by bailiffs”. But it did not have to be removed by bailiffs. The cathedral’s statement gives the lie to the notion that they are neutral on the question of eviction. Even if they are argue that eviction was necessary, this is a far cry from backing police who are throwing praying Christians from the steps of a church.
The cathedral’s press office has been telling journalists today that “the police did not ask for permission from us regarding any aspect of the action taken last night”. At first glance, this appears to suggest that the police were lying. However, it gets more complicated. The press office’s comment goes on to say that “we were clear that we would not stand in the way of the legal process or prevent the police from taking the steps they needed to deal with the situation in an orderly and peaceful manner”.
This implies that the cathedral had given the go-ahead in advance for police to do what they considered necessary. This is arguably worse. It would stretch credulity to breaking point to suggest that the cathedral authorities did not realise that people were likely to be removed from the steps. Given that they knew of plans for a ring of prayer at the camp, last night’s images can hardly have been a surprise to them.
The Cathedral Chapter must now tell us clearly exactly what they knew and when. They must comment explicitly on the issue of Christians being dragged from their knees as they prayed on the steps. If they think this was right, they should say why. Furthermore, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, needs to tell us how much he knew and what he thinks about it.
Throughout this controversy, the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral have been divided and inconsistent. The cathedral authorities have swung back and forth, repeatedly giving out mixed messages about their loyalties. That, at least, is over. The cathedral’s authorities last night made their loyalties clear for all to see.