Occupy and the Church

by Symon Hill, Alex Doherty

Christian activist and author Symon Hill gives his take on the reaction of the authorities at St Paul's to the Occupy LSX camp and the political divisions within the Church.

First published: 25 November, 2011 | Category: Activism, Religion

Symon Hill is an activist, writer and trainer. He is associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia and the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the reaction of the Church hierarchy to the presence of the Occupy protesters at St Paul's cathedral.

What is your view of the way the authorities at St Paul's have handled the presence of the Occupy protesters?


The cathedral's response to the Occupy movement has been a real mess. It was great that Giles Fraser initially welcomed the protesters and asked the police to leave. But it was clear almost straight away that the staff of St Paul's were divided on the issue. The decision to ask the camp to leave appeared confrontational and confused. The decision to go so far as to close the cathedral was even worse, giving the impression of frightened Christians slamming their doors in the face of anything which was unfamiliar or uncomfortable. I'm pleased that the cathedral then reopened, but in doing so they gave the lie to the notion that they had good reason to close in the first place. The two clergy who resigned over plans to forcibly evict the camp showed an honourable commitment both to their own consciences and to freedom of expression. While the dean initially backed the plan for forced removal, I respect him for having the integrity to resign once he realised how badly he had handled things. I wish bankers and politicians would show the same commitment to taking responsibility for their errors of judgement.

While I was pleased that Richard Chartres dropped plans for legal action, he seemed to do so only after the tide of opinion had strongly turned against the cathedral and in favour of the camp. The Occupy movement have won sympathy through active active nonviolence, practicality and willingness to engage in dialogue. Not for the first time, the church authorities seem to be playing catch-up, backing a movement only after many others have led the way. As is so often the case, they give the impression that the Christian Church is tagging on to the end of movements for social justice, rather than being at the forefront of them.

It has been notable how quickly the protest caused a crisis within the Church of England. Why do you think divisions within the Church appeared so swiftly and what does this reveal about its political position?

It is important to remember that religious organisations in Britain not used to the level of media scrutiny to which the Church of England has been exposed in recent weeks. As with any group that suddenly find themselves making headlines, they have not found it easy to deal with. At the best of times, the Church of England seems spectacularly clueless about media engagement. That's a problem even for smaller stories that are over quite quickly, let alone for something like this. The divisions within British Christianity in general, and the Church of England in particular, are well-known to British Christians and to others who follow these developments. I don't think these divisions have become greater. Rather, they have suddenly become headline news in the mainstream press.

One aspect of this has been national newspapers reporting as "news" things that are not at all new - they are only new to the national mainstream media. For example, when Rowan Williams called for a Robin Hood Tax in the wake of the cathedral controversy, it was front page news. I think this is great - the Robin Hood Tax needs lots of support and it's great to see the archbishop backing it. What most of the national media overlooked is that Williams spoke in favour of the Robin Hood Tax last year - but the national media weren't listening then. Similarly, the Daily Mail "broke" the story that Giles Fraser's brother is an investment banker. In reality, Giles has been quite open about this, mentioning it in his Church Times column a few years ago.

It is important to recognise that there is a wide variety of political views within British Christianity. One of the BNP's leading members (Robert West) is keen to describe himself as a Christian, while at the other extreme I know a number of Christian anarchists. I think there are considerable numbers of British Christians who are fairly left-wing on economic issues, but socially conservative on issues such as abortion, marriage and LGBT rights.

In recent years, we have seen a number of Christian churches speak out more firmly at a national level in favour of economic justice, criticising the cuts and corporate tax-dodging, and opposing nuclear weapons and the arms trade. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church have been particularly strong in this area through their Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). The Church of Scotland, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Salvation Army have also adopted a left-leaning approach to economics, albeit in a usually quieter and more cautious way. Many priests and bishops in the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church have taken a left-wing stance, but at a national level, they have tended not to commit themselves. Despite this, my impression is that the average Church of England priest (if such a person can be imagined) is likely to be to the left of the average member of the UK population, at least on economics.

