St. Paul's rolls out the red carpet -- and spills plenty of red ink

Its weathered, world-famous dome, 366 feet high, is one of the most impressive sights in all of London. Its soaring interior will be the site of the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer July 29.

And it is deep in debt.

In fact, St. Paul's Cathedral, symbol of London since 1708, has a bank overdraft of about L125,000 ($262,000).

London's other two cathedrals -- Westminster Abbey, and the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral -- also report money troubles, though spokesmen for both believe they have balanced their books better than St. Paul's. All three are among the many victims here of prolonged recession, inflation, and the decline in the number of foreign tourists.

Go to St. Paul's and sit down with Dean Alan Webster, the warm, pleasant man who runs the place, and you find him torn between preparations for The Wedding, and the constant need to cut, prune, trim, and save money.

The other day he started by telling some colleagues and me: "One hundred sixty yards of cherry red carpet was fitted this morning for the wedding, though the men are worried because if it rains, the sticky stuff will come off and it might move about."

But it wasn't long before he was lamenting: "I have been a clergyman all my life, and I was at Norwich Cathedral before coming here, but I have never ever had to spend so much time on the problems of cash."

Among cathedral cutbacks:

* St. Paul's has given the Deanery (home of the dean) over to commercial developers. It has cut its staff of workmen and office help by half, to about 30.

* It proposes to eliminate six of its 18 full-time choir members -- the move that touched off headlines here. The singers are union members, and the union objects strongly.

The union asked the cathedral to keep the six choristers on for at least another year by using money it claimed would be generated by the royal wedding -- television rights, the sale of videocassettes, and more.

But St. Paul's registrar, commander Charles Shears, says the singers have to go as part of the economy campaign. Both he and Dean Webster say St. Paul's is not staging the royal wedding "to make money." They doubt it will generate much.

"We'll be reimbursed for extra expenses," said the dean. Our whole staff will be taken over for three days before the wedding. Television crews will pay us a 'disturbance fee,' but I doubt it will be large."

It costs about L1 million a year ($2.1 million) to operate St. Paul's and its choir school. Permanent staff is 130.

About 2 million people visit it every year. Sunday services draw about 1,000 people each week.

Restoration work to fight London pollution is extensive. The crypt has been modernized, and a small canteen (refectory) added. Architect Sir Christopher Wren, Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and other famous figures are buried in the crypt.

St. Paul's now charges a small fee to climb up to the Whispering Gallery (102 feet above the floor), the Dean's Aisle, and the American war memorial chapel, which commemorates the 28,000 British-Based US servicemen killed in World War II.

The cathedral will not go broke: It has too many trusts and supporters for that. But it is in difficulties.

"In 25 years' time, I wonder if London will be able to support three separate cathedrals," says Dean Webster.

Across the city in Westminster Abbey, a spokesman for the administrative staff felt the abbey had faced fiscal problems earlier and better than St. Paul's, its old but friendly rival.

"It costs us about L1 million to keep the abbey going," he said. "Three-quarters of that comes from visitors --tourists, if you like, many from the United States. But the number has dropped considerably in the last two years.

"We used to get between 3 million and 4 million visitors a year. Now it's down to between two and three."

The abbey has only 12 choristers and doubts St. Paul's music will suffer by going down to 12. A trust financed by individual and corporate donations is financing the multimillion-dollar cleaning and restoration of the 700-year-old abbey facade.

Both the abbey and Westminster Cathedral are watching every penny: "But we've had three cathedrals in London for centuries," says one administrator, "and I think we'll continue to have them, re cession or no recession."

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