The recently resigned canon chancellor of St Paul’s arrives in a black T–shirt, jeans and stubble. He had slipped out of his 17th-century grace and favour house in the shadow of Wren’s cathedral before the media arrived without thought to shaving or dress code. He’s now regretting this: “I want to look like a priest, not a protester.”
The Rev Giles Fraser – matey, warm, a ready, raucous laugh – could easily pass for a protester. It’s easier in some ways to imagine him arguing over a beer with the campaigners sleeping outside his cathedral than engaged in debate with the scarlet, purple and black-frocked colleagues of the bishop, dean and chapter.
But in the past few days he has spent very little time with the protesters – despite sympathising with much that they stand for – and a great deal of time with his colleagues discussing the health and safety issues that led to the cathedral closing its doors.
As those discussions continued – totally without acrimony, Fraser insists – he became aware that he would have to resign. That moment arrived on Wednesday when “the course we were set upon” led him to ask to see the dean, the Rt Rev Graeme Knowles, and quit.
Fraser, 46, will not be drawn on the exact “course of action” that provoked his decision, but says “my red line was about using violence in the name of the church to clear people on. It has been very peaceful, the camp, and I feel that the church cannot answer peaceful protest with violence”.
He acknowledges the issues are complex. There is a right to worship, which has been disrupted. The cathedral has been unable to continue with its “mission and ministry”. There has been a loss of income, not only to the church coffers but to the people running the Crypt cafe.
He respects his colleagues who took a different view and says that the discussions over recent days have been some of the best he has been involved in the church since being ordained in 1993. Everyone has followed their own consciences. “We’re a big tent. Tony Blair didn’t invent the big tent,” he roars with laughter. “We invented the big tent.”
But his mood becomes more sober as he describes his growing realisation that he couldn’t stay. Once it became apparent that eviction – involving police and bailiffs – was on the cards, he knew he could no longer continue. “I could not countenance the idea that we would have the sort of scenes we had at Dale Farm done in the name of the church on the steps of St Paul’s.”
It is clear he is ambivalent about some of the health and safety grounds that led to the decision to close to the cathedral in the first place. He says that people feel “intimidated” by the health and safety experts – a view which would surely find some sympathy from the Daily Mail.
He says that the Corporation of London, which co-owns some of the land occupied by the protesters, was “clearer” than the church about the wish to move the protesters. And the clergy received strong legal advice that they could not negotiate with the protesters, since that might imply consent to them staying.
How would he have done things differently? “I would have wanted to negotiate down the size of the camp and to have appealed to people to help us keep the cathedral going … and if that meant that I was thereby granting them some legal right to stay then that is the position that I would have to wear.”
There are tears in his eyes as he talks through his decision to depart St Paul’s, where he moved two years ago after nine years as the vicar of Putney in south-west London. He emphasises: “I loved my time here.”
There was, he says, absolutely no hint of a divide between a troublesome priest and more conservative colleagues. He rejects the “radical” tag that’s often applied to him, saying he thinks Jesus would be more extreme than him on the shape of modern capitalism. “I get fitted up as Wat Tyler.”
So what does he make of the protest on his doorstep? “The camp is a complex and interesting mixture of such a divergent range of views – united largely by what it’s against, which is a very legitimate anger about the way in which wealth has been distributed and the way in which capitalism is currently seen to benefit just a very few people. I think that is very legitimate anxiety.
“I think there’s an irony that we are having this conversation today, on the 25th anniversary of Big Bang, the deregulation of the Stock Exchange, liberalisation of the rules and regulations regulating the City and so forth … I mean, it seems to me quite clear that markets were made for man and not man for market.
“I am not against capitalism. I am not one of these people who thinks that capitalism is inherently wicked.”
Though that’s what he used to think? He nods.
“I used to be a socialist and for a long time I did have the view that there was something intrinsically immoral about capitalism. I changed my mind quite fundamentally about that quite a few years ago. I had a conversion sitting in Notting Hill market, reading the chief rabbi on the subject – an essay called ‘the moral case for market economy’.
“I think there is a very clear question here to be addressed,” he continues, “and the reason that the protesters have captured some of the public imagination is because a great many people think that something has gone wrong in the City of London and that the wealth generated by the City does not exist for the benefit of us all.
“So, yes, I am sympathetic to that extent. I am not sympathetic to the extent of self-righteous ‘bash the banker’ rhetoric, I am not sympathetic to ‘let’s bring down capitalism’. I really think there is a moral self-righteousness about saying what you are against but not saying what you are for.”
These are, he thinks, “centrist” views of the sort that Jesus would have found unremarkable.
“I mean, Jesus is very clear that the love of money is the root of all evil … Jesus wants to point us to a bigger picture of the world than simply shopping.
“The interesting thing about the protest camp for me is that St Paul’s is very, very good at doing the grandeur and otherness of God. You can do fantastic sermons in it about creation, mystery, otherness, grandeur. But Christopher Wren‘s forte was not Jesus born in a stable, the sort of church that exists for the poor and for the marginalised.”
