In the teeth of the pandemic, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s cathedral have been looked to for continuity, solidity and a refuge from daily struggles. On 11 November, a beautiful Abbey service marked the centenary of the internment of the Unknown Warrior. St Paul’s, an emblem of defiance in the Blitz, has organised an act of modern remembrance to Britain’s Covid-19 victims – an online memorial called Remember Me.
During the second lockdown, both churches have remained open for private prayer. Yet, with their great reliance on visitor income, they have also been highly exposed to the economic impacts of the coronavirus. St Paul’s has laid off 25% of its employees and Westminster Abbey some 17%. The Abbey has had an operational restructure and St Paul’s has eaten into future project funding to handle the situation. Concerns remain over how the churches’ conservation, research and educational work will be maintained.
With restrictions set to continue well into 2021, Abbey insiders and informed commentators On London has spoken to warn of an over-dependence on visitors, or even a “theme park” tendency, while the former director of fundraising for St Paul’s 300th anniversary renovations says “head in the sand” thinking left a financial crisis “bound to happen at some point”.
First, some history. London’s two landmark churches have in a sense swapped places, suggests Abbey historian Richard Jenkyns – the one-time city centre cathedral is now in a quiet spot while the Abbey, which lay outside the capital in medieval times, is in Tourist Central.
The Abbey fulfils a variety of different functions in UK royal, institutional and national public life perhaps without parallel in Western Christian countries. Its choir, supported by Britain’s only residential choir school exclusively for educating choristers, sings in 320 services a year. It has far too little permanent seating for all the guests invited to its premier event, the Coronation, meaning that the Abbey faces an extended period of closure to prepare for the next Coronation ceremony.
St Paul’s arguably has the opposite problem – a huge cavernous space that is challenging to fill for major events. Former Honorary Canon of St Paul’s, the Methodist Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, explains that both churches have an Institute as one conduit for their outreach activities – the St Paul’s version is principally a research programme and the Abbey’s a partnership with institutions around Parliament Square – but otherwise they stand out for being “structured so differently” from each other. While St Paul’s sits at the top of the pyramid of the Diocese of London, Westminster Abbey falls outside the diocesan structure as a Royal Peculiar, overseen by the monarch directly. And they are stylistically chalk and cheese. Nine years after the Occupy movement descended on its churchyard, St Paul’s in its annual report articulates its commitment to local community and progressive causes in a tone quite unlike the Abbey’s.
At one time the churches were major landowners, the Abbey owning property in Knightsbridge, Wandsworth and Hampstead, St Paul’s holding manors including Acton, Edmonton, Friern Barnet and Kingsbury – but they were very largely deprived of their remaining estates during the 19th century.
Abbey and cathedral functionaries have charged visitors to see the buildings’ treasures for many years. By the mid-20th century, Abbey sightseers had to pay to go beyond a point halfway up the nave. From 1997, they had to do so to enter the building at all. This was an attempt to restore calm to it. The then Dean, the Very Revd Dr Wesley Carr, argued that the west end of the nave had become a convenient place for tour groups to gather. St Paul’s introduced a baseline entrance fee in 1991, a point when the cathedral had, according to its current Dean, The Very Revd Dr David Ison, “lost most of its remaining historic resources to inflation.” On the eve of the pandemic, a full-price adult ticket for the Abbey cost £21 and for St Paul’s £17, although visitors can still attend services or visit for private prayer for free.
In 2019, the Abbey had 1.34 million paying visitors. The previous year, St Paul’s recorded 880,000 plus almost as many non-paying visitors attending services or events, its most recently available annual report says. Of the cathedral’s £19 million income in 2018, £12.19 million (64%) came from admission fees, shop sales and events. The Abbey is even more strikingly reliant on such sources, with £18.4 million (more than 90%) of its £20.2 million unrestricted income in 2019 coming from visitors.
Specific admission numbers for 2020 aren’t available, but evidence from the wider areas looks dire, especially for St Paul’s. Footfall at City visitor attractions was down 86% year on year during the summer, while the Visitor Information Centre opposite the cathedral recorded a 97% drop in enquiries, according to the City of London Corporation. Lord Griffiths says he’s been “shocked: it made me realise how vulnerable [the cathedral] is to shifts in tourist numbers”. At a comparable visitor attraction to the Abbey, visitor numbers at the National Gallery were 19.7% of their 2019 level in July, less than 10% in August, and 12.4% in September.
