St Paul’s resigning canon holds fire

You’d have thought delivering the Evensong sermon would have offered the recently resigned St Paul’s Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser a moment of respite from a turbulent couple of weeks. Not a bit of it. The priest, serving three months’ notice having quit his post in protest at the Cathedral’s cack-handed response to the Occupy LSE anti-capitalism protestors, had no choice but to tackle the issue head on this Sunday.

Talk about God moving in mysterious ways. The second lesson on the service sheet, Luke,  6. 17-31, could have been written with the recent protests in mind. As Fraser explained, it wasn’t his choice but the Lectionary’s, which sets what Scriptures are read on given days or occasions

“Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God,” the reading quotes Jesus as telling his disciples. “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation,” the text continues a few lines on.

Served a sitter, Fraser avoided the obvious route, which would have been to paste the bankers and laud the protesters. He recalled instead the problem of moral absolutes, what he called cheap grace in the face of moral complexity. He remembered the thinking of the late British scholar Gillian Rose, whose truncated life included work for the Polish Commission for the Future of Auschwitz.

As Fraser has written before in reference to Rose’s ideas on the Nazi concentration camps, she argued the Holocaust was being narrated in a way that placed today’s Auschwitz visitors alongside its victims. That was too facile and unchallenging, leaving the fiction of people’s own innocence in place. Far harder would be for visitors to glimpse their reflections in the face of a Nazi camp guard, something potentially far more transformative for the observer.

Fraser said the past two weeks of protest, and the controversy over St Paul’s response, had raised morally complex questions. Far more so than protestors or indeed many journalists would generally allow for. The result was too much cost-free wisdom and no sense of how to tackle the issues raised.

His remarks prompted a cheer in support from a female member of the congregation, which he waved away. He said Christians had no room for complacency. Their own shameful history is also the source of their most valuable insight: that there is no safe or comfortable perspective from which to stand aloof from the world’s problems.

Given reports in various of the day’s newspapers, Fraser’s soon-to-be-former seniors would do well to pay heed. They included the Independent on Sunday’s exclusive that St Paul’s clerics suppressed a study on bankers’ greed to save Church blushes. As for the bankers, and the police they may soon call on to eject the protestors, perhaps they could remember the end of the same passage from Luke. It says men should do to others what they would have them do to them.

And there was me thinking I was taking my daughter for a rare taste of organised religion, beautiful church music with a dash of contemporary politics.