Westminster Abbey: A Beautiful Confusion

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit Westminster Abbey. My stride was brisk as I made my way past Big Ben and took my place in line before the north door. However, my experience with this quasi-sacred space was clouded by the schizophrenia of the current Westminster Dean, with momentary flashes of exquisite beauty and light. After three hours, I emerged from Westminster 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 ($25), visitors were prohibited from taking photos. This has been an on again/off again policy of the abbey’s Deans for some time. After the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, there was a spate of photo-shopping going on internationally. Newlyweds the world over have been popping themselves into pictures of the high altar of Westminster claiming they were married there. The Royals find this irritating.

Additionally, amateur photographers have been selling their photos of the abbey’s interior on ebay among other places. The Dean finds this irritating. The abbey hires professional photographers to provide the images that land on postcards or in the glossy pages of lavishly crafted coffee table books. Why would you want your own dim, slightly blurred, off-center photos with either your finger or some nameless tourist’s head cutting off the lower left quadrant of the coronation spot? Let’s be honest. You 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 50 pounds for the book in the gift shop. (It’s so easy to forget that exchange rate after wandering about the heady clutter of royal tombs.)

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The current Dean of Westminster Abbey, John Hall, views amateur photography as a direct threat to the abbey. 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 photo-shopping 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, according to my pamphlet, Westminster 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 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. 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 me 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 with cracked nails. 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 “first and foremost 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, my red-robed interlocutor’s superior. He wore a blue shirt and tie and he carried a hand-held radio device that 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 photo-shoppers 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 as they moved cattle-like through the nave and transept.

As a Catholic, I couldn’t help making comparisons to St. Peter’s Basilica, or even Chora Church in Istanbul, which I had just visited two days earlier. There is no fee to enter St. Peter’s and you may take all the photos you like. At Chora, a wonderfully restored fifteenth-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.

A Place of Worship?
Photography is only one way the schizophrenic character of Westminster manifests itself. One is uncertain what Westminster Abbey is: Church or mausoleum; sacred space or museum. It is very clear that the Dean and his custodians very much want everyone to appreciate this beautifully graceful structure as a place of worship. In fact, they are quite self-conscious about it. But, from the north door to Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, there is little that inspires worship.

Entering the church through the Great North Door, one has the sense of being ushered into the basement of the British Museum. The area is severely cluttered with many large monuments dedicated to diplomats, admirals and merchants of note in British history. Moving into the nave the museum-like ambience continues as one moves along the myriad statues and memorial plaques on the floor and along the walls. Moving continuously around the “worship space” was a living moat of tourists with their audio-tour radios. They kept up a steady murmur as they moved like docile sheep through the great church.

Thorney Island, the place where the church now stands, was first settled by Benedictine monks in 960. On December 28, 1065 the Abbey was dedicated by Edward the Confessor, one of the few pious English monarchs. In 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned here on Christmas day and the Abbey has been the coronation spot for English monarchs ever since. There is a brown circular area on the floor in front of the high altar where the coronation chair is placed. The brown circular area symbolizes temporal authority, which in England they still pretend belongs to the Crown.

The high altar is not the highest point in the church either figuratively or literally. That honor is reserved for the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor which is housed beneath the transept on a raised platform between the Quire and Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. It’s doubtful the saint-king would acquiesce in being raised higher than the Lord. However, in a church that no longer celebrates the sacrifice of the Mass, it hardly matters. For a few extra quid, one may ascend the wooden staircase to see the tomb properly. The rest of the crowd must content themselves with stretching their necks to get a meager glimpse of one corner or other of the saint’s sarcophagus and perhaps also get a fleeting view of an arm of the coronation chair, remaining mindful all the while that this is “first and foremost” a place of worship.

There are side chapels one can enter, such as St. John’s Chapel or the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, yet these also feel like cluttered basements. It is difficult for the crowd to move through these chapels because they are so stuffed with enormous monuments dedicated to individuals whose achievements during their earthly sojourn are meaningless to those whom accident of birth did not make British. The half-sisters and lifelong enemies, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I, both descendants of Henry VIII, are forever entombed together, a cautionary monument suggesting the dire refrain of Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and a chase after wind.”

Poet's CornerAfter surreptitiously snapping a few shots with my camera, I gave up hope of any kind of spiritual experience in this “place of worship” and gave in to the secular appeal of Poet’s Corner. Being a literature student in college I was naturally drawn to this attraction. On my way there, as I was leaving Henry VII’s lavishly carved and brightly illumined Lady Chapel, a very proper British voice echoed throughout Westminster over an intercom system reminding me and all present (again) that this was “first and foremost a place of worship.” As such, the voice continued, a prayer was said at the top of each hour. One and all were asked to stop where they were and either participate in the prayer or just remain silent for a moment. Half the tourists never heard the message due to the volume of the audio-tour device pressed onto their ears. The prayer was for the safety and well-being of the royal family.

After the prayer, I found my way into Poet’s Corner in the south transept. I was pleased to find Chaucer present. Samuel Johnson is buried in this spot, along with Dickens, Tennyson, Browning, and Dryden. Thomas Hardy is buried in Poet’s Corner, except his heart, which is in Stinsford. Most of the names on the floor and walls were merely memorials. Ben Jonson is buried in the nave, upright. It was thought provoking standing amidst the tombs of many writers I still enjoy, but I couldn’t help wondering, why here?

Looking up into the 10-story high graceful arches that come together above the nave like folding hands I had the sense of sacred space, heavenly longing. Floor-level is a glut of entombed royals, politicians, scientists and diplomats; important to British history but irrelevant to the ultimate destiny of man to which a church ought to draw our attention. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of Henry VIII’s expulsion of the Benedictines in 1540. Westminster Abbey now stands as a strikingly beautiful confusion, a reminder of St. Paul’s caution to the Philippians that equality with God is not something to be grasped. One finds no trace of such confusion in St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Duomo in Siena.

It’s odd that a church where royal weddings and coronations take place does not receive any funding from the royal family or the Church of England. This fact only reinforces the impression that the English monarchy is a royal drain on the nation’s finances. What does England get in return? It’s possible that what Westminster Abbey gets in return is tourist dollars that help keep this beautiful monument maintained and open to the public. For, in the end, Westminster Abbey still stands as a magnificent achievement of gothic architecture. To continue drawing tourists, perhaps it’s necessary to highlight the link between Westminster and the Royals. No doubt this is what draws many Americans who have little interest in history, let alone an appreciation for the beauty and ingenuity of medieval religious architecture. Looked at from this perspective it might even be considered laudable that the Dean, while facing unavoidable economic realities, also insists that Westminster is “first and foremost a working church” as the brochure puts it. It is Henry VIII, not the Dean, who is responsible for the confusion that clouds Westminster Abbey today.

As a Catholic, my visit left me grateful for the imperviousness of Spain and Italy to the influences of the Reformation that swept through northern Europe and England. One needs no reminding in the great Catholic churches of Europe that these are truly sacred spaces dedicated to the glory of God alone, the only crown of note being the one affixed to the head of the King of Kings.



  • Tom Jay

    Tom Jay is Academy Dean at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also teaches Latin I to fifth graders. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas and also holds a Master in Humanities with a Concentration in Classical Education from UD.

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