“It costs over £7 million each year just to keep the cathedral open, and more still to undertake major repairs and provide support for learning and outreach,” Dr Ison says. “Income from paying visitors has had to cover up to 90% of our annual operating costs. St Paul’s has received only a small grant from the Church of England each year, and no money from the state for operational funding”.
The St Paul’s 2018 annual report warned that it “still faces significant financial challenges”. That year, the cathedral had £9.6 million in available free reserves, £1.6 million over its target. The Abbey, more richly endowed and boosted by the first full year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries and a beneficial property revaluation, was in a stronger position – £24.7 million in unrestricted reserves, £8.7 million over the target surplus – although as a Royal Peculiar it doesn’t receive a Church of England grant.
Since 1999 the Abbey has had a full-time conservation team with specialists working on tasks, such as restoring the Cosmati Pavement in front of the altar and collaborating with freelance conservators on care of materials such as textiles, wax, wood, glass and the Abbey’s extraordinary collection of medieval paper documents. Shortage of money may simply delay much-needed repairs to the church fabric, while the most strategic assets, like church music, are protected, displacing cuts onto other areas of work.
Foundations and friends’ groups at both churches have headed splendidly successful fundraising efforts. There’s been one for cleaning the Abbey in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recent examples include the campaign for the Jubilee Galleries. For St Paul’s, there was the 300th anniversary refurbishment of the early 2000s. However, Nina Anstee, headhunted to lead the latter project after a career in arts and university fundraising, says it was easier to secure funds for one-off capital expenditure than for the church’s regular activities. She claims some organisations were unwilling to hand over money to a Cathedral Chapter, which to their mind lacked the financial rigour and know-how of a charity of comparable size.
Four weeks ago, St Paul’s received a £2.13 million grant from the government’s culture recovery fund, which, the Dean explains, will go towards essential running costs, enhanced mental health support for the cathedral community and “to reach new audiences who will help ensure its sustainability”. It has also won £320,000 from the fund specifically for roof repairs. No award of cultural recovery fund money to the Abbey has been reported. On London understands there was discussion between the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle, and colleagues about whether to apply, but the Abbey’s Royal Peculiar status may mean that receiving funding was deemed unlikely. Among some who have worked at the Abbey as well as outsiders there’s a perception, bolstered by the high cost of admission, that the institution in fact has no shortage of cash.
“We sustained a significant loss at the end of the year on 30 September 2020” says an Abbey spokesperson. “We have had no choice but to bring our expenditure into line with a significantly reduced level of income for the near future. The necessary restructuring programme involved a number of redundancies. The Abbey is above all a community. It is a matter of deep regret for the Dean and Chapter that it had to take these steps.”
The Abbey anticipates that “it is likely to be a number of years before [visitor] numbers rebuild” to 2019 levels – though signals such as the “huge pent up desire to come to the UK” that Bernard Donoghue, Director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) has found in webinars in recent months suggests this might be overly pessimistic. An argument made during redundancy consultations was that the Abbey could follow the path of the Royal Opera House and sell artwork, such as the exquisite Canaletto painting of a procession of Knights of the Bath in front of the Abbey. This had been hanging in the Jubilee Galleries since just before lockdown and ironically was seemingly never to on public display in the Abbey before that.
The 25% of employees St Paul’s has made redundant does not appear to take account of staff who have had their hours reduced or gone part time. The faith workers’ branch of Unite the Union understands that at the Abbey, around 60 members of the workforce (about 17%) have lost their jobs. The Church Times has reported 63. Unite says it has enjoyed a consistently good relationship with Abbey management and that the recent round of redundancies has followed all due process. But the six members it supported through the consultation found the experience “very clinical and uncaring”, and came out feeling unvalued. The union calls for managements of faith institutions, whatever the circumstances, to find a way of supporting people into new jobs.
