A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

What’s the difference?

Neil Pickford returns to an old chestnut

It’s the most common question asked by visitors who have a thirst for knowledge: “What’s the difference between a minster and a cathedral?” There is an answer we can trot out: “A cathedral is where a diocesan bishop has his (or, maybe – one day – even her) cathedra – or ornate seat. You don’t have to be a minster to be a cathedral, although York and Lincoln both are.”

We can then explain that a minster was a sort of team-ministry place with several parish altars under one roof and normally our interlocutors go away satisfied, if somewhat baffled. But then I started to wonder for myself exactly why it had been so important to do this – especially in the north of England where the majority of minsters are found (there’s only about 16 of them in the UK that we know of- although that’s not a definitive list – and seven of them are within easy driving distance from Beverley).

Why so?

Well, one of the main reasons is that, back in Saxon times when the parish boundaries were being put in place (most of which still apply to this day), this part of the world was somewhat under-populated. Religion was an essential part of everyday life – frequent prayer was regarded as the mechanical means by which you could plead with and coax God to kick-start each new year, create successful harvests and give you good health in an uncertain world.

Of course, in those days God only understood Latin so, as the common folk spoke their own languages, you needed a professional to translate their prayers into God-speak – and also to maintain communication in the first place through regular ritual.

The formalities of this religion demanded that every parish had to have its own altar as the focal point for the daily rituals that had to be gone through as well as prayers for the recently departed and so forth.

However, then as now, it was regarded as uneconomic to have a separate institution and staff for a hamlet of (say) six souls and 300 sheep, so it made sense to combine the duties for each of the smallest parishes under one roof and, by using job-share, combined services and clever scheduling, fulfil all the all religious responsibilities required.

Beverley Minster was home to the altars for various sparsely-populated parishes nearby: Molescroft, Tickton, Routh, Woodmansey and so forth. Parts of the church would have been divided into carefully walled-off areas dedicated to each parish altar; in addition there would have been extra altars for specific saints and worthy causes.

Today you can get a rough idea of what it might have been like from our south transept where we have three bays separated by a wooden screen. At one time each chapel would have been a clearly-defined space like this with its own sequence and timetable of services.

That all got swept away in the time of Henry VIII when the focus of religion changed in England. Instead of paying professionals to do the praying thing for you the Protestant religion taught that you could (and should) have a one-to-one relationship with God – a parish priest was there merely to help you with this, not do it all for you. In consequence the new ideal was for a priest to be available locally for every single parish – which meant the parish altars had to be located locally as well and so centralised Minsters were redundant. And that’s why Beverley Minster was nearly demolished in 1550.

And there we conclude for this week. Possibly not the most amusing article you’ve ever read, but at the very least it was educational. Next time somebody asks what the difference is between a minster and a cathedral you’ll be able to answer them for us.

We’d be very grateful.


We’ll keep a welcome in the Minster

Neil Pickford nearly loses his temper

There is a group of volunteers in the Minster who do a wonderful job, day-in, day-out which I would find almost impossible. They are the welcomers, who stand by the door to greet strangers, offer them a leaflet in the language of their choice and are ready to chat to anyone who asks. They are our first line of defence – they are the ones who normally deal with the two constant questions (“what is the difference between a minster and a cathedral?” and “where are the toilets?”) and keep smiling every time they do so.

I’m afraid that, although I do try hard, I sometimes find myself less able to keep a friendly face when dealing with these hardy perennials, especially when doing something else. This means I can appear dismissive of individuals at any given moment, which is rude.

My mother is the complete opposite to me in that respect so it’s obviously not a genetic thing – my wife also defaults on the side of the angels and so I can only conclude that it’s Life that has driven me into being an unsociable so-and-so.

I do keep striving to improve but find it all too easy to default into being the type of character who, as the phrase has it: “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” And when you’re the person defining what constitutes a ‘fool’ then it’s easy to condemn other people on the flimsiest grounds.

