Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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The power and the glory

The roots of the crisis that has now destroyed the careers of two of London's most senior Anglican c

St Paul's Cathedral dignifies, and used to dominate, an area of prime real estate defined almost entirely by money. And it looks the part. Wren's masterpiece of English baroque happens to be a church, but it might just as easily be a bank or a seat of justice. Its architecture is the architecture of wealth and power. The Church of England, from the precincts of Canterbury cathedral to the porch of your local parish church, is of course an established church, but nowhere else - not even in Westminster Abbey - does it manage to look quite so much like the Establishment.

The cathedral thus incarnates, in a uniquely stark way, the conundrum that is the Church of England, the tension (obvious in its very name) between Christianity and nationality. Over the past fortnight, St Paul's has regularly been described as a "national shrine." And so it is. If Westminster Abbey is where the nation puts its poets, St Paul's is where we celebrate military leaders. Lord Nelson is entombed beneath the dome. It served as the venue for the state funerals of Churchill and the Duke of Wellington, a bombastic monument to whom dominates the North Aisle. Marbled memorials to obscurer generals and admirals line the walls.

Such military monuments are testament to the sanctification of nationhood (and even nationalism) that has been the Church of England's historic purpose ever since Henry VIII needed a no-strings divorce. While many both inside and outside the church regard its established status as an embarrassing anachronism, a colourful relic or merely an irrelevance, it remains its defining feature. The Church of England crowns the monarch, runs a semi-autonomous branch of the legal system, still owns vast tracts of land and most of the country's finest buildings, controls a third of the country's schools, still enjoys the extraordinary privilege of having its bishops sit (and vote) in the House of Lords. In return, the bishops must, as a condition of holding office, swear loyalty to an earthly monarch.

Much the same might be said of the City of London itself - another peculiar, pre-democratic institution that clings tenaciously to anachronistic political and economic privileges. So it is perhaps only to be expected that after much procrastination and the self-ejection of Canon Giles Fraser (who never looked comfortable amid all that gilt and marble), the authorities at St Paul's have decided to go along with the Corporation of London in their legal action to evict the protesters currently encamped on the cathedral's steps.

And yet there is of course the other side, represented by Fraser himself. The comfortably established church has long made room for a more radical style of Christianity that argues the cause of the poor, is socially progressive, criticises excesses of wealth and privilege and takes seriously Jesus' views about hypocrisy and money. Many Anglicans cheered last week's Guardian editorial which accused the St Paul's authorities of behaving like whited sepulchres and called on the Church to highlight the "profound and important moral revulsion" represented by the Occupy protest. The Church of England has indeed prompted such debates many times in the past, from the "Faith in the City" report in the 1980s which so annoyed Margaret Thatcher, to the present Archbishop of Canterbury's strongly worded views on the banking crisis and its associated bonus culture. l

So is the role of St Paul's Cathedral and its warring canons to sanctify wealth or to question it?

The Church of England, naturally, wants to have it both ways. Or rather, factions within it (and perhaps within the minds of its leaders) want different and contradictory things. The impression has been given, not the for first time, of a Church both internally divided and intellectually conflicted, unsure where its loyalties lie, trying to please everyone and, in the process, satisfying no-one.

But never underestimate the Church's ability to ride out this storm, as it has many others. Pragmatism, after all, has always been its watchword. Despite appearances, it remains adept at preserving its public position -- even the bishops' seats in the House of Lords look to be safe in any future reform. Jesus famously said that one could not serve both God and Mammon. But the Church of England has been doing so successfully for centuries. Just look at St Paul's.