St. Paul’s anti-capitalist protest: Location, location, location

By contributor Sean Carey

“My congratulations to the encampment outside St Paul’s for sending almost the entire British establishment into a tizzy every bit as confused as some of the protesters themselves,” writes Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer. The left-leaning newspaper’s award-winning chief political commentator goes on to express his amazement about the massive impact a small group of young, middle-class men and women equipped with nylon tents and hastily-made banners can have on the country as part of an anti-capitalist protest which has now spread to around 900 cities worldwide.

He continues:

“You have brought a frown to the forehead of the prime minister, hyperbolic froth to the lips of Boris Johnson [the Mayor of London], attracted the disdain of a pomposity of pontificators and thrown the state church into something approaching a constitutional crisis. It is twisted knickers time among pundits, politicians and prelates.” Perhaps mindful that Hallow’een was imminent, Rawnsley mischievously adds: “Imagine what might be achieved if this movement can get really serious and starts taking its protest more directly to the avaricious bankers, corporate larcenists and crony capitalists who are the central source of their discontent with how we live now.”

Were the various beneficiaries of global capitalism identified by Rawnsley quaking in their boots or enjoying a nice round of golf before a traditional Sunday lunch somewhere in the Home Counties on a pleasant autumnal day? Despite the protests, life probably went on as usual. Nevertheless, as Rawnsley rightly observes, something is going on, but what exactly?

Capitalism is Crisis tents at St Paul's in London. Flickr/zoer

Another intriguing question is why the encampment in the churchyard of St Paul’s is causing so many social actors so many problems and causing the chattering classes to chatter quite so much.

Believe me, the U.K. mainstream media — newspapers, radio and television and its digital equivalent blogs, Facebook, YouTube and especially twitter — are full of stories about the encampment outside the Church of England cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the great Fire of London, and seat of the Bishop of London.

Last Thursday the current occupant, Dr Richard Chartres, who has been at the receiving end of criticisms from those on both sides of the argument, felt obliged to say: “The Church’s own role in this has now inevitably come under scrutiny. Calls for the camp to disband peacefully have been deliberately interpreted as taking the side of Mammon, which is simply not the case. The original purpose of the protests, to shine a light on issues such as corporate greed and executive pay, has been all but extinguished – yet these are issues that the St Paul’s Institute has taken to heart and has been engaged in examining.”

He continues:

If the protesters will disband peacefully, I will join the Dean and Chapter in organising a St Paul’s Institute debate on the real issues here under the Dome. We will convene a panel from across the political and business spectrum and will invite the protesters to be represented. The Dean and I will be available on Sunday morning, outside St Paul’s, to listen and engage. Our message will be simple: pack up your tents voluntarily and let us make you heard.

The Bishop’s plea for the protesters to move on raises some interesting issues concerning the delineation of the sacred and profane. Is the encampment just a “conventional” anti-capitalist, anti-globalization protest, and how significant is the religious location in amplifying the social drama?

It’s the churchyard, stupid

Cultural anthropology can supply some insights. Although the vast majority of the population in the U.K. is broadly secular, perceptions of metaphysical power – in this instance Church of England-generated metaphysical power — still exert a considerable influence on the behavior and outlook of many people, including those from religious traditions other than Christianity. The single exception to this rule is the loose band of self-conscious atheists and humanists, who do not believe in religious metaphysical power, although it is fair to say that most would recognize the social and cultural significance of participatory religious rituals and buildings for believers. In other words, they believe in the power of religion, but not for enlightened people like themselves.

Add to this mix the fact that St Paul’s is one of the most important tourist destinations in London. It is where Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Winston Churchill had their funeral services. It is where peace services signalling the end of the First and Second World Wars services were held. It is where Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married.

Normal metaphysical perceptions attached to the location are super-charged.

A further point is connected to the fact that the protest camp, part of the Occupy London campaign, is in the churchyard of St Paul’s. Metaphysical power in mainstream institutional Christianity is always spatially differentiated. The maximum location of religious power is at the altar inside the church, exclusively used by initiated clergy and their helpers. The area where the congregation sits for services is the next most metaphysically powerful location.

Then we come to the churchyard, the area that marks the transition from sacred to secular space. It is an anomalous location, part divine and part profane. In Christian churchyards, both Church of England and Roman Catholic, the area usually also functions as a burial ground.

As Sir Edmund Leach pointed out in his 1981 lecture Once a Knight is Quite Enough, the churchyard is often thought to be haunted. It is as he says, “‘betwixt and between’ the House of God and the World of Mammon.” If this liminal quality applies to ordinary churchyards, it is easy to see why the presence of protesters in the churchyard of St Paul’s in the heart of London’s financial district, which plays such an important role in both the U.K. and global economy, has created on the one hand such a problem for the British establishment, but on the other a carnival-communitas atmosphere for demonstrators. Indeed it was no surprise, then, to see on BBC TV news on Sunday night a group of protesters wearing Hallow’een-inspired face paints dancing in formation in front of the Cathedral to the sequence made famous in the 1983 award-winning music video of Michael Jackson’s famous zombie anthem, Thriller.

How will it end?

With the protesters in the churchyard having declared that they will form a “ring of prayer” to prevent a forced eviction (increasingly likely with the news overnight that the City of London Corporation has stated that it will start legal action if necessary), the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday cryptically warning of the “urgent issues” that needed to be addressed, and that most liminal of times in the Christian calendar, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, upon us I’m tempted to say, God only knows.

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