A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Readership and Leadership

Sometimes Neil Pickford isn’t the centre of attention – and that’s fine by him.
Last Saturday was a strange day for me – I was inside a big church but I wasn’t working. Nor was I on holiday, strictly speaking.
I was in York Minster (a rather obvious copy of Beverley Minster in my expert opinion), watching my wife getting a little book from the Archbishop.
Obviously there was a little bit more to the moment than that – he also licensed her to be a Reader in the Church of England.
It was an emotional moment for the family and a major step on a 30-year journey
Back in the 1980s my wife wanted to become a vicar, but the Anglicans didn’t allow females to rise to such elevated heights until 15 years later, so that wasn’t an option. Mind you, some of the male priests I knew at the time were decidedly effeminate, so I guess that balanced out in the minds of our leaders.
Women who felt they had a calling to the church had to content themselves with what was on offer – more junior formal positions as readers or busying themselves doing ‘caring’ or pastoral work in other unofficial and unpaid capacities.
That wasn’t an option that worked for my wife so she concentrated instead on helping me run a business and raising a family before looking after an elderly relative, dropping out of the entire process in consequence.
Women were eventually rewarded for hanging on in there when, in 1994, the first female priests were officially ordained. By pure coincidence this ceremony took place in Bristol just half a mile from where I lived so I popped along to watch the fireworks. It was springtime; I think Bristol City were playing away that day so it seemed like the best opportunity for some free entertainment.
After all, the newspapers had been full of apocalyptic warnings of the end of civilisation from one side and strident demands for equality from the other – it seemed likely that the cathedral would be host to a mass brawl between militant feminists versus bible-bashing fundamentalists.
As it turned out the brave army of men-onlyists had obviously decided to stay at home and do the washing up that day so the way was clear for all the women outside to enjoy the moment without interruption.
The very next day, again by coincidence, I took part in the first-ever Anglican communion legally prepared and served by a woman – an event so momentous it was actually reviewed in The Times – and, do you know what? The wine tasted exactly the same as if it had been waved over by a man.
Strange that.
Anyway, for various reasons the thought of becoming something official in the church resurfaced a few years ago and, backed by the then vicar at Beverley Minster, my wife started a three-year course back in 2006. Now, having completed nine terms, she became acceptable to the licensing authorities as a reader – hence our attendance at York this weekend.
It was a big event – the nave was full as were some of the side aisles – but I’ve no way of telling how many people that represented. In our Minster with the same sort of nave/crossing/aisles seating coverage I’d have estimated the crowd as round about 500 but I suspect nearer 800 in the bigger space at York.
There were 13 individuals receiving their licenses in the same ceremony – including two who were former bikers and are, so I am reliably informed, covered in tattoos, while another is blind and was accompanied by her guide dog during the procession. In a nice moment, when the Archbishop started his sermon the dog wagged its tail in approval.
Afterwards they were given a piece of paper and granted the right to wear a simple blue scarf as part of their formal uniform but, to my wife and all the others there, it was a life-defining moment – a recognition of work done, long and sometimes lonely paths followed through the years, deep questioning and huge dedication.
There is a clear before and after – now they are able to speak up on behalf of the church, not just as a member.
Oh, there are still whole areas they can’t do: they can’t consecrate (make magically holy) the bread and wine used in communion, they can’t give absolution (official forgiveness for sins) during a service, they can’t marry couples or baptise anyone. But it’s a big step forward.
From here there are many different paths, possibly leading some of the readers to becoming fully-fledged priests, but that’s not necessarily what they want. Suffice it to say that the day was enough in itself – a moment of fellowship that was celebrated by more than 25 members of Beverley Minster at the service itself and the rest of the church back home the next day.
As befitted the importance of the occasion it was, of course, a magnificent spectacle but, equally of course, being a virger I was looking at things from a different perspective to most people in the congregation.
It’s like anything in life – if you’ve ever worked in any given area you can never really look on it again in the same light as a newcomer. While others may have been enjoying the sheer scale of the Minster or the decoration of the screen behind the altar I was clocking the way the pews were clipped together, in groups of four rather than our own triplets.
“Hmmmm,” I thought. “I’ll bet the vergers (yes, they spell it the wrong way in York) only move these rows in teams of two- unlike John and I who can each shift a full row by ourselves. I’ll just bet they stack them and then use a trolley to load them onto a lift and store them. Gah, they’d don’t know they’re born, these softie cathedral vergers.”
While I was taking in all these details I was obviously radiating an aura of leadership – of true virgership – because I kept being approached by total strangers for directions. It wasn’t my church but people seemed to think I knew my way around. And, in fact, as they asking were the same questions we get asked in Beverley Minster: “Where are the toilets?” I was able to help.
I tried to count how many virgers they had in uniform on the day but they kept bobbing in and out of the nave, confusing me. However, with the number they have there and the support staff they can call on, I reckon they’ve got it very, very easy compared to John and me.
Anyway, I’ll have the chance to compare notes with them on Monday as we’re all meeting for our Diocesan Christmas lunch (well, we’ve got no chance of doing it nearer the main event – other commitments you know). Mind you, perhaps I won’t tell them what I really think – I don’t want to get into an argument with them.
After all, we Christians don’t have rows over tiny differences of opinion, do we?  
First published November 2009 

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