November 2, 2011 10:54 pm
“The government needs badly to hear how much plain fear there is around ... not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse.” Those prescient words were written in June by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as guest editor of Britain’s left-leaning New Statesman magazine. How sad then that the Archbishop did not heed his own advice in dealing with the Occupy London protesters camped out at St Paul’s Cathedral in the Square Mile.
The debacle that has played out on the steps of St Paul’s over the past two weeks has left British congregations angry and confused. Not just because the cathedral’s dean and chapter have shown poor judgment in their handling of the protest, by revoking the initial welcome to demonstrators and threatening eviction. But because the crisis has shown up a worrying lack of leadership in the church at the moment when it was most needed.
Dr Williams has often criticised the very behaviour also being attacked by the St Paul’s protesters. Only last year he hit out at the rich and privileged for not having shared the pain of economic crisis and spending cuts. Yet it has taken two weeks and three resignations for the Archbishop to speak out on a protest that many of his faith believe reflects – however incoherently – the morals and values of the Church itself.
The Anglican Church is now struggling to repair the damage left behind by this vacuum. The eviction order has been reversed and Dr Williams has urged concrete action to restore ethics to capitalism in the pages of this newspaper. But his statement was disappointing. The Church’s job is not to pontificate on the finer details of financial regulation. Instead of turning to the Vatican for ideas on micromanaging the financial sector, Dr Williams should have taken the opportunity to set out the Church’s ethical position on the excesses of the financial system and its practitioners. After all, capitalism involves moral choices. He could have condemned the tendency to regard everything that is not expressly forbidden as being permitted.
Critics within the Church suggest that it has become too cautious in recent years, failing to anticipate public discontent over the financial crisis while being caught up in internal disputes about sex and gender. This was a missed opportunity to change the tone. Worse, the fact that St Paul’s is heavily funded by the City is likely to raise suspicions about the Church’s apparent reluctance to publicly challenge its benefactors.
Church diplomatic considerations may have prevented Dr Williams from taking a more prominent role in events affecting a fellow bishop’s patch. If so, he was wrong. Such niceties have enhanced the mistaken impression that the Church – and St Paul’s in particular – stood on the side of established interests rather than of the people. The Archbishop cannot be absent from issues that resonate beyond diocesan boundaries. Principles that affect the whole Church count for more than a little local difficulty.
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