So I looked more closely and saw that entry was free if you are attending a religious service or intending to pray. This struck me as odd. Christianity is an evangelical religion: it seeks to convert heathens. People who attend services or wish to pray will already be believers. People who aren't believers tend not to. Why deter those who need to come to Christ by stinging them financially unless they are prepared to commit the sin of lying about their intention?
I challenged the man on the till, who referred me - rather wearily, I thought - to the Chapter House. Dragging my children by the ears I set off, but bumped into a cleric on the way. He said that I was not the first to raise the matter and invited us into a quiet place to discuss it.
Initially we took up strange positions: I, an unbeliever, trying to make the moral case for free admission; he, a cleric, trying to make the utilitarian case for charging. There was a touch of dishonesty in both our positions.
- A religion that seeks to convert undermines its purpose by deterring those who don't believe and welcoming only those who already do.
- It most deters those who are poor, many of whom the Church might consider most in need of it.
- I'm a bleedin' Londoner (OK, probably the weakest string in my bow, but I'm an emotional guy, and no one messes with my kids' education).
- The Church of England gets no state support, has to raise its own money, and traditional sources are dwindling in an increasingly secular world.
- Across the UK, the Church owns over 6,000 Grade 1 listed buildings which it is required to maintain, unsupported, at great expense, quite apart from those listed at Grade 2 and below.
- Most people who come to visit St Paul's do so purely as sightseers: they would visit Trafalgar Square, Madame Tussaud's or London Zoo in the same spirit. Compared to them, St Paul's is relatively cheap.
- Voluntary donation schemes have not raised anything like the money needed to maintain St Paul's, let alone lesser churches and the infrastructure that supports them.
I said that I thought the case he was making for charging - and at this level - made complete sense in financial terms (in fact it was pretty well unanswerable), but not in terms of the Church's mission, which St Paul's was surely there to represent and promote. Nor did it make sense in terms of encouraging non-religious but well-disposed people like me, who would make a point of speaking with their kids about the significance of such buildings and the beliefs that lay behind them so that they can, one day, make up their own minds. Had they, the Church, I wanted to know, given up on that; on us?
We then touched on what I think is fundamental to all of this: the demise of religious institutions in a secular age. And here, in a spirit close to lamentation and in a manner more sociological than religious, we began to agree. What he had said was true: most people do see a cathedral as no different from Big Ben or Nelson's Column; most will be no less indifferent to the Church's message than to the genesis of Parliament or naval strategy during the Napoleonic Wars. Are people able any more to have a point of reference (any point of reference) outside the self from which to derive - and with which to debate - meaning?
"People criticise David Cameron," he said, "but the Church has been doing 'The Big Society' for years." And so it has.
I wanted to say more, to talk and listen all afternoon, but one of the kids, who had been promised the climb to the top of the dome, had started to gnaw my right leg in frustration, and my legs are not one of their '5 a day' as prescribed by the secular authority.
The man said that he could give us a free pass to get in. I said that I would donate £10 and gave a fiver each to the kids to put in the donation box as we passed. And they got a right and proper and respectful tour of St Paul's Cathedral from me that day, so they did, and by the end of it I like to think they had a fair idea of where that money - which would have bought all of five ice creams - had gone. And they wowed at the view from the top.
I am not sure that I was right, or that my motives were pure (not that one is necessarily dependent on the other); I disagreed with the utilitarian response I got from the man, and I stand by that; but my God, I like to think I got a flavour of the predicament for them, and for the rest of us too, and I feel just a bit humbler - if not poorer - as a result.