The Minster has been a holy place for 1300 years. It inspires awe and wonder in everyone who approaches the magnificent twin towers of the west front; even more when they enter inside.
It is a place rich in history and with a lively story to tell.
It is more than a heritage site; today’s community continues the tradition of the first monks: of prayer and welcome, mission and service, love and care for all.
Patterns of Worship
A couple of Blogs ago I mentioned the plans arising from the vision strategy for a new weekly informal service. In that Blog I explained some of the reasons why we need to set up such a service; and as preparations have moved on it is time to say a little more.
The days are long gone when a church could expect to grow merely by adding another style of service to its programme. Nevertheless, it is still true that churches wanting to encourage people to begin a journey of faith find this harder to do if none of their services has an informal or contemporary feel to it. New Christians (especially those under 40) are often unfamiliar with traditional forms of Anglican worship. More than that, they are culturally unused to having a largely passive role in the proceedings, and are more likely to engage with worship if it has an element of interaction, and addresses the issues people bring with them into church.
We are therefore moving ahead with plans to begin a new congregation in mid-January. The launch date is 9thJanuary at 9.15am, and with great imagination the service will be called the “9.15”. The intention is that it will last for under an hour; that it will be led by a team including lay people but overseen by Wendy Wale; that it will include interactive and visual elements; and that the music will consist chiefly of modern worship songs led by just two or three musicians. There will be a meeting in the Minster this Wednesday (1st December) at 7.30pm for anyone interested in finding out more, praying for the new service, and worshipping together.
It is important to clarify that the new service won’t be an ‘all-age’ service as such. The focus is not on children, but on adults looking for a more informal style of worship. However, children will be welcome and there will be provision for them in the service.
The timing of the new service is the result of much discussion, not least because it will affect the existing 10.30 service. From 9th January this will start at 11am, leaving half an hour between services for both congregations to have coffee together. Whilst we need to diversify the ways in which we offer worship, it is equally important that we retain a sense of being one church. The two congregations will therefore come together for major festivals every couple of months or so.
The start time of 9.15 will also allow the 8am and 9.15 congregations to join together for breakfast if at some point we are able to restart ‘Breakfast @ God’s’ after the 8 O’ clock Holy Communion.
The 11am congregation will celebrate Holy Communion every week, led by the choir. It will have basically the same ‘feel’ as the existing 10.30 service but with a slightly more streamlined liturgy to allow the Gloria to be sung by the choir to different settings. There will continue to be groups for children during the ‘ministry of the word’ part of the service.
A set of changes such as this will inevitably not suit everyone and will take a while to get used to. The PCC will therefore make sure to review the new arrangements after 6 months and try to take account of the feedback offered in the meantime.
In preparing for these changes and in reflecting upon them we need to bear in mind the context of a congregation which for years has been getting smaller and older; and a vision strategy which is committed to doing something about that so that we can become more balanced in age range and diversity, as well as grow numerically.
Please pray for these changes as we prepare for them, that they may be one of the ways by which new people come to faith and all of us may grow as disciples of Christ.
Faith in Creation
For the last fortnight the eyes of the world have been on Glasgow and the COP26 Climate Summit, and as I write the negotiations are running into overtime. But apart from the obvious practical and humanitarian reasons for caring about climate change, what do the churches have to say about the issue?
In Christian theology, caring for the created world is basic. It’s what the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden is first of all about: God made the world (which in consequence has value and is not disposable), and then made Adam (the Hebrew word for ‘Man’) to tend the garden and make it fruitful. Men and women are part of God’s good creation and have been entrusted with managing it well. Our status is that of tenants rather than landlords; we enjoy occupancy of the earth, but we do not possess it absolutely. We are accountable for maintaining it through our ‘leasehold’ so that the lease can be renewed for future generations.
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden speaks of how the relationship between humanity and the non-human world is disrupted when our relationship with God is disrupted. We no longer find it easy to live in harmony either with God or with plants, animals and soil, but have to assert our dominance. This shows itself in destructive patterns of exploitation and consumption of resources which are not renewable.
Some Christians have argued that when Christ returns in glory the world will come to an end, believers will be called away to heaven, and so there is no point seeking to preserve the world! However, the dominant view in the New Testament is that Jesus’ resurrection is the first evidence of God’s intention to renew all of his creation. One of the chief qualities of God is his faithfulness, even in the face of death. He does not give up on his people despite them turning away from him; he does not give up on Jesus, even on the cross; and he does not give up on the world he has made, but will renew it. Heaven is always imagined in very this-worldly terms. The Church is meant to be a sign of this hope.
When our relationship with the natural environment goes wrong, so does our relationship with other people. Those who suffer most from climate change are those who are poorest. People who live on marginal land, on coastal areas, on low-lying islands will have to leave their homes and go elsewhere. Politicians struggling to cope with immigration will find the task much harder in the face of growing mass migration caused by climate change.
So the issue of climate change is closely bound up with issues of justice and humanity. The Christian gospel which proclaims good news to the poor, and that the last will be first and the humble will be exalted, urges us to address the plight of those who are struggling to survive because of rising global temperatures caused mainly by wealthier industrialised nations.
The practical actions required are of course subject to much debate, and the challenge for nations to act collectively is hard, not least because we are not used to having to collaborate on such a scale. Nevertheless, this is an issue where Christians should not be passive observers standing on the side lines. Our calling to follow Christ is a calling to care for God’s good creation and one another. Responsible action to limit climate change is therefore a matter of faith quite as much as politics, and will continue to be part of our discipleship long after the end of COP26.
Jack in the Box God
‘The Church of England as presently constituted, no earthly power can save.’ So prophesied Thomas Arnold nearly 200 years ago, and yet we Anglicans still seem to be trundling along. Like Mark Twain complaining that the report of his death was an exaggeration, some commentators have been a little too keen to predict the imminent demise of the C of E.
Sometimes I come across a similar view locally. There are pessimists who wonder aloud whether the Minster will still be in business as a place of worship in a few years’ time, and others who doubt whether the new Vision Strategy will have the desired effect of bringing about new growth. It can be easy to feel that the odds are stacked against us; the secular climate is too hostile, the faithful few are getting fewer and older, there just isn’t enough energy.
Perhaps I should be more concerned, but in a way, I find such talk invigorating. Christianity has its origin in failure and near extinction. Our central act of worship is when we gather to remember the Last Supper. We come together as a community to recall the moment when the Jesus community disintegrated. He was arrested, his disciples scattered, and they never seemed likely to meet around him again. Yet the loss of community became the foundation stone for the resurrection community, and we re-enact that disintegration and renewal at every celebration of Holy Communion.
In the same way the Gospels were written during the period in the later first century AD when the eyewitnesses of Jesus and his resurrection were dying out. The loss of that first generation of disciples caused a crisis of faith; they had believed that Jesus would return at any moment, but he didn’t. How could the Church continue without the direct personal testimony of those who had known Jesus in the flesh? The result of that crisis was the writing down of the testimony in the form of the Gospels. The written Word of God now bears witness to the presence of the risen Lord across the planet. The Lord came, not in glory, but in new gospel words. What seemed to be an extinction turned out to be only a fresh incarnation.
In both of these examples, faith grew and intimacy with the Lord deepened as disciples lost their confidence about what lay ahead. But they were given both his body and his word, and the church grew.
So the sense of an ending should never become grounds for despair. Following Jesus has always been a lost cause. It is the triumphalist expressions of faith (dare I say it, such as the building of churches like Beverley Minster) which are the aberration. Our faith is born out of experiences of disappointment and failure. Lost causes are our speciality. They are what we do. They rejuvenate us.
So there is no need for fatalism, with either the national or local church. It must be so frustrating to be the devil. Each time it looks as though he has succeeded in pushing Jesus back into the box, he keeps springing out again. Our present challenges may be real enough – let’s not underestimate them – but at their worst they can only be seed beds of resurrection and renewal.
Following the launch of the Minster’s new Vision Strategy at the beginning of the month there has been encouraging interest and a number of offers from folk wishing to be involved. And there have naturally been quite a few questions.
More than one person has said words to the effect of ‘This sounds great, but what is actually going to happen?’ Another strand of comment has been along the lines of ‘This looks very ambitious. Do we really have the capacity to deliver it?’
