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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.