There is no such thing as bad publicity, they say.
But that was not the way it looked on Thursday night when the panellists, audience and chairman on BBC’s Question Time could not contain the amusement they were deriving at the expense of St Paul’s Cathedral. That the programme was being broadcast from another cathedral, Winchester, did not inhibit their scoffing. The chairman read with delight that the first problem on the list of Health and Safety hazards that caused the cathedral to close was ‘guy ropes which people might trip over’.
And it wasn’t just the professional journalists who were at a loss to understand exactly what sense to make of St Paul’s actions. Archbishop Carey wrote in The Daily Telegraph that it was a debacle. Interestingly he said his heart was with the protesters:
‘Like many others in the Church, I have a great deal of sympathy for the raw idealism of the protesters. Their contention that the banks have not paid an equitable price for the damage caused, in part, by their reckless lending and profiteering strikes a powerful chord.’
The publicist Max Clifford said at one point that it had been a disastrous week for St Paul’s and that it would take ages for them to recover their credibility.
But if St Paul’s has lost out this week. Who has won?
Not the protestors, of course. The bankers.
The protest was meant to get us all talking about the excesses of capitalism. But it is not the bankers who have been pilloried, but the authorities at St Paul’s. And much as I admire his stand, Giles Fraser’s resignation has not helped focus the issue either. He has resigned from a post designed to facilitate just the sort of dialogue that the protestors demand. The focus has turned away from the reason for the protest to the way in which it might be ended.
It is immensely courageous to walk away from one of the most well upholstered posts in the Church of England. But as he begins to serve his notice, the bankers and financiers will have to put their hands over their mouths to hide their smiles should anyone seek them out in their champagne bars. (‘Although you can’t see them, you know that they’re smiling…’)
How long will it be before a tent pitched outside St Paul’s causes a banker to resign?
George Carey is right – it is a debacle. It is hard to find a chink of clear light in this.
And the Bishop of London is right. It is time for them to move on.
And Giles Fraser is right too. In an interview on the front page of the Guardian yesterday he said,
“Money is the number one moral issue in the Bible and the way the Church of England goes on you would think it was sex,” he says. “It’s easily the number one issue in the Bible … but how many sermons do you get about that? Very few.”
Very few sermons about money: it’s true. And it’s shameful.
The protest outside St Paul’s is evidence that the big conversation about money in our society has ground to a halt. It has become too difficult. The protest is the sign that conversation has broken down. The next step – unless there is an outbreak of listening – is almost certainly going to be violence. Listening and talking are the tools of those who seek justice, truth and peace.
The right to protest is integral to a democratic society but any protest is only as good as the action that flows from it. On those grounds OLSX has so far been a failure – the cost of which has been borne by St Paul’s and the wider Church of England. Sadly they are paying in the wrong currency – the currency not of cash but of reputation and credibility.
But there is an opportunity here. If the protesters cannot bring clarity to this situation maybe the church can. The doors of St Paul’s are open again – and we all rejoice. It is time for minds and mouths and ears to be open too.
We need to talk very seriously about money.