The Steering Group (which reports directly to the PCC) is aware that the big picture ideas now need to translate into action. Let me summarise what is likely to happen.
We cannot pretend that all 14 Workstreams outlined in the Vision Strategy will get under way at once. This is a programme for the next 3 – 5 years or longer. But a couple of the Workstreams have already begun. The Workstream on Prayer has seen an Action Plan put together and meetings involving more than two dozen people willing to be part of a new Prayer Team. This team has reintroduced midday prayers in the Minster and developed it by offering a limited chaplaincy to visitors at the same time. Discussions are going on about the best way to offer prayer ministry and one-to-one listening for individuals in the Minster. The appearance of several new chairs by the Sanctuary Exhibition is part of this initiative and will be followed by some panels designating a prayer area.
Prayer is a core activity for any Christian community and so it is right that this should be at the forefront of our vision. We can expect to see more teaching about prayer, more encouragement to pray, and more opportunities to pray together.
A second Workstream under way is concerned with broadening the forms of worship so that they better reflect today’s diverse culture. Wendy Wale is putting together a team which is aiming to launch a new weekly service on Sunday mornings as soon as is practicable in the New Year. This will not replace but will run in addition to the current 10.30 service. The style of worship is intended to be more informal (but not casual), contemporary and interactive, a little like the Sunday at Seven services we used to hold before the pandemic.
The reason for such a service is because the current programme of worship is clearly not holding and sustaining new people – with the honourable exception of those who are given a specialist role in the choir. Traditional Anglican worship tends to come in a non-negotiable package: ‘This is what we do; take it or leave it’. Folk who are not schooled in such worship often find they cannot engage with it immediately, and so they do not stick with us. The thinking behind the more contemporary styles of worship is that they need to be more experiential and provide more opportunities for people to connect faith with everyday life. The learning from many other churches is that such worship needs to be offered on a weekly basis and at prime time, not monthly or tucked away at the end of the day.
These Workstreams are already under way. Several others will be prioritised. One is the Workstream focussed on the provision of pastoral support. Successive lockdowns have highlighted the patchy nature of our pastoral care system, with some folk feeling forgotten. The time feels right to think afresh about the nature and extent of pastoral care at the Minster and how we provide it. Several experienced people are keen to be involved in this area and it should be possible to put a new team together without too much delay.
A specific initiative forming part of a broader Workstream has to do with social events. After the last two years there is a need for opportunities to meet together, build relationships and strengthen our sense of belonging. We shall therefore be looking for volunteers to think about the best way of doing this in ways which are sustainable without making unreasonable demands on individuals.
Another initiative which will prepare the way for other Workstreams has to do with helping everyone in the Minster community to reflect upon our gifts and skills and how we are using them. We already depend upon the generous offering of time and commitment from many volunteers, but there is a need to develop this in terms of Christian discipleship – how God may be calling me to offer my whole self in his service – and not just from the perspective of finding people to do particular tasks.
These are the immediate areas being prioritised. Others may come to the front of the queue if it transpires that more people want to be involved in making other parts of the strategy happen. Much will depend on finding the right people to oversee particular Workstreams and keep them moving, as the leadership of the Workstreams will have to be shared beyond the clergy team if they are to make progress.
If you would like to be involved in one or more of these areas (or any of the other Workstreams in the Vision Strategy) then please do get in touch by emailing email@example.com or speak to one of the clergy. We may not be able to use all the offers at once, but the more people who are engaged with this process then the faster we shall see meaningful change. I shall try to use this Blog to provide a regular overview of what is going on.
A Vision for Beverley Minster
In the Gospels, Jesus begins his ministry by summoning people to ‘Follow me’. At the end of the Gospels, the summons becomes a sending: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’; and, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’.
This summoning and sending applies not just to individuals but to the whole company of Christ’s people. We have a shared calling as a church, across the globe and in each place. The question is, what does that calling look like in practice? What is it exactly that the church is trying to be and do, especially here at Beverley Minster?
This Sunday (3rd October) we are launching a new vision strategy for Beverley Minster after the 10.30 service. You are more than welcome to join us for this presentation.
