Do we really need the Minster?
Neil Pickford ponders some ultimate truths, prompted by two unrelated events at Beverley Minster.
I’ve had a provocative few days at the Minster despite most things ticking over as planned.
For the first time since the New Year Bank Holiday John and I each did a roof tour on the same day, which raised much-needed funds, and we still had time to get the church ready for one of the big show events – the Legal Service.
This is an annual occurrence that gives the local Church of England the opportunity to address judges, police chiefs, probation service heads, coroners and others involved in the British system of law.
The whole purpose is to remind them of the strong legal links between church, monarch, state and justice and it gives the preacher their most powerful captive audience for a long time.
It’s not a trendy event this days – just a few years ago there would have been lines of spectators on the streets and irritating oiks like the younger me jeering at the sight of grown men walking around in tights, wigs and purple gowns..
This year there weren’t many people standing around for a chance to see the great and good in all their ceremonial finery, although the heavy police presence may have had something to do with that.
After the service they quickly changed and hopped into their big cars for lunch at the racecourse.
On comparing notes we virgers agreed it had been a nice event, had gone very smoothly and been well worth the effort involved in organising it.
But all the time I was thinking about someone I’d met only days before.
It was nearly lunchtime and I was alone in my office when a grown person, fighting hard to keep tears under control, appeared at the door.
It was obvious that they were under huge emotional strain and something that had been troubling them was coming to the boil.
There were no priests or ministers immediately available so they started to tell me of the conflicting thoughts and emotions they felt about God.
The same critical issue kept coming to the fore and there were no clever words to be said, so eventually I just stood near them as they prayed at an altar and waited for whatever answers they could find.
I can’t tell you how they resolved this moment of crisis but, at the end of the visit, the person suddenly realised they were smiling: “for the first time in seven years.”
Then they waved around at the Minster, said: “God doesn’t need this,” and left.
As you can imagine, that gave me a lot to think about and, while this comment could well be right, I don’t think it’s the full answer.
God may not need the Minster but I’m sure that we humans, do and, by a beautiful coincidence, the formal service demonstrated this perfectly.
Don’t forget that this was the same week when it was revealed that the boss of the whole kaboodle, the Home Secretary, had stuffed £116,000 of public money into her back pocket by ‘playing the rules’ on expenses and stretching the truth beyond reasonable limits.
Judging by the muted response from other MPs she, and many others in parliament, seem to think it’s perfectly all right to have lower standards of responsibility and accountability than those they legislate and demand from us.
Many of us, on the other hand, don’t agree with this and call it an abuse of power – but what can you do?
Well, in black and white the opening section of the Legal Service reminds the legal leaders that: “we are gathered to commend to (God’s) grace all who serve and administer law and justice in this land and county; that they might be imbued with… honour, knowing that they are servants above all of God’s loving justice… We will present ourselves, imperfect before the throne of grace, to ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins, to pray for forgiveness and reconciliation, and time to use for good the life that is given to us here on earth.”
It’s really rubbing their noses in it, the reminder that they are not here to use their powers selfishly but as part of a duty to society around them.
They are not above us, they are serving us and, because we are still a Christian-structured society, they do it on behalf of Christian morality, which is not selfish.
If the Minster, and other churches like it, did not exist then we would not have this chance to remind those in authority of the oaths that they take on accepting office- to serve on our behalf.
If the Minster did not exist then the troubled person who spoke to me would not have been able to have their epiphany, whatever it was, when they most needed it.
If Beverley Minster did not exist, I suspect there are many human beings locally who would be behaving far more selfishly than they do now. There would also be many more unhappy people floundering around in a sea of confusion and unhappiness.
It’s not perfect, it’s a flawed human construction that is attended on a daily basis by flawed humans, but I think it’s a powerful force for good.
God may not need the Minster but, I’m convinced, we do.