Church welcomes arms dealers – but tries to ban pacifists from singing hymns

Church House vigil 140709The most bizarre moment of today’s vigil outside an arms conference at Church House was when Westminster Abbey’s staff told us that we were not allowed to sing hymns on their land.

A group of around twenty people, mostly Christians, were holding a vigil of prayer and protest outside Church House, whose conference centre is hosting an “Air Power” conference sponsored by arms companies such as BAE and Lockheed Martin. The area outside one entrance to Church House is on Westminster Abbey land.

Our vigil had largely been silent until we started to sing “We are marching in the light of God”. A member of Westminster Abbey staff came over to us and said we should not sing. She insisted that the Abbey had been “very generous” in allowing us on to its “private property” and that we would not be allowed to continue there if we sang.

I said it was odd that an arms dealers’ conference is welcome but that Christians singing hymns were not. The Abbey representative told me that the Abbey had nothing to do with the arms conference, which is hosted at Church House.

This is a fair point as far as it goes, even though the Abbey own the steps up which the arms dealers walked to get to Church House. But I asked why we could Church House vigil 140709 - 2not sing hymns in the grounds of a church built on Jesus Christ.

The Abbey staff member (I’m sorry; I don’t know her name) said she worked for the Dean and Chapter. I said that they were part of a church built on the teachings of Jesus. She said, “I don’t know what the church is built on” and insisted that she was accountable to the Dean and Chapter.

I asked if this was an admittance that Westminster Abbey is basically a secular institution rather than a church of Christ. She said, “It’s a royal peculiar”. This is a legal term regarding the Abbey’s official status and its relationship to the monarchy.

I replied that I had no interest in “royal peculiars” as the only royalty I recognise is Jesus Christ. I explained that Jesus is my king and queen and that Elizabeth Windsor is not.

She seemed offended at this point and said, “Queen Elizabeth the Second is my queen.” I replied, “She’s not mine” but she soon returned to talking about the Abbey being a “royal peculiar.”

Even if you accept monarchy, private property and so on, this does not explain why the Abbey should object to people singing hymns on its grounds. She never explained this, only saying the Abbey were “very generous” by allowing us there. Perhaps I should have put this point more, rather than got into an confused exchange about the monarchy.

I suggested that her words were an admission that the Abbey was more concerned with its loyalty to an earthly monarch than to Jesus. She didn’t answer, but walked off angrily to consult with uniformed staff as we continued to sing.

We sang hymns, prayed and read the Bible aloud for more than half an hour after that without being disturbed. The arms dealers enjoying drinks on the balcony above us could clearly hear us.

Of course, this comes less than a fortnight after Westminster Abbey’s staff called in the police for a violent eviction of a group of disabled protesters. Their behaviour on that occasion made St Paul’s Cathedral’s treatment of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp seem mild by comparison.

What’s this got to do with the arms trade? It’s about loyalty and authority. In what culture do Christian organisations operate? I frequently fail to live in loyalty to Christ. I do not love my neighbour as myself, I behave selfishly and am complicit in the sins of our society and economic system. The task of a church is to bring together people as they struggle to live in loyalty to the Kingdom of God, and to witness to Jesus Christ in the world.

Loyalty to the Kingdom of God means a rejection of the powers of this world. Sadly, Westminster Abbey and Church House seem to be in thrall to the idols of Mammon, monarchy and militarism.


To sign an email about arms conferences at Church House to the Archbishop of Canterbury, please visit

Justice and revolution at Greenbelt

I’m already enjoying the Greenbelt festival in Cheltenham, which began yesterday afternoon. If you’re not familiar with, it’s a Christian festival with an emphasis on social and political engagement as well as spirituallity, worship, music and arts. I go every year and, while I’m aware that Greenbelt is not without its faults, I still love it.

I’m honoured to say that I’ve been asked to speak this year. If you’re here and would like to know the details, they’re as follows:

Saturday, 3.30pm, Centaur: Joining a light-hearted Battle of the Visions debate with Jim Wallis and Sara Kewly Hyde. We’ll be discussing what our influence would be if we ran the country (an unlikely possibility but I live in I hope!). I’ll be arguing for “justice”, Jim for “faith” and Sara for “arts”.

Sunday, 3.30pm, Jenin: I’ll be talking about my new book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, and answering questions

Sunday, 5.30pm, G-Books: Signing copies of my books and happily talking about them to anyone who would like to ask more.

See you there!

Not the G8 – digital activism in Leeds

I am on a train that’s just pulled out of Leeds, following a great day at ‘Not the G8’, a conference run by the World Development Movement (WDM).

I was there because WDM invited me to speak at a session on digital activism. But I’m really glad they did, because the whole event was very good and I learnt a lot.

