Despite Condemning The Da Vinci Code Churches Gain from it Financially
This summer, it is likely that hordes of gum-chewing, cathedral-exploring, tomb-clambering tourists - usually sent to try the patience of Britain's clergy - will be made suspiciously welcome. Vicars will be monitoring closely as coach parties disgorge fat-walleted adults and their noisy children, interested in nothing but the gift shop.
For as those who run Westminster Abbey have found, one particular best-selling book has set cash registers ringing out like cathedral bells in a number of churches across the country.
Gangs of feverish literary pilgrims are even now padding around the nation's apses looking desperately for clues to confirm the gospel according to Dan Brown - that Jesus Christ married and had children by Mary Magdalene. Now, the imminent release of the film of The Da Vinci Code is expected to turn this dribble of dotty followers into a procession of demanding zealots.
And this cascade of freshly generated cash is putting kindly theologians in a hilarious quandary. These gentlemen may not want to be bothered by believers in Dan Brown's fanciful notions - but also, they don't want to dismiss new spending customers out of hand.
Take, for instance, the Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, the Very Rev Alec Knight, who, while cheerfully branding the book ''a load of old tosh'', happily agreed to let the film be shot at the cathedral after the producers made a donation of pounds 100,000. Staff gave out printed apologies to those turned away while Tom Hanks, who plays the heroic Harvard professor with irritating hair and an unchanging gormless expression, performed the ''old tosh'' in question.
And while the "Code'' might be theological drivel, visitor numbers have already increased at the cathedral and so it has proved only sensible for the Lincoln authorities to sell the book and indeed a number of its spin-offs (of the ''Cracking The Da Vinci Code'' type) in its shop.
A hearty selection of Da Vinci Code books can also be found on the shelves of the gift shop in Winchester Cathedral. It featured in two of the film's scenes and accepted a pounds 20,000 location fee after several other churches turned the film makers down. However, to make amends for this bung, it has spent part of the money on a lecture series on the ''good for nothing'' novel which has included a point-by-point demolition of the book by the Bishop of Winchester, the Right Reverend Michael Scott-Joint. Why have a cake if you're not going to eat it?
Meanwhile, the Master of the Temple Church in London - it owes its name to the Order of the Knights Templar which plays a major role in the book - has taken an even more disingenuous approach.
The Rev Robin Griffith-Jones is presiding over a thousand extra visitors a week at his church, all demanding to know about ''the orb'' on the tomb of one of the effigies of crusader knights (no, no, not a word more - no spoilers to be found here).
The Master is charging pounds 4 a head to deliver a weekly, witty, one-hour talk on the subject matter of the thriller - a book that he cheerfully describes as ''historical rubbish''. Furthermore, he has expanded this talk into a short book of his own, The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of The Temple.
Perhaps the most important church location in the book is the Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh. This beautiful and ornate church has long been associated with the legend of the Holy Grail and stands close to the last Knights Templar stronghold in Britain.
In the novel (oh all right - just one spoiler) Dan Brown claims that the chapel was built on the site of an ancient temple and stands on a ''north-south meridian'' that runs through Glastonbury on a Rose Line - a sort of ley-line - from which the chapel gets its name. (Its name actually comes from Ross, meaning headland, and Lynn, meaning pool.)
Dr Andrew Sinclair, a descendant of the family that founded the chapel and a former Cambridge historian, said that he believed filming would ruin the chapel's reputation and would lead people to believe the ''preposterous'' claims made in the book.
However Stuart Beattie, the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust who called the Da Vinci Code an ''airport read'', is more phlegmatic. ''We're an historic building that is used as an Episcopalian church and have always had many visitors,'' he says. ''We stock the book itself and a Da Vinci game but otherwise we haven't changed anything. The Chapel was merely a backdrop to a film.''
In three years, visitor numbers to Rosslyn Chapel have trebled and well over 100,000 should make the trip this year, following the film's release. The chapel has sensibly introduced a new series of Da Vinci-inspired guided tours -and, by good fortune, it also has a pounds 12 million restoration fund on the go. With visitors paying pounds 7 to enter and the film location fee estimated at pounds 100,000, it should be reached within a couple of years.
And now of course, it seems that even Westminster Abbey - which famously turned down pounds 100,000 and refused to allow the film crew access on religious grounds, claiming that the book was "theologically unsound'' - has now given in and will be helping itself to a soupçon of Da Vinci gold. Not only will it be holding two lectures - admission pounds 25 a head - by the Abbey's canon theologian Nicholas Sagovsky and that old hand Rev Robin Griffith-Jones of Temple Church, but the admission also includes ''optional'' evensong, a ''self-guided'' tour and wine and canapés. Meanwhile, the Abbey shop is producing a booklet on the Code and its connection to Westminster Abbey - price pounds 2.99 - as well as selling Griffith-Jones's Da Vinci book.
Now, while it is certainly the case that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, attacked the global obsession with the novel, which he described as ''the stuff of imagination'', it seems that the C of E is taking a much more sanguine view than the Vatican, which is imploring us to give the film a miss.
But hell, if these new seekers after Da Vinci truth are willing to pay good money to pop into church, I am sure no one can quibble with a bit of good old-fashioned English compromise.
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