Theology in the Public Space

The above image from the protest which kick started the occupations in the UK has become iconic. Yesterday a copy of it went onto the tent formerly known as the prayer tent at Occupy Newcastle. This tent now has another purpose, providing a home to a homeless person who thanks to the occupation and support of the regulars who are down there most of the time is currently dry (as in off alcohol) for the first time in a few years. I discovered the change of use yesterday when I got down and have to say I am really pleased – the prayer tent wasn’t being used much and now it has a different more practical use. The bible has been moved into the camp library.

Going back to the picture though it illustrates how quite literally theology has come back into the public square. Now, I know this is something that some academics and church people have reservations about – I’ve sat through some serious debates on the subject in Durham which I have to say generally fill me with dispair. The general argument is that we need the “professionals” because the public square is where fundamentalism is bred but we recognise due to the rise of social media and “‘late/post-modern knowledge” we can no longer control everything and so we do need to enter into the public dialogue which is taking place anyway. The general tone is that we need to find ways of confining it and ensuring that “experts” are allowed to have the air space they deserve.

Now don’t get me wrong I think deep knowledge and understanding of subjects is important, but I think that the “professionals” have to be careful in viewing themselves as having a priviledged voice. What the Occupy movement has been doing on one level has been bringing theology back into the public space and developing the discussion on their terms, rather than the terms of the experts.

The issues with Occupy LSX and St. Paul’s Cathedral I think are tied in to this debate about theology, the public square and the practical issues around the place of experts and the institutions they work within. The following posts look at this in different ways:

 The Huffington Post’s Jessica Abrahams talks about the way the church, whether they like it or not, are a business with investments and so forth as well as commerical arms to raise funds. The debates around business ethics tie into debates around how churches should operate and the ways in which clergy, buildings and congregations should be supported. This is one aspect of what is now being discussed in regards to St. Pauls and is an issue that should I think be taken up now we have a way to frame the discussions in ways people understand. As Grace Davie points out people in the UK do viccarious religion, (that is they want other people to do it on their behalf). Yet it costs money to maintain and support our churches as buildings and as organisations involved in a huge amount of social support. How do we think this should be funded? What ethical basis, in light of their religious views, do we expect churches to operate on?

Nick Baines, (Bishop of Bradford), discusses some of the issues about why the structures of the church seem incomprehensible to those outside. This as he points out does raise questions regarding how the church communicates itself, i.e. how it communicates within the public square. He ends by saying, “The attention needs to move away from questions about the propriety of camping on the highway and back on to what provoked such camps around the world.And isn’t the Church well placed to ask those questions and push those debates? Er… it should be.”

Another thing that is being raised through this, but not picked up on is the differences between those Christians within and those outside the establishment and the ways they find appropriate to engage with theology and with the public square. Whilst the churches for all the usual reasons, (rules laid down by the charity commissioners, worries about upsetting their more conservative members and so forth), are being very quiet or supporting in ways like giving hot water and toilet use rather than public statements, ( ;) to a certain church in the Toon), there are Christian groups and individuals who are showing very much what side they are on. Yesterday the Guardian explained how Occupy London could be protected by a Christian Ring of Prayer. Last week choristers formed a flashmob in response to closure of St. Pauls when they did not recognise the threat. Ekklesia outlines what alot of those who are not gagged by the institutions think.

All of these voices are in the public square – and I’m glad they are there. However, within this we also need to realise the public square is all around us and not just in London. Occupy Britain is a sign of this, but so are the many other discussions which take place in pubs, supermarkets and other spaces around the country each week when people comment upon what their local churches are up to.