Opinion

Occupy the Pews

In England and Canada, the Anglican Church seems to have forgotten whose side Jesus was on. Some folks are jogging its memory.

By Kai Nagata, 2 Mar 2012, TheTyee.ca

Occupy-London.jpg

Eviction of the Occupy camp at London's St. Paul's Cathedral began Monday. Photo: Kai Nagata.

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If you happen to be looking for B.C. Premier Christy Clark at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, you might find her at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. A former religious studies scholar at the University of Edinburgh, Clark worships now and then at the century-old Anglican church on Burrard. She even popped up as a reader at one recent service, filling the beautifully restored Gothic interior with her smooth radio voice.

As she put it during the Liberal leadership race, "For me, my faith is very personal and it's very consistent with my desire to want to make a difference in the world."

Christy Clark describes herself as a devout Anglican. At the same time, she presides over the province with both the highest child poverty rate and the lowest corporate tax rates in Canada. Her first budget as premier, released last week, does nothing to diminish this inequality. Even as a lapsed Anglican, I detect a troubling contradiction. Jesus seems like the kind of long-haired revolutionary who would be down at the local Occupy camp or homeless mission, washing feet. How do you reconcile what he said about rich people with policies engineered to favour the wealthy?

Coincidentally, I was baptized at Christ Church Cathedral -- where both Christy Clark and the British Royal Family worship when they're in town. I suppose I lost interest in organized religion during high school. The Anglican Church wasn't addressing my reality, so I drifted away. Lately, though, I've had second thoughts. The larger conversation around inequality seems to be crystallizing, giving the Church a unique opportunity to make itself relevant.

Beyond scripture, the Anglican Church has infrastructure and organizers in nearly 3,000 communities across Canada. It has meeting rooms, kitchens, heated halls, garden space and an internal communications network. In other words, the Church could be a significant ally in projects of large-scale social change. If you multiply that across other Christian denominations and faith communities, some of which already take a more active political role, the potential is enormous.

Here's an example: Christy Clark still hasn't decided whether her government will support the Northern Gateway pipeline. What might happen if the Anglican Church took a public position on the pipeline before the premier?

Is the Church too stained and enfeebled by history to hold sway? Or is it time to reinvent itself as a vital voice in the public conversation?

'Colluding with Babylon'

If there has been one so-called "battle" showing just how far the global Occupy movement has still to go, it didn't happen in Vancouver. Nor did it take place in Oakland, or even at Zuccotti Park, as police cordoned off journalists and swept in on Occupy Wall Street.

The real crucible has been a church courtyard in London, England. The struggle itself took place in a nearby courtroom. In January, a judge finally ruled against Occupy London and on Monday -- months after most protest camps around the world were evicted -- police and bailiffs finally moved in to clear the courtyard around Saint Paul's Cathedral.

The biggest loss is not the confiscated tents or even the court case. Far more troubling is the lost opportunity for the global Anglican communion to side with humanity against a corporate plutocracy.

I visited London in December. A few blocks up from the Thames, the Occupy tents were still huddled in the shadow of Saint Paul's Cathedral. That put them on Church of England property, but also within the territory of the ancient and powerful City of London Corporation. It was the Corporation that launched legal proceedings to evict the protestors.

The Corporation is no ordinary local government. It's a city within a city -- an island within an island, with its own police force (backed up during the eviction by Scotland Yard). Boris Johnson's mayoral authority stops at the boundaries of the so-called "Square Mile." Indeed the Queen herself passes under a ceremonial red cord when she enters on official business. This might sound like something out of a fantasy novel, but it's real.

As described by British author Nicholas Shaxson, the city's budget comes from an eight-century-old private fund, shielded from parliamentary oversight and access-to-info laws. The city holds elections, but all candidates must be approved by medieval guilds. A majority of votes is held not by residents, but by the banks and financial companies that form the raison d'être of this "unique authority," as the city describes itself.

This is the atavistic heart of Western capitalism. It is the ur-haven, the sacred shrine of deregulation. The sun literally never sets on the City of London Corporation. With offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai and Brussels, it is the brain in an octopus of tax havens stretching across the former British Empire. Its chief lobbyist sits opposite the Speaker in the UK Parliament. Called the "Remembrancer," his job is to remind MPs of the city's interests. (They show few signs of forgetting.)

If you're looking for a windmill to tilt at, this is the big one. To put up tents on pallets inside the Square Mile was even more quixotic than to try and occupy Wall Street. Yet the camp in London lasted far longer than most in North America, and its eviction was never a foregone conclusion.

That's because there's an institution with powers and sacred privileges nearly as ancient as the Corporation -- the Church of England. (The Anglican Church of Canada is the Church of England's Commonwealth cousin.)

Internally, a ferocious debate took place over what to do at Saint Paul's. When the cathedral finally decided to support the Corporation's legal proceedings, two prominent members of the clergy resigned in disgust. British journalist George Monbiot called it "colluding with Babylon."

Still, the Church seemed less than sure of the decision. One afternoon while riding the Tube, I picked up the Evening Standard to read "We'll Give Sanctuary to Protestors If Violence Breaks Out." Anonymous cathedral sources, citing frustration at the Corporation's attempt to "tie our hands behind our backs," vowed to shelter the camp indoors in the event of a crackdown.

When it came time to testify publicly, the cathedral's registrar backed up the Corporation, giving examples of nuisance and disorder in the camp.

Saint Paul's is a tourist attraction, after all. Six days a week, admission costs £14.50. Standing on the steps, I watched visitors gamely clamber over cross-legged demonstrators. Couples were doing their best to frame the tents out of their wedding snaps. But the occupation was, by design, a disruption to life as usual.

'A lost opportunity'

Giles Fraser held the position of Canon Chancellor at the cathedral before resigning last October. Writing in the Guardian after the eviction notice was handed down, he called it "far more a failure for the church than... for the camp." After all, in Fraser's interpretation, "The task of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The Church of England has never had much stomach for afflicting anyone (except, of course, homosexuals)."

Indeed here in Canada, the question of same-sex unions has dominated Anglican politics for the past decade. Gay marriage has divided congregations and driven international wedges, while other issues -- like structural economic injustice -- go largely ignored.

Meanwhile the Anglican Church is withering, its membership declining more quickly than any other denomination in Canada. Between the census years 1961 and 2001, the church lost 53 per cent of its numbers. If the current rate holds, Canadian Anglicans will be extinct in 50 years.

Not all those losses have been due to people passing away. Rates of youth attrition are also massive -- not that this phenomenon is limited to one particular denomination or religion. Figures of spiritual authority tend to face a common contradiction. They describe one world, but they live in another. Saint Paul's Cathedral spent a decade fundraising £42 million -- to refurbish the bricks and mortar of its own building.

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