I keep reminding myself that I’m in the Minster for two reasons (well, actually, thousands of reasons, but two primary ones): to prepare the building for whatever purpose and activity has been permitted and scheduled and to act as a proper representative of the Minster to members of the public when I’m on duty (and also, these days, when I’m not).

I think I’m getting better at it – the building, the staff and volunteers around me and the general Christian ethos of the place are starting to have an effect, but there’s 50 years of bad reflexes to overcome, and I felt them welling to the surface t’other day.

I’d occupied my morning by turning pews to face the west of the church, ready for a concert. I’d already built part of the staging and realised I now had to vacuum the nave as moving the chairs exposed some rather bedded-in dirt that had been previously hidden.

I’d been Henry-ing away for about 15 minutes and was halfway up the south side (and feeling somewhat hot and bothered in the humid conditions of that particular morning) when one of the welcomers told me a visitor had commented on how the Minster was full of the noise of vacuuming.

This sounded like an idiotic complaint and, feeling generally overworked and underappreciated I reacted badly. I swelled up with indignation and mentally prepared my angry response: “What do you expect? St Paul’s Cathedral and a staff of thousands?

“There’s no one else to clean this church so I’ve got to do it when other duties permit, and that’s now. You’ve just entered a huge and beautiful building which is paid for and maintained exclusively by the gifts of our members and supporters FOR FREE so I don’t think you’ve got any reason to complain about the noise.”

As I considered sarcastically offering a full refund of their non-existent admission fee the quiet voice of the welcomer cut through my nonsense: “She said she was glad to see a man doing the Hoovering for once and it had made her day watching you.” And she laughed.

Ooops – collapse of stout party (me). How potentially embarrassing. I really must learn not to leap to conclusions. And hats off to all our welcomers who, day-in, day-out, get it right.

And, speaking of “getting it right” – I should just like to clarify the status of Steve and Paul whom I have previously described as “handymen extraordinaire.” I probably didn’t make it sufficiently clear that they are both time-served: “ecclesiastical craftsmen” (in lead work, glazing and joinery) who also have to do everything else around here as well.

I am more than happy to acknowledge their considerable skills and expertise properly.

What do I know?

Neil Pickford sets the record straight

I was informed, t’other day, that some of my readers may believe this column has a sort of official status within the Church of England – a thought that made me wince.

To set the record straight – if you want expert comment, opinion or advice about how to move chairs safely and frequently; where replacement toilet rolls may be found in Beverley Minster and how to raise/dismantle tubular staging quickly, then I’m your man. I’m also pretty reliable on Rock and Pop Music from the 1960s and 1970s, various printing technologies from Caxton to 2001, the inner workings of the Ford Cortina, and the real processes that underlie pricing mechanisms in the modern world (well, I seem to understand it better than any of the clowns who have occupied the highest offices of state over the last 15 years, anyway).

For anything of a more liturgical note I would recommend you go ‘upstairs’ to a vicar, curate or priest. I’ll stay here in the cupboard alongside the virgers’ mighty floor-washing Nautilus, thank you.

Mind you – that doesn’t mean I’m not influential in my own way.  Some of my longer-suffering readers may remember my campaign to make ‘Hey Jude’ our new national anthem in time for the Olympic Games. I probably launched it a bit too late for the various committees to rubber-stamp in time for 2012 but, as the papers recently reported, it will be the song that actually opens the games in just a few weeks time, so it’s the next-best thing really.

And, all around the stadium, people will be holding up cards with the immortal words: “nah, nah, nah, na-na-na-nah” so the whole world will be able to sing along (as I suggested). I reckon that’s one to me.

Another area where a virgers’ campaign is having some results is in the churchyard where things are afoot! Yes, our oft-stated hope that the grounds could be opened up during the day for visitors to enjoy was picked up by various interested bodies – most-importantly the vicar, whose name is on the deeds of ownership. The council has conducted a survey into what needs to be done to make the area safe for anyone visiting and now we are going through the formal process of applying for Diocesan approval (a ‘faculty’) to make the necessary alterations (levelling specific gravestones, tidying up ledges, filling in holes in the ground, that sort of thing).  Going through the forms with this piece of bureaucracy does, however, mean that it will be 2013 before the gates can be thrown open to all, which is disappointing.