One reason for the confusion is the anachronistic position of the Church of England as the established church. The UK is the only country in the world in which Christian leaders are entitled automatically to sit in the legislature and vote on legislation. The Archbishop of Canterbury crowns the British monarch. This is a legacy of Christendom - a situation that prevailed for centuries, in which the Church provided moral and spiritual sanction to the state, and the state gave political and military backing to the Church. As Christendom fades in a multifaith society, the Church's commitment to tackling social injustice is hampered by a backwards-looking focus on the notion of Christianity as the national religion. Other Christians see Post-Chistendom as an opportunity to move on from Christianity's compromise with wealth and power and turn again to the subversive teachings of Jesus.

We are now seeing a very exciting revival of radically left-wing Christianity in Britain. This tends to draw its inspiration from grassroots Christians rather than formal denominations. This has seen twelve Christian organisations (so far) sign the Statement of Christian Solidarity with the 'Occupy' movement (which I initially drafted, although it was improved by others). Some of these ideas are promoted by the Christian thinktank Ekklesia (which I work for). They are spread among activists by groups such as Christianity Uncut, the Catholic Worker, the Student Christian Movement and the Speak network.

You view Jesus as a radical political figure who would most likely be on the side of the protests. Why do you believe that?

All Christians run the risk of creating Jesus in their own image and assuming he would hold all the same views that they do. Everyone can pick and choose quotes from Jesus to try to back up their own position. I'm aware that I can be tempted to do this as much as others and I'm not claiming that I can somehow know the mind of Jesus. Therefore, I try to base my arguments on how they relate to Jesus' life and teaching as a whole, along with an understanding of the context in which Jesus lived. In the light of this, I think there are three main points which back the notion of Jesus as a radical political figure.

Firstly, the notion of separating religion and politics is a very recent one. This is one reason why it is absurd to suggest that Jesus avoided politics. Prior to the eighteenth century, almost nobody would have understood the concept. Jesus - like most other teachers prior to the last three centuries - proclaimed values without saying that they applied only in "private life".

Secondly, Jesus' message is shot through with references to economics. He proclaimed that he was bringing "good news to the poor" and had come to "set free the oppressed". He said "blessed are the poor" and "woe unto you who are rich". He promised that "the first will be last and the last first". Of course, there is a danger that I just choose the lines that back up my position. That is why I'm trying to emphasise that economics are a constant theme in Jesus' teaching. I'm not suggesting that his message was only about politics and economics; part of Jesus' genius was to make the links between change of heart and change of society. Looking at the later parts of the New Testament, it's clear that Christians gradually began to water down Jesus' radical teaching and to fit in more with the society around them. Later still, in the fourth century, the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity and church leaders found themselves endorsing war and imperialism. Since then, Jesus' teachings on economics have been spiritualised, tortuously reinterpreted or simply ignored.

Thirdly, some of the actions and teachings attributed to Jesus are clearly more historically reliable than others. No serious historian would believe them all to be factual, just as almost no serious historian would dismiss them all (virtually all historians accept that Jesus existed; the church would hardly have invented him at the same time that they were trying to water down their radicalism). The event that virtually everyone agrees on is the crucifixion - a form of execution used by the Roman Empire to execute political rebels and similar troublemakers. The event that probably has the second most support for being historically factual is Jesus' protest in the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus is reported to have physically overturned the tables of exploitative traders and moneychangers. Jesus can hardly have been surprised that there was trading going on in the Temple; religious buildings were generally places of trade in the ancient world (and many still are, of course). Jesus seems to instead to have objecting to economic exploitation in the name of religion.

If you were in a position of authority at St Paul's what would your next move be regarding the occupation camp?

The Church of England authoities are probably glad that I'm not! I recognise that the cathedral staff are doing a very difficult job and I don't want to be so arrogant as to suggest that I could do it better. I think the most important issue is not the detailed decisions but the overall direction of travel. Is the cathedral neutral in the conflict between Occupy and the financial sector? It is vital that the answer should be no. It is not necessary for the cathedral to agree with every one of the camp's positions or methods in order to make clear that they are on their side in the struggle against the economic system. Unfortunately, the cathedral's decision to appoint a banker to lead an inquiry gives quite the opposite impression. It's like setting up an investigation into the ethics of gambling and appointing a bookie to chair it.

Christ calls us to love our enemies, to challenge them to change and to be open to challenge and change ourselves. The church needs to love bankers and stockbrokers, not hate them. But this should be a case of loving enemies. Christians need to name the evil of capitalism for what it is.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?