Freddy Gray talks to the resourceful administrator of Westminster Cathedral about his ambitious plans for 'one of London's greatest secrets' Holy Week is not a good time to bother the administrator of Westminster Cathedral. It is Wednesday and Mgr Mark Langham has thousands of things to do before the Triduum begins. Greeting me on the stairs of Clergy House, he looks frazzled. There are bags under his eyes and he is blinking too often. Yet the stress fails to diminish his friendly manner. "Things get pretty frantic at this time of the year." he says, with a charming smile. By the time we sit down in his handsome study, his exhaustion has been brushed aside.
Beyond the immediate travails of preparing for Easter, Mgr Langham already has one eye on his next fundraising project. He needs £500,000 to pay for the next phase of the Cathedral's artistic development, the new mosaics in St George's Chapel. The appeal will be launched on Monday, St George's Day.
The chapel is dedicated not only to the patron saint of England but also to the English martyrs. St John Southworth is buried under a shrine and there is Eric Gill's altarpiece of St Thomas More and St John Fisher, Mgr Langham has ensured that this aspect is remembered in the mosaics.
"It is very exciting," says Mgr Langham. "I felt we should go for a design that specifically emphasises the English martyrs. We approached Tom Phillips, who is a well-known contemporary artist. He produced a design. All the various committees have approved it." He pauses. "Now all we need to do is get the money to put it up."
Although Mgr Langham sounds determined, he makes no pretence that fundraising is fun. He admits that when he started working as administrator, he did not realise how much of his life would be spent passing round the begging bowl.
"But it is something 1 have grown used to," he says. "I have realised that simply to keep a building like this standing requires considerable funding, considerable security. I mean it costs £3,000 a day just to open the doors and keep the lights on." Experience has taught Mgr Langham that public appeals cannot be the answer to keeping the Cathedral stable financially. People might reach into their pockets to restore a magnificent chapel or save the Cathedral choir but ask them to pay for new drains and the donations dry up.
"The structure and bricks are OK but the services are shot," he explains. "The wiring, the electrics, the sound and the heating are crumbling. We are stitching them together with shoelaces."
To tackle these boring. expensive problems, Mgr Langham has switched to the more "sophisticated approach" of asking the rich to pay. "We need to build up relationships with people who can give serious money," he says.
He is well aware, however, that such a strategy is fraught with moral danger. "You have to be very careful,he admits. "If you're seen to be treating people differently because they are wealthy then you are running counter to the Gospels. There is an important balance to be kept. But if you believe in this building, in what it does, in what it stands for then you have no option.
Well actually there is another other option," he adds abruptly. "We could put in turnstiles, make people pay to come into the Cathedral. That would clear off our debts pretty quickly. But. personally, I would rather close the place down."
Mgr Langham's obvious devotion to the Cathedral is an almost lifelong passion. A west London Catholic boy, he first set eyes on the marvellous Byzantine structure aged eight or nines "I thought 'wow', look at the huge building," he recalls. "That feeling has never left me. I am amazed to think that I am now trying to run the place. I still have this sense of awe about it, that 'wow' factor."
He describes the building as "one of London's greatest secrets"; an architectural masterpiece obscured behind Victorian office blocks and 1970s commercial developments. This concealed quality is part of the Cathedral's charm, yet Mgr Langham believes the church must be brought into the life of the city.
"We have to reach out. to make the Cathedral a vital part of its surroundings, but at the same time it must remain a tranquil zone," he says, putting both hands together and then moving them apart to symbolise the dilemma.
This could be difficult. If developers get their way. Victoria in a few years will be as busy as Oxford Street. How to stop the multitudes from cluttering the piazza with shopping bags and consumer aggro?
"It will be even more important that there is a sacred threshold before you enter the doors," answers Mgr Langham. "But Westminster Council are very much on board. They want to enhance its setting and it is up to us to make sure that is done in the right way.
"The Cathedral shouldn't just be a sudden glance on the bus." he goes on, warming to his theme. "A lot of people don't even know it is a church. It is such exotic architecture, it doesn't give away its identity. If you are standing next to Marks and Spencer's in Cardinal Place and you didn't know it is a cathedral you might think it is an elaborate post office or government building. Lots of people think the Cathedral is a mosque, because of the originality of its design."
To both draw visitors to the Cathedral and claim the piazza as a sacred space, Mgr Langham plans to demarcate the area by erecting a large cross at the point where Victoria Street meets the Cathedral piazza.
"It will be huge and modelled on the Cross under the campanile," he says assertively. "So it will be Byzantine, it will be Bentley [John Francis Bentley, the architect of the Cathedral] and it will be Christian, obviously Catholic."
Apart from this ambitous plan for the piazza, Mgr Langham has many other bright ideas for the building.
As parishes disintegrate and merge, he imagines that the Cathedral's role in sustaining the faith will become ever more important.
"The Cathedral is the visible, tangible symbol of diocesan unity," he says. "If people are in parishes where the traditional structure of the parish no longer applies. then I think their sense of the diocese needs to be reinforced and supported, and the Cathedral does that."
As well as satisfying the spiritual needs of the faithful, Mgr Langham also wants the Cathedral to serve as an evangelical lighthouse, drawing in those who are ignorant about Christianity. With this in mind, he has established the Centre for Spirituality, a sort of discussion group to help people to pray. "We are already working quite hard on this," he says. "But this is a very important area and we need to achieve more."
So the Cathedral's administrator has lots to do. It remains uncertain, though, how much longer he will remain in the post.
"The average length is six or seven years, so I should be out quite soon,he laughs. "But I am not going to leave yet, not unless I get booted out. Though I think my outer limit would be 10 years. "
Then what? Mgr Langham is a very popular priest. Mothers of St Mary of the Angels. the Bayswater parish he used to run, still coo at the mention of his name. Some Catholics even think this clever and energetic cleric should be the next Archbishop of Westminster.
He chuckles nervously at the suggestion. "I long ago made a rule about not thinking about my future," he claims, "that way lie endless sleepless nights.
"One of the most difficult things about being a priest is that you must surrender yourself to the future. You are not on a career path and if you do put yourself on one then the Church will always surprise you. And great, so be it."
He grimaces, trying to move the conversation on ancl, in doing so, he looks just like a Prince of the Church.
To donate money to the Cathedral, please call 0207 798 9059