Protest puts church in sticky situation

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

What happens when the British protest version of Occupy Wall Street pitch their tents outside one of the wealthiest churches in London? This answer to this question has been as messy and ill-defined as some of the protests themselves.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has taken on a life of its own, emerging by last count in one form or another in close to 100 nations. Although the protests seem to be ill-defined and leaderless, they are a witness to the frustration, powerlessness and alienation that many citizens feel in relation to the multinational institutions that shape our world.

And so the tent dwellers and protesters in London have congregated outside one of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of England’s most recognizable landmarks and most well-heeled congregations. Banned from occupying the land outside the London Stock Exchange they made their way to the nearby church in the heart of London’s financial district, setting up shop on land owned partially by the church and partially by the city of London.

The church leadership has struggled with how to approach this sea of somewhat disorganized humanity outside its doors. As the pastor of a downtown local church, I can sympathize with their plight.

The Christian church has historically advocated for the poor and powerless. Most of Jesus’ followers and the earliest Christians appeared to come from the poor classes. But the church appeals to people of all classes; some studies indicate that the poorer, less educated members of society are less likely to be members of a church these days.

So St. Paul’s Cathedral with its wealthy and highly educated membership originally responded hospitably, recognizing the protestors’ plight and making no effort to remove them. But as the disorder spread they closed the doors of the cathedral for the first time since World War II. I can understand this painful decision. Somebody has to clean up the church, after all. But this decision was so ill-received, both within the leadership of the church and beyond, that the church reversed field in two days. St. Paul’s, in closing its doors, also lost tourist revenue of 20,000 pounds per day.

This magnificent cathedral finds itself in another dilemma. It receives generous financial support, according to Reuters, from global banks Goldman Sachs, UBS and HSBC. These corporations, the very group the protesters so decry, have made a huge difference in the monumental expense of maintaining a church built in the 17th century.

So what does the church do? It’s easier to sympathize with the protesters when your own members are poor, powerless and at the mercy of forces well beyond their control. But a church whose membership includes the bankers and elite leaders of society finds itself in a quandary. Two senior pastors in the St. Paul’s congregation have resigned over the church’s perceived inhospitality and it appears that St. Paul’s reflects the same ambivalence about this movement as the rest of society.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.