Is St Paul's too important to be run by the Church?


As I get older, I find I have lost my head for heights. Going around the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s, or up to the top of the dome, as I did with my children the other day, is now torture; although not of a normally suicidal frame of mind, I have to repress a powerful urge to put an end to it all by throwing myself off.

I should imagine the cathedral authorities have been suffering similar impulses in recent weeks. The protesters camped – as selfishly as any banker – around the skirts of Wren’s masterpiece are a headache, for which no aspirin has yet been found.

It is partly a tale of two Bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, is a deeply spiritual man, whom one could imagine to have been a hermit, like St Columba, another reluctant bishop, in earlier centuries, if not a St Jerome, beating his breast in the wilderness.

The Dean of St Paul's, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles (L), and the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, listen to questions as they meet with demonstrators camped outside St Paul's Cathedral

The Dean of St Paul's, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles (L), and the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, listen to questions as they meet with demonstrators camped outside St Paul's Cathedral

Not content to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, he has pitched in with the view that one section of the community should render a bit more, with a tax on financial transactions. Given the Church’s appalling history of mismanaging its own assets in recent decades, I would suggest that financial advice from a Greek trades unionist would be just as credible.

The Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, by contrast, a learned man who nevertheless both looks and acts like a warrior Bishop of the Middle Ages, prepared to defend his diocese from the infidel – in this case, perhaps, the Dean and Chapter responsible for running the cathedral. 

Bishops don’t usually have much to do with the management of their cathedrals. I am cheered that he has now entered the fray.

The anti-capitalist protestors tents outside St Paul's Cathedral

The anti-capitalist protestors tents outside St Paul's Cathedral

It does, however, raise the question of what cathedrals are for.  St Paul’s doesn’t only belong to the Church; it is also a national monument, a symbol of the British will, still proud to bear the scars of wartime bombing on its walls, a memory of its Churchillian role during the Blitz. 

If the unworldly Dr Williams wants to make a gesture towards the financially disadvantaged, he might start by urging those who run cathedrals to remove the admission fee. 

Visiting St Paul’s is now so expensive that an office worker can hardly pop in for five minutes during a lunch break.  Our cathedrals are as much the birthright of the people as art galleries and museums.  Entry ought to be free.

The reason it isn’t is largely because the Church has wanted to keep control of them.  As a communicating member of the Church of England, I sympathise with the desire for them to remain primarily places of worship.

But the Church also has to be seen to be running them responsibly, and not giving a platform to a small colony of half-baked, platitudinous idealists who have no coherent message, just a generalised and unfocused grievance.

If anyone can sort out the mess, it will be Dr Chartres.  If not, the argument for removing what are great statements of national identity, as well as faith, from the hands of the clerics will become stronger.



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