My last post was about St. Peter’s, a tiny and ancient church a few steps away from Westminster College. On Friday I spent a few hours at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There has been a church on that site for hundreds of years longer than the little Cambridge church, but the current cathedral is a relative new-comer, as it is “only” about 300 years old. Coming from Canada, where the age of most buildings can be measured in decades rather than centuries, it is mind-stretching to consider time, and continuity of presence, in this way. For someone who is accustomed to worship in a sanctuary that holds at most 140 people it is also a challenge to hear the still small voice of God, within a space where you could comfortably hold several tennis (or cricket) matches that would never interfere with each other.
Outside of scheduled worship times, if you wish to go to the cathedral to pray, there is a side-chapel which can be entered without paying for admission. To access everything else, you need a ticket.
I cannot imagine all that is involved in the management and maintenance of such a huge physical plant. I have no idea how much money flows through this place. I read that in 2011 when an Occupy London emcampment was set up in front of the cathedral it was claimed St. Paul’s was losing 20,000 pounds a day.
There were hundreds of visitors while I was there, and a huge staff to guide them and see to their needs. I saw two priests in long black cassocks (very high Anglican!) and wondered if they just hung around, ready to chat with people. I realized later they were waiting for a group to arrive for a wedding rehearsal. I watched them go through the particulars of the service in the Order of the British Empire Chapel in the crypt, below the main sanctuary. (While researching this entry I learned that someone in the wedding party must either be a member of the OBE, or related to someone who is, to be able to use the chapel.)
This is a place built to the glory of God. It is also, it seems to me, a concrete and visual representation of a stratified and privileged-based society. This is where Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married, and where they held the funeral for Margaret Thatcher.
Inset in the walls and the floor of the crypt, in the lower level of the cathedral, are memorials to bishops and viscounts, painters, poets, politicians, and other prominent people. I confess I do not know who most of them are. The only “person” I was interested in “visiting” was William Blake, the artist and mystic, and I was not able to find his spot. I was overwhelmed by the statuary and engravings, and could not really take it all in.
In the photo above, near the ticket to St. Paul’s, you can see a diagram of the galleries above and around the dome of the cathedral. I climbed the 257 steps up to the Whispering Gallery, which is like an interior balcony, that rings around the inside of the dome at a height of 30 metres above the main floor. Another 119 steps took me up the outdoor Stone Gallery, which offered a view of the streets below, from a height 53 metres above the main level. This was also a good place to take in some fresh air, and catch my breath before ascending another 152 steps, to the Golden Gallery, which is up 85 metres, and affords amazing views of the surrounding city.
As I ascended I was remembering the times I have climbed the steps of another iconic structure, the CN Tower. The journey up to the Golden Gallery was in some ways more challenging, even though it is not nearly as high. The staircase winds very tightly in some places, and there are some very narrow passages on the way up (and down). Later, as I was walking the Millenium Bridge across the Thames to the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, I stopped several times to gaze back at the dome, and marvel a bit that I had just been up there.
Standing on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London, St. Paul’s Cathedral was until 1962 the tallest building in the city. The dome is still prominent and distinctive, in a skyline that offers a lot of competition.
My journey from St. Peter’s to St. Paul’s has left me pondering. I am doing a lot of reading and thinking these days about the future of the Christian church as an institution. I tend to think of the church as a movement. An organization with a lot of history, and a lot of subsets and groupings- but basically a people. As my Sunday School training taught me:
“The church is not a building..
The church is not a steeple..
The church is not a resting place..
The church is a people…”
Does the Christian movement need cathedrals, blessed “CN towers” that draw the eye’s attention, and silently proclaim, “Here we are”?