We virgers tend to grumble about this time-consuming process for every proposed change to the building and stock that cannot be described as ‘temporary’ because it can include something as minor as moving power points – which seems unnecessarily fussy.

However, this slow-moving request for approval is, overall, a good thing because it is how the Church of England can stop mad vicars doing daft things with their buildings, like painting them pink or converting the graveyard into a caravan park for travellers. It also prevents we virgers from just picking up a hammer and moving the existing choir stalls in the nave when the mood takes us – which is probably just as well, now I come to think about it.

After all, on matters of great importance, would you really trust the judgement of any person whose primary role consists of moving chairs around the building? Of course not – which is another reason why my little scribbles have no official significance whatsoever.

And yet, ironically, this week’s blog seems to have taken the form of a public information broadcast. Oops, sorry.

Heaven scent

Neil Pickford lets his nose do some work

I was at a garden party the other night and there was wood a-burning in an open grate. It smelled lovely and my mind flicked back over the decades to my days in the Boy Scouts. There were times when I was so familiar with open fires that I could detect different scents of at least three types of wood from the blend of whatever smoke was issuing forth.

Oh happy days – well, actually they weren’t, but that’s a different story. However, that flashback reminded me how important smells are in creating a mood. Most of us already know this: a whiff of coffee is welcoming, burnt caramel is supposed to help you sell your house, toast is homely. Other smells are the opposite and achieve an instant reaction – certain cleaning solutions remind me of unpleasant visits to hospitals, one particular floor product produces a vivid flashback from 40 years ago of a highly polished floor in a room that I spent many hours cleaning one busy Christmas.

Mind you, other people may love that same smell – so obviously memories can be pretty subjective.

One of the ones I absolutely loathe is that of damp – and, sadly, it’s one that you find in an increasing number of our less-used parish churches. There’s sadness in the smell. It’s a symbol of success by enemy elements over human attempts to control the environment.  Too often these days it signifies that those who have been defending the fabric of the building have surrendered or been eliminated – and all their works will soon follow.

It’s the early warning system heralding the first step from waterproof and usable structure to open-topped ruin, and it makes my heart sink whenever I sense it.

Which is why I was so alarmed the other day when I detected its insidious stench permeating the virgers’ kitchen. This was something that needed to be addressed, and quickly.

It’s odd, we’ve had wetter weather in years gone by, we’ve had water pouring through the door during storms when the guttering has backed up and yet the building retained its aroma of dryness. The only damp stink was the kind you got from wet coats hanging together in a warm room – a smell that vanished when the final one was claimed by its owner. So why was I now picking up the heavy-duty, nasty, worrying variant of the smell?

I knew it was nothing to do with the roof because handymen extraordinaire Steve and Paul had been up there clearing it in the last few weeks. I started to pray it wasn’t there as the result of some action, or laziness, on my part. I started to panic.

Luckily Steve was able to pat me on the shoulder and assure me that all was well. The boys had cleared out the gutters as mentioned, but then some of the gullies had taken less than a fortnight to block again with a combination of tree debris and birds nesting. Although they’d gone aloft again as soon as safely practical it had been too late to stop one particularly obstinate new blockage from overflowing next to the virgers’ kitchen and leaving the residual honk I’d detected. It’s alright, I was assured – it was drying out even as we spoke.

Hugely relieved, I quickly brewed some coffee and made a slice of toast.

And on the subject of maintenance: some of you may have noticed the hour chimes from Great John have been silent over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, the task of bashing our massive 7.75 ton big bonger 156 times each and every day has proved too much for a large metal rod construction that replaced an earlier wire-based contraption. We have sent the seven-foot invalid away to be repaired but, at time of writing, I don’t know if the offending part can be repaired locally or whether we need to wait for someone in China to operate a lathe.

Until then I fear we’ll have to survive using the age-old technique of telling time by the position of the sun – if you can see it through the heavy rain that is.

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