What’s Wrong with Westminster Abbey? Part One
by Tom Jay
I was recently in London. While there, I made the requisite visit to the great abbey of Westminster. I was joyful with the prospect of another sublime, architectural manifestation from the so-called Dark Ages of man’s upward struggle toward the heavenly illumined Beatific Vision. The promise was not fulfilled. My response to this quasi-sacred space was rather mixed, often clouded by the schizophrenia of the current Westminster Dean with momentary flashes of exquisite beauty and light. Intending to spend only 1 ½ hours at Westminster, spiritually restored after an awe-inspiring encounter with the soaring beauty and daring of medieval gothic architecture after two weeks among the countless minarets of Anatolia, I emerged from Westminster after three hours feeling confused and disappointed.
Upon entering this magnificent structure after marveling at its northern door, I was surprised to learn that after coming all this way and paying 18 pounds ($25), visitors were prohibited from taking photos. This has been an on again/off again policy of the abbey’s Deans for some time. Since the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, there has apparently been a spate of photoshopping going on internationally. Newlyweds the world over have been photoshopping themselves into pictures of the high altar of Westminster claiming they were married there.
There is also the economic factor. Some amateur photographers have been selling their photos of the abbey’s interior on ebay among other places. The Dean doesn’t like this. After all, the abbey hires a professional photographer to come in now and again to set up the tripod and photograph the church all day; the end results of this expenditure are to be found in the prominently placed abbey shop adjacent to the exit where one may purchase postcards or fabulously crafted coffee table books filled with glossy pages of lavishly presented photos. Why, the Dean seems to be asking, would you want your own dim, slightly blurred, off-center photos with either your own finger or some nameless tourist’s head cutting off the lower left quadrant of the coronation spot? Let’s be honest. You probably won’t even remember what you photographed, even if you did pay the three extra quid for the audio guide. Better to leave such a monumental space to the professionals and pay the $75 or so for the book in the gift shop. At just 50 pounds, it sounds like a bargain (it’s so easy to forget that exchange rate after wandering about the heady clutter of royal tombs.)
The current Dean of Westminster Abbey, John Hall, views this photography business as a direct threat to the economic interests of the abbey and an affront to its identity as a sacred space. His response was to call upon precedent and implement a hardline approach, banning all photography not authorized by Westminster. While the royals and the Dean might, understandably, find the photoshopping hijinx of newlyweds rather irksome, the economic factor seems to be the more pressing concern. And, in fairness to the Dean it must be stated that Westminster Abbey receives no funding from the Church of England, the British government, or the royal family. It relies heavily upon the entrance fees and Abbey Shop proceeds spent recklessly by tourists. If this sounds cynical, I am only repeating what a very pleasant Abbey assistant suggested to me aside and under his breath as though he were sharing state secrets. He was a member of the red-robed “Abbey Police” who keep a vigilant eye on the incessant flow of tourists, making sure one and all keep those cameras tucked away. A fine force of quick and probing eyes that can instantly note the nanosecond glint of a camera lens rising up amidst the throng is, indeed, needed to implement the Dean’s policy. For there are those who throw caution to the wind and dare to snap a quick, unbalanced shot or two, myself included. A trembling thrill of lawlessness rippled through my mind as I noted the positions of the “Abbey Police” and then picked my moment to shoot. Grandiose visions flitted through my imagination of being peppered with questions in some dark, basement chamber of the Dean’s lodgings, an officer-type man with sour breath slapping the crumpled cigarette out of my mouth (although I don’t smoke) and reminding me I am a visitor in Her Majesty’s Isle while threatening to destroy three weeks’ worth of photos collected on one little memory card which he toggled back and forth through his yellow-tipped fingers. I pressed the button, hoped it was a good shot and moved along with the ceaseless flow of bodies through the screen separating the high altar from the Quire.
The official reason given for the ban on photography is that “this is a place of worship, those who come here to pray can be distracted by flashes and the sound of cameras clicking.” That’s what I was told by another man who I gathered to be my sympathetic interlocutor’s superior. He wore a blue shirt and tie rather than a red robe and he carried a hand-held radio device which crackled now and again at a low volume, of course, so as not to disturb the worshippers he was telling me about. Unlike my red-robed friend, the blue-shirted man was unapologetic about the Dean’s policy and seemed to miss both the humor of the newlywed photoshoppers and the irony of the idea that cameras would disturb worshippers, none of which I saw except during the noon communion service, amidst a veritable river of humanity streaming by with hand-held audio devices thrumming ceaselessly with informative explanations of what the tourists were looking at as they moved cattle-like through the nave and transept. But, the blue-shirted fellow was a company man, which is probably why he got the blue shirt and a hand-held radio while my understanding friend will most likely be forever relegated to the humble red robe with only an insect-sized microphone attached to his lapel. As a Catholic, I couldn’t help making a comparison to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or even Chora Church which I had just visited in Istanbul two days earlier. There is no fee to enter St. Peter’s and you may take all the photos you like. At Chora Church, a wonderfully restored 15th century church, there is a very modest fee of 15 Turkish Lira ($8) to enter, but you may photograph the outstanding Byzantine mosaics and frescoes with complete freedom. I find it impossible to believe that amateur photography presents such a financial drain to Westminster that a ban is warranted. However, all of this is only one way the schizophrenic character of Westminster manifests itself. I will address the real symptom of Westminster’s schizophrenia in a later post.