A view backstage at Beverley Minster


With black cape billowing behind him Neil Pickford wades into the seasonal fray.
Transforming the world! Changing reality! And red wine too!
If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it – total transformation.
Bash! Powie! Sock! Thud!
Just 12 hours before, Beverley Minster had been home to our Advent Service, a very theatrical event where we start with the church in total darkness – even the external floodlights switched off – and gradually, as the candle-lit choir moves around the church, more lights return until the whole place is aglow once more.
It’s a very popular service, so much so that John had laid out an additional 120 chairs down the side aisles to cope with possible demand. The vicar and musical director, both of whom were experiencing this event in Beverley Minster for the first time, had listened carefully to what we virgers told them needed to be done and, bless them, they then did it.
In fact they were so good that we didn’t complain when Jeremy asked us to put out Gift Aid envelopes on every other seat. We knew that we’d have to pick a lot of them up again but, what the heck, it’s Christmas.
And it was lovely – the choir sounded magnificent, everybody did what they were supposed to when and where it was supposed to happen and a good time was had by all.
After the service we virgers and a few members of the team tidied up the excess envelopes. Then we stacked the extra chairs, turned off the lights and chucked the stragglers out (in that order).
Yet, within one hour of coming to work the following day the Minster was transformed.
John and I started by turning all the pews around for this Saturdays County Choir performance of Handel’s Messiah (which, readers may remember, has to be staged at the west end of the Minster for reasons of space). We know the nave has already sold out and we’re expecting a full house. Within that first hour at work (45 minutes, actually) we’d not only turned 264 chairs through 180 degrees but we also stationed a further 100 or so seats down each of the side aisles, as well as getting 150 plastic chairs at the back of the church, ready for the choir to flop back after a particularly exhausting ‘hallelujah”.
Then, after a bracing cup of tea we virgers, ably assisted by Minster plumber and general handyman Steve Rial, dragged two 20 foot high Christmas trees off the back of a lorry and pulled them upright before lashing them to the organ screen for the duration. Then we trotted off for our normal 10.15 staff meeting, hardly missing anything important at all.
By early lunchtime we had one of the trees dressed in its Christmas lights – by late lunchtime the second was also resplendent. By the end of the day we’d had a further meeting about staging requirements for a concert later in December and Steve had got the Bethlehem star shining brightly from the central boss, 70 foot above the main crossing. It’s a pity there were no takers for a roof tour as we’d have fitted them in as well if asked.
It’s also a pity my seasonally-adjusted weekend started at 5pm that day, or who knows what I might have accomplished on Tuesday. Mind you, John ‘Car-Crusher’ Dell is still on duty so it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll have done when I return.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find a two-tonne font in the middle of the main steps, ready for an al fresco christening.
Talking of surprises we’d already had a genuine one sprung on us at about 9 o’clock on Sunday morning. Apparently an email had just arrived telling churches that we could safely let our parishioners guzzle wine from a single cup again.
For those of you lucky enough to have avoided this particular controversy to date let me briefly recap. This e-mail restored the situation to what had been in place until terrifying government warnings about swine flu started to appear earlier this year. We in the Anglican church have what I regard as a marvellously egalitarian tradition: ministers and ordinary church attendees share a cup of wine at communion – it’s not something that is specially reserved for a priestly elite like in the Roman Catholic church.
Anyway, this tradition was brusquely (and unscientifically) swept away following terrifying claims by Sir Liam Donaldson, Plague-Finder General to the Government, that (again) we were facing the greatest threat to human survival ever.
I’m afraid I’ve had a slightly jaundiced view about this – it only seemed like last year when the Chief Medical Officer had a very similar panic attack about something different – bird flu I think it was –and we survived that.
However, as good little citizens we did what we were told and started issuing wafers individually dipped in wine and then handed to each communicant by a carefully sterilised server.
I’m only surprised that, during the ‘emergency’ they didn’t make us all wear facemasks to avoid breathing in contaminated air – possibly with little slits through which pre-wined wafers could be pushed after being unwrapped from an individually sealed package.
Anyway, because we haven’t all died and there aren’t bodies piling up in the streets common sense is returning and we can now share as before – but what a pity we weren’t told this on Saturday. John and I had set up the elements ready for the (former) approved style of communion just before we finished work. On Sunday morning, therefore, there was a bit of a panic while the new (old) arrangements were (re)introduced, extra servers recruited and more chalices dragged out from the back of the safe to cope with demand during the service.
But that’s not the end of it and a critical decision remains – should we now revert to our former Minster technique of consuming pre-scored slices of bread, or stick with the new wafers now that we’ve bought several thousand of the tasteless things?
At the moment opinion remains almost equally divided – which is a fairly typical Anglican result really. If we can’t sort it out for ourselves, the way things are going we may end up referring this one to the Pope for final judgement.
And, on a completely different note, I’M MAKING A RECORD!
Actually, that statement is inaccurate. To be precise, I am manipulating my mouth and moving wind through my vocal cords in front of a digital recording device that will store any noises thus produced, then burn a coded series of ones and zeroes onto a small dyed disc. And all this technology will be harnessed to reproduce my own voice reading my own words from this wonderful weekly blog of mine. Darn it, it’s enough to make a chap feel very humble (he lied).
Anyway, after numerous suggestions that I should publish my assorted ramblings in one form or another I asked the powers-that-be at the Hull Daily Mail about doing just such a thing – and editor John Meehan gave me his benevolent blessing, which was nice. All he asked is that I should plug the column in the Beverley Advertiser  while I’m doing it.
So I’m taking the plunge and will be releasing an Audio CD – a sort of SingalongaVestryView for the highly intelligent – in the next week, and all profits will go to good causes.
It’s the ideal Christmas gift for everyone who’s already got everything. This years unexpected Yuletime hit, it should be available through Beverley Minster shop or directly from me fairly soon (contact via, priced round about £5 or £6 including p&p. A smile, a bit of whimsy and a few points to ponder.
And remember, you read it here first.
First published December 2009 
p.s. – we’re still waiting to finish the CD – whoops. 


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