The Church of England’s political incompetence is strangely reassuring

Not even Anglicanism’s best and most faithful friends (of whose number I proudly count myself) could reasonably argue other than that their beloved church has made a spectacular pig’s ear of the whole Occupy London Stock Exchange protest and encampment. The protesters have been in the church’s favour, out of it, in it again, out of it, in it, and generally shaken all about in their uneasy relationship with their camp-site’s landlord. It’s easy to poke fun, and of course many in the media have been queueing up to do just that. The benefits of hindsight have rarely been on more conspicuous display, and to pontificate with the advantage of those benefits about the uselessness of the actions of those who have not enjoyed them is easy, if hardly edifying, sport.

The church was always going to be damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t. That might be a consequence of the church’s disorganisation, but in a much more profound sense it’s an inevitable consequence of the infuriating way in which its founder defies easy categorisation, and refuses to be dragooned into straightforward alliance as much with bankers as with protesters. For every facile rendition of quotations about rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, there is an equally facile appeal to quotations about the eyes of needles. Those that claim there is some simple and self-evident moral necessity for the church to align itself with the protesters and eschew the bankers are mistaken. Jesus does not castigate riches per se: he merely, but unwaveringly, points to the debilitating effect on our moral well-being of allowing ourselves to use riches as a way of assessing our own and others’ worth. It is as wrong to judge a banker as worthless because they are rich as it is to judge a rough sleeping youth as worthless because they are poor. Equally it is not riches, but the love of riches, which corrupts us morally. And you don’t have to be rich to love riches, after all.

So the church’s attitude to the protesters on its doorstep was always going to have to be nuanced if it was going to remain faithful in its witness. And nuance is not what anyone who is desperate to see the church take sides wants to be bothered with.

What, then, should the church have done? I believe it should have stuck more clearly and more steadfastly to its fundamental purpose of ministering to the people, rather than appear to be vacillating this way and that under pressure from first one side, and then the other, in this divisive set of circumstances. It is not the church’s concern to worry about the rights and wrongs of camping on the public highway. It is not even its primary concern to worry overly much about health and safety, and certainly not to use health and safety as a fig-leaf to cover its embarrassment. The church should indeed be on the side of the poor and oppressed, but it does not necessarily follow that that is the same side as the protesters. It may be. It may not. It is also the role of the church to be on the side of the rich and powerful, in the sense that rich and powerful people are indeed also people about whom the church should care. The proper care of the rich and powerful may consist mostly in calling them to repentance, of course.

So if I’d been in the Chapter of St Paul’s I’d have been organising a rota for saying mass amongst the protesters, and challenging them to assess their protest in the light of the gospel. Old fashioned, I know. I’d also have been doing the same in Paternoster Square amongst the bankers. The modern church feels embarrassed by such ideas, and wants instead to promote itself as politically engaged and relevant, and as some sort of political arbitrator. I think it’s a mistake, if for no other reason than that the Church is so politically incompetent. And of course, that’s where I came in. I find the church’s incompetence reassuring. I’d hate the church to be slick and successful as a political force. Instead of trying, and failing with humiliating consequences, to operate as a political player, the church should stick to its guns as the conscience of the nation. That, ironically, is a profoundly political role. It is not the church as aloof and other-worldly. It is the church as witness to what is truly significant in human life, and the devil take the consequences.

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4 thoughts on “The Church of England’s political incompetence is strangely reassuring

  1. Excellent points, excellently expressed!

    Thank-you for referring me – I do feel that it was a divine hand that diverted the protest from Paternoster Square to St Paul’s itself. It has shaken the church: Bishop Nick and Gavin Drake both describe the autonomous bubbles that make up the hierarchy of the Church of England, with Bishop Nick twice saying ‘An explanation is not an excuse’. There is nothing to apologise for in the structure – it has served the Church well. However, it sits uneasily in the culture of the 21st century and I hope that an effort will be made to co-ordinate and communicate more effectively in response to that culture.

    Curiously, your last paragraph chimes exactly with a conversation I had today with an agnostic friend who nevertheless believes that the Church, as the established Church of England, has an important role to play as the conscience of the nation. Interesting that he comes to the same conclusion as you from, as it were, the opposite point of the compass.

  2. This is very good sense. I think, interestingly, that had it been an “ordinary” church outside which the protestors had set up camp, the response would have been much more likely to be in the spirit you commend. Perhaps being a national monument somehow gets in the way of a “normal” Christian response.

    Incidentally, there are no bankers in Paternoster Square. It’s the home of the London Stock Exchange which, whatever you happen to think of what they do, was in no way responsible for the financial crisis which precipitated all this. That’s why there was (and still is) a strong argument that the focus of the protest should have been outside one of the “guilty” banks, eg RBS; or indeed at the Bank of England or the Houses of Parliament, both of which failed to properly regulate the banking sector.

    I hope layanglicana is right that it is divine providence that brought the focus to St Paul’s. It was either that, or ignorance of how this “crisis of capitalism” came about.

    • Thanks, Stephen. You may well be right that had the camp been set up outside an ordinary church, the church collectively might have responded differently, and indeed better. But that is the tragedy of what has happened: we had the opportunity to use the national monument to the advantage of the church’s message, but have instead conspired to turn it to disadvantage.

      You’re right too, of course, to point to my lazy association of Paternoster Square with bankers, echoing as it does a fundamental misapprehension amongst the protesters themselves. However, the protest might seem to be about bankers and their seemingly unreconstructed refusal to learn or to reform, but in truth it’s a much more fundamental questioning of capitalism in general, and that system’s grotesquely distorted distribution of the fruits of its productivity. The bankers have become a lightening rod for a whole system’s ills.

      In that regard, I do wonder about the wisdom of ++Rowan’s backing for a specific remedy in the Robin Hood tax. Quite apart from the questions that have been raised about such a tax’s effectiveness, his support runs the risk of seeming to imply that merely skimming off a tiny proportion of the existing system’s transactions whilst leaving the system unreformed and intact represents a sufficient, and perhaps a specifically Christian, remedy. I for one don’t think it does.

  3. No, no, they wanted to go into Paternoster Sq where the Stock Exchange is; COL Police stopped that, that’s why its a St Pauls issue bbcqt

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