Why Occupy and the church cling together
The ongoing love-in between Occupiers and men of the cloth is fitting: both have a pious disdain for the masses.
It began with a chance meeting, and blossomed into a lengthy affair. Could wedding bells be round the corner?
When the authorities prevented Occupy protesters from occupying the London Stock Exchange, the occupiers set up camp in the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral instead. But far from condemning what rapidly became a smelly, middle-class shantytown and, later, what has been aptly described as a holding camp for the mentally ill, many in the church chose to embrace the protesters. One of the most prominent clergymen to join the love-in was Reverend Giles Fraser, who resigned from his post at St Paul’s rather than take action to move the campers on. In a front page Guardian article, he gushed: ‘I could imagine Jesus being born in the [Occupy] camp.’
Occupy protesters, not known for their modesty, also ran with the Biblical imagery. One protester dressed up as Jesus, with a banner declaring, ‘I threw the moneylenders out for a reason’. Another wrote poetry about how Jesus was a protester (‘He wasn’t always popular / He’d help a stranger / I think Jesus was a protester’). A prominent banner displayed at Occupy London asked: ‘What would Jesus do?’ The same question was also written on tents with marker pens.
One Occupy protester took
the Jesus comparisons to
a whole other level.
This bizarre alliance between the remnants of the left that formed Occupy and the church has proven to be one of the most remarkable things about the fleeting UK Occupy movement. Utterly cut off from their historical constituencies, and bereft of ideas, both Occupy and the church tried to cling to each other in desperation, like two sailors trying to ride out a storm.
But as became very clear last week at a meeting entitled ‘After Occupy, what next?’, held in the main hall of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, London, there was more uniting this rag-bag of lefties and aging church-types than the fact their movements were in their death throes. The event was intended, as the reverend at St Bride’s wrote in the Daily Mail, for the church to begin to ‘re-engage with its role to be a healing ground between those who suffer and those with the power and means to provide economic solutions’. What the event revealed was that the church and Occupy actually shared much the same values.
So contributor after contributor agreed with panellist Giles Fraser’s alternative vision for economics, one where growth isn’t paramount and where much could be learnt from the Old Testament story of manna in the desert. In Fraser’s words, we live on a finite planet and there’s finite resources, so we must accept ‘there has to be such a thing as having enough’. We should heed Moses’ advice and try not to horde more manna than we need, lest it go rotten.
Such an attitude was echoed in performance poet Catherine Brogan’s recital of her poem Occupy, which begins ‘I buy therefore I am is the corporate psalm, our democracy – consumerism, we’re caught in a prism, of shiny colours, sparkle, so we can all marvel at Kate Middleton’s shoes pretending we choose. But it leaves you empty, this pursuit of plenty…’
The debate at St Bride’s Church revealed that both Occupy and the church shared much the same values.
The pious idea that the 99 per cent was caught in a mindless ‘pursuit of plenty’ was echoed by Occupy spokesperson Naomi Colvin, who spoke of the destructive impact of consumerism and how it ‘makes people passive’. Another protester ranted about how people’s hearts and minds were becoming disoriented as they attempted to ‘fill the unfillable hole’. Similar rationalisations for the failure of Occupy to attain any longstanding traction with the public were discussed (alongside a humourous digression from a wacky feminist who claimed that Occupy’s downfall was because it had internalised masculine values from society at large, intimidating too many women).
If there’s one thing more embarrassing than a vicar dancing at a disco, it’s over-keen clergymen attempting ‘jazz hands’ to signify their agreement with scruffy Occupy protesters. But their rationale for doing so is clear. What many in the church must have thought it had found with Occupy was a readymade youthful congregation, one which could start to breathe life into the rapidly aging and declining church-going public.
Except that Occupy London, as was more than evident during the meeting, is now little more than a few grubby individuals trying to keep the dwindling memory of the ‘movement’ alive. Assertions that Occupy is ‘part of a global workers’ strategy’ sounded more than a little mad. And it’s a safe bet that planned stunts to ‘Occupy the Tube’ during rush hour won’t ingratiate protesters with the 99 per cent. Even Colvin, who has become Occupy London’s most prominent spokesperson, seemed to admit the game is up when she claimed ‘it doesn’t matter if [future protests are] called Occupy’. The movement that took pride in never having any recognisable demands now looks set to dismiss the importance of a recognisable name, too.
What appeared to be an unlikely alliance between church and Occupy proved, in fact, to be a neat fit. Both groups lack any purchase in wider society, share the same disdain for the consumerist masses and just love to preach about being meek, grateful for your lot and not committing the terrible sin of aspiring for more. Far from revitalising one another, this union marks the funeral rites for two desperate groups.
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