A people of tents

So it's been a couple of weeks since the Occupy St. Pauls folk were unceremoniously removed from their campsite..

Walking past the site of the occupation, there is barely any evidence of their former presence. They were there for five months, made national news, and now have dissipated. They are no longer darlings of the news cycle, and no longer a thorn in the side of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Which, in many ways, is a shame. It is a shame that we no longer have the opportunity to watch the institution of the church twist itself into knots trying to reconcile its calling to the poor, and it’s need to sustain an opulent building and love for its multinational parishioners.It's a shame that we no longer have a voice in the centre of London, calling into question the very structures that we trust to hold up our economy and society.

But here's something important to remember about the occupy movement. They stayed in tents. Tents are, by their very nature, temporary. They are designed to be put up quickly, packed down quickly and lived in for a limited period of time. They keep us mobile, flexible, stop us from being an institution. If occupy stayed where it was indefinitely, do we really think it would have remained vital, challenging, counter-cultural? Or would it have petrified into a political movement, tied up in its own ever-increasing ideals? The removal of the tents is not a failure, or a conclusion for Occupy St. Paul's. It's an evolution. A move off the streets and into the minds and newspapers and chattering blogs that have really been its strength all along.

The sad thing is, as Christians, we are meant to be a people of tents. Following a pillar of fire, housed in a tabernacle, the Israelites pitched their tent wherever their God was. For forty years, they wandered in the desert, God refusing to let them get comfortable, refusing to let them settle down. Jewish thought has been defined by exile – the idea that faith can persevere in the face of displacement and dispersal. When the disciples encountered Moses and Elijah up a mountain, what was their response? “Let's make shelters!”

The apostle Paul relied on tent-making for an income – not depending on the more charitable members of the early Church. This kept him independent, sharp; you could say it prevented him from being subject to the whims of the institutions of faith. It meant that he could be free to speak as he chose, stay provocative, and stand against the wisdom of the day.

But over the years, we got lazy. We built homes for God out of stone, and with it lost our ability to challenge – to be prophetic. Even the most modern churches occasionally make the error of equating building projects and physical growth with success and authenticity.

Nowhere was this conflict more apparent than when the occupy protesters came up against St. Paul's. The church, rooted in the bedrock of the city, and dependent on its millions of visitors to preserve its monumental edifices, struggled to find its prophetic voice – while, the protesters, nimble and quick, and with nothing to lose but their canvas dwellings, were free to be more challenging.

What would our faith look like without buildings? It would make us more dynamic, more challenging. We would be able to be more authentic in our community, less reliant on places to define us. Should we return to our roots, then, as people of the tent?