Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

The price of a cathedral

Entrance fees? Fashion shows? Corporate dinners? These days, nothing is ruled out

The price of a cathedral
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We’ve all done it: been overcome by a sudden sense of hard-upness at the moment when the collection plate comes round at the end of a cathedral service. We fumble in our pockets, feel a £1 coin and a £10 note, and decide that the £1 coin will do. This is a cathedral, for goodness sake, not a parish church: they must be rich, with all those gold-coloured vestments and choristers in ruffs.

But if we want our cathedrals to be alive and singing psalms in 20 years’ time, this misconception about cathedrals must change. Indeed, the sub-dean of Coventry is openly clamping down. At the end of organ recitals, he now employs a joke designed to elicit banknotes: ‘The lady collecting your donations today is rather frail, so please don’t load her down with coins.’

A survey by the BBC earlier this year found that out of 38 cathedral deans, 26 were ‘worried’ or ‘very worried’ about the financial future. Many cathedrals are only just breaking even, and some remote ones off the tourist trail are running at a deficit. They might be asset-rich, but they’re cash-poor and selling any of those assets is either against the rules or as short-termist as selling the family silver.

Unlike in France, where cathedrals are propped up by state, in the UK cathedrals are totally self-financing. Keeping them going is like trying to run a private school with no fee-paying parents or a small kingdom with no taxpayers. George Osborne did release a one-off gift of £20 million two years ago, to be shared among 42 cathedrals: the ‘First World War Centenary Cathedral Repair Fund’.

Cathedrals were prostrate with gratitude for that handout, but the money was guzzled up in no time in urgent, unglamorous repairs such as rewiring. Year after year, cathedrals have to find the money to fund their choir (sometimes paying a large chunk of the choristers’ school fees), the salaries of all the vergers and other members of paid staff, the heating, the lighting, and above all the upkeep of the priceless crumbling buildings.

Increasingly desperate for the public to grasp this, they’ve taken to stating on their websites the eye-popping daily cost of keeping a cathedral open: that’s £6,000 a day for Ely, £12,000 a day for Salisbury, £18,000 a day for Canterbury, £20,000 a day for York Minster. Every five years there is an inspection of the fabric of the cathedral and the result is always that the roof requires urgent attention, at a cost of £1.5 million between now and the next quinquennial inspection.

Cathedral websites and noticeboards cajole us to ‘donate now’, ‘leave a legacy’, ‘adopt a stone’, ‘sign a slate’ or ‘donate by text’. The saddest JustGiving page I’ve ever seen is currently visible if you look up Truro Cathedral’s roof appeal. ‘Target: £3.2 million,’ it says. ‘Amount raised: £198.49.’ Across the UK, congregations sit shivering in coats and scarves for evensong because heating is unaffordable. Cathedrals rely increasingly on an army of saintly volunteers (about 15,000 of them across the country) who don’t even get their parking reimbursed.

In a sense, this is what makes British cathedrals so charmingly vibrant. The welcoming atmosphere comes from the fact that they’re looked after by volunteers, who arrange the gladioli themselves out of love for the place and who really enjoy collecting up the hymnbooks and prayer books and putting them into separate green and black piles.

But will the next generation be so willing to volunteer? Like a great old family fallen on hard times, even the cathedrals that are struggling the most are good at keeping up appearances. So far, choirs have not been cut. The singing of sublime liturgical music by superb choirs is one of the miracles of English life, and it still carries on. Cutting that would be unthinkable.

Or would it? Last year, at Llandaff Cathedral, all seven adult choir members were made redundant straight after Christmas. The money raised from those seven redundancies made up £45,000 of the cathedral’s £81,000 shortfall — which shows how very little those lay clerks were being paid in the first place. ‘Oh, that’s the Church in Wales,’ one dean said to me. ‘Nothing as drastic as that has happened in an English cathedral. Choirs will be the very last thing to go.’ But the unthinkable is only unthinkable until somebody does it.

