British history has been punctuated by stories of turbulent priests more often than by stories of recalcitrant congregations. As Thomas à Becket discovered to his detriment, it is usually the clergy — and not their flock — who find themselves in danger of being ousted. As of October 16, London’s famous St. Paul’s cathedral sits squarely in this tradition, with its dean, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, now publicly regretting the leniency he initially showed the camped-out members of “Occupy London Stock Exchange” — the British franchise of the now-global “Occupy” brigade. If Dean Knowles had expected to be afforded the same respect by OLSX that he has become accustomed to from his parishioners, he was sorely mistaken. Since their free pass was issued, the people-in-tents have made it blindingly obvious that they are not merely differently dressed members of the City of London’s laity, but, literally, occupiers intent on holding the fort at all costs.
And there are costs. When the first protesters arrived, the cathedral’s authorities turned the other cheek, accepting the imposition of the protest camp with alacrity. St. Paul’s even took the unusual step of instructing London’s police to leave the protesters where they were. In doing so, an unfortunate precedent was set. As the crowd has grown to 2,000 strong, access to the landmark has been gradually blocked, forcing St. Paul’s to close its doors for the first time since 1940, when German bombs rained indiscriminately down on the city during the Blitz and an unexploded incendiary forced evacuation for a few days while the device was removed.
“We have done this with a very heavy heart,” the Right Reverend Knowles announced at a press conference, “but it is simply not possible to fulfill our day-to-day obligations to worshippers, visitors, and pilgrims.” Reluctantly, the dean has now asked the protesters to leave, which they have predictably refused to do. Clearly, “we’ll stay here as long as we have to” is a common refrain on both sides of the Atlantic.
Aside from keeping away worshippers and tourists alike, the closure is having a real impact on what is one of Britain’s finest pieces of Restoration architecture. Each day that it is shuttered, St. Paul’s loses between £16,000 and £23,000 in revenues ($26,000 to $37,000), a crippling blow to a glorious 300-year-old building that receives little financial support from the state. And then there is the fire risk: “Health, Safety and Fire officers have pointed out that access to and from the Cathedral is seriously limited. With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a clear fire hazard,” wrote the dean in a press release explaining his decision. No doubt the irony that St. Paul’s was the grand centerpiece of the rebuilding program after 1666’s devastating Great Fire has not been lost on observers.
The closure of St. Paul’s provides a key insight into the nature of the “Occupy” protests: Making a scene is the sine qua non of the movement, the one thing on whose necessity all participants can agree. In his sad statement to the press, Knowles noted that the church was “alongside those seeking equality and financial probity” and that “the debate about a more just society is at the heart of much of our work at St. Paul’s.” But that’s not the point — for the occupiers, the medium is the message. “The fight has to go on,” said protester Ronan McNern, and then promised he would be there until Christmas if necessary.
Never mind that St. Paul’s is not the London Stock Exchange, and that its management is supportive of OLSX’s goals. (The same goes for Zuccotti Park; as one lower-Manhattan resident told me, “They aren’t occupying Wall Street!”) Never mind that the cathedral is one of Britain’s national treasures and is desperately in need of money for maintenance. Never mind that for many of the 99 percent that the “Occupy” movement claims holistically to represent, St. Paul’s is a place of pilgrimage and sanctuary and keen historical significance. As long as the performance continues, all is well. The show must go on!
London’s literati are starting to catch on to this. Writing in the Times, professional moderate Libby Purves noted that “it is impossible to think of any clear, feasible action by an elected government that would satisfy and shift them.” She is right, but then there never has been such an action. As OLSX protester Naomi Colvin put it, “We’re in the business of defining process, and specific demands will evolve from this in time.” Witness, thus, the ever-present appeal to mañana.
St. Paul’s cathedral has stood proud, open, and unharmed through twelve monarchs, an abdication crisis, two world wars, repeated terrorist atrocities, the fight over female suffrage, and fundamental constitutional change. During the dark days of the Second World War, it seemed almost preternaturally preserved from harm: As bombs dropped all around, destroying everything in sight, its celebrated dome poked imperforate through clouds of smoke, and a famous photograph provided succor to millions of weary Londoners. Since its consecration in 1708, St. Paul’s has been a happy constant in British life. It would be a tragedy if this stellar record of openness and repair were eventually blighted by 2,000 heedless members of a rag-tag mob camped out aimlessly on the streets of the capital.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.