A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Back to earth, with a bump

Neil Pickford returns to reality

It was a good day t’other Sunday because I carried my virge in an unusual location (for me).

I’m sorry, that  sentence probably sounded rather cryptic, which wasn’t the intention (he lied).

What I meant to say was that I was formally dressed and carrying my rod of authority, my badge of office if you like, in a different church. I had been invited to help out at Leeds Parish Church because, on that very day, it was becoming a Minster (yes, another one).

There’s been a positive blooming (or rash, depending on your viewpoint) of churches becoming minsters recently , (eight in the last four years alone). Grimsby, Doncaster and Sunderland, to name but a few, have all been renamed; there are murmurings about Holy Trinity in Hull applying and now Leeds has joined their ranks.

“You’ll have to remind me how to become a Minster,” I said to the head verger (modern spelling) as we walked and talked our way through the ceremony beforehand. “It’s been so long since we did it (about 1100 years) that we’ve quite forgotten.”

“Ha ha,” was the response, which was probably better than my comment deserved, but not very informative.

So why is there this great rush to redesignate a few churches in the same style as our own magnificent structure? Aha, I think the answer to this is in the question.

Certainly all the parish churches that have been so renamed are large ones – even the one down in Great Yarmouth (which claims to be the biggest parish church in England but is, in fact, much smaller than Beverley and Holy Trinity). In fact each of them is, separately, a member of the Greater Churches Group, which is for big buildings in the Church of England and recognises that they are, dare we say, a little bit ‘special’ compared to more normal sized parish churches.

Certainly they can be distinguished from the ‘ordinary’ parish churches by the costs of heating and maintenance – there’s precious little change from £500,000 a year from Beverley Minster, for example, just to keep the fabric warm and in one piece. But obviously the ‘greater’ recognition is not enough – they want the status that comes with the word ‘minster’.

And that, I suppose, is partly our fault. Because Beverley Minster is so magnificent others want a share of our glory (I gather that York has got a Minster as well, but I think we can safely discount that from this argument – it’s not as nice as ours). And, in many ways, it’s a very nice tribute to have.

But what happens if, one day, every single big church becomes a minster. What will then differentiate between new minsters like Leeds and ‘proper’ ones like Beverley, Southwell or Ripon? It’s probably too late to call the ones that have been elevated recently ‘Minster Lite’ or ‘Minster Express’ but I feel there should be some recognition of the fact that our title dates back twice as many centuries as theirs does in years.

Some people might suggest using the word ‘cathedral’, but there are reasons why that’s not such a good idea – we virgers having to polish an overly-ornate bishop’s seat in addition to our existing duties is one of them.

Perhaps we need a new nomenclature for our sort of ‘Super Minster’ or ‘Minster Plus’ – and I’ve got the perfect answer.

In Beverley’s case there is one title which is certainly full of ancient meaning and prestige and, spelled the way we do, makes us equal to Winchester and St Paul’s Cathedrals as well as Westminster Abbey.

So I propose that we immediately drop the rapidly-devaluing title of ‘Minster’ and rename ourselves ‘Virgers’ Vestry’.


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