A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Making partnerships work

October – tourist numbers are dropping away, Advent is still some time off, so what do the Beverley Minster virgers do now?
It’s going to be a lonely month in the Minster, for the duty virger at least.
Between us John and I are responsible for the building for at least 70 hours a week, although if you take out our lunch break when the building is overseen by others, then that’s cut back to 63.
Whatever, it’s still a lot longer than the normal working week, which is why we cover it in shifts.
Normally you’ll find both of us on duty on Mondays and most Saturdays, and we also see each other as we pass the baton from early stint to late at 1pm on Sundays.
The rest of the time we’re solo and, while that’s not unpleasant it must be admitted that it’s nice to have a bit of company when you’re feeling a tad harassed by the visitors, the volunteers or the vicar (or, if you prefer, the hordes, the helpers and the.. the.. oh, all right, the holy).
But this month will be more lonely than normal as we’re trying to get our remaining annual holiday entitlement used up before things go mad for Christmas.
Consequently, I’m off this weekend, John the next, then me… and so on. We’ll get together on some of the Mondays but, even then, we lose a few hours with staff planning meetings. If one of us has to do another roof tour then we’re even more limited for time to discuss matters.
So it’s a good job we seem to be able to work together pretty well – even second-guessing each other when it comes to one of the thousands of matters where someone has spoken to one of us, expecting both of us to be aware of what’s been discussed and decided.
It doesn’t always work – there was a double-booking the other week in the south transept – I thought John would sort it out, he thought I had. Luckily, after a few hissy fits the true spirit of Christian brotherhood shone through and an acceptable way around the problem evolved.
In other areas, however, John and I have very different skills at and that point it doesn’t matter that we work separately. In fact, when it comes to doing particular jobs it makes more sense to be selective about which virger you approach: I’m much more comfortable with modern media than my esteemed colleague and he’s much better with tools than I am.
We’ve just had such a situation, and John has turned up trumps, again.
Now for a long time we’ve had an increasing problem with the chairs that are clipped together in groups of three to make up our pews but nothing had been done to address it.
It was partly an issue of demarcation and diplomacy: is the maintenance of moveable chairs used during church services and concerts the responsibility of the Old Fund (who look after the physical structure of the Minster) or the PCC, (who look after the day-to-day costs of running the church)?
When there were just a few chairs at a time that needed to be repaired it wasn’t much of an issue and the modus vivandi (bit of posh writing for you erudite chaps out there) was that it would be done by one of the two staff employed by the Old Fund, when they had some free time.
Two things conspired to blow this arrangement apart: one, the individual concerned has been on long term sick leave since the beginning of the year and; two, the virgers (me actually)  discovered the problem was much larger than we’d thought.
Bear in mind that the chairs are nearly 40 years old and their back legs are basically attached to the rest of the frame with glue – and glue doesn’t improve with age. Bear in mind  that people tend to be heavier than they were back in the 1970s. Bear in mind finally that people these days are more likely to throw themselves down into chairs instead of sitting down carefully.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise but I found that around one third of them had a crack in the main join and were only still upright because of the other chairs to which they were clamped. In some cases two of the three linked chairs were broken and it wasn’t hard to imagine what might happen if the third one cracked as well.
John and I immediately removed the failed items, bringing forward other pews from the west end of the church to fill the gaps. We replaced these with some of our beautiful plastic seats, giving a somewhat grey feel to the rear of the Minster.
The broken chairs were then stacked up on one wall – and that’s where they stayed, gathering dust and looking darned untidy while delicate negotiations went on.
To cut a long story short, there was finally a pronouncement from the Old Fund to the effect that they were willing to relinquish this duty. John snapped into action.
Channelling skills from his former life as a joiner he commanded the rest of us to procure wood, glue and screws then, with a merry smile he converted the virgers’ office into a workshop.
From behind a closed door issued the sounds of sawing, drilling and whistling. Shortly afterwards there emerged a lengthening line of repaired chairs and, within two days, the entire backlog was gone.
The plastic seats were stacked and packed away again, the rear of the church looked crimson once more and we virgers could breath rather more easily, confident that our congregation wouldn’t end up flat on their backs with their legs in the air.
We don’t want that – it sends out all the wrong signals really.
So we now have another area where John and I can work together easily, without actually meeting. I can find any damaged chairs and stack them by our office when I’m on duty, confident that when I return for my next shift, John will have repaired and replaced them.
And he, in turn, can be confident that I’ll claim to be getting closer to solving whatever annoying software glitch has turned up in the last month or so.
It’s a true partnership of equals, isn’t it?

First published October 2009


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