Then there’s disappointment and distress among the quirky, lively congregation of St Margaret’s, the “parish church of the House of Commons” in the Abbey grounds, at the decision during the first lockdown to end Sunday services there and dismiss the choir and organist. Worshippers, including retired public servants and people travelling in from Essex or Surrey, say they were informed of the decision by email without warning. They add that at an online meeting with the Dean and Rector they were underwhelmingly invited to join the queues of tourists for the Abbey’s Sunday service instead. A Thanksgiving service for St Margaret’s repaired clock tower on 31 October has been described as being “more like a funeral”.
There has been annoyance too at apparently contradictory messages from the Abbey about what the smaller church’s operating costs are, and at Canon Theologian Dr Jamie Hawkey suggesting that it is unfitting to have overlapping services at St Margaret’s and the Abbey. This had strengthened an impression that the pandemic has provided a pretext to get rid of pastoral responsibility for St Margaret’s.
A petition for Sunday services to be restored, noting the “lack of consultation unique to Royal Peculiars”, attracted 1,769 signatures. However, Parliamentary Warden of St Margaret’s, Peter Bottomley MP, who first went there as a schoolboy in the 1950s, argues that the sustainability of the Sunday service at a church that has effectively been a chapel of the Abbey since 1972, has long been under question, and that St Margaret’s retains its crucial roles in the life of Parliament and other Westminster institutions, and as a school assembly venue.
Under the latest government guidance, attendance at carol services is permitted from this Thursday, though carol singing will be limited to choirs only. Bernard Donoghue urges people to take the opportunity to visit the Abbey, St Paul’s and other cathedrals now, stressing that the lack of teeming crowds means “you’ll never experience it like this again” (to those who can’t make the physical trip, he suggests offering support by buying an item in the online shop or a gift membership).
But the Very Revd Trevor Beeson, a former Westminster Abbey Canon Treasurer, Rector of St Margaret’s and Speaker’s Chaplain in the 1980s, cautions that “if you take [so] much money off visitors and spend it on admin, you are in trouble if it gets cut off”. He recalls the impact of IRA bombings, which temporarily stopped US tourists from coming to London and had an appreciable effect on Abbey finances. He marvels at how Abbey staff numbers had more than tripled since he was there.
At the end of her three years at St Paul’s, when she noted admission charges seemed to rise annually, Nina Anstee wrote a report looking at cathedral funding elsewhere in Europe, where there are mechanisms to fund church buildings as architectural treasures through tax or trust funds, separate from the financing of the church’s religious activities. She argued for setting up an endowment – a “Trust for Great Cathedrals” – which people could pay into, rather like the National Trust. Anstee says this would reduce confusion in fundraising and facilitate the sharing of funds between better-known and less visited cathedrals, putting them all on a more sustainable footing. But the Bishop of London warned her the Synod wouldn’t like her suggestions, and her report was shelved. “The Church needs to think more seriously about what they need to do” she says, urging potential reforms to be considered “at a national level in a responsible way”.
Many baulk at the price to enter the Abbey or St Paul’s, pointing out that at other major world religious buildings, such as St Peter’s in Rome or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, admission is free for sightseers. Echoing how some arts campaigners talk about big cultural institutions, Canon Dr Chris Sugden of traditionalist group Anglican Mainstream says worshippers “aren’t the slightest concerned about the financial situation of St Paul’s” and thinks the Abbey and cathedral have “got to get away from pleading poverty as tourist attractions”.
He suggests flagship churches have a special duty this season, when people’s local churches might not be able to put on services. “Churches could have a dozen carol services a day, provided they were Covid-compliant,” he says. “People would be thrilled and it would lift the national mood. You can do tremendous national service by doing a Zoom service. If St Paul’s were to say, ‘we’re going to have Carols by Candlelight’ online, you are going to get one million people joining in”.
Meanwhile, Lord Griffiths feels that in the context of a crisis that has led to so much critical re-examining of society and inequalities, “we shouldn’t be happy to allow St Paul’s to drift back to the old normal. It should be a more openly ecumenical space [with] ownership by the population, by the people at large and the British state, as opposed to the cathedral of the Bishop of London”.
Some powerful suggestions for how these two institutions can engage with people from around the world and in their city and hard questions about what the Abbey and St Paul’s are for – questions the Church of England and the government shouldn’t flinch from as we negotiate the long road of recovery.
St Paul’s photo by Dave Hill, Westminster Abbey photo by Joshua Neicho.
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