The day included a really helpful talk about food sovereignty by the writer Raj Patel. I have realised recently that WDM are very good at drawing the links between different issues – poverty, the environment, banking. In particular, they make clear that environmentalism is not simply a lifestyle choice for the middle class in the West but is an urgent concern for anyone who wants to tackle poverty.

I was asked to give a talk based partly on my new book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age. As usual, I Iearnt at least as much from the participants as they did from me.

At these sort of events, I fear that the attenders will expect me to be some sort of technological whizzkid, with answers to all sorts of questions about computer use. Anyone who’s watched me struggle to get my DVD player working will know that I am not that person. My book is not a book about technology; it’s a book about activism. It looks at the ways in which the internet has been used for activism in recent years.

I am not a net utopian – technology won’t save the world. Nor am I someone who dismisses the usefulness of the internet. Digital activism is an important part of many campaigns. It can also draw people into other forms of resistance. But digital activism is almost never sufficient on its own. When talking today, I focussed on examples of campaigns that have effectively combined online and offline activism. Examples include:

  • Tax justice campaigners who petitioned Olympic sponsors online to give up their tax exemptions at the Olympic Park. Several companies quickly agreed, probably because they feared physical occupations – which had greeted many tax-dodging stores the previous year.
  • Boycott Workfare, who have persuaded dozens of companies and charities in the UK to withdraw from workfare schemes. Some withdrew after physical protests and economic pressure. Others withdrew when bombarded with tweets and faced with humiliation online.
  • Disabled activists in York, who found a provision that required the City Council to debate any petition with over 1,000 signatures from York residents. Their petition and the council debate meant that cuts to local disability services became the lead news item on BBC Radio York – making many more people aware of them.
  • Lovers of peace in Israel and Iran, who set up “Israel Loves Iran” and “Iran Loves Israel”, two Facebook pages that built understanding across the divide and allowed Israeli and Iranian citizens to tell both their governments that they were “not ready to die in your war”.
  • Minority language activists as far apart as Wales, east Africa, Australia and south Asia, who use web-based resources to promote linguistic diversity and the rights of their communities.
  • The paradox of the Occupy movement, which combined the modern image of web-based communication with the old-fashioned image of debates in public squares. Both of them, at their best, are far more inclusive than mainstream political processes.

I was delighted that so many people got stuck into discussion about these issues. As my book has not long been published, this was on the second time that I’ve given a talk based around it. I will be doing so again at the Greenbelt festival in August. However, I’m very open to speaking with other groups. If you’re interested you’re welcome to email me at I would love to hear from you!


My book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, can be bought from the publisher, New Internationalist, by clicking here. It costs £9.99 (0r $16.95 in the US). 

Capitalism and idolatry

I recently wrote an article for Reform magazine entitled “Trusting in what isn’t real”. It is a brief piece in which I ask if capitalism has made our relationship with money into a form of idolatry.

It was published in the May 2012 issue of Reform, a monthly Christian magazine published by the United Reformed Church. I love Reform (and not only becuase I write for it!) and heartily recommend the magazine generally.

If you have a subscription to Reform, you can read my article here.  However, the article has now been reproduced in my column for Ekklesia, so it is freely available here. Your thoughts and comments are welcome!

Invulnerable people

Regular readers of my blog (a small but much appreciated group!) may wonder if I’ve got a bit obsessed with the Occupy eviction and my forced removal from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Looking back now, I realise that my last five blog entries have been about it.

A few people who know me personally have also hinted that I might be getting a bit carried away with the subject. My focus is perhaps unsurprising given the shock of being removed by police while praying on the steps of a church. However, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that it’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about. As well as being more than usually occupied with some personal and family issues, I’ve been writing some Bible reading notes on the theme of peace and continuing with my part-time role at at The Friend magazine.

Nonetheless, I’ve been hampered over recent weeks by own mental health problems. I’ve written before on this site about my problems with anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder. They are less severe than they were some years ago, but they still bother me, and sometimes they become quite bad again. This has been the case over the last month or so.

The experience has led me to reflect on the phrase “vulnerable people”, which I keep hearing. It was heard in the court case over the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange, when the City of London Corporation said that the camp attracted “vulnerable people”. (Is that a bad thing? You could say the same about churches.) Critics of the government’s assault on the welfare state warn that they will harm “vulnerable people”.

I share their criticisms, but find this term somewhat worrying. Firstly, because it can imply that disabled people are inherently vulnerable as individuals, rather than made vulnerable by society. But my biggest objection to the term is that it implies that the majority of people are invulnerable.

