St Paul’s cathedral: the counterweight that capitalism forgot

This is a response, “below the line”, to Guardian’s arts writer, Jonathan Jones‘s excellent piece on the significance of the London occupation being on the grounds of St Paul’s cathedral.

I believe it is no accident that the City, hub of bankers old and new is bookended by St Paul’s, at the top of Ludgate Hill. It is as if the unbridled interests of the material world had a counterweight to remind those who do business there of why they should balance the pursuit of material interests with spiritual principles such as compassion, charity and good will.

Unfortunately, since capitalism moved its main centres of power to Canary Wharf, that symbolic framing of the day-today workings of finance has lost some of its symbolic effect. St Paul’s is a truly magnificent and awe-inspiring building and I say this as someone of Italian heritage who has marvelled at St Peter’s church in Rome and particularly, for me, Il Duomo in Florence. St Paul’s is right up there with both and, yes, as Jonathan rightly says, it has something of the cool rationality and reason of the Scientific Revolution that was just beginning, while harking back to the mysticism of the alchemists, master masons and sacred geometrists.

But what does it say that I can walk into both Italian churches, but have to pay close to £15 to walk into St Paul’s?

I suppose it is no surprise that St Paul’s board of trustees are mainly bankers since it is such close proximity to the old financial district. By the way, it is also worth noting that Paternoster Square was owned by the Church Commission who sold it on long leases in the late 1980s.

This from its own website:

1986: Ownerships restructured. CEGB take ownership of Sudbury House and remainder of site sold on 250-year lease from the Church Commissioners to consortium made up of Stockley Plc (50%), British Land, Unilever and Barclays Bank. As part of acquisition, Sheldon House sold on long lease to Charterhouse Bank. Stanhope appointed as developer on behalf of owners. (Stuart Lipton also major shareholder in Stockley Plc.)

No one has yet been able to confirm whether the lease is still held by the Commission, or whether the present owners, Mitsubishi Estate Co, own it outright. The protesters wanted to occupy Paternoster Square, but ended up being “saved” by the canon chancellor of St Paul’s, The Rev Giles Fraser, who prevented some ugly scenes with riot police ready to cause mayhem. Since then relations between occupiers, police and church officials have been good, but I don’t think it is such a wild conspiracy theory to suggest that the Dean has had pressure put on him by other members of the board who now see the camp as an eyesore.

To be honest, I did expect there to be more heavyweight speakers and discussions. Zuccotti Park has had Naomi Klein, Slavo Zizek, Douglas Rushkoff and a host of other countercultural writers and academics. So far, the English counterparts seem to have stayed well clear.

Where is David Harvey, for example, who in this short lecture on the Crises of Capitalism for the RSA, brilliantly animated suggests that the only choice left is to stand against unfettered capitalism. So where is he? We need to hear those voices in British public life. Occupy London may be a rag tag bunch on the surface, and I can understand some of the criticism, but the message that is going out around the world is that the banking system is working against the interests of the majority in a way that cannot now be stopped by mainstream politicians, wedded as they are to that same neoliberal ideology that has allowed the wealth of the many to be concentrated in the hands of the few, while defaming any attempt to criticise that as militant, Stalinist agitation.

The inequality has increased to a degree that is causing widespread hardship and which is putting the future of human life on the planet in jeopardy. There is something deeply symbolic about the occupation being at St Paul’s and whether there are those at the site aware of it or not, there is a deeply anarchistic tendency to all this. Not in the sense of violence, but in the sense of reclaiming ownership of what is common to all of us.

A place of worship should be a public space not a business enterprise and the muddling of the two is at the root of the many problems at the heart of the crisis of our age. The towering over St Paul’s of The Shard, as Jonathan brilliantly expressed in this Cif piece, is a perfect illustration of the monstrosity of this newer, spiritually bereft form of capitalism. To compare the ancient architects and masons who built St Paul’s with the modern architects and builders of the Shard should give anyone who cares to look an indication of the sickness at the heart of our modern society and should move us all to support the spirit of this Occupy Movement, rather than pick apart the most obvious faults and to pretend that there is no coherent message at the heart of this humane, global stand against that which threatens all of us, the 1% included.

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