As we emerge from all the disruption of the last 18 months we face both challenges and opportunities. The challenges have to do with finance and numbers, both of which have been in decline for a number of years. The opportunities relate to how we ‘proclaim afresh’ the good news of God’s love to the present generation, many of whom have never heard it.
Our headline vision is shared with the Diocese of York and in some ways is unsurprising: The focus is on growing in faith (expressed as ‘Becoming more like Christ’), reaching out with God’s love to those who need to know about it (expressed as ‘Reaching those we currently don’t’), becoming more diverse as a community so that we better reflect the world around us and function better together as the body of Christ (expressed in terms of ‘Growing as a church of missionary disciples’), and finally making sure that we can pay for it and sustain it all (‘Transforming our finances and structures’).
We start with many strengths, in terms of a beautiful and attractive building, a strong choral and worshipping tradition, and a cadre of committed and passionate volunteers who fulfil all kinds of roles that often go unseen and unsung.
However, none of these strengths can be taken for granted and already there are certain formal roles which are proving harder to fill.
This is therefore a good moment to refocus and to clarify what our priorities should be over the coming few years. 14 areas have therefore been identified where fresh thinking and initiative is required if the vision is to become a reality. These range from building partnerships with other organisations for the good of the town to diversifying our pattern of worship to include younger people; from deepening our teaching and practice of prayer to improving structures for pastoral care; from providing more opportunities for exploring faith to improving our communications.
These initiatives are ambitious but necessary if the Minster is to adapt to a post-pandemic world. There will be financial costs involved in some areas (for example maintaining and developing the varieties of ministry, and in updating the infrastructure in the Minster building). A bigger cost for some of us may be in the change of mindset required to make space for people who may not share our preferences or outlook.
A full version of the Vision Strategy and the initiatives arising from it can be found on the Minster website, and I invite you to consider it and pray for it. Its effectiveness will depend largely on our ability to engage new people in driving it forward, and there are certainly some people waiting to be asked. Could you play a part in helping to lead one of the 14 workstreams?
The principle of Christ’s calling and sending assumes that we are willing to lay down our own needs and priorities in the service of a bigger vision. I hope that we can all engage with this vision and help it to bring about meaningful change. As we pray for it, may we find God inspiring us to lift our eyes as we enter this new season in the life of Beverley Minster.
18 September 2021
Applying our Heritage
Last Sunday we welcomed the Mayor of Beverley, Cllr. Linda Johnson, who formally opened the new Sanctuary exhibition in the North Transept in the presence of other guests and members of the Minster congregation.
The Exhibition has been in place since July, but only in recent weeks has all the content been finally put in place. It was therefore a joyful moment for it to be declared officially open!
The First Round bid for the Sanctuary Project had been submitted to the National Heritage Lottery Fund just before I arrived in Beverley at the end of 2017. Nearly four years later there is satisfaction in seeing the story of Sanctuary at Beverley being told in a permanent display, and in seeing the related conservation work on the lesser south transept roof successfully completed earlier this year, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Congratulations are owed to the Sanctuary Project Board, chaired by Tim Carlisle, who have brought this about.
If you have not already explored the Exhibition, I encourage you to do so. It tells the story of Sanctuary at Beverley by means of illustrated text panels, digital touchscreens, audio-visual dramatisation and interviews. The stories of some of the sanctuary seekers recorded in the Beverley Sanctuary Book (now in the British Library) are brought to life by historical re-enactors. The physical evidence, in the form of the sanctuary stones around Beverley and the frith stool in the Minster itself, is clearly explained. And connections are made with people in Beverley today who for very different reasons have found themselves having to leave home, because their original home has become too dangerous.
The Exhibition is housed in a tent-like structure evoking the tents provided by UNHCR in refugee camps around the world, and makes a statement about the continuing need of thousands of people in the world today to find a place of safety.
The concept of sanctuary is of course a rich one. It evokes not just medieval fugitives but present day refugees. It speaks of the need we all have sometimes to withdraw from the world and recuperate. It speaks of safety and of hospitality. It also still resonates with its original meaning as a holy place, a place of worship and encounter with God. Sanctuary is something churches can be comfortable talking about, connecting worship with our building and practical ministry.