I have yet to meet any invulnerable people. We are all vulnerable to a greater or lesser extent. Different people are vulnerable in different ways. This is the condition of humanity. It is more particularly the condition of humanity in an unjust world beset by the sins of violence and inequality. A society that values money and markets over people and planet will naturally make more of us more vulnerable in more ways.

Social justice is not about “vulnerable people” being “looked after” by those who are supposedly not vulnerable. Nor is it about escaping vulnerability. It is about building personal, social, political and economic relationships rooted in love and justice. We are able to do this only if we recognise our vulnerability and our mutual needs. To use the words of a recent statement by Quakers involved in the Occupy movement, we are all “broken people in a broken world”. There can be no healing if we do not recognise this.

New Dean of St Paul’s defends eviction

I admire David Ison, who was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this week, for speaking up for same-sex marriage in his first national media interview after being appointed. I’m sorry that he ruined it within days by defending the forced eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange in language that manages to be both evasive and insulting.

He has yet to take up his post at St Paul’s and was not, of course, appointed when the Cathedral colluded in the violent removal of people who were peacefully sitting or praying on the cathedral steps. At least he has had the courage to express an opinion on the issue. The current authorities at St Paul’s have failed to do despite nearly two weeks in which large numbers of people have urged them to make a clear statement on the issue.

Asked about the eviction by the Church Times, Ison said, “It’s difficult what you do when people refuse to acknowledge reality and to obey court orders. But, if people choose to make a demonstration by not obeying the order of the court, that’s up to them. The Church’s role is to help people recognise reality in all sorts of ways, and that includes helping Occupy recognise when it’s time to move on.”

The new Dean is running the risk of appearing deliberately evasive. He must surely be aware of the reality that the cathedral steps were not covered by the court order, which authorised an eviction of land belonging to the City of London Corporation, not to St Paul’s Cathedral.

I also find it rather arrogant to be told that views that do not fit with David Ison’s are not “reality”. In theological terms, sin and selfishness can be seen as resulting from our alienation from the reality that is found in God. We are all more detached from that reality than we should be. In contrast, David Ison appears to be equating “reality” with the perceptions and priorities of those who hold power in the world. This may not be his intention, but that is how it comes across.

I hope the new Dean will also challenge the City of London and its institutions to recognise the reality of an economic crash built on fantasies of endless money. There is no reality in the false gods of money and markets, which are merely human constructions.

Another insult from St Paul’s Cathedral

Following the clamour since Tuesday morning about the involvement of St Paul’s in the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange, the cathedral have now released another statement. It is longer than yesterday’s statement, but completely fails to answer the questions that are being asked from all sides.

Police claimed on Tuesday morning that they had the cathedral’s permission to drag people away from the steps of St Paul’s, including several of us who were peacefully kneeling in prayer. The next morning, the cathedral issued a statement that ignored the issue. Under pressure from journalists, they said that they had not given police specific permission, but implied that they were OK with what had happened and had effectively given police permission in advance.

Their comments yesterday added insult to injury. Today, they have added insult to insult to injury, with another statement that doesn’t say anything.

How long will they keep this up? They have given many people the impression that, when push comes to shove, their loyalties lie with the City of London and its false gods of money and violence. It is vital that we proclaim a different and more authentic vision of the Christian Gospel than this. It is also vital that we keep pressing the Cathedral Chapter to answer the questions they are still avoiding.

  1. What communication did they have with the police and City of London Corporation about the details and timing of the eviction?
  2. Did they in any way give permission for the police to remove people from the cathedral steps?
  3. Do they think it was right that this happened?
  4. If they do, will they have the courtesy to admit it and tell us why? If not, will they apologise?

The cathedral’s statement makes collusion clear

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.

Urgent questions for St Paul’s Cathedral

I have been forcibly removed from buildings by police on several occasions, but never before have I been dragged from the steps of a church as I knelt in prayer. I am profoundly shocked to have been dragged from my knees as I prayed about economic injustice on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

What is even more alarming is that this seems to have been done with the support and approval of the cathedral authorities.

The incident took place during the forced eviction of the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp. I have not long got back home, having spend the night at the eviction. I was praying with other Christians. We declared our solidarity with people of other religions and none who are resisting economic injustice with active nonviolence.

On two occasions, the police physically pushed back a group of people who were praying. Later, we decided to pray on the cathedral steps. We knew – or thought we knew – that we couldn’t be removed from there, because the eviction order related only to the land owned by the City of London Corporation. It didn’t cover the cathedral.

But then police threatened us with arrest if we did not move. They told us, several times, that the cathedral had given them permission to remove us.

