LONDON // St Paul's Cathedral, the domed church that has dominated London's skyline for more than 300 years, has become the focal point of an unholy mess threatening to engulf the Church of England.
A situation described by one senior churchman as "a total and complete shambles" has led to the resignations of the two most senior members of the cathedral's clergy, embarrassed the prime minister, David Cameron, and caused Anglicans to question what their church and its leader stand for these days.
Problems started for the cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren after the 1666 Great Fire of London, on the day of global protest against the activities of the financial sector on October 15.
About 3,000 demonstrators turned up in the square outside the London Stock Exchange, located in the heart of the city's banking sector, a few hundred metres from St Paul's.
Inspired by the protests in Wall Street, the organisers, Occupy the London Stock Exchange (OLSX), planned to set up a tent camp in the square but police prevented them.
They moved to Paternoster Square outside St Paul's and erected about 60 tents with the blessing of the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor of the cathedral. By yesterday, those 60 tents had grown to about 200, occupied by a ragtag army of protesters.
Some were ordinary people who object to the banking crisis in the West that has led to many losing their jobs, although the majority were "professional" anti-capitalist demonstrators and anarchists.
Two weeks ago, the chaos outside the cathedral had become so bad that the Right Rev Graeme Knowles, the dean who is in charge of the day-to-day running of St Paul's, decided that the church should take the unprecedented step of closing its doors to visitors and worshippers.
Such a move had only ever happened once before - in 1941 when Nazi bombers razed much of London during the Blitz.
The decision to close was made on health and safety grounds but produced unease among worshippers, especially as some of the Church of England hierarchy gave the impression that they were more concerned about the thousands of pounds the church was losing through the closure of the cathedral's gift shop.
Last week, the cathedral authorities decided to back legal action being taken by the Corporation of London to remove the protesters, prompting the resignation of Dr Fraser. On Sunday, the church reopened amid mounting criticism then, on Monday, Dean Knowles resigned, saying his position had become "untenable" because of the fiasco.
The Church of England leadership ordered the cathedral authorities to withdraw their support for the legal action to evict the protesters.
The dean's resignation forced the Bishop of London, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, to personally take over the running of the cathedral.
A Church Times poll showed that about 80 per cent of Anglicans felt the church should be reaching out to protesters, not trying to evict them.
"The alarm bells are ringing all over the world," said the bishop. "St Paul's has now heard that call. Today's decision means that the doors are most emphatically open to engage with the matters concerning not only those encamped around the cathedral, but millions of others in this country and around the globe."
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke out on the issue after what Robert Pigott, the BBC's religious affairs correspondent, described as a period when "St Paul's and the wider church had appeared like a rudderless ship battered by storms beyond its control".
Mr Pigott added: "For two weeks Anglicans have watched a debate that should have been about banks and traders, but became one about whether their own church is standing up for Christian values."
Dr Williams's contribution was to side, at least partly, with the protesters as he criticised a banking system that awarded "soaring bonuses" by encouraging irresponsible behaviour.
"It's not changing fast enough and people still feel that the public is bearing more of the cost than they ought to," he said. "So an occasion like the protest outside St Paul's has been a real focus for people's feelings and their imagination."
Dr Williams also expressed support for the protesters' demands for a "Robin Hood tax" - a government charge on financial transactions in the City of London - which has already been specifically ruled out by the prime minister. By yesterday, even the Corporation of London had put on hold their plans for legal action to evict the protesters.
Instead, the authority offered to allow a reduced number of tents to remain outside St Paul's until the New Year.
Tina Rothery, one of the OLSX leaders, said the group would decide whether to accept the offer in the coming week.
"This is a great U-turn from the Corporation of London," she added. "Following the backing of the Archbishop and St Paul's, this is proving to be an exciting time for our movement."
But even after the protesters leave, the questions over St Paul's and the governance of the Church of England are likely to remain.