I visited Canterbury for the first time in my life last month, and the only reason I didn’t visit the Cathedral was because it would have cost me £8.00 to get in and I had less than an hour.
Charging people to visit places of worship turns them into tourist shrines. Originally they were shrines for believers.
The huge cost of building the great churches and monasteries in the Middle Ages was covered by milking pilgrims to supplement donations from the great, the good and the not-so-good.
According to the journalist Alex Kirby, writing in The Times (February 4th 2012), twelve of the forty-four major places of worship in the Association of British Cathedrals charge the public for entry outside service times.
Mr Ben Fuller, in a letter to The Times following Alex Kirby’s article (February 6th), makes the suggestion that the Association (which embraces major Anglican, Catholic and Methodist places of worship) should operate a membership-card scheme like the National Trust and English Heritage.
He points out that Church of England members are irked at having to pay to visit their own diocesan cathedral.
They could receive cards as evidence of their subscribing membership of the Church, while other believers as well as faithless tourists would have a ready means of contributing to the upkeep of these venerable and expensive buildings.
This in turn might increase what retailers call “footfall”, which would swell the takings in the restaurants and souvenir stalls that places of worship generally provide.
And those of us who like sometimes to sit in a church to think and reflect – without taking part in a service or making any fuss – could do so with a clear conscience.
Update: Mr Brian Gant followed up Ben Fuller’s letter in the February 7th edition of The Times, pouring cold water on the idea of a National Trust-style membership card because it “would probably not contribute a large enough sum of money to individual buildings to enable them to abolish entry charges unless there was a very considerable take-up of membership”. Of course! The whole idea is to get more people into churches. Charging them nearly £10 a time isn’t a particularly promising approach, especially for families and the less affluent.
The Church of England isn’t noted for its success in encouraging increasing numbers of worshippers through its doors in recent decades. The National Trust, on the other hand, has proved to be a roaring success. Both institutions add immeasurably to the spiritual and emotional wealth of the country, uplifting citizens and visitors alike.
It’s a pity the Church isn’t as enterprising as the Trust.
Further update: In the February 9th edition of The Times there were two further letters, from the Very Rev Charles Taylor, Dean of Peterborough, showing that it is possible to maintain free public access to a great religious building and from Scirard Lancelyn Green providing figures suggesting that the economic cost of a casual visit to a cathedral, stripped of parochial subsidy, is in the region of £10 per head.