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Cathedrals becoming rallying points for anti-capitalist protesters

December 9, 2011

In the two months since the “Occupy” movement spread around the world, protesters in several cities are setting up camp around cathedrals, with varying reactions from clergy and parishioners. In the United Kingdom, observers say the trend is forcing churches to reflect on their mission and demonstrates a search for values. 

“Churches are becoming an international mustering point for protesters,” the Rev. George Pitcher, a former adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury, told ENInews. “I think young people are looking for a form of values-led leadership, rather than the compliance-culture that has prevailed in the City of London,” he said, using a phrase that refers to those who only do the minimum to comply with laws or regulations. 

Speaking soon after Barry Morgan, the Anglican Archbishop of Wales, told the U.K. Occupy movement that they could pitch their tents at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff, Pitcher said that at last the Anglican Church is realizing that it is being given the opportunity to offer space for a discourse among people with divergent views about the economy, capitalism, banking and profit.

London’s iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral was plunged into controversy when it initially welcomed protesters Oct. 15, then supported legal action to remove them, later backtracking and dropping the idea. Several clergy, including the dean, resigned as a result of criticism of the cathedral’s stance. A protest camp remains outside the cathedral.

Pitcher said Morgan’s offer was intended for the St. Paul’s protesters if they are forced to move.

“This is not about taking political sides. It’s just that space is at such a premium in the City of London and the Church wants to demonstrate that it will reach out when needed, rather than slam its doors. It’s sanctuary again,” said Pitcher, now associate priest at St. Bride’s church in the City of London financial center.

The Occupy U.K. movement has spread to Bristol, Exeter and Sheffield in England; Cardiff in Wales and Belfast in Northern Ireland.

There are currently about a dozen tents outside Exeter Cathedral. The acting dean, the Rev. Carl Turner, said in a statement that protesters must respect the area as a holy place, saying, “While we would  rather you did not occupy our land and we do not give you permission to do so, we acknowledge your right to peaceful protest and freedom of assembly.”

The Archbishop of Sheffield, Stephen Croft, told Occupy Sheffield organizer Nicole Jewitt that he would like to meet with protesters. “I will be interested ... to explore what the members of the camp think needs to be done about problems you are seeking to draw the world's attention.”

About 50 members of Occupy Sheffield pitched tents outside the cathedral on Nov. 5

Jewitt told ENInews there are no plans to move away before Christmas. “Everyone is so friendly. We will not undermine the work of the cathedral. We think Christians everywhere should support us.”

At Bristol, protesters set up a camp of about 60 tents Nov. 19 and it is now the biggest “Occupy” site outside of London. The public space is called College Green and it belongs to Bristol Cathedral but is managed by the city council. Cathedral and council leaders have asked protesters to leave peacefully but campaigners say they intend to stay.

In Belfast, protesters have set up camp opposite St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast City Square. Galway woman Stiofinin Furlong told local reporters that people are supportive.

“All of the food, heaters, firewood, everything has been donated by the people of Belfast and without them we wouldn’t be here,” she told a local paper. The Dean of St. Anne’s, the Rev. Canon John Mann, added: “We have shared things that they needed to borrow. I haven’t felt any negative impact.”

Occupy London organizer Naomi Colvin expressed delight when told that protesters in Canada, Holland and Belgium have camped at sites near cathedrals and other church buildings. “That’s good news for all of us,” she told ENInews in a telephone interview.

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