It is one of the most famous buildings in London. Yet for the past six weeks St Paul's Cathedral has been blockaded by a protest that has kept out thousands of visitors, led to the resignation of its senior clergy and forced it to close its doors for a week - longer even than the time when the mighty church was briefly closed at the height of the 1940 German bombing blitz. The blockade has been caused by a huddle of tents erected in the forecourt in front of the cathedral steps. Inside are young men and women, many of them middle class teachers, social workers and businessmen, who are camping out on London's streets in protest at the greed of the bankers, businessmen and capitalists they blame for Britain's economic woes and the huge rise in youth unemployment.
The issue has nothing to do with the church. The protest is part of the global "Occupy Wall Street" movement, which began in New York in September and has since spread across America and to capital cities in Europe. Those demonstrating in London wanted to erect their symbolic encampment outside the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange and other symbols of the capitalist system. But the ancient streets of the City of London are narrow and winding, and there is no space to put up a tent. So they chose the forecourt of nearby St Paul's. And, inevitably, the cathedral has found itself drawn into the protest, sparking a huge row within the Church of England. Should Britain's senior clergy order the eviction of tents that have become an unhygienic eyesore? Or should they champion the cause of those idealists who appear to be on the side of the poor, the jobless and the victims of the current global recession? After the first week, the cathedral's administrators decided to close the cathedral doors - ostensibly on the grounds of "health and safety" - in an effort to force the demonstrators to pack up and go home. The move backfired. The public was furious. The cathedral lost an estimated £100,000 from tourist revenue. And many people called the Church cowardly and indecisive.
The cathedral's administrators then reopened the doors but backed the City of London council in seeking a court order to remove the demonstrators. This angered Graeme Knowles, the prominent dean who is the official administrator of the building. He promptly resigned. His departure was swiftly followed by that of another senior left-leaning cleric, who argued that the Church had a duty to side with the poor and not with the capitalists. Their departure was a huge challenge for Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, who is the third most senior bishop in Britain and holds more "establishment" views than many rank-and-file Anglican clergy.
Dr Chartres, who delivered the sermon at the royal wedding in April and has close links with orthodox churches in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, at first backed the eviction moves. But then he changed his mind, and said the Church's response had been entirely wrong, and that it would no longer try to move the tents. St Paul's lost face, credibility and public respect. But when the authorities in New York decided to close down the Wall Street protest, London decided to follow suit. Eviction notices were issued. The protesters were ordered to leave. A few went, but some were defiant. The stage was set for violence. Public opinion in Britain is sharply divided. Some people see the protests as pointless and were angered to learn from newspaper reports, that heat-seeking night photography had found that many of the tents were unoccupied at night. The protesters preferred to return to the comforts of baths and beds at home. This cast into doubt the commitment of the protest.
There were also reports of people having been sexually assaulted in the tents. And the public saw the encampment as an eyesore. Many Britons, however, sympathise with the protest's aims. They are deeply angered by the Government's austerity program, which is cutting jobs, benefits and spending on schools and education. They blame the banks for the economic collapse and on the greed of banking executives who have ignored calls for restraint on bonuses and high pay for top bank officials.
And they believe the protest has drawn attention to the high level of anger at inequality in Britain, and especially to the desperate situation of young people unable to find jobs. Latest figures show that youth unemployment has risen to 21 per cent, with more than a million people under the age of 24 unable to find work. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has defended the right to protest, but said he prefers people to make their point "standing up rather than lying down" in tents. The Church, which still has a high public profile in Britain although few Britons are religious, is committed to supporting the poor and vulnerable.
Some clergy are openly hostile to government policies. Many believe they have a duty to support the protest by idealists with good jobs and respectable families. But the encampment is hurting nearby businesses and preventing visitors and worshippers from entering the cathedral. Appeals to the protesters to pack up and go home have fallen on deaf ears. Soon or later the church of England will have to decide: does it support law and order (and the bankers)? Or is it on the side of those who denounce the capitalist system?