At Beverley Minster the new vision strategy, shortly to be discussed by the PCC, includes a section outlining our ambition to be a place where the heritage of the building points people to God and the worshipping community. The Sanctuary Exhibition can be seen as an expression of that ambition.
Another strand in the vision strategy concerns the encouragement of prayer, and it has been wonderful to see so many people wanting to be involved in a new prayer team, building on the variety of prayer ministries which existed before the pandemic. The relevance of this to sanctuary is that the offering of public prayer in the Minster every day, followed by chaplaincy ministry to visitors, is one of the ways in which we can make connections between our vision for prayer, for the building, and for the offer of practical support, all of which are brought together in the sanctuary exhibition.
There was a moving review on the Minster’s Trip Advisor page a few weeks ago, posted by a visitor from Hertfordshire: “Absolutely incredible, the Minster is really beautiful, the staff and volunteers are clearly dedicated (and really interesting to chat to) and the exhibition on sanctuary is not one to miss. We were really challenged by our visit to Beverley Minster, and it made us revisit our thoughts about the experience of refugees and asylum seekers today as we went through the exhibition. Definitely a must see!” (Five stars).
That’s what can happen with what I call ‘applied heritage’: it helps us all to think again, and to see the world with fresh eyes.
29 August 2021
With the approach of September, it feels that the time is right to restore some of the missing parts of the parish’s programme of services. After months of maintaining the bare minimum pattern of worship, it is about to get more complicated.
From 5th September we shall be restarting the weekly 8am Book of Common Prayer service in the Quire of the Minster (asking the congregation to continue wearing masks and maintaining social distancing). The Thursday morning 10am service will revert to the pattern of alternating between Book of Common Prayer (starting on 2nd September) and Common Worship (9th September and every other week thereafter). This will also move back into the Quire.
At St Leonard’s Molescroft there will be a weekly service of Common Worship Holy Communion at 9.15 each Sunday except on the second Sunday of the month when there will be an afternoon service of Evening Prayer with hymns at 3pm. On Friday 24th September at 7pm there will additionally be the annual Molescroft Harvest Festival with the Minster Choir.
At St Paul’s Tickton there will be two Anglican-led services a month, with an informal Holy Communion on the second Sunday at 4pm in the Methodist Chapel and a Common Worship Holy Communion on the third Sunday at 10.30am. The other Sundays will be Methodist-led when the staffing situation permits.
St Peter’s Woodmansey will go from one to two services a month, on the second and fourth Sundays at 10,30am, both Common Worship Holy Communion. At Routh the former pattern of twice-monthly services has already been re-established.
There will also be some special one-off occasions this month. I’ve mentioned the Harvest service at Molescroft, but on Sunday 19th September the 10.30am service at the Minster will be an opportunity for us to thank all those volunteers who have worked so hard to keep the Minster open and functioning over the last months. Whist the pandemic is far from over, and we must still keep some precautions in place, this seems like a good moment to acknowledge the sacrificial efforts made by our volunteers to keep abreast of all the changing regulations so that the Minster could be kept open as much as possible.
19th September will also be the Sunday when we restore the opportunity to enjoy coffee after the service again! However, the coffee rota is looking a bit thin so if you could help out now and again Janet Simpson would love to hear from you. Expressions of interest should be made to the Head Virger, Libby Naylor, in the first instance, who will pass them on to Janet.
Also on 19th September, the Music Department will be running a ‘Be a Chorister for a Day’ experience. If you know of any youngsters who enjoy singing and might be encouraged to join the Minster choir, do invite them along so that they can discover what might be involved in this wonderful musical opportunity.
On Sunday 12th September we shall be welcoming a variety of visitors to the Minster. First of all, the veterans from the Prince of Wales’ Own (Yorkshire) Regimental Association will be joining us at 10.30 for Quebec Day and a subsequent short service marking the centenary anniversary of the East Yorkshire Regimental Chapel. Then at midday we shall be welcoming the Mayor and other guests for the formal opening of the new Sanctuary Exhibition in the north Transept. This will be a very special event as we celebrate the completion of the major part of the Sanctuary Project, and a wonderful new asset with which we can tell more of the story of sanctuary in this town and its links with our ministry today. All members of the Minster community will be very welcome to join us for this occasion.
