A carve-up in the cathedral

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The Independent Online
YOU can see them in the cathedral, wafting about in their black cassocks, gently shepherding the visitors. 'Are you coming through to the service?' they might say, or 'Would you like a prayer book?' They're the virgers of St Paul's and they're mad as hell.

Well, not quite; but they're certainly unhappy. The cathedral has told its virgers (five seniors, 13 assistants) they must reapply for their jobs by 12 September or they will be made redundant. And though some will be instantly reinstated, and nobody need be out of work, others will find they are no longer virgers at all. They will be 'stewards', destined to wear white shirts, a cathedral tie and grey slacks. Where once they tended to the canons' cassocks (or 'Star Trek capes' as the virgers call them), they will be merely nannies for the tourists. Naturally, this upsets them - especially when coupled with a reduction in overtime - though, in the present atmosphere, they are afraid to say so on the record. The Dean of St Paul's, rather like Madonna, has his own personal virger who drives him around and arranges his wardrobe. He should be OK. But what about the others? They thought they were immune to time but suddenly the cathedral has gone all modern on them.

Virgers are not trained as clergymen, though they are often mistaken for them. When not guiding tourists, they minister to the ministers. Some think their role can be traced back to the time of King Solomon and his temple assistants, though Solomon's boys were never challenged to find a way of dissuading people from wandering round with camcorders during evensong. St Paul's virgers are expected to know something of the history of their cathedral, though the standard tourist inquiries rarely call this knowledge into play. The three most frequently asked questions are: 1) 'Where did the bombs fall?'; 2) 'Where are the toilets, please?' and 3) 'Could you tell me how to get to Harrods?' The virgers may not have any official religious capacity, but their job requires a saint's patience.

As a result (even though there is now talk of them joining the Transport and General Workers' Union), they are not necessarily the country's most militant workforce. Perhaps that is why they are currently being treated like pushovers. Take the mysterious case of the missing time-and-motion study. Prior to rethinking the running of the church floor, the cathedral powers commissioned a study of manning efficiency. Whatever the results were, they have never been made available to the virgers. Some of them darkly suspect that the study directly contradicted the plan to carve up their jobs. It does not reassure them to be told that pounds 100,000 will be saved under the new


The virgers take their orders from the Dean and Chapter. The Chapter House is a red-brick building beside St Paul's, decked out inside with polished wood. Its staff behave with a fantastic politeness that you may have thought existed only in British movies of the Fifties. But the body they run is an odd amalgam. On the one hand, it is an institution prim enough to want to retain the traditional spelling of virger (most other cathedrals employ vergers). On the other, it has a brigadier for a registrar, and in June 1991 it started charging an admission fee. Want to worship in one of the Lord's finest houses? That'll be pounds 2.50, plus additional charges to carry on worshipping up in the galleries or down in the crypt.

To be fair, the cathedral is still not quite pay-to-pray: admission is free for those who wish to say prayers (but they are confined to a side-chapel). Evensong and all services on Sundays remain toll-free. Even so, when St Paul's first plugged in the tills, there was concern. It made all the more plausible a future in which churches would be cheaper on a Monday afternoon, like cinemas.

The Chapter reckons the figures speak for themselves. In the old days of voluntary contributions, the money raised averaged out at a measly 12p per head. This year, St Paul's may well break even for the first time since 1987. But cathedral employees are still upset about the charge. One clergyman said, in a kind of whisper, 'Of course, many of us would rather the entrance fee wasn't there at all.' Oddly, this opinion is held with special tenacity by people who have not been inside a church, or otherwise boosted church funds, for years. But if we treat churches as museums, then perhaps we should not be surprised to be treated as museum-

goers in return.

Still, it is the virgers who have been hit hardest. They have to staff the tills located just inside the main doors. Sat there in the official clerical garb, they are a target for any tourist angry at having to shell out to come in. If the virgers are lucky, they just get a sarky precis of the story of Christ casting out the moneylenders from the temple. If they are unlucky, they receive a barrage of abuse, the best part of it personally directed. You can't underestimate the tensed fractiousness of the tourist. These people have come to see a place of worship. They're in no mood to be messed around.

After a year of this, the virgers have asked for an investigation into stress levels. The Chapter has not responded. The virgers have also been petitioning for ages for more lavatories. One of the shifts in the galleries is called 'Whispering and Stone Relief'; it is a three-hour stint with absolutely no prospect of relief as far as the virgers are concerned.

Many see the introduction of 'stewards' as part of a depressing new trend in marketing already evident in the cathedral. In the ambulatory, there is an elaborately mounted display of colour photographs. It is known among the cathedral staff as 'The Queen Mother and I', because, occasionally, the photograph of the Dean with the Queen Mother is taken down and updated with a more recent one. There's also a shot of the entire Chapter on the steps of the Chapter House, smiling warmly. The picture puts you in mind of those PR-oriented posters on railway stations. 'On This Line', they say, above a picture of some guy in a freshly pressed shirt, pretending to be on the phone, 'Steve Gubbins Is Your Station


But then, in any argument about selling out, the Church can't win. If it doesn't agree to, say, the handing out of condoms at the end of services, then it finds itself accused of stuffiness and head-burying. But when a cathedral decides to toughen up, get corporate and align itself with the economic realities of the Nineties, people complain that it is not being stuffy enough. Nobody should be surprised to see St Paul's behaving like a business. But who'd have thought it could deal quite so hard?

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)