If your sins don't find you out, the Prayer Police will

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The Independent Online
I HAVE recently received a letter from a reader that I find disquieting, to say the least. It tells a story of persecution and harassment which it is hard to believe can actually have happened in this day and age - but let my correspondent tell her harrowing tale in her own words.

Dear Mr Kington,

Are you interested in cathedrals? I am. I spend much of my spare time travelling from one old cathedral city to another, here and on the Continent, with either a Trollope novel or a volume of Pevsner in my hand, soaking up the atmosphere of these marvellous old buildings. There is nothing that quite compares with the tranquillity of an evening spent in a cathedral, either examining the details of the architecture or simply letting the accumulation of so much history work on one's imagination.

Gradually, however, the ethos of cathedral-going has changed. It has always been a bit different on the Continent, of course, where services are often going on night and day in cathedrals, either in such a casual way that you can never quite tell if it really is a service, or else with some invisible priest addressing a tiny congregation through a microphone (I'm never sure why he has to use a microphone, as nobody seems to understand what he is saying anyway).

But the thing I've always enjoyed about our Protestant cathedrals is the comparative freedom we are allowed on their premises - we are not chivvied about, told where to go, forbidden to enter certain parts of the building, or treated like children. Not, at least, until now. Because now there is a strong tendency to treat you as a paying customer, unless you have come for a religious purpose. Have you been inside a cathedral recently? It is becoming a bit like trying to get into an exclusive night-club, with eager hands reaching out to your pocket everywhere you turn.

The fact is that as an impecunious cathedral-addict, I simply can't afford to pay for entry to every building I visit, so whenever I am asked for the purpose of my visit, I say it is for prayer and worship. Which in a sense it is because I'm often left in a reflective mood.

But the other day I was left in a rather unhappily meditative mood after receiving a letter from a famous cathedral in the south of England, which asked me to complete a questionnaire about my recent visit. They said it would help them to plan the cathedral's marketing strategy if I could fill in the form and tell them how successful my worship had been. They wanted to know what I had asked for in my prayers, and even asked me to rate God's response on a scale of 1 to 10.

Well, I'm not in the habit of bothering with unsolicited questionnaires, so I put it to one side. You can imagine my amazement the next week when I received a visit from a small man in a dark suit, saying he was doing a follow- up to the survey, and wanting to know why I hadn't filled it in.

I told him I was not in the habit of answering unwanted questionnaires. He said: 'Maybe not, but you certainly seem to be in the habit of entering cathedrals without paying an admission charge. Do you often masquerade as a worshipper to get in without paying?'

The penny suddenly dropped. This was no survey. He had come to get the money that he felt I should have paid in the cathedral. I put this to him. He nodded happily. 'We are holy debt collectors, if you like,' he said. 'Cathedrals have been losing so much money to people like you that they have had to strike back. We are, in fact, a collection agency that has been called in by the cathedral. We call ourselves the Prayer Police . . .'

I refused to pay him a penny, and he left angrily. I may have made a mistake in doing this, as now I have started getting threatening phone calls telling me to pay up or else, and anonymous notes telling me that it is too late to start praying now, as my sins will find me out.

I know cathedrals desperately need the money, but don't you think this is taking things too far? I hope you don't mind if I don't use my real name on this letter, but I'm getting a bit fearful for my safety.

Yours sincerely . . .