He says that last Sunday, because St Paul’s was closed, he went to worship in Bethnal Green in the East End of London. “It was the most beautiful service. I was at the back, it was really quite full up. They hadn’t got an organ. It was catholic, inner city worship and for me it caught a particular aspect of what I believe, which is, as it were, more ‘incarnation’ than Wren ever tried to do.
“And I think that, in a sense what the camp does is that it challenges the church with the problem of the Incarnation – that you have God, who is grand and almighty, [who] gets born in a stable, in a tent. You know, St Paul was a tent maker. I mean, if you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus would be born – for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.”
He says it is “sad that the protesters came to occupy the Stock Exchange and ended closing down a cathedral”. But he concedes that the church could have done better to engage with the issues the protestors are raising.
“Money is the number one moral issue in the Bible and the way the Church of England goes on you would think it was sex,” he says. “It’s easily the number one issue in the Bible … but how many sermons do you get about that? Very few.”
He is at pains to scotch the suggestion that there was any pressure applied to the cathedral by wealthy corporate or banking interests in the City. And he also wants to emphasise that, while he expressed support for the right to protest and asked the police to move aside on the first Sunday, “what I didn’t do is say ‘the protesters are very welcome to camp here’. I didn’t say that”.
The past 10 days have been stressful, he says. “It’s at times of stress when you don’t read the Bible but the Bible reads you and that sometimes it doesn’t need too much interpretative sauce.”
On the first Sunday of the protest he preached to the preordained text of the day, which was “render unto Caesar” from St Matthew’s Gospel.
“It plunges you right into the issues in St Matthew’s Gospel that are related to the Sermon on the Mount – you cannot serve God and money and all those sort of things. I extemporised. Of course what Matthew says earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, in Chapter 6, is you can’t just say ‘let money, let the state, let all those issues stay on one side and let you do your piety on another’.
“As Christians, you’re called to engage with the world: that’s the whole nature of the Incarnation. That means that you have to talk about stocks and shares, and you have to talk about a sort of very raw, incarnational, practical faith. Christianity is one of the most materialistic of the world’s religions. It can’t be indifferent to the physical circumstances in which people live. It’s not some abstract piety. So that was the stuff of the sermon really.”
What did the dean say when he handed in his resignation?
“Uhm, he has written a very nice piece saying that he is sad to see me go.”
And has Archbishop Rowan Williams been in touch?
“He sent me a little note saying that I was in his prayers.”
Will he return to the cathedral – or does the curtain come down abruptly?
“Oh no! I have to work out my notice. I am very much looking forward to standing with my colleagues. When we have the opening Eucharist I will definitely stand with them. I leave with absolutely no sense of acrimony or bad feeling towards my colleagues.”
And then? He shrugs.
“I have absolutely no idea! I mean these things happen so quickly. I have a family and kids. I am terrified. I mean I have no other job to go to … there’s nothing else that’s there!”
Where does this leave his position in the church? “I am absolutely and completely committed to the Church of England … there is absolutely no way I would leave the Church of England.”
He reluctantly agrees to be photographed. He borrows an electric razor and a white shirt, roaring with laughter as he strips to the waist in the editor’s office. He pulls on his jacket. And, for the first time today, the Rev Dr Giles Fraser begins to look a little less like a protester and a touch more like the canon of England’s most majestic cathedral. Albeit an unemployed one
Having asked the police to leave the Cathedral on the first day of the Protest, I guess Canon-Chancellor Giles Fraser is very much feeling the pressure of disapproval from the Church authorities as the encampment of protesters moves into it’s present situation of public exclusion from Saint Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the City of London.
Here is Fr. Giles’ statement to the press which, in a few words, encapsulates his conscientious stand with the cause of the protesters:
“”Money is the number one moral issue in the Bible and the way the Church of England goes on you would think it was sex,” he says. “It’s easily the number one issue in the Bible … but how many sermons do you get about that? Very few.”
There can be little doubt that Canon Giles is one of the more open advocates in the Church of England on matters of social justice, which include not only the current concern of the protesters for a more equable distribution of profits, but also the plight of Women and the LGBT community, which is causing such division within the Church of England and other Provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
When he was Vicar of St. Mary’s, Putney, also in the heart of London, Fr. Giles invited Bishop Gene Robinson to give a talk to the members of ‘Inclusive Church’ at the time of the 2008 Lambeth Conference – from which Bishop Gene was excluded, on account of his living together with his Gay partner when he was ordained a Bishop in The Episcopal Church in the U.S. (TEC). I was present at that meeting – which included a celebration of the Eucharist, and was impressed by the deep spirituality of Bishop Gene, who spoke of his situation as being both Gay and a Bishop in the Church.
My prayers are for Fr. Giles as he contemplates his future – whether in the Church or in some other field of activity. His conscientious stand on matters of Peace and Justice has been of great value in his ministry as a priest in the Church of England, and my prayer is that the Church will continue to use him in the service of Christ and the Gospel.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand