Occupy London: silence of once-critical clerics is infuriating but understandable
The St Paul’s situation puts Rowan Williams and other bishops who have decried banking practices in an impossible quandary.
The last few years have seen senior clerics in the Church of England rush to decry banking practices. And they come no more senior than Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, who has dim views of the frailties of global finance.
In September 2008 in an article published in the Spectator magazine, he wrote: “It is no use pretending that the financial world can maintain indefinitely the degree of exemption from scrutiny and regulation that it has got used to. This crisis exposes the basic level of unreality in the situation – the truth that almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders.”
Williams, therefore, has common cause with the protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Whereas the cathedral’s former canon chancellor recently said he could imagine Jesus being born in the camp, it is easy to imagine Williams, below, in another life pitching his tent in the churchyard in solidarity with the activists.
In 2009 Williams was still pursuing bankers. “We haven’t heard people saying, ‘Well actually, no, we got it wrong. And the whole fundamental principle on which we worked was unreal, was empty’.”
He also warned there was “muted anger” that the bonus culture wasn’t challenged. “I think that what we are looking at is the possibility of a society getting more and more dysfunctional if the levels of inequality that we have seen in the last couples of decades are not challenged.”
He co-wrote a book called Crisis and Recovery in 2010, asking: “How did we get to a situation where we took for granted that certain kinds of behaviour were to be rewarded, never mind the failure or devastation they left in their wake?”
And he is not alone in attacking mammon. Within days of Williams’ 2008 Spectator article the archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, told the annual dinner of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers: “To a bystander like me, those who made £190m deliberately underselling the shares of HBOS in spite of a very strong capital base, and drove it into the arms of Lloyds TSB, are clearly bank robbers and asset strippers. We find ourselves in a market system which seems to have taken its rules of trade from Alice in Wonderland.”
The archbishops’ silence – and that of the wider church – on the crisis at the cathedral is extraordinary, then, given their past remarks. But the truth is they gain nothing from commenting on it.
Siding with protesters would undermine the bishop of London and the dean of St Paul’s, who are already under fire for their actions, and represent an extrajudicial intervention not often seen in the Church of England. To ally themselves with their beleaguered colleagues would make them hypocrites. Those who have aired their views are retired – like Lord Carey – or relatively unknown outside Anglican circles.
However infuriating their reticence, the clerics who bashed the bankers during the global financial meltdown are unlikely to put themselves forward to debate the merits or otherwise of Occupy London, a subject made toxic by the prospect of eviction, but it is inconceivable that they do not have opinions on the events at St Paul’s.
Riazat Butt, in this article from the London ‘Guardian’, highlights the difficulty of any statements being made by high-ranking officials of the Church of England on the stand-off presently being experienced between the St. Paul’s Dean and Chapter and the encamped protesters around the Cathedral.
It is well-known that both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York have challenged the financial sector on their perceived culture of financial mis-management, but what has happened at St. Paul’s - the site chosen by protesters against the financial sector because of other City venues being denied to them – is really a matter of how the face-off between the Dean and Chapter has been managed by the local Church authority. Even the Bishop of London, in a meeting with the protesters, has admitted that he is powerless to interfere with the decisions of the Dean and Chapter – should they decide to agree with the London City Council’s plan to move the protesters.
This is a clear issue of canonical authority in the Established Church, where a Dean and Chapter have the right to ensure that their Cathedral can go about it’s normal business without let or hindrance – which, in this case, happens to be at odds with the mission of the Church to do all in its power to promote the cause of peace and justice – including the right to protest against endemic financial greed amongst international financiers.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand