I’m writing a travel book on my cathedral experiences and have just submitted a poem on them, so they are in my mind this week. This caused me to research entry prices which has led to a gripe I’d like to share.
I realise they are expensive to run, but worship and houses of God should be free.
No, cathedrals are not the same as castles and stately homes, though some who visit them may see them in the same ilk. Whatever your faith, it is a sacred space, even if you just like the quiet and are uplifted by the music and architecture – which no castle is or does.
Thirteen British cathedrals and abbeys have a compulsory admission charge, starting from £6. The only parish churches that I’ve found who charge are St Bartholomew the Great and Temple, both in the City of London, both £4. None of these who charge are Catholic or parish church cathedrals, and none are in Scotland or Wales.
I only know of one non Christian place of worship which charges – that’s also in central London, the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Despite some huge and lavish buildings, such as Leicester’s Mandir, also not publically funded, Eastern faiths offer free entry into their holy spaces.
The admission fees are too high and so they put many people off – even people who love cathedrals as much as I do. The cathedral administrators don’t seem to have worked out that they lose out on income that way. If I’ve paid £6-16 to get in, I’m unlikely to buy anything at the shop or cafe, let alone donate more. And I’m quite possibly going to not bother going in. When faced with a choice of two nearby equidistant cathedrals for a day out, I’m inclined to pick the one without an enforced charge.
Ely says that before it made people pay to come in, the average donation was 34p per person. I quibble that. I note they’ve had a fee since at least 1998, when 34p was worth more. And how did they work out the number of visitors? If it’s by a foot counter by the door, these can be misleading as these often get set off more than once by the same person. Perhaps too some of those visitors were fairly regular who didn’t qualify for a free pass – ie those who didn’t live, work or worship in the right place, but who nevertheless felt the cathedral as a spiritual home. I’ve fallen into that category in several cities and resent the notion of paying to enter what I see as both my heritage and mother church by right.
However, I might drop in some money and choose to support them by buying things from their shop that I could get elsewhere – that guidebook that’s all round the city, a greeting card or gift; or by having lunch in their refectory.
Westminster Abbey claimed that it too had a tiny donation per visitor. But it gets about 3 million of these a year and currently charges £16 to enter – more than any other British great church, the same price as a major stately home with multiacre grounds. Even with group visitor rates bringing the head price down to £13, one can quickly see that they gain about £50 million a year from visitors, which is huge. Why do they need so much to run? The church is shorter than Ely, who asks for £8 (but with a tower tour and entry to the stained glass museum, it’s the same amount as Westminster). Lincoln’s about the same size, and their current price is around £6. What does Westminster require that these other cathedrals don’t? And why does the even bigger St Albans not ask for a fee, who gets less visitors?
And why does modern lump Coventry ask for £8?! They’re hardly in the same need of conservation!
Especially as the experience inside Westminster Abbey is not a pleasant one. I’ve only paid to go in once, when I queued for longer than it look to go round. You’re limited with how long you can tarry. You’re herded about and everything’s roped off. I have twice been to a service, not something I wish to repeat. I often find High Church services cold and dull, but this is worse than anything else I’ve experienced. After again queuing for an hour on a Sunday morning, an American verger barked at the would-be worshippers to get in line and not take photos. Not once did we get a welcome. When I tried to leave through the wrong door, I was barked at again. I felt the service was at us not for us. I did not feel part of the service which just felt like going through motions rather than anything about feeling a divine presence or an act of worship – would that be for the choir and ministers, or to God?!
Paris’ Notre Dame did not charge when I visited, and managed its large amount of visitors better than London’s national church.
One does wonder what these fees are going on. No website breaks that down. Some make the vague suggestion that it’s on salaries. I wonder if the staff and stone masons are being paid too much? And yet they rely heavily on volunteers and I’ve seen cathedral job adverts – not everyone is well paid. A 1994 book on Canterbury Cathedral says that 549 staff are in its employ, including 30 holy dusters!, and 250 guides, assistants and chaplains (aren’t many of those volunteers?). So we are paying for staff, not even just the building, and some visitors may not endorse the cathedrals’ beliefs and policies.
Many churches quote a four figure sum for their daily running costs, but I know something of how the C of E works, and it has much red tape and wastes money on procedure. I know that a simple change in a modern building was made 3x the amount by C of E dictates, which meant that it was no longer affordable.
I’ll be posting more on this later, but utilities and professional services over charge, and perhaps churches are victims of this.
The Church is still a large landowner and landlord.
Another points against these fees is that they preclude 10 minute pop in visitors.
Cathedrals offer a free tour; but perhaps we don’t want one and would be happy to pay just for that if we did, rather than paying to enter the building – though some of these are now a staggering £9 for just an hour. And so cathedrals miss out on donations of the poppers-in. Why not ask for £2-3 entry which we’d all pay, rather than so much, and perhaps we’d add a little more?
Some cathedrals say it’s free to pray – but how do you know who’s doing that? I once went in on the free pray plea – I sat with my eyes squished shut, and peeked and then moved to another quiet corner. Well, it was my birthday after all! And not paying to get in meant I had a bag laden from the gift shop, which makes quite a profit – guide books sell at 70-80% more than cost.
Happily, the majority of great churches are officially free, though some are pretty heavy about making you pass a desk and expecting a donation, which angers me as it shouldn’t be that a voluntary donation is coerced or assumed – it should be freely given. There’s about 16 other cathedrals and abbeys who do not force a charge – and hurrah for Chichester who says in big letters on the home page of their website that they are committed to keeping entry free. And so am I.
You might also like my thoughts on Canterbury here:
Happily, since writing this, some fees – such as at Coventry and Chester – have been abolished. They realised that they were getting less visitors and that the ethos was wrong. Thank you!