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The British consider St. Paul's Cathedral a national treasure. The marriage of Charles and Diana took place there, as did Churchill's funeral. These days, though, the London landmark is also the backdrop for another kind of drama- a protest camp modeled on the Occupy Wall Street movement.
NPR's Philip Reeves says it's causing upheaval in the heart of British society.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is the 19th day of the protest here at St. Paul's Cathedral, one of the world's great landmarks. Tonight, London's going about its business. There are double-decker red buses passing by, black cabs waiting for passengers and people thronging around the cathedral steps where, just a few yards from the front door, there's a cluster of scores of small, brightly colored tents.
This wasn't the original idea. When they first arrived, the protestors here were headed for the London Stock Exchange nearby. The police blocked their path, so they came here instead. Thus, began a chain of events that had some very unexpected consequences.
The protestors' main targets are bankers and politicians, whom they blame for a capitalist system they say has gone badly wrong, yet their presence outside St. Paul's has also caused deep division within England's official church, the Church of England.
Soon after they arrived, the clerics who run St. Paul's shut the cathedral for nearly a week, citing safety reasons. St. Paul's hasn't closed since Hitler's bombers blitzed London. There was a huge outcry and words of disapproval, even from other churchmen.
REVEREND ALAN GREEN: I mean, it's very easy for me to criticize from the outside. I'm very loathed to do that. But in retrospect, the symbol of closing the doors - I think that was a real mistake, closing for the week.
REEVES: That's the Reverend Alan Green, rector of a church close by St. Paul's. The controversy grew even bigger when St. Paul's launched legal proceedings to remove the protest camp. Some clerics believe the church should, like Jesus, be on the side of the poor and, therefore, should support the protestors.
A heated debate began in Britain about the church's role. The church's most senior cleric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has now weighed in. He's positive about the protest.
ROWAN WILLIAMS: It's triggered awareness of the unfinished business really in the financial sector. The unfinished business between government and banks, the whole sense of the need to press for something that will deliver a juster more rational system.
REEVES: This week, St. Paul's dropped its legal action against the protest camp and the cathedral's dean resigned. He's the second senior figure at St. Paul's to quit over the protest.
This row has damaged the standing of the cathedral and the clerics who run it. One local parliamentarian called St. Paul's a national laughing stock. But the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, is confident it'll recover.
RICHARD CHARTRES: Christians are very used to near-death experiences. They're also used to resurrections. The cathedral has burnt down. Its symbol is the phoenix. I have absolutely no doubt that that will be the story this time, as well.
REEVES: As for the protestors, their problems are not over. They secured another victory this week when the city of London authorities suspended their effort to evict them, but this could easily resume.
That doesn't worry antiques dealer, Adam Murray. He's been outside St. Paul's for all 19 days. He doesn't intend to give up now.
ADAM MURRAY: And if it snows and there's a blizzard and there's gale force winds or a typhoon or hurricane, I'm still going to stay. It's not going to put me off. It's the idea itself. It's what we stand up for.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.