10-12 September is also the weekend of the annual Heritage Open Days when there will be additional tours both of the Minster and of the Secret Garden, along with some conservation workshops showcasing the skills of the Beverley Minster Old Fund craftsmen. See the website for details.
Finally, it may not be too late to remind some readers of the Songs of Praise service at 5.30pm on Sunday 29th August outside the West Front of the Minster. The last time we did this a few weeks ago, we were blessed with a perfect summer evening and a wonderful chance to sing without restriction. So far, the forecast suggests we might expect a warm and dry evening again, so do join us if you can.
The next few weeks look like being very full, and I suspect that many of us will be more than ready for that! I hope that your September feels like a time when you can spread your wings once again.
24 June 2021
The World Turned Upside Down?
There have been some interesting contrasts in leadership models over the last few weeks.
On the one hand we have had the Health Secretary forced to resign, not because of his adulterous affair, but because it entailed a breach of the social distancing rules he had himself advocated. We have also seen the Home Secretary refuse to criticise those in the crowd who booed England football team members for ‘taking the knee’ before matches, on the basis that this was ‘gesture politics’; only for the gesture to become all too relevant with the outpouring of racial abuse online after the penalty shootout at the European Championship Final. The Prime Minister himself was similarly ambivalent about condemning racism in football before it became too blatant to ignore.
By contrast, Gareth Southgate has won many plaudits for his leadership of the England team. He supported them over the ‘taking the knee’ controversy; he has built a genuinely multi-cultural team which played as a team, and not just a collection of individual talent; he shown loyalty to his players, giving them time to demonstrate their potential; he has been generous to defeated opponents; he has been modest and decent in his public statements; and he took responsibility for England’s eventual defeat, protecting the young players who had been brought on as substitutes just before the penalties were taken and missed.
We’ve also seen similar decency reflected by the team off pitch; Harry Kane and others condemned the racism suffered by their teammates, declaring that any one guilty of racist abuse was not an England supporter. Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson have topped the Sunday Times Giving List, made up of those on the Rich List who have given away or raised the most money for charity as a proportion of their wealth. Rashford has of course also been awarded an MBE for his work campaigning for free school meals for children in poverty. They are truly a team of whom we can be proud, who provide role models and leadership for all our young people.
What a curious reversal! Time was when we could confidently look to our footballers for examples of extravagant dodgy behaviour and to the average Cabinet Minister for quiet and steady leadership. Now it seems to be the other way round. Moral vision to work for equality and the eradication of poverty shouldn’t have to be provided by our footballers. Is this a sign of moral and spiritual bankruptcy amongst those in power, or should we take heart that celebrities and sportsmen and women are using their influence so constructively?
The churches used to offer a prophetic voice in such situations, ‘speaking truth to power’ and highlighting the abuses and inequalities of which we should all be ashamed; but the days are gone when anyone paid much attention to the opinions of church leaders. What we can still do is remind one another that the desire for justice and equality are not eccentric minority interests, marginal to the greater project of feathering our own nests, but are watered by deep springs, not the fashion of the moment. The prophet’s declaration ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’ still has power, and Micah’s searching question: ‘What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ I wonder how that ancient challenge might strike the consciences of some of our leaders today?
5 June 2021
We’re here because we’re here – or are we?
I wonder how you would sum up the purpose of Beverley Minster? The trouble with a building like the Minster is that its existence seems too obvious for us to want to think about what it is there for. The world for which it was built has long since passed away, and with it any sense of the builders’ original motives and aims.
And yet the Minster is still home to a worshipping community, bound together by faith in the same God and informed by the same Scriptures, even if many of the religious practices and felt needs have changed. In our day, when many people feel no need of God, a church community is likely to have a clearer sense of coming together for a reason. Nobody now comes to worship merely to avoid feeling left out. Faith has become much more intentional, which is why asking about our purpose is relevant.
This takes us into the territory of mission statements. Churches, like other organisations, increasingly try to sum up their purpose in a mission or vision statement. These can sometimes sound very bland and don’t always tell you what needs to be done in order to make the vision a reality. Nevertheless, it is helpful for every organisation to think about what it is trying to achieve.
