LONDON — The Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral has become the second high-profile clergy member to step down over anti-capitalist protests that have spilled across the historic church’s grounds.
The resignation Monday of Graeme Knowles leaves the cathedral without a leader and will delay a planned legal action to evict the protest camp.
Knowles said his position had become “untenable” as criticism of the cathedral mounted in the press and in public opinion. Knowles had urged protesters to leave the cathedral area to allow it to reopen its doors.
Officials shut the church to the public on Oct. 21, saying demonstrators’ tents were a health and safety hazard. It was the first time the 300-year-old London church had closed since German planes bombed the city during World War II. It reopened Friday.
Knowles’ resignation follows that last week of Giles Fraser, a senior St. Paul’s Cathedral priest who had welcomed the anti-capitalist demonstrators to set up camp outside the landmark, inspired by New York’s Occupy Wall Street movement. He said he resigned because he feared moves to evict the protesters could end in violence.
A part-time chaplain, Fraser Dyer, also resigned last week, saying he was “embarrassed” by the decision to take legal action to try to evict the protesters.
Senior clergy have been divided over how to handle the scores of tents set up outside the iconic cathedral near the River Thames in central London. Demonstrators erected the tents Oct. 15, during a thwarted attempt to stage a protest outside the nearby London Stock Exchange.
The protesters said Knowles’ resignation showed that the management of St. Paul’s is “obviously deeply divided” over the protests. But in a statement on the Occupy London website, the movement said it had never called for any “scalps” from the clergy.
“Our cause has never been directed at the staff of the cathedral,” the group said. It called for an “open and transparent dialogue” between demonstrators and those urging campers to move.
Knowles, 60, called the past two weeks a “testing time” and said his decision to step down did not come easily.
“Since the arrival of the protesters’ camp outside the cathedral, we have all been put under a great deal of strain and have faced what would appear to be some insurmountable issues,” he said in a statement. “I hope and pray that under new leadership these issues might continue to be addressed and that there might be a swift and peaceful resolution.”
St. Paul’s officials said Knowles made his decision known on Sunday night and has already removed himself from operations.
On Sunday, clergymen and demonstrators held talks aimed at avoiding a violent confrontation over the camp.
Both the church and the local authority, the City of London Corporation, announced last week they were going to court to clear scores of tents from a pedestrianized square and footpath outside the cathedral.
But cathedral spokesman Rob Marshall said legal proceedings had not yet started, and the governing chapter “is now discussing a range of options in the wake of the resignation of the dean.”
Knowles’ resignation does not affect the separate legal action by the City of London Corporation, which is seeking eviction on the grounds that the protest is an “unreasonable user of the highway.”
Britain’s High Court will decide whether to allow authorities to forcibly clear the protest camp. Many expect the legal process to be lengthy and complex.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, leader of the Anglican church, called Knowles’ decision to step down “very sad news.”
“The events of the last couple of weeks have shown very clearly how decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure can have utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences, and the clergy of St. Paul’s deserve our understanding in these circumstances,” he said in a statement.
“The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St. Paul’s remain very much on the table and we need — as a church and as society as a whole — to work to make sure that they are properly addressed.”
Associated Press Robert Barr and Jill Lawless contributed to this report. Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd