I begin with an amusing little item from yesterday’s Times newspaper:
With St Paul’s closed to the public because of protesters camped outside the cathedral, William Hill has opened a book on when it will reopen. The bookmaker offers 4 – 1 that it will do so by midnight tonight, even money for the end of October and 100 – 1 that it is still closed on Christmas day.
Well, according to Ruth Gledhill, the Cathedral could be closed for up to three months, putting at risk its Remembrance Sunday observance and its contribution next month to the Lord Mayor’s Show (the protesters will undoubtedly be gratified by that particular outcome). So 100- 1, I would have thought, if I were a betting man, are particularly good odds: if you fancy a flutter, get your bet on quickly, before William Hill cottons on to the fact that, given what the protesters are saying (that their encampment is there for the long haul) and given that the City of London Corporation’s legal advisers are telling them that it could take at least three months to move the protesters on, the likelihood is that St Paul’s will be closed over Christmas, which is now only two months away.
The real question is, and I really don’t mean to be gratuitously discourteous or dismissive, what will it actually matter if St Paul’s is closed for such a long time? And (to pre-empt those inclined on these occasions to fall into their usual rut, accusing me of the usual ex-Anglican convert’s Newmanian dismissiveness of Anglican institutions) let me say that I would have asked exactly the same question had I still been an Anglican clergyman. Another way of asking the same question would be to say “what is any Anglican Cathedral actually for?” – though when it comes to St Paul’s, as we shall see, we have to ask the question with particular sharpness. According to the St Paul’s website,
St Paul’s is London’s cathedral and embodies the spiritual life and heritage of the British people. Cathedrals serve a wide community. A cathedral houses the seat – or in Latin, cathedra – of the bishop, making it a centre for Christian worship and teaching, and the Christian mission.
Well, let us not say anything about the perhaps doubtful claim that St Paul’s “embodies the spiritual life and heritage of the British people”; let us consider rather that statement that St Paul’s houses the cathedra of the Bishop of London, and is therefore “a centre for Christian worship and teaching”. Certainly, the medieval St Paul’s was precisely that, just as the modern Westminster Cathedral is the physical and sacramental centre of the pastoral and administrative activity of the Archbishop of Westminster. But the fact is that the Bishop of London has almost nothing to do with St Paul’s, just as any Anglican bishop has little to do, necessarily, with “his” cathedral. Christ Church cathedral in Oxford used, indeed, to vaunt itself (maybe it still does) on the fact that the bishop wasn’t even allowed a parking space there. The big cheese in an Anglican cathedral is not the bishop, but the Dean.
At St Paul’s, the Dean is an amiable looking cove called the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, who is shown on his website dressed as a Roman Catholic monsignor (shome mistake, shurely?). There is also another big cheese, who seems to be doing a lot of the sounding off about the closure of the cathedral. He is the Rev Canon Giles Fraser and he has the grand title of Canon Chancellor. He is particularly cross about the accusation that the real crisis is not a spiritual but a financial one (the cathedral is losing about £16,000 a day, or 80 per cent of its running costs). Here he is on the St Paul’s website:
I remain firmly supportive of the right of people peacefully to protest. But given the strong advice that we have received that the camp is making the cathedral and its occupants unsafe then this right has to be balanced against other rights and responsibilities too. The Christian gospel is profoundly committed to the needs of the poor and the dispossessed. Financial justice is a gospel imperative. Those who are claiming the decision to close the cathedral has been made for commercial reasons are talking complete nonsense.
But when one looks at that claim to be committed to “the Christian gospel”, not everyone in the Anglican Church is entirely convinced that that is what St Paul’s is in fact actually about. Consider the following reponse to Canon Fraser’s “tetchy” remarks, by the famous Anglican blogger Archbishop Cranmer (who the Catholic ex-MP Paul Goodman declared to be his “blogger of the year for 2010”):
This intemperate language manages to be patronising, arrogant, high-handed, self-righteous, rude and condescending all at the same time. Presumably, appearing, as it does, on the Cathedral’s website, the statement is issued on behalf of the Dean and Chapter. It is evident that the Rev’d Giles Fraser is something of a loose canon.
But, on the matter of “talking complete nonsense”, this is the man who massacres Scripture; despises the “ego” of heterosexual weddings while lauding gay marriage; berates conservative Anglicans as “homophobes” and “extremists”; equates “Islamophobia” with racism; does not believe in the immortality of the soul; rejects the salvific notion that Jesus was sacrificed for our sin…
So, when it comes to “talking complete nonsense”, perhaps the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral might express a little Christian humility, patience, kindness and love. Perhaps he might understand that there are Christians outside of his narrow cloisters who hold beliefs just as sincerely as he holds his. He may be privileged to preach his liberal socialist gospel from the pulpit of St Paul’s. But others of us are restricted to our blogs.
So I ask again: what will it actually matter, even to Anglicans in the Diocese of London, if St Paul’s is closed, even over Christmas? Its clergy don’t even believe, necessarily (though perhaps one or two of them do, who knows?), that with the birth of Jesus, God became man for the redemption of all mankind. Perhaps a few hundred people will miss some beautifully sung Christmas services (the choral tradition of St Paul’s is intact, even if the Christian gospel isn’t entirely). But that apart, what is St Paul’s, today, actually for? The question remains.