The University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the Oxford High Street is facing a very 21st century problem: too many tourists taking selfies when they come to visit.
The church, the site of the 1555 trial of the Oxford martyrs and with a 13th century tower with a view of the city, is a popular destination, with over 400,000 visitors each year, but for associate priest Rev Charlotte Bannister-Parker, these visits are a little too disruptive.
She penned her concerns in a recent newsletter, writing: “I am not usually a grumpy person but I have been overwhelmed by the numbers of tourists coming through the church and the fact that so many of them seem unaware that this is a sacred space.
“Not only is the whole experience of visiting St Mary’s so often seen through a camera lens but also some visitors seem completely unaware of the difference between this space as ‘the House of God’ and, say, that of the Sheldonian.”
She added that the “sizeable footfall” of visitors was making it more difficult for those worshipping in the church to do so in peace and quiet.
The church Vicar, the Rev Dr William Lamb, echoed Bannister-Parker’s words, stressing the importance that tourist crowds were “well controlled”, although adding that everyone was welcome at the church.
He said: “This ministry of hospitality is an important part of our mission as a church.
“At the same time, we are also aware that the sheer volume of visitors and tourists sometimes detracts from the peace and tranquillity offered by the University Church.”
The Reverends are considering playing background music quietly and inviting visitors to join in with prayers, or reserving parts of the building for private prayer, while encouraging tour groups in controlled numbers to visit the rest of the church.
Rev Dr Lamb explained: “With this subtle approach, we are convinced that we will improve the experience of visitors and tourists.
“We want people to feel welcome at St Mary’s and we want to make sure that a visit to St Mary’s is a positive experience for everybody.”
But both Reverends discouraged the number of pictures being taken, with Rev Bannister-Parker urging staff and welcomers to “challenge the mentality that ‘if you don’t take a photo it did not happen’”.