vestryview

A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The church of Tesco

 Beverley Minster will lose money this year, Tesco will make a huge profit. There must be lessons to be learned.
My moment of revelation came late one night when I rushed into Tesco in Beverley to get some diet Coke. I won’t bore you with the details of why I had to do this (for me) rare thing but, thanks to modern convenience shopping I was able to whisk into a brightly lit building at an unusual hour and get what I wanted, with minimal inconvenience.
Actually, that’s not true. For a start I could buy diet Coke without caffeine, citrus -flavoured diet Coke, diet Coke Cherry, diet Coke Plus Antioxidant, Coca-Cola Zero – but not diet Coke itself. I eventually bought diet Pepsi instead. Who notices the difference?
Then, I wandered up and down for a while looking for a till with a person behind it so I could pay – and I couldn’t find one.
Eventually it dawned on me that the world had moved on since I’d last entered this bastion of modern consumerism – and human beings had been cleansed from its operation. Now, instead of providing a person who could help me Tesco had left me on my own to find my stuff, scan my items and put money into an anonymous slot for payment,, the “do-it-your-bloody-self” school of retailing.
I hated it, but there was a steady run of people who seemed perfectly happy with the arrangements, including, ironically, a group of teenagers who had just come from an evening in the Minster. I realised I was out of date.
So I started thinking how we could modernise the Minster’s operations in a way that was appealing to the modern punter while retaining the strength of the core brand – oh, and financially viable of course.
There are many advantages to the way Tesco runs things compared to the Church of England. For a start it wouldn’t tolerate ten years of plans and meetings before being able to modernise a shopping area inside its walls – but that’s what it took the Minster to get final approval from the diocese for its shop design. Streamlined decision-making looks very attractive at times.
One part of the business model that wouldn’t need changing is free entry – Tesco doesn’t charge admission and neither do we, so we’re already thinking alike in this respect – an encouraging start.
Not everyone can get into the Minster during the day, so following the Tesco ‘8 ‘til late’ model would also be a good thing.
Modern stores have to maintain the highest standards of cleanliness and accessibility, so our silly old bumpy and difficult to clean stone floor would have to be replaced or covered by more modern (and flat)  materials, with ramps wherever floor levels varied – and that’s got to be right, surely?
It can be difficult to park near the Minster but we’ve got a large open field to the south of us that would make an ideal car and coach park – say free parking for the first two hours and then a reasonable rate for anyway wanting to stay longer – that’s fair, isn’t it?
There’s a lot of floor space that’s hardly every used for services, so we could consolidate all of these in one part of the church, possibly an easily-segregated area, and maximise use of the remaining floor space. Common sense really.
It would make sense to bring in some additional activities. The current policy of encouraging local groups and schools to use this space is reasonable as a loss-leader but steps should be taken to make the rents commercially viable as quickly as possible.
Originally the Minster would have been lined with small altars and chapels instead of a large, open transept and, in keeping with that tradition, perhaps other users could rent floor space on a franchised basis. It could create an attractive medieval-themed street scene.
Obviously only those who were generally sympathetic to the aims of the Minster would be encouraged. Other spiritual providers, perhaps – the Catholic church springs to mind, as do the nonconformist ones. Why stop at Christianity? Spirituality is such a big thing and there’s many an operation that would benefit from being displayed in such magnificent surroundings.
Why be judgemental? Tarot card readings, crystals, aromatherapy, massages, dieticians – heck, let’s make it a one-stop, feel good shop and get in chiropodists, opticians – good grief, the sky’s the limit.
Of course, we must take account of the history of the buidling. Those three chapels in the south transept linked to the armed forces and victims of various wars can have a small (but suitably reverent) display somewhere on one of the walls with text, photos and possibly an old flag or other relic thingy to commemorate their history.
However, let’s not push the roof tours too much – they’re quite labour-intensive and, at only £5 per person per hour, don’t really represent a good earning ratio. Perhaps we could continue to offer the facility but don’t promote it, rather like the Chinese Wallpaper room in The Hall. Sooner or later everyone will forget about it.
The various tablets on the walls will only get in the way of display boards so they can be consolidated somewhere – possibly outside in a new exhibition annex in the grounds for anyone who was interested – it may even be possible to charge admission to that.
If it’s all a massive commercial success and we run out of room on the ground floor let’s build a mezzanine floor – even two, there’s enough space for them. Large open rolling walkways connecting each level, open to the roof to give a bigger ‘wow’ experience, would fit in nicely. 
Of course, staffing levels will need to be kept under review. What’s wrong with self-service communion – that’s loads of ‘helpers’ relieved for other duties immediately. Who needs welcomers when modern well-lit signs can tell you everything you need to know – in loads of different languages as well.
So what if they’re all volunteers and don’t cost anything? You can’t have a load of amateurs just wandering around in a modern, well-managed organisation these days. Get them out.
You don’t really need an expensive vicar either, only working one day a week. Who’d miss them? Get a professional manager who can also look after the building properly.
Of course, the building itself is rather unusual, with very high maintenance and heating costs. Once ‘The Minster Experience’ has become established as a ‘must-visit’ attraction for the whole family we probably don’t need the actual building – merely something in the same general style – big, with points on.
I think, sooner or later, it will have to be demolished on economic grounds, which could be a fantastic publicity opportunity.
Replacing the Minster with a modern, green, energy efficient structure, designed in full consultation with Ti-Chi specialists, sends out all the right signals and, in sympathy with tradition, we could re-create the two west towers with windmills.
What a message that would send out about the modern church – caring for the environment, efficient, profitable, concerned with the whole body as well as the soul – who could possibly object to any of that? We’ll have people queuing up to work in the place, for just above the minimum wage.
I beg your pardon? Caring for, and loving, each individual as an individual? Helping people in trouble without thought of reward, or even covering your costs?  Relying entirely on voluntary donations? That’s no kind of business model in the modern world – it’s certainly not the one that Tesco follows.
Actually I’m starting to realise there’s just too much gap between the ways in which church and Tesco approach the whole basic concept of ‘service’ – even its very definition.
And, frankly, I know which version gets my vote..

First published April 2009

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