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picture showing the admission prices displayed at the north door of the abbey
The Westminster Abbey paywall

Posted on 27 July 2010, 4:40

Theo Hobson wrote in the Guardian last week about how difficult it is these days to get into St Paul’s Cathedral simply ‘for religious reasons’, rather than as a tourist, without incurring the Alton Towers-style entrance fee of £12.50. In fact, come to think of it, it probably costs less to go on Nemesis or Oblivion at Alton Towers than it does to get into St Paul’s, and those rides must induce more immediate thoughts of eternity than Wren’s masterpiece, at a fraction of the price.

St Paul’s was an important sacred place for me when I was a student. I went there whenever I was near to wander, pray, sit spellbound beneath the dome, think, write and escape the noise of London. I went there for blessing and never left disappointed. But if I was a student today, the entrance fee, or the alternative of haggling with the security people to get in for free (Hobson successfully did this, but it’s not everyone’s skill) would basically close the cathedral to me as a spiritual house, which surely defeats the point of building it in the first place.

Down the road from St Paul’s is Westminster Abbey, where the entrance fee is even higher (£15 per adult, £12 per student) and they have CCTV, which conjures up a control room full of clerics watching to make sure people cross themselves correctly. Only a few years ago it was possible to amble into the Abbey, using the same door as the Queen, without being asked, ‘Is it cash or credit card?’ at a turnstile. But the Abbey now has a paywall, just like The Times website. The days of free Abbey content are over. St Rupert of Murdoch could be their new patron saint.

A sign at the Great North Door sets out the rationale for the payment regime: Since the Crown, State and Church only give occasional grants, the cost of maintaining these old buildings has to come from visitors and tourists. That’s one way of looking at possible solutions, but from a visitor’s point of view the eyewatering prices seem to have diverted this historic place of worship from its religious purpose and sent it down the dead-end of financial survival. Its primary business now looks like tourism.

Last year, a Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper with the nom de guerre of Cool Dude went to the 11.15am Sung Eucharist and experienced a bizarre non-welcome which must be unique in any English cathedral or abbey. The Mystery Worshipper wrote…

At the outer gate, a chap in a robe was telling tourists that the Abbey was closed… The large family group in front of me remonstrated, and as they eventually passed inside, the gatekeeper messaged on his police style walkie-talkie that four were ‘coming up to pray’. Something in his tone of voice said he didn’t believe them. I finally gained entrance along with some others who managed to convince the gatekeeper that we were there to attend the service.

But as we walked up the aisle (the service was about to start), a second robed person slammed the choir gate shut in our faces without a word of warning or explanation, raising a forbidding hand against us. Then a third robed person waved us to the nave seating, again without a word, as if he were waving motorists into parking spaces. Together these three gentlemen managed to convey the least friendly welcome I have ever received at a church service.

I emailed the Abbey press office at the time, asking if they would like to comment on this odd behaviour towards worshippers, and after some prompting, received a cut-and-paste reply: ‘Westminster Abbey lays great emphasis on the welcome offered to worshippers and other visitors. All constructive comments are considered very carefully.’

I was in Westminster today, so sloped across to the Abbey in a spare half hour to see if I could get inside for a spot of quiet. At the main West Door was a sign on the railings directing me round the side to the paying entrance. But at the bottom of the sign, in smaller type, was the message: ‘Please enter here for worship only.’ Which is not exactly the wholehearted invitation to prayer and worship you might hope for outside a church. So I approached the man on duty at the door and asked him if I could go in to pray.

In all fairness, he was friendly and polite, which I wasn’t expecting, but he firmly told me with a headmaster’s glint in his eye that I must walk straight in to where the chairs were, pray there, and then come straight out again. Which is what I did, stopping only to buy and light a candle at the large icon of Christ. It was the first time I’ve been inside the beautiful old building since the pay scheme was put in place, and it was good to be back.

But it also felt uncomfortable. Was my route to and from the chairs being monitored by ecclesiastical bouncers? Did it look like I was praying enough? Had any member of staff noticed that I’d just spotted the memorial of Sir Isaac Newton and might be crossing the line between worship and tourism? An atmosphere of suspicion isn’t good for prayer, or even for just sitting to draw breath and think.

I’m not sure I’ll go back, as I’m not much of a fan of houses of worship which welcome people at the door with terms and conditions for entry.

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