Civil Rights, In-House Counsel, Letter from London, Politics, Religion, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Letter from London: What Would Jesus Do?

It’s been a bad few days for the Church of England. First, it gets slammed for siding with the bankers, rather than the protesters, after its flagship venue, St Paul’s Cathedral, finds itself at the heart of Occupy London. Second, a change to the U.K.’s ancient royal succession laws strikes a blow for its great rival, Rome, as a ban on royal family members who marry Catholics taking the throne is lifted.

Beginning with the Occupy London controversy: the protesters’ original plan was to occupy St Paul’s neighbour, the London Stock Exchange, which nestles alongside the U.K. branch of O’Melveny & Myers on an adjoining square. But they were blocked by the police, forcing them instead to set up camp on the forecourt of the great cathedral (built from the ashes of the Great Fire of London in 1666). At first this seemed like a defeat, as the Church of England played victim, shutting the doors of St Paul’s to visitors for the first time since the Second World War on what it claimed were health and safety grounds.

Here’s what the encampment looked like:

After some initial sympathy for the Church, however, the mood began to shift in favour of the protesters. Many of them could do with a wash, but they are hardly a danger to public health. “Why was the Church of England siding with the greedy capitalists, rather than the man in the street?” people asked. “Was this what Jesus would have done?” they wondered. At which point, a rebellion within the senior ranks of the cathedral staff kicked off, with St Paul’s canon Dr Giles Fraser and chaplain Rev Fraser Dyer quitting their posts after a decision by Church of England bosses to pursue legal action to remove the protesters –- now into their third week living in tents around the cathedral.

And yesterday, in the latest installment of the Church of England’s growing PR nightmare, the Independent newspaper revealed that the same Church chiefs had suppressed a highly critical report into the moral standards of bankers, commissioned by St Paul’s, that was due to be released last week. The result of all this is that rank and file Christians are now so strongly behind the protesters that they have drawn up plans to form a ring of prayer around the St Paul’s camp should the legal action succeed and an order be made for them to move.

Coordinating the legal action for Occupy London is the camp’s very own in-house legal team, housed in a tent erected in the shadow of St Paul’s. Its general counsel, “Ben” (who prefers not to disclose his surname to prevent it being listed on the police’s activist database), is not a qualified lawyer, but has developed experience in civil liberties law as a regular demonstrator on behalf of various causes, including the 2009 G20 protests.

Here is Ben, manning the legal desk:

The lead law firm on his panel of advisors is civil liberties outfit Bindmans, which represented various rioters charged during the disturbances in August.

Let’s move on to the changing of the royal succession rules. In reality, lifting a ban on royal family members with Catholic spouses taking the throne — originally brought in when Henry VIII dumped the Catholic church to create his own –- isn’t such a big deal. As I’m sure you’re aware, the more important ban on monarchs themselves practising Catholicism (and thus conflicting with their role as head of the Church of England) remains. In fact, to be perfectly honest with you, I only mention this little tidbit of news because it relates to a bigger tidbit of news: the simultaneous changing of the royal succession rules to allow first-born daughters to ascend to the British throne.

Now, for William and Kate junkies, this is big, because it means that if the couple’s first child were to be a girl, she’d become Queen, even if their second child is a boy. Exciting, eh!

Just one hitch: changing the royal succession laws could cause problems for the British aristocracy, whose estates, under similar male primogeniture rules dating back to Norman times, still go to the first-born son. In the wake of the royal rule change, there is pressure to scrap this law too, with the campaign for change being led by Lord Fellowes, the creator of the TV series Downton Abbey, whose wife is prevented from inheriting her family’s viscountcy by the current rules. However, according to Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, the only female peer in the House of Lords to have inherited her title, a rule change could be “very damaging” to family relationships.

“The ‘inferior sex’ got a new exterior,” she was overheard by one unnamed source to have added. Appearing to evoke the words of the 1985 Eurythmics hit, Sisters Doing It For Themselves, she apparently continued: “We got doctors, lawyers, politicians too. Everybody — take a look around. Can you see — can you see — can you see. But, while positive in many ways, this rule change would be an awful disappointment to my adorable little boy Hugh.”

Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at

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