Charging for entry is an obvious solution, and 11 cathedrals, including St Paul’s, Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Ely and Coventry, have resorted to this. This is done with a heavy heart and provisos — such as never having to pay to attend a service or that entry is free if you can prove you live within a five-mile radius.

Currently it costs £18 to get into St Paul’s Cathedral and £15 for York Minster. Deans justify charges by reminding us that, in medieval times, if you visited a monastery and you couldn’t pay up, you would have had a broom put into your hand and been told to get sweeping. Characters in Trollope novels ‘paid their threepence’ to go into cathedrals.

The sad fact is that cathedrals need these charges in order to stay afloat. Canterbury costs £6.5 million per year to run, so the £3.5 million raised through entry charges pays for just 200 days out of 365. And you can see why they get away with it. Coachloads of tourists pour in, treating the place as a visitor attraction rather than a place of worship, and they expect to pay. (Although the Dean of Canterbury, Robert Willis, told me that Dutch tour guides have become canny at arriving exactly half an hour before evensong, when the charges stop.)

But does charging work for less-visited cathedrals? Both the Dean of Truro and the Dean of Hereford feel strongly that to start charging to gain entrance to their beautiful but remote cathedrals would not work. It would cause bad feeling in the county, and people simply wouldn’t come in. The sub-dean of Coventry, David Stone, feels uncomfortable about charging, and wishes it could stop: ‘We want our visitors to feel like guests to be cherished, not clients to be exploited.’ As soon as they started charging, visitor numbers went down.

This also happened at Chester cathedral. The sub-dean, Peter Howell-Jones, who was brought in four years ago to arrest the cathedral’s terminal decline, told me that when they started charging £6 for entry, visitor numbers plummeted from 700,000 a year to 60,000. ‘Charging for entry is a slippery slope to oblivion,’ he says. ‘You’re basing your budget on a set of figures, but what if the numbers drop off?’ Since his arrival, the cathedral has abolished entry charges, and last year’s visitor numbers were back up to a healthy quarter of a million.

But how to make up the shortfall in cash? Today’s deans send themselves on mini-MBA courses at the Judge Business School to find out. The way forward, Howell-Jones firmly believes, is to be brazen about extracting money from visitors through the ‘encouraged donations model’. You don’t make people pay, but you encourage them in such a way that they want to do so. The theory goes like this: you welcome them in and then employ a team of trained people to talk to them on their way out about how much the cathedral costs to run and then they’ll give of their own free will. But, in reality, they’re asked to give £3 and actually give an average of £1.20.

So you need to encourage them to have ‘a secondary spend’ in the cathedral café and gift shop, now transformed into high-end, profit-making arms of the business. Deans are becoming less embarrassed about promoting their cathedrals not just as spiritual spaces but also as self-financing enterprises at liberty to generate funds in whichever way they can.

In order to survive they have to live by the premise, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it, and make money out of it.’ Raise rents for any property you own. Make visitors pay to see any historic treasures. Put ‘pilgrims’ up in hotel-style accommodation and charge market prices for it. And charge businesses vast amounts for using the ‘Desmond Tutu Room’ as a conference space.

Cathedrals are thinking radical thoughts, such as: ‘What about allowing film crews to film in the nave?’ ITV had wanted to film its recent crime drama series Midwinter of the Spirit in Hereford Cathedral but the dean took a dim view of some of the content, which involved exorcism and supernatural horror.

Chester Cathedral had no such reservations — its nave has now been transformed into a gigantic entertaining space for corporate dinners, which can accommodate 2,000 people in black tie. This fantastic initiative brings in as much as £45,000 in one evening. What about a catwalk in the cloisters? Well, why not? Westminster Abbey has cut a deal with Gucci, which in June will hold a fashion show in the cloisters of the abbey.

Cathedral deans have decided that this is not the time to be precious. They should be thanked for that. If their initiatives bring in the funds to maintain the tradition of daily worship going, unbroken, as well as keeping the roof on, any — and every — money-spinning scheme is justified.

While Truro Cathedral’s JustGiving page had raised just £198.49 at the time of going to print, Truro Cathedral have since been in contact to say that offline donations have raised £597,000. To donate click here.