The Church of England, not for the first time, has been left ruing its handling of the protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral, a situation in which it has been largely hapless. It did not ask for the protesters to pitch their tents next to one of its most important and symbolic buildings – or not semi-permanently anyway.
Yet the consequences of its agonised soul-searching have left it distinctly uncomfortable: trying to uphold free speech, bearing in mind the example of Christ’s clearing out the money changers from the temple on the one hand, or accepting the advice of a health and safety official – who has now fallen sick with stress – on the other. Or «a total and complete shambles», as one senior church figure told the Guardian.
There was sympathy for the cathedral’s predicament on the church’s right wing and support from the left for the resigning canon Giles Fraser, but also near-universal criticism of the decision to shut the cathedral for the first time since the blitz, not all of it displaced to the responsibility of the demonstrators.
The church used to be more robust in its dealing with demonstrators outside its walls, as the collection of pikes and armour on the walls of the guardroom at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, indicate, but it is centuries since it has had to get them down.
«It is very hard to take the temperature of the Church of England,» said Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times. «In a poll last week we found 65% of church members believing it was right to welcome the protesters, but there are equally bound to be lots of churchgoers out in the country who think it is right to take a firm hand to them. I suspect whatever people think of the demonstrators though, most will think the church has taken an utterly wrong approach to dealing with the situation. It is such a shame: we have just had our best publicity for ages over Rowan Williams challenging Robert Mugabe to his face and now this comes up and clearly damages the church’s reputation once again.»
In an indication of the often highly politicised vituperation among some in the church following the long-running dispute over gay clergy – in which Fraser was on the liberal side – some evangelicals reacted with glee that he was resigning. Gavin Drake, the bishop of Lichfield’s press officer, wrote on his blog: «Goodbye Giles Fraser, you won’t be missed. Giles Fraser is a liberal when it comes to what he believes, but a complete bigot when it comes to the beliefs and views of others … His appointment was wrong.» He claimed his remarks were not personal.
Toby Young, the polemicist, broke off from running his west London free school to claim in the Telegraph that Fraser had single-handedly cost the cathedral hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue. «Sod your colleagues, eh, Dr Fraser? The important thing is that you hold on to your reputation as a man of principle.»
More liberal clergy rallied to his support and sympathisers set up a Save Giles Fraser Twitter feed. «The Church of England risks damaging its reputation for a generation. The church has not thought this through,» the Rev George Pitcher, who was sacked in the summer as the archbishop of Canterbury’s media adviser, told Premier Christian Radio.
Today’s decision to reopen the cathedral to worshippers while the demonstrators are still outside seems to undermine the dean and chapter’s decision to close the building a week ago for health and safety reasons. The decision was compounded by legal advice that the clergy should not speak to the demonstrators, which undermined the chances of a negotiated settlement.
When the dust settles, the church’s authorities may have to review the traditional – and historic, dating back centuries – dean and chapter management structures for its great buildings, over which archbishops, and indeed diocesan bishops, have very little say. Making the church more savvy in its dealings with the outside world of protesters and insistent media demands may prove more difficult, particularly as it has just lost the services of one of its best communicators.