After Occupy Bristol… Dean reflects on lessons learnt
Following the end of Occupy Bristol on College Green, David Hoyle, Dean of Bristol, has been reflecting on what he learnt from the experience of engaging with the movement and the importance of real conversations amidst the pressure to take sides.
Writing in the Church Times on Friday 10 February, David recalls the weeks following Occupy Bristol moved onto College Green which is owned by the cathedral, but leased to the city council.
“In those early days, the cathedral was under pressure to side with Occupy. At the end of evensong one night, a passionately articulate student begged me to recognise that I had the voice of Amos and Hosea on the doorstep, and I first heard a slogan that would become very familiar: ‘Jesus would join the camp.’ It was all a question of taking sides, and saying so.”
The Dean argues that such an approach would not have been appropriate in the constantly evolving conversation that was taking place.
“The camp was energetic and opinionated, but there were many opinions. Conscious that they did not have simple headlines to offer us, the campers began to describe what they were doing as an ‘experiment, not a protest’.
“Rapidly, arguments over council policy were added to the mix. As we talked to one another and to the council, there was never a single point at issue, and the idea of taking sides, even if we had wanted to do that, would have been laughable.”
As these conversations continued, a more serious problem was emerging. As Occupy Bristol attracted a range of others to the camp, it had problems regulating its own life.
“There were fights: often because the camp was attacked by its enemies; sometimes because residents fell out among themselves. There were persistent problems with alcohol- and drug-abuse, even though the camp repeatedly declared itself ‘dry’. Our vergers were abused almost daily; one of them was physically attacked; and local businesses began to raise their concerns with us. The pressure was on not to support, but to evict the camp.”
Soon these issues began to elbow out the political and economic arguments at the heart of the Occupy agenda.
“We got very close to negotiating an end, but they were briefly divided over tactics, and we did go to court. Occupy quickly committed themselves to a peaceful exit, and began to take the camp down. When the bailiffs finally arrived early on 31 January, there were just two structures, and one man fast asleep.”
David has also paid tribute to colleagues and those who supported the cathedral in dealing with a difficult situation.
“We set out to be courteous and to form a relationship with the camp, for the cathedral staff, who were often being abused, that was a very demanding task and they stuck to it with extraordinary dedication. We needed to be highly organised and responsive to a quickly changing situation and we were very fortunate to have a Chapter Clerk who had the skill and energy to manage a complex situation and think through possible risks and challenges. We were fortunate too in our relationship with the Council and its officers providing us with resources, skills and insights that were an essential ingredient in the final outcome. The support of the Diocesan Bishop, diocesan colleagues and the prayers of so many friends made a huge difference when some problems seemed threatening.”
In conclusion, David affirms the strength of having sought to engage with the people in Occupy and addressing the issues they were raising – many of which the Church has always taken a lead on.
“The temptation [was] to see opportunity in a crisis, and think that you must say something for the public stage. It was the temptation to have an opinion, and then stand on one side of the street shouting at someone on the other side. Our economic crisis is turned into Punch-and-Judy politics, or the acid drip of recrimination; even Occupy struggle to escape the polarities of “them and us”. What happened in Bristol was that we talked across the barricades. Not enough, not nearly enough, but we are better for it.
“Lasting and positive change happens when humans engage with one another. It was as our relationships developed that we were able to hear the challenges that Occupy presented us with, and to act on them: we are reviewing our banking arrangements, for example.
“We resisted the temptation in all this to leap to conclusions, and were not scared to change our minds. This could not have happened if we had not built those relationships. Similarly, Occupy have shed their assumptions about us. The result is that, at the end of all this, we have a potential partner in Occupy rather than a problem.
“And where was Jesus? The answer finally became clear at Christmas. In the midst of all our difficulties, we are for ever coming up with a set of words — with agendas, proposals, proofs — and asking people to vote for it. God, meanwhile, takes the Word and makes it back into a life. Christian faith is not a summons to commit to this or that. We are not called by Christ to sign up and take sides; we are invited instead to live, and Jesus lives out his life in the camps and beyond them.”
Source: Diocese of Bristol