This year’s summer vacation included a two-week trip to Europe. The family and I started in London, a familiar place where we lived for a few months about ten years ago. Then, we were off to Portugal for a week, where we met up with my husband’s family. The last few days were spent in Madrid. Both Portugal and Madrid were new, and exciting, places for us to visit.
Since we really only had two and a half days in London at the start of our trip, we had to be strategic. We couldn’t possibly see everything we wanted to see, so we prioritized and set up a plan. In the end, we managed to accomplish almost all of our top sites—the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern, the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We decided to visit St. Paul’s over Westminster Abbey since it was closer to some other sites we wanted to visit and it has a great tower to climb that leads to a commanding view of London.
It was also cheaper.
Both St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey charge admission to visit. And, the price tag is, in this humble tourist’s opinion, quite steep. For a family of four, Westminster Abbey charges 44 GBP. St. Paul’s charges 40 GBP (about $66 USD). That’s a lot of cash.
I understand the theory behind the decision to charge admission—something that is broadcast loudly and clearly in the admission materials, and in the audio-guide that is available for “free,” once you’ve paid your admission fee. In the U.K., many important cultural and tourist destinations receive government support. The admission charge for such places as the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern is voluntary—because they are subsidized by the government. Churches like St. Paul’s, however, are not supported by the government.
Given that places like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral are popular sites—and they are enormous, cash-sucking machines that need to be maintained and staffed, etc.—I can understand the need to charge admission. But, the high price is striking, nonetheless.
St. Paul’s offers a “free” audio-guide, as well as a guided tour, for visitors. Our family chose just to follow the audio-guide. The guide is a fascinating mix of history, theology and factual tidbits about the church. On the one hand, the church is committed to helping a diversity of people encounter the “transforming presence of God in Jesus Christ,” but on the other hand it is tied inexorably to the royal family, and other famous people (the audio-guide offers several examples). On the one hand, it places its baptism font at the entrance to the church, signaling baptism as the beginning of the journey for Christians (“promoting dignity and justice for everyone”), but on the other hand, that baptism font is an enormous piece made of rare, expensive Italian marble.
It’s like St. Paul’s wants you to know all about the “transforming love of God through Jesus Christ,” but to also feel fortunate that you are walking upon the same ground as the royal family, and other famous people. Yes, they strongly encourage visitors to take a seat in the ginormous sanctuary, and to reflect (whether or not you are a Christian—the guide is sensitively set up not to assume that the visitor knows anything about Christianity), and to wish you a renewed sense of peace and connection before you leave. But, don’t forget that even the royals turn to St. Paul’s.
I wonder if the royal family is chipping in for the cost of maintenance and upkeep? Are all of those “famous” people that the church likes to reference, are they contributing? Or, is it just the simple tourist like myself, who is somehow meant to be enchanted by the idea of sharing the same space—though not at the same time—as royalty? Is the royal family benefiting from the “transforming love of God through Jesus Christ”?
During my visit, I couldn’t help but wonder about other churches. What about those churches, perhaps even just a stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s, that are not connected to the royal family, that have held no weddings or funerals for famous people, and have no tower to climb, or cannot claim a famous architect for its own? I can’t imagine anyone paying admission to visit some no-name church. Does St. Paul’s share of its fame, distributing proceeds from admission with their more lowly friend and acquaintance churches?
And, finally, I couldn’t help but take a moment and wonder about my own church, and its buildings. Will Old South one day be just a sight on the Hallowell historical parade? Given that we haven’t hosted a wedding or funeral for anyone “famous,” will anyone even care about visiting? Would anyone pay admission?
I doubt it. But, maybe it’s better that way.