Since I had some spare time in Exeter, I thought I'd have a look at the historic Cathedral. Unfortunately when I got there, it was £5 to get in! No concessions, no arguing. To make it absolutely clear, this wasn't a 'suggested donation'. There was a hard-faced woman pouncing on everyone who came through the door, and she looked down her nose at me as I loitered by the door, showing no sign of getting my purse out. They don't even offer concessions to the unemployed/students, it seems.
I'm well aware that running a medieval building is expensive, but I think to be asked to pay to enter a place of worship is disgraceful. For the record, I have never been asked for money to enter a mosque, gurdwara or temple. A church is not a private place, and has not been built with private money. Over centuries, the people of the UK were expected to cough up a tenth of their income: a 'tithe' for the church. There wasn't a choice about this, it was compulsory, like income tax. For centuries, Christianity was the state religion, so as far as I see it, those buildings belong to the nation in the same way the National Gallery or the Houses of Parliament belong to the nation.
There was a bit in small print on the sign that said 'if you wish to pray, please ask at the desk'. Now I have to say that this aggravated me more than anything. Firstly I'm not actually a Christian, though I do love visiting churches. When I go to a church I usually like to just sit down, soak up the peaceful atmosphere, and have a really good think. Churches are excellent places for thinking. However, I felt sure this wouldn't meet the acceptable definition of 'prayer' expected by the hard-faced woman, so I didn't bother. I was concerned I might be frogmarched into a special 'non-payers praying spot', rather than just let in to admire the cathedral, which didn't seem a very pleasant prospect.
Needless to say there wasn't anything in the subtitles to explain what Exeter Cathedral do consider an acceptable definition of 'prayer'. I also felt that having to explain that you want to pray, to a rather unfriendly attendant, in order to avoid paying, is in itself a humiliating process. Do you get quizzed on what or why you're praying? Is there some minimum level of need or suffering that lets you off the £5, like when you're applying for benefits? In effect, some kind of spiritual means-testing?
The thing is, a church really is a multi-functional building, especially a historic one like Exeter Cathedral. They are sites of art and architecture, history and heritage as well as religion. If you are studying architechture, shouldn't you be able to go in and look at the buttresses? Art? Wouldn't you want to see the sculpture? Serving in the army barracks just down the road? Wouldn't you like to see the regimental graves and monuments? And what if you have a relative buried inside the building?
I went away feeling very disgruntled, and cynical about Christianity in general, with the overwhelming impression that in Exeter at least, the Church of England is a religion for those who can afford it. So nice own goal on the publicity front, Exeter Cathedral.
I am going to email the Cathedral and let them know I've written this, and I'd like to see what their response is. If they do respond, I will post what they have to say.