Page 3, 28th August 1986

28th August 1986
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Page 3, 28th August 1986 — The tramping tourists murdering the cathedral?
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The tramping tourists murdering the cathedral?

BEFORE the tourists arrived, Westminster Abbey made ends meet by selling plots for the dead rich. The playwright Ben Jonson found them so expensive he could afford only two feet of space. He was buried standing up.

Today the Abbey is full. But hopscotching between the 3,000 graves is the least of its problems. The annual three million tourists make more noise than its permanent residents, filling the 900-year old former monastery with a hubbub which immediately evokes images of the money-changers in the Temple.

Like it or not, Westminster Abbey and, to its east, St Paul's, are top of the visiting list for sightseers. And that is the dilemma. How do you maintain a house of God among the hordes whose main concern is to hear the litany of toffs, nobs and royals whose history these places glorify?

Each hour, in both churches, a voice booms down the aisles. "Your attention, please", it demands. The source — not the wrath of a neglected God, but a tiny Wizard of Oz peering over the edge of a distant pulpit.

The voice continues: "Every day at this time you are invited to sit still for a minute's prayer." Silence descends for the "Our Father". A few lips mouth the words quietly. But the majority are struck dumb until thefar-off figure ends the time-out.

"Now enjoy your visit" it says — and we're back to discussing the problems Fergie had in squeezing her dress through a tiny mediaeval door. For £3.50 in the Abbey and £3 in St Paul's you can become a "supertourist", granted sights denied the ordinary voyeur.

The guides are first-class. At the Abbey one of eight verger will walk you for an hour and a half through a history book of monarchical rule. The church is a "royal peculiar" — under Queen not bishop. So proudly is the story told you feel you are at the centre of the world.

The Abbey is rich in stories, so it comes as no surprise that William Caxton set up his first printing press there. Building of the present structure was begun by Edward the Confessor, who died on the job in 1065.

Before you could say "Hastings", Harold had an arrow in his eye and William the Conqueror was crowned at the completed Abbey. Thus began a soap opera which has run longer than Coronation Street. Your guide will tell you precisely where Nancy sat at Sarah and Andy's bash.

St Paul's does not have the same royal connections. Frankly it's a bit middle class. The Duke of Wellington rides his trusty charger, "Copenhagen", up the side towards the altar. This cathedral, the crowning glory of Wren's resurrected London, is firmly in the grip of imperialism and militarism. Chapels dedicated to war-dead record the cost in their roll calls.

The verger at St Paul's offered this supertourist (noticeably less swamped by lesser tourists than in the Abbey) a very different emphasis to the one provided at the Collegiate Church of St Peter (the Abbey's full title).

The story was of the genius of Wren, his craftsmen and artists, and of Victorian "vandalism", much of it destroyed by a few well-aimed German bombs. He also gave a fascinating explanation of how the Cathedral is run, detailing every item from choir boys to the Dean. "A bit short on God", I suggested after two hours of riveting anecdotal monologue. "Possibly", he said, 'but when you've been taking people around for a time you know what they want and the sorts of questions they will ask".

Westminster Cathedral is an alternative model for British cathedrals, with advantage and disadvantages. Home for England's Catholics, it has a Byzantine holiness and a less worldly atmosphere than its two more popular sister churches. It is not old, the main fabric being completed 83 years ago. nor does it house the history of mainstream Britain.

A mere dozen cardinals and saints are buried within its walls, which surround not a hubbub but a haven from the London snarl-up. It is more like a large church than a cathedral.

Sr Mary and Sr Clare offer not the four supertours a day of St Paul's but ad hoc "pastoral care". If they have time, they will show you around the Cathedral free of charge for half an hour. Mostly they take parties of schoolchildren, perhaps concentrating on a particular chapel if it honours

the school's patron.

They focus on the symbolism in the Cathedral, especially of the mosaics which decorate the ceilings of completed side chapels. Beginning at the Baptistry their "Faith Tour" ends at a statue of St Peter and with recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

En route you take in a dozen side chapels, the works of Eric Gill, the crypt, a memorial stone commemorating the Pope' visit, and a view of the incorrupt body of St John Southworth and much else besides.

The gloom of the dark, unfinished brick roof contrasts with the burst of light over the High Altar and sanctuary which have unrivalled centre stage. "When I am taking a group around I don't talk much," explains Sr Mary. "I want them to take in the atmosphere and allow time for prayer and reflection."

Clearly, "Faith tourists" are in for a deal different to that given to "supertourists". But then Westminster Cathedral is

very different from the Abbey or St Paul's. Most important, it is fortunate in not being besieged by three million tourists. But one disadvantage of the "Faith Tour" is that you will learn precious little about the cathedral's architecture.

The mystery of symbol is dissolved while the mystery of how it came to be created and by whom is left largely unquestioned and unresolved.

Ironically one verger at the Abbey said she drops into Westminster Cathedral in the morning to light a candle before work. It is not possible at the Abbey. And many at St Paul's are unhappy at the compromise between tourism and prayer. Although guided tours are banned from both the Abbey and St Paul's during services, visitors still mill around.

There are private chapels for prayer in both churches but the tourist's attention is certainly not drawn to them. St Pauls is considering opening exclusively for tourists during part of the day and for the rest, exclusively for prayer.

Segregation rather than mutual toleration may be the only workable compromise if such huge and popular houses of God are to maintain the spiritual atmosphere of Westminster Cathedral and still offer easy access to the casual sightseer.

On the other hand, Westminster Cathedral could take a leaf out. its sisters' book. Visiting the Abbey and St Paul's I was impressed by all the visual aids on display explaining the history of both. They are sadly absent from our own cathedral.

There is surely room for ecumenical dialogue on the subject: "The tourist and the cathedral".




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