A Canon Quits as St. Paul's Cathedral Flip-Flops Over Occupy London

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National News / ZUMAPRESS.com

The Occupy London protest camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, Oct. 25, 2011.

"It seems a very long time since the protestors arrived around the cathedral," said Reverend Graeme Knowles, dean of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, on Oct. 21. Reading from an open letter to the Occupy London protest, the dean addressed the camp of nearly 200 tents residing outside the cathedral. "I want to stress at the outset that we have listened to them and indeed developed a conversation with them."

In reality, it hadn't been a week since the occupation had descended onto the cathedral's property. The protest against economic disparity that began on Oct. 15 had initially relied on the good graces of St. Paul's Cathedral to carry on. While the movement had intended to occupy the London Stock Exchange, an injunction and a police barricade had prevented the crowd of more than 1,000 from doing so. Instead, the protesters settled around the steps of the historic church, which stands nearby. That northwest area — partially owned by St. Paul's and partially owned by the City of London Corporation, the local governing body — has since been the main base of the protest movement.

At first, the demonstration prompted hundreds of police officers to circle the cathedral's surrounding area, monitoring the burgeoning occupation. However, after St. Paul's canon, Reverend Dr. Giles Fraser, urged the force to leave and announced that the protesters were welcome, it seemed as if the occupation would continue mostly unimpeded. Clusters of tents were pitched around the side and front of the cathedral, forming a tent city complete with a media tent, a library and portable toilets. Though hundreds of protestors could always be found milling outside St. Paul's, their activities were kept outside the cathedral.

Yet, only six days later, Rev. Knowles, reading his open letter to a crowd of reporters, recounted the fire-and-safety hazards the camp posed to the cathedral. He announced that the doors of St. Paul's would be closing and asked the protesters "to recognize the huge issues facing us at this time and asking them to leave the vicinity of the building so that the cathedral can re-open as soon as possible."

Perhaps the cathedral's dean and chapter (the cathedral's governing body) thought the announcement would be enough to cause the frequently criticized protest to move elsewhere. The decision to close the cathedral, after all, is by no means a small one. The last time St. Paul's shut its doors to the public was during The Blitz in 1940, when bombing forced the cathedral to close for four days. Fast-forward to 2011, with the church and camp at an impasse, the monumental decision to close the cathedral's doors resulted in a public-relations disaster for St. Paul's. As the days went by and the protestors stayed put, the cathedral was not only losing revenue from tourists — St. Paul's say it is losing around 20,000 pounds a day — but also garnered unpleasant publicity as many had questions about the decision to shut the doors. Questions that were merely compounded by the dean's perhaps unsurprising announcement late Wednesday that St. Paul's would reopen its doors, although the protestors remained.

The protestors themselves have expressed bafflement at the initial decision to close. Soon after Knowles' original announcement, Occupy London issued a statement maintaining that they'd cooperated with St. Paul's staff and had followed recommendations from London's Fire Brigade. "We have been working so hard since we arrived to accommodate every wish that's been put to us," co-organizer Ronan McNern told TIME. "The fire brigade says there are no problems with our camp." And, indeed, neither the fire brigade nor the City of London's health department has issued official safety concerns; the private recommendations the cathedral received about camp-related safety hazards haven't been released. Suggesting that the cathedral's about-face is suspicious, McNern added, "You have to ask: what are the politics at play?"

Others have been asking similar questions. A Guardian editorial, published on Wednesday, noted that the church's position should be in line with the protestors' fairness-minded point of view. Instead, with the protestors refusing to leave and the cathedral taking such a dramatic stand, the deadlock seems unresolvable unless the camp is forcibly removed — an option the church may be planning to take. Arguing that the cathedral has taken a nonsensical approach to the occupation, the Guardian maintained that if St. Paul's continues to oppose the protest, "the cathedral authorities will be acting in the service of absurdity and injustice."

There has even been dissension from within the church's clergy. On Thursday, St. Paul's canon Rev. Fraser, the man who initially welcomed the occupation, announced on Twitter that he would be leaving. "It is with great regret and sadness that I have handed in my notice at St Paul's Cathedral," he wrote, though he made no reference to the occupation or the cathedral's decision to close its doors. However, in a statement to the Guardian Rev. Fraser clarified, "I resigned because I believe that the chapter has set on a course of action that could mean there will be violence in the name of the church."

Of course, there had been many voices chiming in on behalf of the cathedral. London's Bishop, Reverend Richard Chartres, said on Wednesday that, "the time has come for the protesters to leave, before the camp's presence threatens to eclipse entirely the issues that it was set up to address." London's mayor, Boris Johnson, echoed that request, saying that it is the protesters who need "to go."

Yet, clearly the pressure fell more heavily on the shoulders of St. Paul's chapter, as plans to reopen the doors demonstrates. In the game of p.r. chicken, Occupy London has clearly come out the winner. The chapter's series of ill-explained U-turns was perplexing and roused suspicions. While the protesters have said they're willing to work with the chapter, they've refused to leave despite the repeated requests. Then again, they are protesters; their willingness to occupy an area where they're not wanted shouldn't come as a surprise.