On cathedral entrance fees

Treasurer York Minster

The Treasurer of York Minster

York Minster attracts an average of half a million tourists per year.

It’s as chunky and macho as a Yorkie but costs significantly more to get into, taking an average annual visitor income of around £5,000,000. To hit this heady figure the Treasurer relies upon a large number of volunteer shepherds to herd flocks of paying (not ‘praying’) sightseers into his museum, during those times when the Dean and Chapter is not using it as a cathedral. And they do a thorough job. Having arrived at midday, I had been assertively informed by a herdswomen – she was holding a staff (I kid you not) – that, no, I could not be admitted for evensong 3.5 hours early and would have to rejoin the queue for fleecing.

Does charging for entrance to a cathedral not bring into question the very notion of what a cathedral actually is?

In medieval times you certainly didn’t have to pay to get into them, only for the optional added extras – relics, indulgences, pilgrimages (in other words, the dupery of avaricious Catholic monks).

Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

Once Luther had opened his can of Worms and Henry had made a Boleyn ball of Anne’s head, such ‘wool-pulling’ was no longer tolerated.

Anne Bowlin

Anne Boleyn

Townspeople would use cathedral naves as shortcuts to get from one part of town to another; traders might be seen bartering inside them; locals nattering, who knows, maybe even reading a Bible. All the while the liturgical hum of religious business was taking place at t’other end.

So, that’s the historical context, now for a few incontestable truths.

(1) England’s medieval cathedrals (i.e. those cathedrals that were actually built as cathedrals) are, well, old

(2) many of them have spent much of their lives falling down – Ely, Norwich, Lincoln, St Albans, Winchester, Chichester (I’ll not labour the point).

The fact that there has been no major cathedral collapses in England since Chichester’s tower imploded in 1861 is a debt we owe entirely to the Victorians. Ruskin, Pugin, Bodley, George Gilbert Scott were all ardent admirers of the gothic style and set about restoring (or aping) it across the land.

Sir George Gilbert Scott

Sir GGS (by George Richmond, chalk, 1877)

Gilbert Scott, in particular, was a tireless dynamo of a man, until he died of exhaustion, that is.

By George! He worked on over 800 buildings in a 67-year life, which included the restoration of 18 of our 26 medieval cathedrals.

GGS et al. were trailblazers, Victorian icons, motivated by a special reverence for our architectural heritage (hooray to them!), whose work has ensured that cathedral catastrophes should remain a thing of the past. To say that they, ahem, laid strong foundations on which future experts have built is our third incontestable truth.

But, aye, there’s the rub! What does expertise cost? Money.

These days, highly skilled masons are employed to tend to the church fabric all year round. Expert surveyors earn a bean keeping a regular eye on structural integrity (“Grab the joists! The ceiling’s sagging!”).

Artisanal scientists are on the payroll to keep the glass stained. Archivists are paid to look after medieval colouring books (monks were pretty ace with bright crayons). Choirs are costly, as is the task of keeping their organs in good order. (Yes, that’ll need paying for, too.) The Bishop, the Dean, the Vergers, etc, etc, all the way down to the local children employed on rotation to catch any blocks of falling masonry.

A figure?

£1.5m a year, for day-to-day running costs; more for major restoration projects.

And even despite £20m from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, there’s still a £67m shortfall for repair work on England’s cathedrals that is only going to get bigger.


The Right Honourable Mr George Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in full Bullingdon Club regalia.

Who pays? York, St Paul’s, Lincoln (to name but three) says you.

Can’t they get some better fundraisers?

Find some rich Christians – or objectophiles – to endow them? A £50m donation would earn a cathedral £2m a year at 4%. Sorted. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is devout (‘The Zuckerberg Minster at York’); does Carlos Slim get kinky when thinking of old buildings (‘St Slim’s, London’)? Or how about approaching a company? If Lincoln were canny it wouldn’t even need to change its name… much: ‘Linkedin Cathedral’. Boom. Problem solved.

Or ask the Queen?

It was her great13 uncle who lumbered the Church of England with all these old buildings in the first place.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, after breakfasting on Catholics (c. 1540)

Doesn’t that make it her problem?

Or will she bat it back to her government’s door?

Helen Mirren as the Queen

“Now look hhhyere, Mr Osbyorne…”

“Hell-air?! Is th-yat Mr Osbyorne, spyeaking? Now lyook hhyere, young mmm-yan my tyax collyectors […that’d be the HMRC to us] raise £600 byillion a yair and you’re only gyiving 0.0033 pyercent of thyat to my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great y’uncle’s cathyedrals? Shyame on you! Quadruple it. YAT ONCE.”

Easy as that.

Or not.

But I don’t think it appropriate that I (representing the general public) am forced to pay[1], for these are the churches of England and I am an Englishman. They were built for me, dyamit! And don’t charge the tourists either, for they are your modern day pilgrims.

Might we agree that these are not just religious buildings?

I, for one, don’t visit them to rehearse Christian liturgy, but I don’t care that some do. I represent just another non-believer visiting to marvel at some national gems, objects of history, many of which are every bit as important as the Tower of London, Stonehenge, the Roman Baths or the Houses of Parliament

Stump up the cash, Dave. George is being a tight bugger. And just think of how good it’ll make you look.

(© Steve Bell)

(© Steve Bell)

[1] The majority of cathedrals ask for donations only (albeit with vastly differing levels of insistence…). Chester is free but makes you enter via a ticket desk where you are asked directly if you would like to donate. On the other hand, I gave Durham a £15 donation, on account of the unassuming way in which it begged it…

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