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St. Paul's Cathedral dean quits in Occupy London standoff

Religion and BeliefUnrest, Conflicts and WarLondon (England)EnglandDemonstrationActivismPolitics

A senior clergyman resigned Monday over St. Paul's Cathedral's handling of anticapitalist protesters camped outside the church, the second cleric lost to an increasingly tense standoff involving God, mammon and their earthly representatives.

Graeme Knowles said his position as dean of the cathedral "was becoming untenable" in the face of mounting criticism of the way St. Paul's has responded to the tent camp that has sprouted outside its imposing porticoed entrance near the banks of the Thames.

The protesters, organized by the London offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, have been on the spot for more than two weeks but now face eviction by the City of London, the historic downtown area that is home to Britain's financial district. Officials with City of London Corp., which owns some of the property, served the demonstrators with orders to leave within 48 hours, but Occupy London is likely to lodge a court appeal to stay.

The battle of wills has transfixed the country and put St. Paul's in an awkward position. It was never the target of the protesters, but when their original plan to swarm the nearby London Stock Exchange was stymied by police Oct. 15, they pitched their tents outside the church instead. They've maintained a peaceful, orderly presence there since, complete with food service, latrines and even a tent reserved for meditation.

But church leaders have taken an increasingly hard line against the camp, while hastening to add that they share many of the social concerns and criticisms the protesters have raised.

Last week, Giles Fraser, a high-profile cleric who had welcomed the demonstrators, stepped down as canon chancellor because of his colleagues' toughened stance and his fear that the tent camp might be uprooted by force.

The cathedral's most controversial move was to shut its doors for several days, blaming protesters for creating health and safety hazards that church officials did not fully explain. It was the first time since the Luftwaffe blitzed London during World War II that St. Paul's was closed to worshipers.

Critics called it a cynical ploy to shame protesters into packing up. They also accused the church of being as concerned about securing access for tourists, who shell out more than $20 a pop to visit, as for the devout who attend services.

And some commentators have berated the church for missing an opportunity to stand together with the poor and marginalized.

In a statement announcing his resignation Monday, Knowles said the situation had put everyone at the cathedral "under a great deal of strain" and that St. Paul's needed a new dean to deal with "what would appear to be some insurmountable issues." The position of dean is such a senior one within the Church of England that the resignation has to be formally submitted to the queen.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said in a statement that "the urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St Paul's remain very much on the table, and we need — as a church and as society as a whole — to work to make sure that they are properly addressed."

Together with Westminster Abbey, the domed cathedral is Britain's most famous house of worship. Built in the 17th century by the architect Christopher Wren, it was the site of the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

According to the Bible, the church's patron saint, the apostle Paul, was by trade a tent maker.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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