I was one of several people who were removed while praying. I’m not sure how many. There was Anglican, Quaker and Buddhist involvement, and probably more. Some were hurt more than me. One Quaker was carried down by several officers as he loudly prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I was dragged away from the steps by two policeman, but I returned shortly afterwards. I was recognised, and thought I would be arrested, but I was again removed to the bottom of the steps, which the police now surrounded.

I knelt there reciting Psalm 23 (which got a bit garbled in my confusion), before the police told me I was too close to the steps. I again politely refused to move, and was carried further away.

This whole outrage raises urgent questions for the cathedral authorities and the bishop of London.

  • Were they aware of the eviction date and time before it happened?
  • If so, did they attempt to influence the procedures in any way, for example by arguing for a more humane time of day?
  • Did they really give permission for the removal of peaceful people from their steps? If so, when did they do so?
  • Why did they choose to take this action?
  • Do they still believe it was the right thing to do?

Throughout the night, we were approached by people, many of them non-Christians, who thanked us for praying at the eviction. As we watched the people destroy their peaceful camp, I wondered if it was enough to offer. But it was apparently too much for the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Eviction of Occupy: Why I’m joining the ring of prayer

Occupy London Stock Exchange are likely to be evicted from their camp near St Paul’s Cathedral, within the next few days. I am determined to be praying at the camp as the eviction happens. Along with others, I will attempt to form a ring of prayer.

Since the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of eviction last week, there have been various calls for the occupiers to leave “peacefully”. It is clear that most of the people making these calls mean that they want them to leave “passively”. But it is possible to be peaceful without being passive. Indeed, active nonviolence is an alternative to both violence and passivity.

Ever since the idea of a ring of prayer was first promoted in October, it has met with an enthusiastic welcome from both religious and non-religious supporters of the Occupy movement. It has also been criticised – sometimes constructively, sometimes with pointless aggression. Its purpose has occasionally been misunderstood.

The idea grew out of Twitter discussions in October, shortly after the cathedral’s staff closed their doors and asked the protesters to leave. The protesters were outside the cathedral only because they had been prevented from camping any closer to their real target – the London Stock Exchange. Along with many other Christians, I was angry that the cathedral’s leadership seemed to be more concerned with the inconvenience of the camp than with the damage and destruction inflicted by the City of London.

On Twitter, I said that I would pray at the camp if it was evicted. Others had expressed similar views, and a London-based Christian activist suggested a ring of prayer around the camp. I thought this was an excellent idea, and it was soon mentioned to journalists. There was coverage in the mainstream media, but the idea went quiet until the occupiers found themselves in court earlier this year. I then joined with other members of Christianity Uncut to make some basic plans for prayer at the camp at the time of eviction.

We have been overwhelmed with supportive messages about the plan. Some have also criticised us, suggesting we are being too hasty or that it will not be effective. Others have been more aggressive. Some of these are anti-religious supporters of Occupy who think we are trying to impose Christianity on them. Others are Christians opposed to Occupy who think we are supporting a dangerous extremist movement and making a mockery of prayer. Several people have accused of being naive in thinking that we will be able to form a ring of prayer around the camp in the midst of the chaos and confusion of an eviction.

The last accusation misses the point. We may not be able to form a literal ring, but that does not matter. If the police cordon off the camp, it may be that only a few people get there to pray before this happens (including, of course, those sleeping in the camp). If so, others will pray outside the cordon. Their witness will be visible to the police and the media, and some may still aim to get in the way of the bailiffs.

With regards to the other points, I should emphasise that I cannot speak on behalf of the many people planning to join the ring of prayer. Not everybody’s reasons for joining are identical. Some basic principles and guidelines are available by clicking here. I can, however, give my own reasons for joining the ring of prayer.

Firstly, by praying at the eviction we will be bearing witness to the power of God’s love and justice. This is a subtler but greater power than the powers of money and markets idolised in the City of London, or the power of violence in which bailiffs place their trust. God’s power will of course be present whatever we do. We will provide a testimony to the choice faced by all people to respond to that power.

Secondly, the camp, and the wider Occupy movement, will know that there are many Christians who support their stance. This is particularly important given the shameful actions of St Paul’s Cathedral. It is not necessary to agree with every aspect of the Occupy movement in order to stand alongside it in resisting economic injustice.

Thirdly, the ring of prayer, along with the many other acts of active nonviolence during the eviction, will give the public and the media an image of the reality of power in the situation. Pictures of people being dragged from their knees as they pray will expose the violence of the Corporation and undermine attempts to portray the Occupy movement as violent. This sort of imagery was well understood by Gandhi, who argued that active nonviolence should force the powerful to choose between two things that they don’t want. The Corporation of London do not want to leave the camp in place. Nor do they want their violent nature exposed. It is a choice with which they will soon be confronted.