Occupy London Jesus
© Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
Graeme Knowles, the dean of St Paul's, stands down citing fierce criticism of the cathedral's response to the Occupy London protest group

The dean of St Paul's Cathedral, the Rt Rev Graeme Knowles, has resigned, saying fierce criticism of the cathedral's response to the Occupy London protest group, which has spent more than a fortnight camped against its walls, made his position untenable.

The departure of such a senior figure - his replacement must be approved by the Queen - is a significant blow to the cathedral and the wider Anglican church. Both have visibly struggled to offer a coherent reaction to the camp, in particular whether it should be forcibly evicted. Knowles's departure comes four days after another senior St Paul's figure, Giles Fraser, the canon chancellor, quit.

Graeme Knowles
© John Stillwell/PAThe dean of St Paul's Cathedral, Graeme Knowles, has resigned with immediate effect.
While Fraser stepped down over a specific objection to force being used to evict protesters from the 200 or so tents that have been set up close to the cathedral, Knowles resigned amid a general sense that the St Paul's hierarchy had dithered. This was particularly the case over the week-long closure of the cathedral, the first since the second world war, because of apparent health and safety issues which were never fully explained.

"The past fortnight has been a testing time for the chapter and for me personally," Knowles said in a statement.

"It has become increasingly clear to me that, as criticism of the cathedral has mounted in the press, media and in public opinion, my position as dean of St Paul's was becoming untenable. In order to give the opportunity for a fresh approach to the complex and vital questions facing St Paul's, I have thought it best to stand down as dean, to allow new leadership to be exercised."

Knowles's decision prompted a first intervention in the crisis by the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who appeared to tacitly acknowledge that closing the cathedral was a mistake. He said: "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."

He added: "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."

With two senior positions suddenly vacant at one of the Anglican communion's most celebrated sites of worship, the St Paul's chapter, which governs the cathedral, has asked the bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, to provide temporary assistance.

Answering questions from the media, Chartres said he hoped St Paul's could become as significant now as it was during the second world war, when its survival amid the Blitz became a symbol of national defiance. He said: "The church has a very important role to play in providing reasoned debate, in a context which is moral and spiritual."

The Occupy camp sits on land owned by both St Paul's and the Corporation of the City of London, which administers the capital's financial district. It is the latter which has been leading legal moves to evict the protesters.

On Monday afternoon officers from the corporation handed activists letters giving them 48 hours to clear away tents. If, as seems inevitable, this does not happen, court action will start on Wednesday, although the complex case could drag on for several months.

While the cathedral still supports legal action, Chartres said the chapter "would not condone the use of violence in effecting any expulsion".

Asked about the apparent contradiction in this, he said only: "Who knows what is going to happen?"

News of Knowles's resignation was announced at one of the camp's regular mass meetings, prompting a loud cheer. However the activists, part of a global wave of similar occupations against the perceived excesses of the global finance system, are keen that the travails of the church do not obstruct their primary targets.

In a brief statement the protest group said it had never "called for scalps" in the church.

"The management of St Paul's cathedral is obviously deeply divided over the position they have taken in response to our cause, but our cause has never been directed at the staff of the cathedral," it said.

However, the statement pointedly failed to echo the warm words offered to Fraser when he departed.