A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Breaking with traditions

 Another trip behind the scenes in the modern Church of England, as observed by Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford.
Every Sunday, if you’re in the right place at the right time you will see a rather beautiful ceremony taking place in Beverley Minster.
A good looking man, of splendid build and presence in the traditional long black robes of a virger, walks a slow and sedate march across the entrance to the quire, holding aloft two bright silver urns that obviously contain precious liquids.
With great care he deposits them in a cleared space on a table that is specially erected as a focus for the ritual. Then, later on, several hundred people come to pay tribute at this shrine.
Yep, you guessed, it’s me making the coffee for after the 10.30am family service, and it’s about the nearest thing to a sacramental procession you’ll see at the moment.
In the Good Olde Days we used to be treated to the sight of two churchwardens in all their circumstances, one carrying a large silver flagon of the finest wine while the other paraded a 17 inch platter with a pile of prepared bread, walking sedately behind the choir and the virger at the start of the service, preparing for communion.
But, since “The Voice of Fear”, a.k.a.  the then Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam (Droopy Drawers) Donaldson, pronounced we were all going to die, we’ve not carried the sacred elements for a formal presentation. We stopped during the ’emergency’ because our archbishops recommended that we didn’t share the wine any more. So, instead, we proffered a wafer pre-dipped in the red stuff and we didn’t use anywhere near as much material – in fact everything could be carried in a small saucer and a pipette so some of the dignity of the occasion vanished.
The big communion experience then consisted of chewing some barely-degradable cardboard in which a hint of pinkish wine could be ascertained. Anyone looking for a free shot of booze was probably better off sniffing the hands of the servers – with any luck they might get a hit from the alcohol rub they used to keep the plague away.
It did annoy me – the process has now relaxed somewhat so we can sip the wine from the chalice again like grown-ups but the processional element in the main service is now no more. Shame.
And another thing annoys me as well. I was recently performing another ancient Anglican rite – ‘Henrying’ the church (we don’t ‘hoover’ any more), and a visitor complained that I was making too much noise. 
I pointed out, courteously but with total logic that, if she wanted a clean church then it had to be cleaned at some time and, as I was the one who was cleaning it, it had to be done when I was actually present in the church- i.e.: between the hours of 8am and 5pm. That largely coincides with when the church is open so it is very likely that there will be visitors in church whenever I happen to plug in the noisy monster machine. Today it was her turn.
This didn’t please her: she said the noise was so bad that she couldn’t hear herself think. Maybe she has an unusually silent mind – I can always hear my own thoughts and I’m much closer to the machine than she was. People eh?
I’m sorry, I probably sound a bit crabby today, but I’m not surprised – I’m feeling a trifle light-headed.
I’ve just come back from the hairdressers, and the appointment wasn’t one I was expecting to enjoy. I realise that, to most people, a quick snip and trim are nothing to get excited about but I’ve avoided the attentions of a tonsorial artiste for more than five years, so this was a rare experience for me. I should point out I was forced into it by my nagging wife who booked and paid for a haircut, then cunningly told me it was my birthday present.
I had to choose: lose the birthday present or lose some hair – it was a horrible dilemma.
To anyone who doesn’t know me by sight I should point out that I sport a perfectly decent ponytail that stretches halfway down my back. It wasn’t a conscious fashion statement when I stopped having it trimmed some time before my 50th birthday but, after a while, it felt right and highly practical and I’ve grown used to it (well, it’s grown on me, hahahahahahaha).
After all, my normal hair used to blow all over the place when challenged by the slightest zephyr but with a hair band pinning the length firmly back in place decency is maintained, even in a gale.
The hippy look has also been a help since I became a virger, particularly with some of our visitors who haven’t been in a church before.
They find themselves in huge, daunting and unfamiliar surroundings, being told to keep quiet by partners, teachers, parents, other visitors or even the air of silence in the church. It doesn’t feel welcoming. Then I come along with my beard and hair and they are thrown for a second or two – they don’t know what to expect.
It gives me the chance to show that the Minster is full of a wide range of people – some of whom they might quite like if they relaxed and got to know us.
I’m unusual, I’m different, I can’t be lumped in with all the others – and that’s good. Only the other day there was what some people would have called a ‘gang’ hanging round outside the church, just generally chatting – not shouting but it was loud enough to be heard inside the church during a service. Somebody complained.
I went out and, although I didn’t know any of them except by sight, two of them called out in a friendly manner: “Wotcha Neil, how’s your legs?” We chatted and they soon moved on without any fuss. A bystander was amazed.
“Oh, wasn’t that so-and-so? He’s a nasty piece of work.”
Is he? I’ve never found that to be the case, but then, I’m different. Because my haircut puzzled him at some time in the past few years I’ve had a window of opportunity to smile, get a few words in which weren’t complaints about his behaviour – so I’m not like the other adults and we can now have perfectly friendly conversations. In other words, my hair length helped me do my job, of being welcoming to the Minster and its ways.
Of course, looking unusual is a mixed blessing. I was stopped earlier this year while driving my old people carrier by two traffic police who were obviously way behind on their quotas to arrest someone. It looked as if they were driving the previous days booby prize, a rusty vehicle from Poland and, fed up with being bottom of the pile, they were using all their detective skills to catch errant motorists. With my long hair I fitted their stereotype of a criminal type and I could see them smirking as they invited me to sit in their smelly mobile cell.
It was hard not to laugh as, one by one, their hopes of a conviction disappeared. “Was that my vehicle?” Police records confirmed it. “Did it have an MOT?” Records confirmed my side of the story. “Was it insured?” Records agreed. The vehicle was inspected closely – it was road-legal. I blew into the bag – no alcohol in my system; they looked in my eyes – perfectly normal. I could see them debating whether or not to give me a strip search but, quite wisely, decided against it.
With a sob they were forced to admit their preconceptions had been wrong and I wasn’t a dope-smoking, tax-avoiding pacifist hippy rebel. With the certain knowledge that their quota was now irretrievably out of reach they reluctantly let me go. To add insult to injury I forgave them as they watched me enter the Minster. But I digress – sorry.
Actually I appear to have been rambling quite a bit this week. I’m starting to believe there’s some truth in the biblical story of Sampson and the way he lost all his strength after Delilah chopped his locks. But I’ll get my own back. Next time my wife wants me to carry something heavy for her I’ll say I’m not feeling strong enough.

First published September 2009


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