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.

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.

Wallace Benn and Stephen Green – the confusion continues

The saga of Wallace Benn and the pro-rape booklet goes on and on. Having first withdrawn his endorsement of the booklet, then apologised, he has now offered what appears to be an attempt at an explanation.

Wallace Benn, the Suffragen Bishop of Lewes, recommended a booklet called Britain in Sin, written by Stephen Green of Christian Voice. The booklet supports the legalisation of rape within marriage and the criminalisation of same-sex relationships. It opposes the welfare state, equal pay for men and women, power-sharing in Northern Ireland and the UK’s membership of the United Nations.

On Tuesday, I was one of several bloggers who drew attention to the bishop’s endorsement, which was quoted on Green’s website. The next day, the Diocese of Chichester (which Benn works for) sent me a statement from Wallace Benn disassociating himself from the booklet. I blogged again, pleased that Benn had withdrawn his endorsement but saddened that he had not apologised. The next morning, his press officer sent me another statement, containing an apology.

I thought that might be the end of the matter, although I was frustrated that Benn had offered no explanation of how he came to endorse the booklet in the first place.

But yesterday I received an email from an Anglican living in the Diocese of Chichester. He had written to John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester (Wallace Benn’s boss), to express his concern over Benn’s comments. He has now received an email from Wallace Benn in response. While my correspondent asks not to be named, he has kindly given me permission to quote the email.

In this email, Wallace Benn declared:

My comment on the first publication of Britain in Sin in 1997 was ‘This makes interesting and disturbing reading. We desperately need to understand, as a nation, that our Creator knows what is best for us, and to return to His way as the best way to live’. It was never my intention to endorse particular contentions in the book, but to express concern about the need of our nation to follow the way of our Creator God. If my comment has given a different impression to some, it is regrettable, and I am deeply sorry.

I was not aware that my name was still being used in any way in connection with the book and I have asked for any reference to it to be removed from the Christian Voice website. I am sure you are also aware of the Statement I have made disassociating myself from the book.”

It appears that he gave his endorsement when Green’s booklet was first published, in 1997. This was also the year in which Benn became a bishop. It’s not clear whether the endorsement came before or after his appointment. This date was before Green’s methods became an embarrassment to so many other conservative evangelicals, who began to distance themselves from him. But the contents of the booklet remain the same.

Nonetheless, Wallace Benn’s latest comment raises more questions than it answers. He says that it was never his intention “to endorse particular contentions in the book”. Of course, it is possible to endorse a book’s general approach without agreeing with every point that it makes. It is, however, difficult to read any part of Green’s booklet without encountering bigotry very, very quickly.

It may be that Wallace Benn merely wanted to go along with the general approach of those who argue that Britain must “return” to being a “Christian country”. This is popular with certain conservative groups who would nonetheless oppose Green’s positions on rape, the welfare state and so on. Ironically, Green’s booklet is a reminder that the “Christian country” to which they would return was a place in which men could easily beat and rape their wives.

The Anglican who sent me the email he received from Wallace Benn has pointed out that he originally raised the issue with John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester. John Hind merely forwarded on his email to Wallace Benn, without expressing any comment himself. I find it worrying that Hind did not feel the need to comment further, at least to express approval of Benn’s disassociation of himself from the booklet.

Again, let me emphasise that I do not wish to encourage personal hostility to Wallace Benn or John Hind. We have all sinned and God offers us forgiveness. Rather, I want to draw attention to the surprisingly casual attitude towards misogyny and homophobia that appears to be displayed in parts of the Church of England.

Sentamu confuses dictatorship with democracy

The Archbishop of York made the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday by saying that David Cameron would be acting “like a dictator” if he introduced legislation to recognise same-sex marriage.

The archbishop, John Sentamu, knows more about dictatorship than most of us, having been imprisoned in Uganda under Idi Amin. It is therefore particularly saddening that he should lower himself to this sort of insult over marriage law.

Cameron last year promised same-sex civil marriage in England and Wales by 2015. He is not even considering granting legal recognition to religious same-sex marriage, despite the many religious people who would welcome it.

This is hardly a major part of the coalition’s programme. It appears to have been introduced as a sop to the Liberal Democrats. The Scottish government is moving much more quickly on the question. Despite the speed which the coalition can slash disabled people’s benefits and treble tuition fees, it seems that the next step towards marriage equality has to wait for four years.

Sentamu and his allies are entitled to promote their view that same-sex marriage is wrong. Both within the Christian Church and within society as a whole, people should be free to express their views on marriage. I want religious groups to be able to carry out ceremonies they believe in, without being forced to carry out ceremonies they don’t believe in.

This would mean that those faith groups that believe in same-sex marriages could celebrate them, while those that don’t believe in them would not have to. Both could promote their positions and seek to persuade others to believe in them. This is religious liberty.

It is sad that so many people who profess a belief in democracy – such as John Sentamu – will not accept this situation. They want to use the law to impose their view on marriage, which suggests that they doubt their ability to uphold this view without the force of law behind them. It is a curious fact that many opponents of same-sex marriage concentrate on preventing legal recognition rather than making ethical arguments against it. In contrast, none of the groups campaigning in favour of same-sex marriage want to force churches or other faith groups to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies against their will.

We should be having important ethical, social and theological debates about the nature of marriage. This is hampered when some of those involved in these debates persistently demand that the law sides with their own position, instead of engaging in discussion in a context of democracy and religious freedom.

Sex and the Spirit – a chance to explore major issues

Places are still available on an upcoming weekend course exploring sexuality and spirituality. The course, Sex and the Spirit, will take place in Birmingham from 10th-12th February.

