A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The varied use of sacred spaces

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford teeters on the edge of profundity.
It would appear that, to some people, certain areas in a church are more sacred than others.
This thought was prompted t’ other day when I looked at a vacant space in the Minster and saw that someone had carefully put railings around it. This empty area was where our altar is normally to be found but, at that moment, said item of furniture was some sixty feet away in the north transept. To a total stranger there would have been no obvious reason for the space it normally occupied to be protected in this way while the rest of the crossing was open to all.
For those of you would don’t know I should perhaps explain that the altar is where we prepare and serve communion. Around are various rails where communicants stand or kneel, and the space between them and the altar is often called the ‘sanctuary’ where several rituals take place. This area is frequently closed off and regarded as, in some way, different to the rest of the church.
 However, the Minster is rather unusual in that our communion rails and altar are completely removable. Yes, our main altar is on wheels and is fairly mobile – albeit in the same way that Anne Widdicombe was fairly mobile in ‘Britain’s Got  X Factors’ or whatever it was.
It has to be – this space is directly underneath our equally mobile roof boss which gives access to the Minster workshops some 20 metres overhead. Whenever we are raising or lowering a special delivery to or from the workshops we shift this altar as we don’t want a massive load of lead smashing through it.
This mobility also means we can (and do) shift it (and the surrounding rails) for a host of other reasons as well: there are various formal processions throughout the church year, especially Remembrance Sunday, when it would be right in the way. Some big concerts also need the space, several Christmas services use staging to accommodate all their musicians and this staging often extends over that same spot. Social events: the summer ball, commemorative meals and the various Youth Cafes all benefit if the central area is uninterrupted and so it is shifted for these as well.
But on this one occasion the movers had felt the need to put the rails back after moving the altar. Why? Was it because they had a vague feeling that the space was still, in some way, different to the rest of the church? It seems hard to believe because they knew that, on that very spot less than 36 hours later, there would be a succession of young teens crashing into each other while pretending to be Sumo wrestlers – which is not an obviously sacred activity. So, was it that, on one day it was quite acceptable to use the space for fun and games, but on the previous day the space was still somehow ‘different‘.
Probably not, but this started me thinking because there ARE spaces in the Minster which different people do seem to regard as being intrinsically more important (or ‘holy’) than others.  I must admit that I share this tendency. I know, however, that my ‘special’ places are not special to everyone else. Conversely what is, to me, a spot of absolutely no significance might, to someone else, be a source of great comfort and a reason for pilgrimage – and I find that quite an interesting insight into human character.
That’s why I’ve decided (with your generous approval of course) to intersperse my rather more lackadaisical musings with occasional pieces looking at places or objects within the Minster that seem to have a greater than ordinary importance to me or others – and trying to work out why, instead of just describing them.
Mind you, I can’t keep up this serious streak for long so you may well find yourselves reading something about rabbits next week. Until then, however, there’s one thing on which everyone can agree – there’s absolutely nothing special about the vicar’s vestry at
First published February 2011


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