The Camp at St Paul’s Cathedral
Something extraordinary has happened at St Paul’s Cathedral. Inspired by the recent occupation of Wall St in New York, protestors gathered in the City of London to occupy the Royal Exchange on Saturday, yet the police made sure they never got beyond their rallying point on the steps of the Cathedral. But then – in an unexpected move – Canon Giles Fraser came out of St Paul’s to welcome them and ask the police to leave, effectively granting sanctuary to the protestors. And since Saturday, they have pitched a small encampment of tents beneath the towering West front of Wren’s great edifice, thus establishing a highly visible presence for themselves at the heart of Europe’s financial centre, with the blessing of the Cathedral authority.
In just a few days, this city within the City has established its own life, with a first aid post, legal advice centre, a cafeteria serving meals prepared from donations of food which are being received, a recycling centre and even a university offering seminars in alternative economics and a range of other relevant topics. “We all understand there’s something fundamentally wrong,” one of the tent occupants admitted to to me, citing the prolonged wars, global financial crisis and collapsing economies that are indicative of our time.
“Does the society we live in function to benefit the people who live in it, or for some other reason? – to benefit only the rich? – to benefit those in power?” he asked rhetorically, gesturing to the buildings of the City that surrounded us, “People are losing their homes, their jobs, they cannot pay their bills, and entire countries are going broke – that is why we are here.”
I stood among the sea of tents in the deep shadow of late afternoon with a bright October sky overhead and realised I had arrived in a different place, an intense emotional space, transformed by the presence of those camping there. Everywhere I looked, people were engaging in heated discussions about is right and what is wrong, and what should be done about it. City workers and other passersby had stopped to participate in debates, among the tents, those dwelling there were sitting in circles discussing their beliefs, and upon the steps of the Cathedral large crowds were gathering to participate in disputes filmed by television cameras. “This is not about Left or Right, it’s a human thing,” explained my host, recognising the wonder upon my face in reaction to the spectacle - “something needs to change.”
Yet to my eyes, a near miraculous change had already come about – because the presence of the camp gave everyone the opportunity to speak their minds publicly, to be heard and to listen. The combination of circumstances had delivered a rare moment of liberty, in which recognition of common humanity was uppermost as the basis for all interaction.
The quality of openness and mutual respect – and the possibility that complete strangers could open their hearts to share their beliefs about what kind of world they want to live in – was such that I can only describe this event as a spiritual one.
In front of the vast Cathedral, a man was reciting the sermon on the mount. All around, musicians were playing and the standard anonymity of the City streets was suspended. Normality was exposed as a charade because a group of ordinary decent people felt passionate enough to risk themselves, taking leave of their jobs and families and everyday lives, sleeping on concrete at the onset of Winter in Northern Europe to express their moral outrage at the direction our world has taken. And when you see this, it renews your hope.
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