Unholy row

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In the August edition of Socialist Review I wrote about the crises that have hit successive ruling class institutions, from parliament to the banks. Few would have predicted that the next pillar of the establishment to be riven with turmoil would be the Church of England.

It was the intervention of the police on 15 October that resulted in Occupy London setting up camp outside St Paul's rather than Paternoster Square, home to the Stock Exchange - the original target. An institution that many would dismiss as unimportant suddenly found that it had been lobbed a political hand grenade. The internal division inside the Church produced by 150 tents was a remarkable reflection of the depth of the ideological crisis within the ruling class.

The canon of St Pauls, Giles Fraser initially welcomed the camp, but a backlash from the Church hierarchy soon followed.

The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres said he would not engage in any debate while they remained outside St Paul's. A staunch conservative, Chartres arrived at Oxford University in 1968 and proudly claims "it was the year of the barricades and I arrived in a bowler hat and voted against all change". He denounced church leaders who opposed the war in Iraq as "hyper-moralistic".

Giles Fraser's resignation as the Church prepared to initiate eviction proceedings then unleashed a second, and even more powerful, backlash. There was wide denunciation of the Church by figures as surprising as celebrity publicist Max Clifford decrying that "it's not a good advert for Christianity for a church to be shutting out people who aren't causing problems to anyone."
From the beginning, conservatives within the Church of England severely misjudged support for the camp, not only amongst the general population, but among their own congregations as well. A survey by the Church Times found 65 percent of church goers thought that St Paul's should welcome the protesters. It was Richard Chartres who was then forced to break ranks with the City of London Corporation, reneging on his promise to take legal action against the protesters.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once called the church an "interclass social space in which competing classes seek religious legitimation for their respective social projects".

The Church of England once played a centre role in justifying ruling class power, but this has long since stopped being the case. The media, parliament or political parties all matter much more these days. Even the old description of the Church as the "the Tory party at prayer," no longer really holds true. But despite its more marginal role, different class interests still continue to be expressed inside the Church.

But the ties to the ruling class remain. The trustees of St Paul's include the deputy chair of the CBI, a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner and two chief directors of Lloyds TSB. If they don't qualify as fully signed up members of the "1%" it's hard to see who would.

But the Church also remains an "interclass" institution. Interestingly the first strike in the Church of England's history took place in March 2011 with PCS union members in the Church administration demanding a 3 percent wage increase. They will certainly hope to "seek religious legitimation for their social projects".

Was all of this a sideshow, deflecting attention away from Occupy London's criticism of the financial system, into a row about the Church? Yet in many ways the row acted as a proxy test of our rulers' claim to adhere to a moral order governed by more than just the greed of the rich. After all the evening prayer at St Paul's ends with the lines, "He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent empty away." Such pious words jarred with the talk of legal injunctions. But the real reason defenders of the system found themselves marginalised was that Occupy London's protest at the bankers and corporate rich has resonated with millions.

As Newsnight reporter Paul Mason quipped on Twitter, Occupy London may not have caused a revolution, but it does seem to have precipitated a second reformation. An exaggeration, but the crisis has been real enough. The Church of England is not the first pillar of the establishment to be rocked by the ideological fallout of the financial and economic crisis, nor has it been the most important. But neither will it be the last.