So they closed St Paul’s. For the first time since the Second World War, you and I (and thousands of tourists) cannot walk through the doors of this great Cathedral to sightsee (£14.50), or attend a service (free). You probably also know why: it’s because of the risk posed to visitors by the enormous and unruly mob of Occupy LSX protesters who have set up camp, obstructing access to the Cathedral and causing fire and health and safety risks.
Come on. All together. Everyone can find something to tut-tut about in that scenario. “Not since the war!” you could cry indignantly. “Who do they think they are?” or how about… “Why don’t they get jobs instead of wasting tax-payers’ money?” or “What about the church? They’re losing £20,000 a day! Don’t the protesters care about that?”
I thought some of those things too. But then I thought some more, and I decided that I couldn’t have an opinion on something I haven’t researched or seen. So two-year-old Ted and I hopped on the Tube and went to have a look for ourselves. We came out at St Paul’s station and walked around the South side, where the camp is, towards the front of the Cathedral. The first thing we saw was an orderly row of tents, close to the wall of the Cathedral and away from the footpath. There was a white tent with a sign on it that read “Legal”. A little further along, we saw a First Aid tent, then the Food tent, and further neat rows of the small one- and two-man tents you see at festivals. Further round towards the front of the Cathedral, there was a big, open tent marked “Information”.
There were more elements to the camp: a “University”, offering lectures and discussions, with a special programme for 8-18-year-olds for half-term. A library where people could share literature. A worship tent where people of all faiths could meditate or pray. A board posted outside the Information tent offered an hour-by-hour programme of events, discussions and meetings.
But what are the protesters all doing? Sitting around? Smoking dope? Smashing shop windows and looting trainers? No. the exact opposite. Everyone in the camp is eager to talk to people who come in and happy to grant interviews to journalists. There is a zero tolerance policy for drug use, no alcohol is allowed in the camp and I have no doubt violence would not be tolerated either. I met a man who was handing out copies of a document listing some of the protesters’ aims. As he said, “We don’t have a manifesto, and there are many people with different agendas, but we’re trying to find core ideas and suggestions for solutions together.” You can see his document here.
And the health and safety risks? The footpath was clear. Every entrance to St Paul’s was freely accessible. There were no protesters on the stairs of the Cathedral that I could see: just the usual cluster of weary tourists having a brief sit-down.
Access to the side doors had been demarcated with metal barriers, which the protesters had decorated with art, posters and bible verses. The camp was extremely orderly, and very, very tidy. There were no gas stoves, open fires or barbecues. All hot food was being prepared in clean and professional conditions in the food tent. I didn't see a scrap of litter, although there was a well organised and clearly marked set of recycling bins.
To my mind, the risk to public safety appeared to be… nil. There were a lot of people, granted. But there are always a lot of people at St Paul’s. If we are to start closing down public areas in London because there are a lot of people, then sorry, Holborn and Oxford Circus, you’re first on the list, and we’ll be working through Zone One alphabetically from there.
I went to chat to the people in the Information tent and ask them about the closure of the Cathedral. The Dean of the Cathedral sent them an open letter which cites “the legal requirements placed upon us by fire, health and safety issues”. The organisers say they were given a set of concerns by the fire department and the police and they reorganised the camp to comply with every one of the conditions. So far, the Cathedral has refused to define exactly what the further concerns which have forced the closure might be. “The priests and the canons have all been wonderful to us,” said the man in the Information tent. “The pressure is coming from the lay people who run St Paul’s… the money people.” No one seemed to know who exactly that might be, or even if that is true: all the official statements are coming from Graeme Knowles, the Dean, who is far from being a lay person. It is mildly interesting that the Lay Canon in charge of finance is one Gavin Ralston, whose biography on the St Paul’s website reads: “As Lay Canon (Finance) Gavin Ralston holds particular responsibility for finance at St Paul's Cathedral. He is Global Head of Product and leading international asset manager at Schroder Investment Management. He holds the role of Lay Canon in addition to his position at Schroders.” I don’t know much about economics, but he doesn’t sound like a bloke who would be likely to be sympathetic to an anti-banking, anti-capitalist agenda.
We spent an hour or so wandering around the camp. Wherever we went, people were very welcoming. A motley crowd gathered and sang a mangled and tuneless version of “Amazing Grace” with great gusto. Ted and I visited the nearby Tesco and came back with a small donation for the food tent. “Thank you so much,” said the man warmly, accepting our potatoes and soya milk, “Please join us for some soup.” It’s possibly the friendliest place in London. The contrast couldn’t have been starker when we walked to Bank station to come home. As I struggled down the steps carrying Ted in his pushchair, a man in a suit huffed and elbowed me out of the way in his rush to reach the lifts.
This evening, the Guardian reports that the Cathedral may seek an injunction to force the protesters to move. As they rightly say, the sight of police officers dragging peaceful protesters from the shadow of a Cathedral would be a PR nightmare. But it’s so much sadder than that. Above all, St Paul’s is the house of God: the premier house of God in this great city. I spent some time this morning before we went to St Paul’s, reading what Jesus had to say about money and our relationship with it. As you probably know, he said a lot, all of it uncompromising. Try this: Luke 16:13 – "No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." Jesus repeatedly said that we should reject riches on earth in favour of spiritual wealth, and that we should do our best to care for those who are in need. As we looked up at the great, wooden closed doors of St Paul’s Cathedral, I couldn’t help thinking that if Jesus were there, I think I know which side of the doors he would be on.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.