Early Modern Post

St Paul’s Cathedral: preachers and protesters

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If you walk by St Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow morning, you’ll see the Occupy camp hanging up duvets and blankets, letting the morning dew dry in time for another night under canvas. Theirs may be more an expression against a situation than a coherent argument for a specific unified revolution, but for now at least their presence will continue to make a statement, even if it’s not always clear what that is.

The space they have chosen holds the footprints of past centuries of politics and preaching, of persuasive rhetoric and impassioned expression. The area is steeped in political argument; this building, this massive symbol of power and authority, is a highly charged location for any political statement, whether in the pulpit or the courtyard, whether made by words or by bodies.

The church have made a U-turn in recent days by dropping the legal bid to have the protesters forcibly evicted, in what would have been a irresistibly ironic reversal of Jesus expelling the money lenders. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken out in favour of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, adding the long-awaited legitimizing voice of the religious establishment to Occupy London’s emphatic but ‘vague’ expression of anger against the current system.

If the protesters were not camped on its steps, I would at this moment be sequestered within the book-lined walls of the small library that is found tucked behind the south-west tower of this beautiful building. The triforium chamber, designed by architect Christopher Wren during the rebuilding of the cathedral following the Great Fire of London, holds a quarto manuscript containing four sermons by John Donne, which I will be helping to put online as part of the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

Better known in the modern public consciousness as a poet, Donne was, by royal wrangling, the Dean of St Paul’s in the ten years until his death in 1631. His poetry represents only a small proportion of his writing, but has commanded a far larger proportion of academic and lay attention.The Oxford project aims to provide a new and definitive edition of his 160 sermons, replacing the bare bones edition of George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson (1953-1962). It will run to 16 volumes, with full scholarly apparatus making the sermons accessible to experts and students alike.

Though the voice and power of this role was bound to the royal establishment, obliged to defend for example James I’s unpopular Directions for Preachers and persuade his flock to trust in the king, there may be interesting parallels to be drawn between then and what is happening now on the doorstep of St Paul’s.

Old St Paul’s (sermon at St Paul's Cross), 1616, John Gipkyn

Donne’s was a political position and his sermons inherently so; at times they were direct responses to particular controversies and social or economic change. That he was deeply engaged in public life and public debate can be seen by the fact that, a Londoner himself, he did not preach solely in the pulpit. As well as the royal court and the inns of court, Donne, unusually for the Dean, gave frequent sermons in the open air pulpit at St Paul’s Cross. This represents real engagement with the life of the city, and with the Corporation of the City of London.

The City has always been a place of business, and as spokesperson for the Church of England, Donne’s sermons recognised this fact. Six of Donne’s sermons were published in his lifetime, including one written for a group about to set sail for tobacco plantations in the new world, entitled in manuscript: ‘Preached before the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, November 13, 1622. [Acts 1.8]’.

The Virginia Company of London sought to convert and colonize, and in recent years violent conflict with the native Powhatan Indians had led to many deaths on both sides. Without stretching a metaphor of the destructive power of rampant capitalism past the point of cynicism and into the realm of the ridiculous, this would seem to have little to do with current politics. However, I wonder if some aspects of Donne’s sermons to the entrepreneurial adventurers might be a fitting note to end on.

Donne counseled against greed and against arrogance, and challenged the Company to ‘act as an example of fairness and justice to the other mercantile companies’.[1] Perhaps it is time to revisit these texts, and perhaps it is time to listen again to the voices at the site of St Paul’s Cross.

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