Big Churches in Little Europe: St Paul's, London

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St Pauls, London

If there is a church that is more easily recognisable in the context of its city, I cannot think of any better than St Paul's Cathedral in London. From the river, it absolutely dominates the city skyline with its huge dome and golden cross. Sometimes I think it is a fabulous civic statement and at other times, especially after reading too much HP Lovecraft, it appears to be a sinister lurking stone toad crouching over the skyline (credit for this thought also to the novel Tipping the Velvet). Most churches in big cities surprise you when you come across them. St Paul's surprises you from a distance.

It is quite expensive to get in. For people from anywhere other than the UK this can be a real shock. I don't know if there is a way to get around the price of entry other than to go to a service. I have never paid and I have gone to quite a few services so I cannot write about what it would be like to see it as a tourist.

The English version of the reformation created some real gems (and quite a lot of dead people). Among the gems were cathedral choirs, matins and evensong. My personal view is to avoid going to Mass or a Eucharist at an English cathedral and instead go to sung matins on a Sunday morning. It is nearly always more intimate, the words are nearly entirely drawn from the bible (and not just the easy bits) and the music is extraordinary - often ethereal, discordant and harmonically challenging and all sung by children and men.

So St Paul's offers a half way decent matins on a Sunday morning (except when they cancel it - check the website). The actual service really does make use of the space. When a service is running, tourists are herded to the back by unfriendly staff who give the impression that they have cattle prods under their jackets and that they would not be afraid to use them (I have never seen this happen but then I have never dared force the issue either). This has good points and bad points. Zero out of ten for approachability but it does mean that when a service takes place and you are there, you have the entire church for your joint contemplation.

And it is quite a good one. It seats about 2,000 people and has a roof height to match. The dome is a lot smaller on the inside but you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell. The floors are made of huge slabs of black and white stone that remove any sense of fussiness. There are also only ever enough chairs set out as will be needed which also empties up the space.

Despite the very strong non-verbal message given by the officers at the front doors, if a service is scheduled and you say are you going, then they will let you go up to the front and sit down. Service booklets and any thing else you will need is provided and they don't stint. There is not much support for non-English speakers but nobody is let a microphone at St Paul's unless they have a perfect establishment accent.

The biggest problem with the church service thing is the echo. People laughingly describe a 10 second delay between talking in a place like St Paul's and hearing the echo. In this building it is no joke. Although I have heard the choir sing many times and I believe it is amongst the best in the world, on a Sunday what they sing and what I hear are on different time continua.

Sunday mass is grand and very popular but it doesn't do it for me. There is too much gold, the ritual is too arms length (I am not sure the 10 or so clergy notice the people sitting in front of them much) and the crowd of strangers is too big (often they get 1,000 people to a Sunday service of which about 40 are regular attendees). The mass at 8am, which is said in the choir stalls, is far better suited to the space but it is very, very traditional which at least is congruous with everything about the place.

A note on the church decorations. The ceiling of the front end is extraordinary and you would be a sad person to get tired of it. The floor is dotted with statues of grand men being adored by classical nymphs (many naked and sometimes being groped by the grand men) which I find amusing. The woodwork of the choir stalls is full of fat faced cherubs which I just don't understand. The grand men (and their nymphs) are there because someone paid a lot of money for the privilege but who paid for the cherubs?

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