Friday, 9 December 2011

A holy conundrum

It has, somehow, never seemed quite right to me that I should have to pay to go into a cathedral. It grates that I can't gaze in wonder at what has been built to the glory of God and offer my own humble prayer of praise and thanksgiving without having to pay several pounds for the privilege.

I was at one time a member of the Parochial Church Council and even a churchwarden so I do have some idea of where the cathedral powers-that-be are coming from and some considerable sympathy with their dilemma. Just like so many other countries, England is blessed with magnificent cathedrals (and some that are, frankly, less than magnificent). Some of the most glorious cathedrals are in small cities - Canterbury, Salisbury, Lincoln, Durham for example - and, indeed, in some cases they almost are the city. Somehow the city just would not seem right without them. But these buildings are old and require maintenance. The regular users - the congregations - are too small to be able to pay for the work needed. Ensuring a spire or tower stays up and doesn't fall through thr roof is not cheap. Even stopping gargoyles falling on the heads of passers-by costs a lot of money. And that is where the dilemma comes in.

The great cathedrals have become not the destinations of pilgrimages but tourist attractions. People visit Canterbury and Salisbury to see the cathedrals. Many, if not most of the visitors to these buildings see them as works of art, like Old Master paintings but on a larger scale. Those people don't see the cathedrals as offerings to the glory of a deity in which they don't believe anyway. So, why should they not contribute towards the upkeep of the buildings? The last cathedral I entered made no charge - Lichfield. There were boxes for donations and I did make a donation. However, that system has been tried and found wanting in other cities so turnstiles and tickets have become the order of the day.

Unfortunately, so great is the cost of maintaining these buildings that the entrance fees alone are insufficient. Go into many cathedrals now and the building almost resembles a covered market. There is a large book and souvenir shop offering not just devotional books but tea towels and mugs, postcards and pens. Even, in some cases, plastic Virgin Marys. There might be a tea shop in another corner. And if the visitor would like to climb the tower or descent into the crypt, that will be another pound please. Cathedrals have become big business.

But does the Church, be it Anglican or Roman Catholic or one of the Orthodox Churches, really need these buildings? Cannot God be worshipped in humbler surroundings? Granted, these buildings were erected to the glory of God, but I suspect they were also erected to the glory of some bishop or other long since dead and buried. Should the Church be looking to dispose of these religious stately homes, thereby saving themselves the cost of maintenance and allowing them to use funds to the benefit of people?

I suppose the big problem that would arise if there were any thought of selling such a building would be finding a buyer. The chances of any businessman being able to use the building for anything that would cover its costs and provide a profit are so slim as to be non-existent. So we fall back on the state or a cultural body such as the National Trust. But would the state want to take on the responsibility of caring for these medieval heirlooms, and could any body such as the National Trust afford to do so?

It will take a better brain than mine to sort out this problem.


John May said...

Lichfield is a cathedral with houses around it, but next time you come, let us know. We know the back way in.

The Broad said...

I understand exactly what you are saying. It cost 15 pounds to enter Westminster Abbey the other day! Fortunately for my pocketbook, I didn't have time for the gift shop! I think though that we do need these buildings -- they connect us to the past and are works of art that once lost would never come again -- they are an amazing achievement to what men can do and make us richer for their existence. I love Canterbury -- it's probably my favorite -- however, I was absolutely furious several years ago, when I had to pay to get into the ladies! To add insult to injury, I had left my belongings with my parents in the cathedral and had to walk quite a distance in the rain so when I arrived at the 20p machine, I had no money with me so I had to go back and forth and back again!!

Buck said...

Preserving the cathedrals IS a problem and I hope a solution is forthcoming.

I don't recall ever having paid to visit any of the great British cathedrals, but my touring days happened back in the '80s. I always dropped a pound or do in the donations box.

Stephen Hayes said...

Mrs. Chatterbox and I took a wonderful tour of Westminster Abbey the last time we were in the UK. I honestly can't remember what it cost but it was certainly worth it. Nearly a thousand years of history! Priceless.