On cathedrals, occupations and Machiavelli

Durham Cathedral

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Durham Cathedral is a huge grey building, set on a peninsula of land formed by a loop in the River Wear. The cathedral was built as a shrine to St Cuthbert, but due to the machinations of monks in pursuit of relics, it also houses the shrine of the Venerable Bede. I went there to pay my respects to this early historian, much as many years later, I visited Winchester Cathedral to bow my head in homage to Jane Austen.

Because it was the first medieval cathedral I ever visited, Durham Cathedral has remained in my mind. The building overwhelmed me. I was conscious not so much of any spirituality or religious community, as of the enormous concentration of wealth and power manifested in the building. It is in any case, “half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot”… a massively strong building. To me, the building asserted the power of the local bishops when it was built, and the dominance of the wealthy church.

Those huge churches were, and I think still are, an affront to Christianity. If there is a core to Christian ethics, it lies in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, where followers are enjoined to set aside wealth and power in this world, and the poor and gentle and powerless are described as “blessed”. The words of The Magnificant are even more explicit.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

I find it hard to believe that the people who controlled the wealth of Durham and other great cathedrals could read those words without cringing.

When the Occupy London Stock Exchange protestors set up their camp in the grounds of St Paul’s, I wonder if they had in mind the long established link between the great churches, and big business, where the positioning of churches and cathedrals within business districts gives tacit support to extreme capitalism. Perhaps not.. it may just have been the nearest convenient open space to set up a camp. Even so, the initial response of the clergy of St Paul’s was bizarre: they wanted to evict the humble and the poor from their grounds, and defend their wealth. Their actions were ironic at best, and I think rather more accurately described as hypocritical and unchristian and money grubbing. Evidently they were worried about the tourist trade. There is of course that part in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers not to store up treasure on earth, and that they cannot serve both god and money…

But it seems there was at least one Christian among the clergy of St Paul’s. Giles Fraser chose to resign rather than allow the City of London and Metropolitan police to evict the protestors. His resignation is not merely a stunt: he and his wife have three teenage children to support, and they must now find a new home and new jobs.

He is to be admired, not just for holding true to his own beliefs, but also for speaking truth to power. Churches which hoard wealth, and take the side of property owners and established power against the poor and vulnerable have lost their way, and have turned from the teachings of the gospels.

Machiavelli talks of the need for reform. In Discorsi, he describes the processes by which republics are established and prosper, becoming free states, within which citizens may be free. But over time, he says, alas, republics start to falter, in an inevitable cycle of decay. What is needed then is a man of great integrity and strength, who will reform the republic, and re-establish virtue, and restore the republic to its greatness. (Source – scroll to the bottom of the page.)

The established churches are perhaps too strongly integrated with the centres of power and wealth in our society to be reformed by just one man. Nevertheless, Giles Fraser has just given a very sharp lesson to the clergy of St Paul’s, and to clerics world wide. If they are not on the side of people who are poor and dispossessed, then they are not Christians at all.

A final note: one still-employed cleric has described the events at St Paul’s as a PR disaster for the church. That seems to me to be one of the churches’ major problems. The problem is not the PR, but the hypocrisy and unchristian behaviour.


This post is written for a friend who asked me what I thought about Giles Fraser, and the occupation of St Paul’s. It is sadly overdue, because of reasons, mostly to do with work commitments which have slowed down my blogging of late. However I am very grateful to my friend for prompting me to think and write about this.


2 comments on “On cathedrals, occupations and Machiavelli

  1. Marie says:

    Thank you for this Deborah. I quite agree about the cathedrals and your post recalled to mind my ambivalent feelings – of wonder at human engineering, and disgust at the unholy marriage between church and state made concrete in the cathedrals. Corruption was especially evident to me in the grand tombs of the local lords set as close as possible to the altar; they were so often brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins etc of the bishops, and between them the lords of church and state squeezed the people dry. So there is, sadly, a long tradition behind the alliance, not quite as old as christianity, but close on its heels alas.

  2. Denny says:

    I recently returned from Europe. Our holiday turned into an art history tour and the first thing that struck me was the intertwining of state, business, church and art. I learnt about European history through my visits to churches, and that’s because the wealth of the state and business (from where the senior clergy came anyway) was used to build cathedrals to honour themselves and in which art was used as a PR exercise, inserting the statesmen or bishops, cardinals, popes into paintings alongside saints and christ to show the populace that they had god’s approval! The spin went into overdrive during the counter-reformation to show the unwashed that this really was the one true church. The papal states couldn’t do anything about the Germans following Luther, but they could excommunicate and execute clergy closer to home eg in Florence, who spoke against their excesses. It apparently put some artists, like Michaelangelo, in a moral dilemma.
    My dilemma at the time was that I love the art and architecture of these churches, but despise the hypocrisy that created them. It’s even worse when you consider the utter poverty in which the populace lived while state and church leaders competed for glorification in these buildings. Yet without this hypocrisy we wouldn’t have the amazing and beautiful art … A world without renaissance art … consider that paradox.
    Still, the hypocrisy of the christian churches today is no less appalling, and what happened at St Pauls is another reminder of that. It saddens me that christianity seems to have little to do with organised religion.

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