It's a dilemma this one.I must first declare myself, despite time spent as an Anglican choirboy and even fleeting membership of the school Christian union, as an atheist. Aggressive atheist I put on Facebook,which is not to say that I go round walloping people "of faith". Yet nor do I grant them an easy ride. In my eyes formal religion has contributed at least as much harm as good to the state of humanity and if I can be bothered I like to goad them into explaining why their Imaginary Friend is such a cool dude. Of course proper Christians should be doing that all the time. It's their duty to spread The Word for, if they don't, well I might not be saved and that's hardly a fair crack of the whip, is it? I could elaborate, but that's not the purpose of this post. Another time, perhaps. What is at issue is whether the clerical hand-wringing provoked by the apparent stinginess of Gloucester's tourists is appropriate.
As an atheist my thoughts might be irrelevant, but I believe that the dominance of the building and its proprietors' decision to have a public whinge about the situation allows me to comment.
One answer would be to enforce the £5 fee. Chances are that that would reduce visitor numbers so significantly that takings would fall further. That's exactly what my reaction was when first faced with an entrance fee for a cathedral (Ely). I gave it a miss. Would have been vaguely interesting to see what lay within, but moderate curiosity is a long way from the burning desire that would persuade me to pay entrance to the National Portrait Gallery for example, to which admission is actually free.
In a predominantly secular society which has seen the need to go to church diminish over time, it is clearly no longer viable for the church-goers themselves to foot the bill for maintaining their antique buildings. They are too few. Ironically, with this as a background I am aware that splinter groups continue to form, insisting that they are Christian but want to worship in their own (not Cof E) way. One such has opened a new church in what used to be a corporate social club on the outskirts of Cheltenham. They have done so with a view to the "church" building serving as a general community centre when not being used for worship. I've no idea whether this will work, but it does seem more positive than watching your debts grow while praying for a subsidy or a generous patron.
In fairness, the Church of England has shown willing to make its buildings available as venues for the arts and commercial ventures, up to a point. Back in the mid-seventies German electronic band Tangerine Dream played well-received "gigs" at York Minster and Liverpool and Coventry cathedrals. Last year Laura Marling played at Gloucester Cathedral and every three years the Three Choirs festival is held there and tickets are not only pricey but sold out. It has hosted art installations by Anthony Gormley and others, but these events are the exception, not the rule. The acoustics are probably not ideal for rock music, although modern sound engineering achieves remarkable feats so perhaps it shouldn't be written off. Of course the building's administrators prime concern will be to conserve it as a place of worship for the aforementioned minority, but I'm not sure they can afford to have it all their own way.
Historically the construction of Cathedrals to glorify God, as tribute, in gratitude or whatever superstitious pretext you care to name, was an impressive architectural achievement which continued in this country into the 20th Century with the two Liverpool cathedrals and the post-war re-construction of Coventry. It continues still in Barcelona where the completion of Gaudi's masterpiece will last for decades to come. These recent efforts are my favourites artistically, but inexplicable folly nonetheless. They stand largely empty for most of the time while occupying prime real estate, and the art they exhibit is, however impressive, largely aimed at true believers.
Churches - the buildings rather than the institutions - are of immense significance to our heritage,our national history. I am not, therefore suggesting that they be sold off to the highest bidder for redevelopment into shops, offices, clubs and hotels, but their use does need to be re-examined. Communist rule in Russia saw many former places of worship used as museums, party headquarters or whatever, but sadly this was usually done without much regard for history and what remained was a vandalised shell. Yet the principle was not so bad in itself. The French architect LeCorbusier used to say that "A house is a machine for living in". So, I would argue, God's house (if you must call it that) should also be lived in. There are Christians who already recognise that a stone built edifice is unnecessary to worship. Those who have inherited such an edifice need to consider whether they can afford to confine its use to its original purpose or whether they should have a more inclusive agenda, encouraging its use by those outside their religion