It has cost nearly £1 million and it aims to be the biggest Christian resource centre in the country. Angus Macdonald visited the new St Paul's multi-media centre in London IF YOU were anywhere near Westminster Cathedral last week, you could hardly have failed to notice the clutch of tradesmen's vans clustered around what used to be the Cathedral bookshop.
Inside, the atmosphere was one of controlled panic: glaziers, fitters and carpenters were putting the finishing touches to the decor whilst the harassed staff of the Society of Si Paul were stacking, sorting and shelving against the clock to ensure that everything was ready for this week's official opening by Cardinal Hume of the new St Paul's multi-media and liturgical centre.
St Paul himself, gazing placidly down on all this activity from a tiny round stainedglass window above the card section, looked somehow quietly confident that everything would be in place.
The project envisaged by the society is unashamedly ambitious: to create nothing less than a national Christian resource centre in the heart of London. St Paul's Rome backers have stumped up million for the refurbishment and refitting of the Westminster premises, including the space formerly occupied by the Westminster Conference centre and it shows.
To anyone familiar with the old bookshop, the transformation is truly breathtaking: smoked glass doors adorned with part of the slick new St Paul's logo (an L-shaped sword imposing order onto a chaotic world) open into a smart executivestyle vestibule that would do Dillon's or Waterstone's proud.
Potted palms escort visitors down chrome-rimmed stairs (there is a small lift for the wheelchair-bound) into an underground complex where space-age lighting, tasteful brown and cream decor, and spiritual music from discreetly-placed speakers conspire somehow to create an air of both quiet devotion and corporate efficiency.
But it is the breadth and range of the resource material on offer that takes the breath away. "Resource" here means everything from AJ Ayer to audio cassettes. rosicrucianism to rosary beads. candles to canon law.
In the "Bibles" section alone there are Bibles in at least ten languages, every conceivable translation. versions to suit every denominational taste. My First Bible jostles for space with My Wedding Bible. Illustrated elbows out abridged. The Good News is everywhere.
But this is just one tiny corner of the centre. There are entire alcoves here devoted to RE, colourful sections for children, shelves filled with audio and video cassettes (with TV monitor to hand), an entire landing given over to music-books and hymnals. There are medals and crucifixes, devotional material of every description. There is even a rack of vestments. And, of course, somewhere near the front, a shelf marked: "St Paul's Publications".
St Paul's Thomas Kala is aware of suggestions that the Church tends to lack professionalism when it ventures into the commercial arena, but he simply gestures about him in reply. "It hasto be impressive because it's our witness. If you want to compete with the Maxwells and the Murdochs you have to have the best equipment there is..."
And he does. Boasting a fully computerised cataloguing system, electronic point-of-sale cash registers and a full-scale mail order division, the new centre aims to become not merely a successful commercial operation but, in Thomas Kala's words, "a visible sign of service to the Church".