St. Paul's gets ready for a royal wedding

The announcement of the engagement and the wedding date of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was as much of a surprise to Commander Charles Shears as it appears to have been to the rest of the world. He was also surprised to hear where the wedding was to take place. And he was quite unprepared, he says, for the flood of questions he has received, not only from the press and television, but also in the form of letters from ordinary people.

Commander Shears is registrar of St. Paulhs Cathedral, the great building designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century, where the royal couple is to be married on July 29. He is in charge of the administrative side of the cathedral, a position he has held for three years.

His first experience with a large royal occasion in the cathedral was last year, when a thanksgiving service was held to celebrate the Queen Mother's birthday. He is glad now for that experience. "I know more about dealing with all the different people involved -- the BBC, the palace, the police," he says.

Does the cathedral arrange everything? Not at all. Organization is a matter of amicable agreement and cooperation between the church and the lord chamberlain's office. At the time of a recent interview he was still waiting to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course from Prince Charles and Lady Diana themselves.

"After all, it is a wedding," he emphasizes, giving the feeling that St. Paul's would behave like any small parish church would when asked by a couple if they could be married in it. The difference in scale is quite striking, of course.St. Paul's has been called "the parish church of the British Empire," and the wedding will certainly bring an international flavor back again.

The cathedral's sheer size will contribute to the magnificence of the occasion -- 515 feet long, 248 feet wide, and, to the top of the cross on the dome, 365 feet. It is this superb dome, which so famously dominates the London skyline, that everyone thinks of first and foremost. It is dramatic inside as well as out. Nikolaus Pevsner has written: "The first impression one receives on entering the church is one of a short nave with aisles leading towards a dome of unaccountable width." The interior spaces and vistas of the building are continuous, without Gothic screens to break them up. The scene on July 29 should be one of some splendor in this great classical masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, built between 1675 and 1710.

In choosing St. Paul's for his wedding, Prince Charles has made a great break with tradition. The last royal wedding to take place here (and that was in the medieval cathedral destroyed in the great fire of 1666) was of Henry VIII's elder brother in about 1500. Westminster Abbey was expected to be Charles's choice. In fact, St. Paul's is not really a wedding church. Very few weddings ever take place here, and those that do are confined to the "OBE Chapel" and are usually for people with the Order of the British Empire.

The choice of St. Paul's for royal events seems to be on the increase. Apart from the Queen Mother's birthday service in 1980, the Queen's silver jubilee service was held here in 1977.

"We are delighted that the wedding is to be here," Commander Shears admits.The "virgers" (there is a tradition of old-fashioned spelling at St. Paul's) and the work staff are already busy planning and making special efforts to see that the cathedral will be as clean and tidy and beautiful as it can possibly be.

Although details of the service are still incomplete, there seems little doubt that there will be a magnificent procession through the great west door, and that the prince himself will want the wedding to be brilliant, colorful, and spectacular. The British are specialists in this kind of total theater.

Who will arrange the flowers? St. Paul's has a team of volunteer flower arrangers --among them women from the Worshipful Company of Gardeners -- who immediately expressed their willingness. "But we simply don't know," he stresses. "We are still waiting to hear what the palace wants. A professional firm might be called in. Or Windsor Gardens."

One probable reason St. Paul's has been chosen is that it can hold so many people. "We have 2,000 chairs out all the time, and, with reserves, if we fill up the chancel and so on, we can bring it up to 3,000. And that's not including ushers and technicians," Commander Shears says.

He was amazed last year to see how unobtrusive the television people and equipment were. "The TV stands seem to melt into the pillars, somehow. The lighting is at triforium level, and you don't really notice it once it's on. The commentators are housed behind glass just above the great west entrance. We put up a battery of hutches for them there." Pause. "Though perhaps that's not the best phrase to describe them."

Who in fact pays the cathedral's expenses for the wedding?

"Ah, well, we hope that the expenses will be covered by the palace. The cathedral, you know, is having to look very seriously for big economies. In the last year we had a L100,000 deficit on running costs. We are going to start charging visitors for entering the ambulatory. We already do charge for the crypt. The cost of running a choir school, and a choir of 30 boys and 18 men, is large. There is a regular maintenance problem for the building -- gutters and corroding stone to be replaced, and so forth. We have over 2 million visitors a year, but they simply don't cover what they cost us. Of course, we don't charge at the door because we really want the cathedral to be free."

Well, that's Britain today. You can't even talk about the wedding of the heir of the throne without inflation creeping into the conversation. Nevertheless, the British flair for pageantry and magnificence promises some colorful escapism this summer, at least for a day or two. The country is eager for any tidbits of information about this fairy-tale event, and the palace is proving itself brilliantly adept at keeping information secret, only letting plans be known in enticing dribs and drabs.

At the cathedral entrance the woman who represents the Friends of St. Paul's, which organizes the tours around the cathedral, reveals that interest in the place has already perked up. "Oh, yes," she says with a smile, "this winter has seemed rather cold and dull here, but now many more people are coming, just to have a look and say, "So this is where it's going to be.'"

"It's a tremendous boost to our morale at the cathedral," admits Commander Shears cheerfully, "and fortunately we are just completing our new and up-to-date amplification system. It's been a long-term project with a lot of dust, pulling up the floor tiles and so on. But we expect it to be ready by Easter. And then comes its first big trial on July 29."

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