New Internationalist

Occupy your soul! The Christian Left gets active

A court in London has ruled that the Occupy camp near St Paul’s Cathedral should be evicted. When the bailiffs and police turn up, they are likely to find the camp surrounded by hundreds of people kneeling or standing in prayer. This is the face of radically leftwing religion. To much of the British media, it as a strange new phenomenon.

The proximity of the camp to Britain’s best known cathedral has turned Christianity’s relationship with politics into headline news. The camp began after police prevented protesters from getting closer to the London Stock Exchange. Cathedral staff responded with a tortuous series of U-turns. Three clergy resigned in the ensuing controversy.

As they were giving evidence in favour of the City of London’s legal bid for eviction, the cathedral’s leadership gave the impression of being more concerned with the messiness of the camp than with the damage inflicted by the financial institutions around them. They are sincere and compassionate people, but they are used to looking at the world from a position of privilege. The most they can offer is the Bishop of London’s increasingly desperate insistence that he is holding ethical discussions with bankers. To put it politely, this rather misses the scale of the crisis.

For hundreds of years, Christianity was at the centre of power in Britain. Like much of Europe, it went through various forms of Christendom, in which the state gave political backing to the official Church, while the Church provided moral sanction to the state.

As Christendom fades in a multi-faith society, British Christians have largely reacted in one of three ways.

Firstly, there are those who respond by revering the cultural shell of Christendom. This is the attitude that turns cathedrals into tourist attractions, expects to see nativity plays at Christmas and wants people to get married in churches that they never otherwise attend. It is the approach of people who last year celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible  because of its linguistic and cultural significance, as if the quality of a text could be considered independently of the message it conveys.

A second approach is fear and panic. Some cling desperately to the remains of Christendom, such as privileges for church schools and opt-outs from equality legislation. Organizations such as the Christian Legal Centre insist that Christians are facing discrimination in Britain. Like many people who lose privileges, they mistake equality as an attack on their own freedom. They risk reducing Christian identity to the holding of certain views on sexuality and abortion.

At times, these two images of British Christianity seem to be the only ones visible in the media. The excellent work done by Christians groups on issues such as poverty, war and the environment often goes on away from the media spotlight.

But this is changing. Leftwing Christianity is gradually coming into public view. It is drawing on old traditions. For its first 300 years, Christianity was predominantly pacifist. Jesus’ protest against moneychangers is regarded by most scholars as one of the stories about him most likely to be historically accurate. Throughout the centuries, Christendom was challenged by people who called for a return to Jesus’ revolutionary message – Waldensians, Anabaptists and Quakers, as well as individuals and groups within more mainstream churches. The ring of prayer planned at the eviction is only one step in the growth of leftwing Christian activism in Britain. It is a step that is likely to be noticed. And that bodes well for Christians who do not want the options for the future to be nothing more than a choice between promoting bigotry and maintaining tourist attractions.

Symon Hill is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Associate Director of the Ekklesia thinktank.

Photo by hooratheist under a CC Licence.

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  1. #1 Keith Hebden 25 Jan 12

    Absolutely St Paul's Chapter have misunderstood what is going on on there doorstep both in the camp and in the Stock Exchange. But the Christian responses have not always been from those who would say they're on the 'left'. That's not to say they're on the 'right' or 'centre' either. That language belongs where it came from: the theatre of parliament not the bank of ideas or the canvases of conversation that are now emerging.

  2. #2 serendipity 25 Jan 12

    Outstanding article. Thanks Mr Hill! Your work is inspiring as is Ekklesias.

  3. #3 thebicyclethief 25 Jan 12

    A more effective response would be a co-ordinated occupation of every Anglican church building possible across the UK if they get evicted with the 'blessing' of the St. Paul's hierarchy. Throw down the gauntlet to the establishment once and for all.

  4. #4 Matthew Gough 25 Jan 12

    I thought this must be written by someone outside the church looking in. I was surprised to see it was Rev Symon Hill. Your caricature of Christian engagement with society as either 'fear/bigotry' or 'tourism' overlooks vibrant Christian engagement with social projects/schools, mass Charismatic/Evangelical worship celebrations, all that have nothing to do with an emerging 'left wing'. That analysis just sounds like the public discourse apparent in the Guardian. But lets put that aside and commend the prayer circle around the camp. Excellent news and great coverage for it here.

  5. #5 Paulski 25 Jan 12

    Great article

  6. #6 Kitchen Benchtops 26 Jan 12

    ’A court in London has ruled that the Occupy camp near St Paul’s Cathedral should be evicted’.. I agree.

  7. #7 Traveler 26 Jan 12

    About time.

  8. #8 Chris Howson 02 Feb 12

    The more progressive Christian movements have thankfully been motivated by the Occupy movement, but responses have been rather meek on the whole. It is the harsh economics of this government and worsening European situation which will ultimately reawaken the soul of Christianity. It is in our DNA to redistribute our wealth and not allow exploitative accumulation. 'Those who have two coats, let them be shared with those who have none, and those who have food, must do likewise' Luke 3 v 11.

  9. #9 itsajungleoutthere 02 Feb 12

    An excellent article. What concerns me is that continuing to endorse and support institutions like the Church of England will never allow Christians to appreciate the scale of their personal priviledge or the priviledge of the church, and that the 'radical' 'leftist' or whateever word you want to use wing of the CofE will be used sort of like greenwash - they'll be held up as examples of a progressive church, hiding the shamefully homophobic, sexist, state-centric underbelly. Radical, anarchic, decentralised spiritual spaces are a must, but I'm less and less inclined to say they can happen within the apparatus of the CofE (or any hierarchical organisation), which will always constrain them, functionally, theologically, materially. Reform, yes. But I'm not much of a reformist.

  10. #10 Hazel Bateman 03 Feb 12

    AS a left-wing Christian, this analysis is insightful. Some branches of Christianity are overly concerned with 'pelvic issues'. However, I think Occupy's point has been made, and it is time for them to de-camp. It is such a shame that this has not happened voluntarily, perhaps concluding with a service in the cathedral for all the protesters, giving thanks for their vision.

  11. #11 John Holmes 05 Feb 12

    @Hazel: Occupy's point may have been made to me and you but the people in power, such as the Corporation of London (an ominous name to begin with), still don't care and the government is still ignoring them. It's all been very ’Yes, well done hippies, we see your point. Now get off my land so I can gouge more money from these saps.’

    The point's been made, but is yet to have any real effect. There hasn't even been any real effort to obtain the billions in taxes owed by corporations and rich council-tax dodgers (that would remove the need for all these cuts).

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About the author

Symon Hill is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion and Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age. He is associate director of the Ekklesia thinktank and a founding member of Christianity Uncut.

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