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The Camp at St Paul’s Cathedral

October 20, 2011
by the gentle author

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.

You may also like to read about Richard Jefferies in the City of London

11 Responses leave one →
  1. October 20, 2011

    Wow. Really great; really moving. Reminds me of my childhood in Berkeley. I haven’t been out to join the crowds in Oakland and San Francisco – feels now like I should.

  2. October 20, 2011

    It’s all great. The picture of the young man in the scarf talking to the scowling middle aged man is classic.

  3. October 20, 2011

    This almost made me weep with hope. It was a poignant reminder of my student protest days years ago when in a pre-Thatcher Britain we really believed we could make a better world. Maybe our children will succeed where we failed. Something to pray, hope and work for.

  4. Ruth permalink
    October 20, 2011

    The irony is that, having welcomed the camp enthusiastically, St Paul’s now finds its visitors & income has dropped by half or more & I believe has had to close the restaurant for now. Perhaps those of us who are local & have some time & solidarity to spare could visit both the camp & the cathedral?

  5. andrea permalink
    October 20, 2011

    Good for Canon Giles Fraser.

  6. CornishCockney permalink
    October 20, 2011

    This reminds me of the late 1980s when public opinion ended the Cold War and the Wall came down.
    I hope and pray it has the same effect. Good on them.

  7. Emily Farmer permalink
    October 20, 2011

    What a gracious gesture from St. Paul’s; now if only an institution on my side of the pond would follow this example!

  8. Jim Thatcher permalink
    October 22, 2011

    Now their profits are being hit, the Canon of St Paul’s has announced they must shut St Paul’s. Their excuse is Health and Safety. There has been no consultation with the protesters regarding the Cathedral’s need to close. The protesters have accommodated the needs of the Cathedral to the best of their ability and have requested many times for dialogue with the Canon and his minions to discuss their concerns, the Canon of St Paul’s has not responded. I and no doubt other were delighted when Canon Giles Fraser came out of St Paul’s to announce that the protester could stay. Now I see the church is part of the problem with our society… shame on them.

  9. Ruth permalink
    October 22, 2011

    Jim, I don’t think the Cathedral is ‘part of the problem with our society’. It’s part of the history & fabric of our city as well as a place of great beauty. I’ve been seeing various opinions on message boards criticising the CofE as seeing it merely as a ‘cash cow’. Yet it costs around£20,000 a day simply to maintain. The protest was not originally aimed at the Cathedral but it’s sadly affected its day to day running; not the intention of the protesters I’m sure. It would be a shame if the scope of the protest was now extended to include it when it’s done you no harm.

  10. jeannette permalink
    October 26, 2011

    thanks for this, i’ve been trying to get a sense of it from bbc 4 reports but get only huffings and puffings about how the cathedral has had to close. weird.
    i am going to contribute money to the wall street people asap.
    thanks for this.

  11. Liam T Kirk permalink
    July 2, 2012

    I admire the gentle author’s dedication to recording event’s around his home ground. The photography is of a high-quality.

    I was a press officer for the Occupation of the London Stock Exchange however I left the Occupy movement mid-January and only now have returned to the matters raised. I am in the dark as to the outcome of the legal battle in the High Court and subsequent events.

    There is an irony to the protest at St Paul’s and the sister site at Finsbury Square those familar with the McLibel case would raise an eyebrow, for it is my belief that at, at least one occasion, there more agent provocateurs in the employ of Big Business than genuine campers protesting on the Common Groud adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral.

    Private eyes never had it so good.

    I as a press officer, of course, came to the attention of Special Branch, that is Britain’s political police force and I don’t know who but someone paid for the services of a commerical sex worker, however I had the strength of character to decline offers of free alcohol and drugs.

    But thru (I am aware this is the American spelling) it all I never once let my editorial standards drop.

    I would be most grateful if I could be supplied an update to events around St Paul’s and futher afield.

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