A view backstage at Beverley Minster

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.


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One thought on “What’s the difference?

  1. Simon Weedy on said:

    I’ll take educational over amusing any time Mr P. Actually that’s a lie. But I’m very happy to have been educated this evening.

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