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Throwing the money changers out of the Temple

United Kingdom

The four protesters chained inside St Paul’s Cathedral. All photos: Matthew Varnham, Occupy London.

A year ago, I would not have done it. I would not have backed a protest in St Paul’s Cathedral, let alone participated in it.

But a lot has happened in a year. On Sunday, I joined other Christians, and non-Christians, to display a banner on the steps of St Paul’s, depicting Jesus throwing moneychangers out of the Jerusalem Temple. Inside, four women – Siobhan Siobhan Grimes, Alison Playford, Josie Reid and Tammy Samede – calmly chained themselves to the pulpit and read out a statement about economic injustice and the need for the Church to challenge it.

Twelve months ago today, police prevented Occupy London from setting up tents outside the city’s stock exchange. They ended up in the nearest available square – outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral’s staff were split over their attitude to the camp and three clergy resigned in the ensuing controversy.

My attitude to St Paul’s changed dramatically in the early hours of 28 February 2012. As bailiffs and police tore down tents, occupiers retreated to the cathedral steps, which were not covered by the eviction order. Then police said that we must leave the steps too. Along with four other members of Christianity Uncut, I was dragged away by police as I knelt in prayer. The cathedral authorities dodged journalists’ questions about whether they had given permission for this. Then the City of London police commissioner stated in writing that they had indeed done so.

I have long been angry with the failure of Church leaders to follow Jesus’ example of siding with the poor, especially at a time of austerity measures punishing them for the sins of the rich. As a Christian, I seek to love my opponents, but I had generally not counted Church leaders among my opponents. That all changed on that cold winter’s morning. It became clear that the leadership of St Paul’s Cathedral had finally taken sides in the economic crisis – and they were siding with the rich.

Even then, members of Christianity Uncut were keen not to be diverted into attacking St Paul’s Cathedral. The five Christians who had been dragged from the steps asked the senior staff at St Paul’s for a meeting ‘in a spirit of love and respect’. Our letter was counter-signed by twenty clergy. Michael Colclough, the cathedral’s Canon Pastor, wrote back, refusing to meet us.

Meanwhile, the cathedral broke its own promises about engaging with economic issues. They had appointed Ken Costa to lead an investigation into financial ethics. The fact that he was an investment banker undermined their claim to share many of Occupy’s views. But Costa has produced nothing in all that time. Nor has the leadership of St Paul’s managed to make clear statements about any specific aspect of economic transformation.

Yesterday’s act of witness followed a year of intolerable behaviour from the leadership of St Paul’s Cathedral. Despite this, the Dean, David Ison, responded to yesterday’s protest by suggesting that we should have engaged ‘constructively’. Our request for a constructive meeting was refused seven months ago. He said we were pursuing an agenda of ‘conflict’ with St Paul’s. The cathedral had already pursued an agenda of conflict with us when it called in police to drag us from its steps.

Perhaps all religions betray their founders. Many religions have arisen in resistance to situations of injustice, only to perpetuate the same injustices once they are in positions of power. Yet within most religions, traces of early radicalism remain, and resurface in times of social turmoil.

Jesus said he had come to ‘bring good news to the poor’ and challenged the rich to share their wealth. He did not encourage hatred for the powerful. He talked with them and listened to them. But when the time was right, he used other tactics too. He was arrested and crucified following a protest in the Jerusalem Temple. His protest was against those who exploited the poor and justified it with religious hypocrisy.

As I stood outside St Paul’s last night, waiting for Alison, Josie, Siobhan and Tammy to leave at 10.00 in the evening, I couldn’t help wondering if Jesus was also told by the Temple authorities who refused to listen to his message that he should have ‘engaged with them constructively’.

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