I will be co-tutoring on the course, which is open to people of all views and sexualities who are willing to learn from each other. I know I’ll be learning lots too!

Amongst other things we will be exploring sexuality’s relationship with God, gender, power, worship, identity, marriage and ethics.

While the course takes place at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, it is not exclusively Quaker and we will not be assuming that participants have a Quaker background or Quaker beliefs. We will draw on Quaker theology as well as other Christian traditions and ideas from elsewhere. The experiences and views of participants will be a major source of learning and inspiration.

Discounts: If you’re 30 or under, you can go half-price by booking along with someone else who is also 30 or under. Even if there are a whole group of you of that age booking together, you can all pay half-price.

Woodbrooke is a really friendly place of spiritual community, with excellent accommodation, beautiful grounds and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.

More information is available here.

If you have any questions, please feel free to give me a shout at symonhill@gmail.com.

Ring of Prayer to resist eviction of Occupy LSX

A court is expected to rule next week on the City of London’s request for an eviction of the ‘Occupy’ camp near St Paul’s Cathedral. Christianity Uncut have now formally declared their intention to organise a ring of prayer at the camp if eviction goes ahead. The news has been welcomed by Ekklesia.

If you want to join the ring of prayer, you can declare your intention to do so by signing a pledge of support at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/ring-of-prayer-at-eviction-of-ocupy-lsx.html. People of all faiths are welcome.

Christians have been discussing the possibility of forming a ring of prayer to resist eviction for some time. I think the idea first came up on Twitter. As a member of Christianity Uncut – an informal network of Christians campaigning against the UK government’s cuts agenda – I’m pleased to be helping to publicise the idea.

The camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral began because the occupiers could not get closer to the London Stock Exchange. I wish they had been able to do so. The cathedral’s distinctly mixed attitude has made a headline issue out of the relationship between Christianity and radical politics.

As a result, the public have seen a variety of different Christian attitudes. Most of them can be broadly grouped into two categories. There are those approaches that want to see the Church preserving order, continuing with its routine and seeking to gently challenge injustice from within the establishment. Then there are those that wish to see the Church taking the side of the oppressed, speaking out more loudly about the sins of financial exploitation than about the inconvenience of a campsite.

Of course, I am simplifying the issue. There is a wide diversity of views within both these groups. And I do not wish to suggest that those of us who are supportive of Occupy have got it all right. We all have a lot to learn from each other. Nonetheless, there is a conflict between two different starting-points for Christianity.

The ring of prayer is an opportunity to witness to a Gospel that confronts us with uncomfortable truths. It is a chance to acknowledge our own complicity in a sinful economic system and our own responsibility for working against it. The ring of prayer will be a testimony to the power of love manifested in active nonviolence – a power stranger, subtler but ultimately stronger than the power of money, markets and military might.

An open letter to Christian Concern

I have today written to Christian Concern, a lobby group opposed to same-sex marriage. I decided to do so in response to claims they have made regarding a change in the law announced this week.

The government has announced that the ban on civil partnerships taking place in religious premises will be lifted on 5 December. This is good news for those of us who campaigned for and supported this change, and it’s been a long time coming. The change was approved by Parliament in the Equality Act, passed in April 2010. It’s taken the coalition government this long to implement it.

The change does not go far enough. This is not same-sex marriage. It still does not provide all people with equality before the law, regardless of their gender, sexuality, religious or non-religious views.

The Equality Bill, rightly, makes very clear that no church or other faith group should be obliged to host same-sex partnerships if they do not believe in them. Despite this, Christian Concern claimed in a press release on Wednesday that ”It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.

I have sent the following email to Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern.

 

Dear Andrea and colleagues,

Thank you for your press release giving Christian Concern’s views on the change in the law with regard to civil partnerships on religious premises.

You’re probably aware that this is a subject on which we disagree, although I of course respect your right to a different view, as well as your right to put out statements expressing your own views. I think this is important for free speech and religious liberty.

Please can you explain the following sentence in your press release? ”It is almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation against churches that refuse”.  This claim appears early on in your press release and was quoted in today’s Church Times

Please can you let me know of any campaign groups, or individual campaigners, of whom you are aware, who are planning to take such action, or have discussed the possibility of doing so? 

When campaigning for a change in the law, I strongly emphasised my conviction that no church or other faith group should be required to carry out ceremonies in which they do not believe. As far as I’m aware, this is the position of every religious group that has campaigned for this change. In terms of non-religious campaigners, I know that Peter Tatchell is against any attempt to force churches to host civil partnerships or carry out same-sex weddings. I am aware that Ben Summerskill of Stonewall made a vague comment along the lines of “this may change”, with regard to the right of faith groups not to host same-sex ceremonies. But this is not Stonewall policy and I am not aware of him having taken the idea further. This is very different to anyone planning to “commence litigation”.

Your release asserts that litigation is not merely possible or even likely, but “almost certain”. Such a claim cannot realistically be sustained unless you are aware of a campaign group or campaigner seriously considering legal action. If you can provide me with the name or names of such a group or campaigner, then I will readily admit that  the statement is not necessarily inaccurate. If you cannot do so, I hope you will recognise that it is misleading, and therefore apologise and withdraw the claim.

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Shalom,

Symon 

Would Jesus kick the ‘Occupy London’ protesters off the St Paul’s Cathedral grounds?

I wrote a piece for the Guardian on this issue on Thursday (20 October). It can be read online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/occupy-london-st-pauls-christianity. This was before St Paul’s Cathedral had closed and asked protesters to leave.