The fenestration glorifies a piety of money-changers: Nat West, Midland, Barclays, Lloyds, BST, their individual windows signifying contributions to Ely's coffers. British Rail is up there, too, its familiar logo prominently etched into the plain glass. It is a useful place in which to contemplate last week's proposals for a radical shake-up of England's cathedrals.
The long-awaited report of the Archbishops' Commission on Cathedrals did not exactly recommend that all 42 buildings introduce compulsory entrance charges, but its reference to a 'dangerously low' level of forward thinking about money clearly had this in mind.
Until recently, Ely had been backward thinking. In 1834, Augustus Pugin, the English architect, was roused to fury by its woebegone condition; he wrote from Ely: 'Here is a church, magnificent in every respect, falling into decay through gross neglect. Would you believe it possible?' Today, Ely - the first cathedral in modern times to charge for admission - is as forward thinking as spiritual priorities allow.
'I have come to pray, not to pay,' I said to a woman seated at a table inside the cathedral's main door. I expected an argument; a demand for pounds 2.80, the adult charge. A Church of England spokesman had advised me that it was technically possible to avoid paying to enter cathedrals with entrance charges, 'if you're sufficiently strong'. No argument ensued, however. The woman at Ely simply murmured, 'Of course,' and nodded me into the nave.
Disappointed, I found a seat. Arthur Balaam, 80, a former beadsman (one appointed to pray for another), invited me to pray with him near the choir. He pointed to an area of ceiling above our heads. 'One day a lump of stone fell and just missed me, by God's wish,' he said. 'The choir was closed for several weeks afterwards.' His face was reddened by an autumn sun filtered through stained-glass. 'The thing that sticks in my throat is paying to go into a house of worship. God's house should be free.'
Ely Cathedral authorities argue that one can pray sans purse, by entering the small St Catherine's Chapel on the south-west of the building. But having done so, one is not encouraged to roam free in the nave (where Cellnet recently sponsored a flower festival), or the cathedral shop (Access, Switch, Visa, American Express all doing nicely), or gaze heavenward via Tesco and Nat West in the Lady Chapel. 'You ask: Should the things of God be free?' said the vice-Dean, Canon Dennis Green. 'The logical answer is that if the house of God is to function in a world of pounds and pence, it must have pounds and pence.'
Consequently, cathedrals are willing to try some interesting experiment. Bristol's will gain pounds 25,000 a year from Nuclear Electric for advertising the company's logo on church programmes. Salisbury was about to do a deal with McDonald's (free Big Mac for every cathedral visitor donating pounds 1.50) but a public outcry killed it.
Mr Green laughed when I said I had lied my way into Ely. Worse intrusions had occurred on site: from Danes, damp, and deathwatch beetle, not to mention Puritan fanaticism. Mr Green said: 'Some people used to regard a visit to Ely as a free day out. A load of coaches would arrive, having charged a package rate to include the cathedral. But we got none of it. So we thought it would be honest to have an overt charge at the door. There are VAT advantages in overtly being open for business purposes.'
As for cheats such as myself, 'We decided that if people wanted to pull a fast one, it is between themselves and God.' Over a coffee and Embassy filter in the kitchen of his house alongside the cathedral, Mr Green said that visitors and tourists brought in pounds 229,000 last year, whereas cathedral expenditure was pounds 606,000. But income from bequests, stocks and shares, the bookshop and restaurant has made the place profitable. 'We're booming]' insisted Mr Green's boss, the Very Rev Michael Higgins, Dean of Ely.
The 'theology of tourism', which the Archbishops' Commission recommends, has to be expertly managed, independent of faith or mild winters. Mr Green grinned. 'Last March a few snowflakes drifted down, and one of my daughters said to me: 'You can always flood the (cathedral) floor for an ice-skating rink.' However, we have a marketing arm to generate publicity.'
He saw nothing incongruous in all this? 'I have learned a lot about cathedrals in my 15 years here,' he said. 'When we started charging, people started spending more time in the cathedral and took their visit more seriously. We see far more people bump into God.'
Only three of the 42 cathedrals actually demand money at the door: Ely, Salisbury and St Paul's. Non-praying visitors to Wells may soon have to pay pounds 2.50. Most others make it clear they expect visitors to pay but are prepared to yield. Salisbury is said to be the hardest to deceive. 'You have to go through a turnstile under the gaze of a gentleman in a glass box who asks you for a donation,' said a Church of England spokesman. St Paul's is easier to crack. 'I read recently that cunning Japanese have cottoned on to St Paul's free times when people can enter for acts of worship. The Japanese apparently time the arrival of their coaches for five minutes after these services start,' he said.
What about other branches of Christianity in Britain? Barry Palmer, manager of Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic), said adults were not charged for general admission but pay pounds 2 to go up the 300ft campanile in a lift. Votive candles are another source of cash (up to pounds 70,000 a year at Westminster alone). 'The Catholic Church calls itself the church of the poor,' he said. 'Tourists often regard the Anglican cathedrals as museums.'
At the Church of Scotland's St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, there is no entrance charge, though in recent months visitors to its Thistle Chapel have been asked to pay pounds 1. The main Methodist meeting place on London's City Road is free, but there is a pounds 3 charge for visiting John Wesley's house and museum on the same site.
Is there a risk ofMammon overwhelming God in the eyes of modern pilgrims? At Ely, Canon Green does not think so, 'although we can't afford to be unctuous pussy-cats in front of the fire'. Among the chilly choirstalls and misericords Mr Balaam seems to agree. 'When you come to services here, you wear long-johns,' he said.
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