Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The curious case of St Paul's and the blocked drains

Drains are hardly the world's most attractive things. Nonetheless they are essential to sanitary living and, as a rule, one doesn't notice them until they go wrong. Thankfully we have specialists to deal with them. This morning my drains (in WW2 parlance) 'went for a burton' and while I wait for Dynarod to come and save me from my own poisonous effluent I thought I'd take a moment to reflect upon the current impasse and debacle happening at St Paul's London in relation to the OccupyLSX movement.

St Paul's decision to close its doors has left many, including me, exasperating, bewildered and suspicious. The grounds that have been cited are 'health and safety'; however, friends and colleagues who have visited the site have (accepting that they are not health & safety professionals) failed to perceive on what particular grounds this claim is based. Equally, St Paul's has - insofar as I am aware - not provided evidence to the public which demonstrates, beyond peradventure, what those health and safety grounds are. This has left a vast media vacuum in which both speculation and anger has grown. Since Giles Fraser's dramatic intervention on the first Sunday of the protest, there seems to have been a lack of intelligent connection with the protesters - a failure of candour and engagement which (given the unique opportunity the church had in this situation) is both depressing and heartbreaking.

One dimension that has unavoidably been churned over is the gap between Giles Fraser's well received statement on that first Sunday of the protest and the subsequent statements bearing the Dean's imprimatur. It takes very little wit to speculate that there has been some difference of opinion within the leadership of St Paul's (The Chapter) and one suspects that Fraser - a very gifted theologian aand public intellectual - has felt placed in an extremely difficult position. The Dean-led change of position - which will probably be branded by St Paul's as a 'change of enphasis' - indicates that the Dean has given a top-down steer. At one level this is unsurprising - the Dean is primus inter pares. Nonetheless, surely Fraser has been left out in the cold. Fraser's statement of support for the protesters was clearly the example of priesthood being exercised in the midst of the polis' wrestling with its way forward; the corporate response has had the troubling whiff of power's sulphur.

The Church of England is in a curious and sometimes unenviable position: as National Church it is inevitable caught up in the manoevres and passions of Establishment and those who are drawn to it, but equally it has a unique position to speak into the things of the Nation's moment. Whatever is actually happening behind closed doors at St Paul's, the feel being given off is of a church too cautious and too compromised by its closeness to money and power. As someone who's been around the church for a long-time I find conspiracy theories unappealing  - we are too amateurish, too leaky and too confused as an organisation to achieve the level of sophistication for major conspiracies. The situation at St Paul's has the feel of giant mess up rather than giant conspiracy. And sadly an opportunity has been lost.

Whatever one feels about the Occupy LSX protest, the Church - as represented by St Paul's - has missed opportunities: opportunities to mediate, to discuss and dialogue, and to host and show hospitality. It has lost the opportunity to bring intelligent theological reflection into the protest movement and has risked the social and political capital (which I guess is more interesting and significant than the increasingly dodgy financial capital being thrown around the CIty) that may have accrued from sensitive and mature engagement with passionately felt human concern.

Many people - including myself in a contribution to a forthcoming book - have suggested that the church is part of the drainage/plumbing system of English Society. That is, that like many other things in our polity it is part of the essential, hidden pipework of the land and it runs so deep that one hardly notices it until something goes wrong. Who are the 'plumbers' who will sort out this situation at St Paul's? That remains to be seen. However, it seems likely that the time for a theological version of Dynarod has come.
Which reminds me. Back to those blocked drains!


  1. Some of us are having Evensong anyway, outside, tomorrow:

  2. It certainly is odd. If there are genuine health and safety reasons for it then surely it is in everyone's interest, especially in the interest of St Paul's to show the public what it is. The protesters have seemed to be willing to do their best to get around any issues that they may be causing. We could all be wrong, but something does seem amis in this situation.

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  8. This article reminds of that scene in life of brian. What have the Romans ever done for us...? Sanitation?

  9. I loved comment referring to the scene in the movie Life of Brian, so funny. On a serious note, blocked drains can be such a troublesome and worrying time for most people. We find the unblocking drains is best left the a licensed plumber rather than pouring chemicals down the drain.