Typical church-front signs offer greetings, list service times, and maybe suggest a vaguely inspirational thought. (My recent favorite, at the local Methodist church: "Be the best whatever you are.") But St. Paul's Cathedral in London hopes to lure passers-by with a bolder slogan: "Discover St. Paul's—a spectacular family adventure."

Now, I've been to St. Paul's, and I wouldn't exactly call it a spectacular adventure. I doubt that even the new live-action dramatizations of cathedral artwork and "adventure trails" for children can earn the church exalted marks on the thrill-o-meter, though taking tea in the Crypt Café could raise a few goosebumps. The history of the cathedral, on the other hand, has been a pretty wild ride.

The Christian presence in London dates back at least to 314, when Restitutus became the city's first bishop. The location of his cathedral is unknown, but wherever it was, it probably wasn't very impressive. Christianity didn't start picking up speed in Britain until later that century, and Roman cultic temples from the period tended to be small and simple.

London's first known cathedral dedicated to St. Paul was built in 604. Mostly wooden, the structure burned down in 675. Its replacement—finished 10 years later—was destroyed by Vikings in 962. The next cathedral lasted until a fire in 1087. Cathedral number four was consecrated in 1300, though work continued until 1314. Construction lasted more than 200 years—a little longer than most congregations today would put up with a building campaign.

The seventeenth century was tough on the old cathedral. During the period of Puritan control that followed the execution of Charles I in 1649, St. Paul's (and much else that smacked of papism or high-church formality) ...

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