A view backstage at Beverley Minster

All are welcome – are they?

Now is the time of year when Beverley Minster becomes a full-on tourist destination.
Neil Pickford explains what’s involved.
It’s not unusual for each virger at Beverley Minster to feel a little conflicted at this time of year. Are we working for the church or are we a wing of the holiday industry?
The is largely because our normal job is, first and foremost, to prepare the building for church services. That sounds simple enough but, inevitably, things get more complicated when you start defining exactly what is required to “prepare for services”.
It has generally been conceded that someone needs to switch the lights on, make sure the building is safe, see there’s nothing going on to distract worshippers from the task in hand, and that it isn’t likely to catch fire at any time during devotions (and, if it does, to ensure there’s a safe way of getting everyone out).
This logically means that we might as well have responsibility for the building at all other times – and then our role seamlessly rolls on to include responsibility for non-worshippers as well when there isn’t a service due.
Here in the Minster that’s a particularly large responsibility because we are just about the biggest attraction in the East Riding in terms of visitor numbers and, for around three quarters of the time the doors are actually open, (9am-5.15pm during the summer) we are definitely functioning more as part of the tourist industry than the religious one.
Mostly we can juggle these two facets without too much difficulty – we’ve been dealing with them for a long time now and come up with plenty of procedures that are, by now, second nature – but now is the time of year when, if the two faces of the Minster are going to clash then they will.
For example: this is the season when a lot of local colleges hire out their facilities to people who want to make a lot of money from foreign students.
Some of these companies are very fond of finding a free attraction, such as the Minster, and dumping their charges on us, unsupervised, for an hour or two – pretending to the fee-paying parents that it’s part of the educational aspect of their beloved offsprings’ visit while secretly laughing all the way to the bank.
Do they pay us anything? Do they even bother contacting us beforehand to see if we can accommodate them?
I think you can guess the answers to those questions – and in the past we’ve only just managed, by good luck, to avoid having 300 (admittedly well-behaved but still noise-making) teenagers wandering around while a funeral was taking place.
A couple of these schools have actually had the decency to contact us and sort out better arrangements – so thanks to them – but there’s a couple of rogues out there. I’ll happily let you know their names if they mess us around again.
To a lesser degree, coach parties can present the same problem – they don’t book but they do expect us to be open for them, for free, at all hours.
It’s for that reason that we are currently shutting all doors to the east end of the church when there’s a service on – a practice we don’t enjoy but it has to be done to preserve the contemplative mood of the church when in action.
Whatever – it’s just a fact that the vast majority of people coming through our doors this month are visitors and not regulars, so the virgers tend to be wearing our secular heads, making sure that church business doesn’t interfere too much with everything else. We even double-check wedding times to see if we can provide a roof tour during the service without interrupting the bride and groom on their special day.
But, of course, we are are church – and that’s important. It means we still look on our visitors with the eyes, ears and attitudes of people employed by the church, not as mere jobsworth tourist guides. We are more than just custodians of a building, we should also display a Christian attitude to everyone who walks through the door.
Just this Saturday I had a case in point. Someone came in, in a hurry, with a dog on a lead. Now that’s an easy one – no dogs allowed.
However, the visitor was agitated and wanted to check something on the war memorial, for whatever important personal reason, at that very moment. They were obviously upset that we wouldn’t allow the dog in with them so, wearing my helpful Christian head, I volunteered to look after the mutt while the owner did whatever it was they wanted to do. This was especially marvellous of me as I don’t like dogs.
Without a word of thanks the individual passed over the lead and shot off. The dog looked around for a few seconds then, obviously satisfied with its conclusions, urinated in great quantity all over the main steps and the front door,  narrowly missing my leg.
Praising the Lord I went off for a bucket of disinfectant and, by the time I’d returned, the owner had shot off again, relieved pooch smugly trotting along beside him.
It was annoying but, if the same situation arose again tomorrow, I’d probably do the same. It’s one of the things that makes us different to Alton Towers, and I’m glad of that.
Mind you, it would be quite nice to be able to charge £37 a head like they do. It might pay for a decent holiday for the virgers.

First published July 2009


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