Excited by a startling feature on the BBC website last week, several newspapers were falling over each other in serving up the same shock horror story, straight out of the broadcasting corporation’s shrink wrapping. St Paul’s Cathedral, one of “our”iconic tourist sites may have to close. Covid killed off tourist revenues, fabric is “rotting”, rainwater is being collected in buckets, staff have been furloughed, and what about the choirboys?
With all that is going on in the world as we attempt to haul ourselves beyond the economy shattered by Brexit and Covid, we might be more than customarily open to a little circumspection. Close the cathedral to whom, and for how long? Close all of it, or some bits of it for a time? We are talking of a genuinely world-class tourist site with a world-class choir; are we planning on forgetting how to derive revenue from people seeking world-class experiences and world-beating music?
Further perspective arises from understanding the value of the property and investment portfolios that have been developed in and around this site over the course of the millennium during which there has been a cathedral sitting here. The City of London Corporation and the Church of England – in the years since its rebranding by Henry VIII – have established investment funds between them worth in excess of £10Billion.
Granted, not all of that money is earmarked for rainwater buckets but, in the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, this month’s flurry of performative panic might just inspire some cultural soul-searching among those of us who have an appetite for joining up the historical dots. We may not have access to the forensic accountants of the City and Church investment funds who, we can be sure, can look after themselves. But maybe we can come to a clearer understanding of what it is about St Paul’s Cathedral that makes it truly world-class, and worthy of our respect and support for ever and a day.
No account of its stellar history will be without references to historical and Hollywood royalty, to grand processionals marking weddings and funerals, and a storied crypt that makes clear the connections of this place to England’s imperial history. All of these considerations are vital, but also problematic, as the increasing din of falling statues will attest.
What is not contestable is the reputation of St Paul’s Cathedral as a gathering place in which to see and be seen: a repository for hundreds of years of social energy that literally crafted the culture through the millions of books that were displayed and sold over the book stalls over the centuries in this particular churchyard. Together with the printing presses of Fleet Street, the booksellers of St Paul’s bequeathed the legacy of a language that remains free for appropriation by anyone who wishes to use it and speak it.
And see what the world has made of that social energy. This can be as good a week as any to salute that fact.