Westminster Abbey protest: What would Jesus do? Call the cops, says the dean


newslatestThe dean of Westminster has been heavily criticised after he denied disabled activists permission to protest on ground outside Westminster Abbey, and asked police officers to arrest them if they refused to leave.

The campaigners were aiming to set up a protest camp to highlight the government’s decision to close the Independent Living Fund.

But a heavy police presence arrived at the abbey minutes after groups of activists from Disabled People Against Cuts began setting up a makeshift camp, with the support of the mainstream grassroots groups UK Uncut and Occupy London.

The police presence continued to grow until there were more than 200 officers surrounding a group of about 50 protesters.

The dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Dr John Hall, met a small group of protesters soon after the action began.

He told them that the Church of England supported the theory of standing up against austerity cuts but could not back any form of direct action, and he asked them to leave immediately.

Hall later agreed to meet one of the ILF-recipients to hear her concerns face-to-face, but after she had waited to speak to the dean for about 15 minutes, the police informed protesters that he had changed his mind and they were now all liable to be arrested.

Ellen Clifford, a member of DPAC’s steering group, said the dean’s refusal to meet an ILF-user was “disgusting”.

She said: “He has kept disabled people waiting and refused to meet with the ILF-recipients themselves and look them in the face and tell them that he was going to get the cops to arrest them.

“I think it was disgraceful and I think it was cowardly.”

Other disabled activists who heard of the dean’s actions agreed, calling him and the Church “cowardly”, “utterly shameful”, and “a disgrace”, and suggesting that they were “morally damaged” by their actions.

The abbey’s website declares its mission is to “serve the nation by fostering the place of true religion within national life”, and to “maintain a tradition of hospitality”, but Clifford said: “It was really not very hospitable at all.”

Hall has failed so far to explain why he asked police to remove protesters, why he refused them permission to set up camp, and why it was necessary to enlist more than 200 police officers to protect a small green space.

He has also refused to say whether he agrees with the government’s decision to close ILF.

A spokeswoman for the dean said: “We are not responding any further on this. I don’t think we will be responding to any questions on it at all.”

When asked why, she said: “It’s just the way that it is.”

Because the abbey is a “royal peculiar”, the dean is directly answerable to the Queen, and not to the archbishop of Canterbury.

Buckingham Palace refused to comment on the dean’s actions.

2 July 2014