Melanie Phillips

1 November 2011

Paralysis and moral confusion on Piazza Mahatma Gandhi

Published in: Daily Mail

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It is hard not to see the crisis at St Paul’s Cathedral as an all-too vivid symbol of a far wider and most profound malaise.

As has been noted, the debacle at St Paul’s over the tented ‘Occupy the Stock Exchange/Occupy London’ protest encampment in front of it threatens to inflict a terrible blow on the authority of the Church of England itself. With yesterday’s resignation of the Dean, the Rt Rev Graeme Knowles, on the grounds that his position had become “untenable”, the tally so far of cathedral casualties from this affair has now reached four – three members of the Chapter having resigned, and Martin Fletcher, the clerk of the works, having collapsed from stress after giving the initial advice for St Paul’s to close and who has been off work as a result ever since.

This initial decision to close the cathedral on health and safety grounds was reversed in the face of general derision. Now the cathedral’s decision to start legal proceedings along with the City of London to evict the protesters has today also been reversed. This was because reportedly, at a critical meeting last Friday, the Dean’s was the sole voice in favour of legal action on grounds of trespass on private land.

So now the City of London is going it alone in legal action to evict on the basis of blockage of a public highway; if they succeed, St Paul’s will have been relieved of its problem, and if the eviction turns unpleasant it can hold up its own hands to the world as clean. The words ‘whited’ and ‘sepulchre’ come to mind.

The cathedral’s zig-zags have caused it to be derided as a national laughing stock. Now the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is himself being blamed for not getting a grip on the situation at St Paul’s. He finally broke his silence to side with the protesters in a typically opaque way, as reported in this story:

‘“The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St Paul’s remain very much on the table and we need – as a Church and as society as a whole – to work to make sure that they are properly addressed.”’

Really? And what issues might those be? The protesters are purportedly against western capitalism and hold it responsible for all the ills of the world. Does Dr Williams agree with this fatuous position?

Today the cathedral said it had appointed an investment banker, Ken Costa

‘to lead a new initiative “reconnecting the financial with the ethical” which will involve various Church and City figures, including the recently resigned Rev Dr Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor.’

Eh? Just how can such a woolly remit for a talking shop of doubtless equally woolly worthies be expected to persuade the tented ones, who have watched clerics go down like ninepins because of the protesters’ refusal to leave and who therefore might reasonably be assumed to believe that they have the whip hand in bringing about the collapse of a cathedral if not capitalism, to depart?

When the Dean resigned, he said the cathedral faced ‘insurmountable issues’. But they are surely only insurmountable because the church doesn’t seem able to distinguish right from wrong.

After all, the whole situation is farcical since the original target of the wrath of ‘Occupy’ was supposed to be the Stock Exchange. The tented ones seem only to have camped out at St Paul’s because it happened to be the nearest space to the aforesaid temple of Mammon. Yet the Stock Exchange and capitalism remain serenely untroubled by these protesters, whose only victims to date have been the cathedral and the Church of England.

Moreover, it would appear that the encampment is itself descending from principle to a spot of hedonism. The Times (£) reports:

‘But as the Church struggled to contain the fall-out from the Occupy protest, some genuine campaigners quit the camp in disgust over its descent into what one described as a place for bawdy hedonism, drink and drugs.

‘Zakandrew Roberts, 18, joined Occupy London on its first day, but left on Saturday after a series of incidents, including someone urinating in his tent and a friend being threatened with a penknife. He claimed that the encampment had deteriorated from a group of serious campaigners intent on highlighting issues about economic equality, to “drunks and drug-takers . . . here for a laugh”.

‘Mr Roberts, an unemployed charity worker, said: “Half the people there don’t know why they are there or what they are protesting about. I want political change, not to get high and drunk all the time.”’

Might this perhaps also come under the remit of ‘reconnecting the financial with the ethical’?

Yet far from being angry at the protesters for such idiotically incoherent and opportunistic grandstanding, Dr Williams and assorted cathedral clerics seem to think that the Church of England is indeed a prime villain of capitalism down there in the pit of infamy along with the evil bankers. So what’s with this whole Anglican guilt trip?

It seems to me that there are two principal reasons for the church’s current fix. First, it is paralysed by its own cardinal doctrine that poverty is noble. It therefore instinctively hates those who make money. Now a proper concern and compassion for the poor is indeed noble. But to fetishise poverty to the extent that the church cannot recognise cant, hypocrisy and anti-social behaviour is deeply troubling. It substitutes sentimentality for the distinction between right and wrong.

The clerics of the Chapter are also said to be deeply concerned that, in backing legal moves to evict the protesters, the cathedral will be condoning violence – the specific issue over which the Canon Chancellor, Dr Giles Fraser, resigned.

Well it is very much to be hoped that there will be no violence in such an eviction. But if people resist attempts by the police to enforce the law, sometimes force has to be used if the law is indeed to be enforced. It has to be asked, therefore, whether these concerned clerics believe that no force should ever be used in enforcing the law. If people are trespassing on their land or obstructing the public highway, do these clerics really think that because they are protesting about poverty they should be regarded as above the law?  

And in any event, what do they mean by ‘violence’? If people are manhandled off a site because they refuse to move, is that really violence? The clerics appear to assume that any violence would only come from the police. But what if the protesters themselves were violently to resist the police? How do these clerics think the law should be enforced in those circumstances?  Indeed, they appear to be coming dangerously close to saying that it should not be enforced at all. Perhaps St Paul’s Churchyard should be renamed Piazza Mahatma Gandhi.

Such near-farcical indecision and absence of clear leadership now threaten to make the Church of England itself look ridiculous. But just look at the backdrop against which this tragi-comedy is being played out.

Everywhere, a sense of apocalypse is in the air. The Arab world is in revolutionary ferment and bad men there are likely to be succeeded by even worse.  Iran is poised to unleash nuclear Armageddon. Israel, under repeated rocket attack from Gaza, is menaced by genocidal enemy armies on all sides except for the Mediterranean Sea. America, for so long the bulwark of western defences, is currently out of that game thanks to the Manchurian narcissist in the White House (look at this open distancing from the US by the west’s erstwhile ally, the King of Jordan, to grasp just what damage Obama has done to the free world).

The west is teetering on the edge of financial catastrophe; the EU is staggering about like a punch-drunk boxer on the brink of collapsing with a brain haemorrhage; and Britain’s Prime Minister, panicking under the pressure of events that cannot be scripted by his pollsters, is desperately tossing out banal policy soundbites of cosmic irrelevance to these global challenges like the brief sparks from a dud catherine wheel stuttering in the face of a tornado.

If ever there was a time for the religious guardians of western civilisation to stand as its rock-solid defenders through their conspicuous moral clarity, this is surely it. But unlike the churches in the US which are have served as the bulwark of western civilisation in the culture wars that have been playing out there for decades, the Church of England has long been on its knees appeasing the enemies of civilisation -- secularism, leftism and now also Islamism.

In the Blitz, St Paul’s stood as a symbol of freedom. Tragically, through its current paralysis, loss of nerve and moral confusion this great cathedral has now become a symbol of the paralysis, loss of nerve and moral confusion of the west as it teeters towards the edge of the precipice.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie