Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why bash the bishop over Occupy Exeter?

There's been a good-natured occupation of Exeter's Cathedral Green by the Occupy movement. Here's a video of them moving in, accompanied by a friendly and constructive speech by one of the clergy:

Photos and another video are at the Exeter anti-cuts alliance website.

Now I'm conflicted about the Occupy movement. This is not what democracy looks like to me.  I don't want decisions about the future of my city, country and planet to be taken by those groups who shout angriest and loudest that they speak for everyone. And I'm angry that many people have failed to engage in our democratic processes in the past. However, the movement has its heart in the right place when it attacks corporate greed and inequality, it has captured imaginations, and it has real potential to help more people engage constructively in these issues.

But I note the spin by The Telegraph and others on comments made by the Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish. He has said plainly that he is very sympathetic to the questions raised by Occupy Exeter folks. He echoes the warmth of the cleric in the above video. The bishop also notes the protest appears misdirected at the church. This is positive. A key message that Occupy Exeter is trying to get out there is that this isn't about the church, but about the failure of our financial sector. The bishop is a thoughtful figure to be engaged with, not the enemy.

Yet The Telegraph portrays him as "dismissing 'copycat' protests", and praises his "robust stance". The BBC emphasizes the bishop's concern that this looks like a protest against the church, rather than his friendliness to the cause.

However, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, of Exeter University's Theology department, seems to have taken this spin at face value. She has tweeted:
"Bishop of Exeter against #occupyexeter: 'Each day we will remind protesters that this is sacred space'. Jesus would probab be ashamed of him"
The bishop is clear he would rather there weren't protesters on Cathedral Green, but he and his clergy have gone out of their way to engage with Occupy folk, to offer practical help, and to highlight how the church shares a similar mission. To say the bishop is "against" Occupy Exeter is therefore simplistic and misrepresents his views.

More importantly, it is divisive to portray the bishop as an enemy. Claiming that Jesus would be ashamed of him is an unhelpful insult. The bishop's status means that his sympathy with the issues being raised could carry some weight with many people who have so far been left cold by the Occupy movement. Let's build support, not barricades.

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