Friday, 29 April 2011

Take from Caesar what is Caesar's

I visited St Paul's Cathedral yesterday with my kids, who are 8 and 7. I wanted them to walk round it, ask why it was there, feel the history and climb the dome. I was shocked to find that the entry price on the door was £14.50 for me and about £6 each for them: nearly £30 for the three of us. That's steep: we could all have watched a same-again Pixar animation for half the price or gone to a cathedral of science in South Kensington for nothing. This shocked me, and not just as a Londoner, or because I had always got in free as a kid or, as an adult, take a Micawberish view of life and am usually a bit hard up at the wrong end of the month, which this was.

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.

My case:
  • 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).

His case:
  • 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.


  1. And your children will be just a bit richer; they can't yet appreciate all that they have gained, but that they are not only being allowed to experience their environment intelligently, and also being exposed to fair debate about important moral dilemmas, will shape the 'man' from whom their seven year old selves will emerge.

    But to the salient point. I would imagine that only charging those who intend to pray or attend a service would reap more financial reward than charging the secular visitor, purely in terms of numbers. Then again, it would be ridiculous to ask the believers to pay for every attendance; morning prayers, Holy Communion, might encourage them to become agnostic. And then where would we be.

    Both sides of the case are entirely valid - well, maybe not the 'Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner' ruse, but I can see no other way of raising the necessary funds for the upkeep of these buildings, which are such a hugely important part of our history, regardless of personal beliefs, than by imposing an entry fee.

    If they are unable to raise the necessary funds from voluntary donations and service collections, then the church has, I think, to open its doors to fee-paying groups; I'm sure that schemes are already in place in many churches, play groups, youth groups and so on. (Not that they are in any position to be paying much for anything themselves.)

    However, interest in these magnificent buildings has to be generated, which means that our children need to be educated about their significance, so that, as adults, irrespective of religious beliefs, they recognise the value in preserving them - for the WHOLE community.

    It would seem that the sort of education that your kids are receiving from you is pretty much spot on.

  2. Thanks for your comment Lu!

    It really is a tough one. I'm sure there are many Christians who - however great their love of architecture or history - find most unholy a situation in which preserving what might be seen as the artefacts of man's vanity takes precedence over the Church's mission. But perhaps the loss of St Paul's as a place of worship, and no doubt the other great churches (and old St Bartholomews at Smithfield, which I believe now charges too) are a price worth paying if the little ones can survive?

    Charging people to worship would be an interesting experiment and worth a pilot at least, though at £15 a go some eyes would no doubt be raised to heaven. Perhaps the Church of England should rediscover Confession and simply have a tariff of charges based on the gravity of the transgression. As we are all sinners and require absolution this has glorious potential, both in terms of market size, market capture and repeatability unto death. It could be operated as a franchise run by Tesco (either that or the Church selling up to Tesco and running its own franchise) which would enable customer savings to be advertised. Also they could set up a direct debit scheme so worshippers wouldn't even have to go, thus allowing more space for the tourists.

    1. This raises a number of questions: were there many people in the cathedral and were they praying or sightseeing? If you go in to pray, can you sightsee as well, for free, or are you required to purchase some kind of 1/2 price combi ticket? Is the church encouraging deceipt if people pretend to pray in order to get a free sightsee? And how does Chichester Cathedral manage to offer free admission?