At the Minster, as with many other churches, this need has been increased by several trends. One of these has been the trend of numerical decline. For the last decade our congregational numbers have gradually gone down as people have moved away or died and not been replaced. Alongside this, those who remain have got older, and it is noticeable how the age range is now less well balanced than it used to be. One consequence of this is that income has also declined, so we have fewer resources to maintain the same level of activity.
These trends have been highlighted by the pandemic, and made us realise that we need to clarify our sense of what we are trying to do. And so at the beginning of June the PCC looked at a proposed vision strategy aimed at reversing the long term decline.
We reminded ourselves that the church exists to help people become more like Christ, by offering a life changing message of transformation. It exists to reach out to people outside the church, and not merely serve those who already belong. We recognised that as the church aims to do these things, it will become more missionary in nature, focussing its attention outwards and reflecting more the diverse concerns and culture of those it is seeking to serve. And we acknowledged that for this to happen there must be a willingness to reshape our structures and finances so that they support such goals more directly.
Such words are all well and good, but need to be backed by carefully thought out actions if the vision is to be realised. The PCC is therefore looking at a wide-ranging programme of initiatives which could refresh our sense of purpose and help us to grow. Through the summer there will be several opportunities for the Minster community to engage with this vision strategy as we open it out and discuss together what we believe God is calling us to be and do.
The process is risky, because once begun we cannot tell where it will lead or what it may demand of us. Nevertheless, doing nothing is not an option. These are challenging times, but with challenges come opportunities to rediscover the faithfulness of God, and for a church community to be reinvigorated as it finds a fresh sense of direction and purpose.
19 June 2021
At this morning’s baptism preparation session we had several parents looking forward to celebrating their child’s arrival by planning the baptism service.
When asked why they felt baptism was important, several parents said something along the lines of ‘It means that when Charlotte/Kayleigh/Jack gets older they’ll have a choice about whether to be a Christian or not.’ Over the years I have heard countless parents express their approach to baptism in similar terms.
It’s understandable, when the freedom to choose for ourselves has become a defining feature of a democratic society. It is quite right that when children are brought for baptism, it is on the understanding that in due course they will decide for themselves what to believe and practise. This is the point of Confirmation.
What has not attracted so much attention is how we equip ourselves to exercise that freedom. In such a complicated world as ours, I find myself frequently paralysed by the bewildering range of choices I am expected to make, from varieties of cheese to different kinds of pension.
Some of these choices are trivial and everyday; some are important and potentially lifechanging. But when did you last have a conversation with someone about how to make the best choice? What principles do you apply to help you choose wisely? In the absence of other guidance, do we just go for the cheapest? That might explain why so many of our habits of consumption have proved so damaging to the planet.
In the baptism context, choices do not make themselves. If a child is not taught how to read the Scriptures, does not have the practice of prayer commended and explained, and does not have the opportunity to consider how Christian faith might be lived out day by day, the likelihood is that he or she will not see the point of continuing churchgoing into adulthood.
Just as a child who takes the scout promise but never goes to meetings will not appreciate what the scouting movement has to offer, or a child who is given a season ticket for Hull City Tigers but is never shown how to play soccer will never learn to love the game, so an infant who is baptised but not encouraged to learn about Jesus is unlikely to see following Jesus as an attractive option.
The same is true of all of us; unless we are clear that certain values are important and sometimes costly – like telling the truth or showing compassion to strangers – we shall find it hard to exercise our freedom of choice in ways that are Christ-like rather than merely consumer-like. Choosing wisely requires training and practice, and an awareness that good decisions do not just happen.
When bewildered by the complexity of choices facing us, and conscious that we do not have all the information we would like to have first, the only way to steer between arrogance and paralysis is by forming a discipline and habit of choosing according to our values.
It has been said that our choices do not shape the world so much as shape ourselves. So, whenever we worry about protecting our freedom, perhaps we should think just as much about whether we have learned how to exercise it.
29 May 2021
Spiritual but not religious?
An article I read recently told the story of an apparently normal man who in 1966 murdered his wife, mother and 12 other people before being shot dead by police. Afterwards a note was found in which he had written, “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks… after my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” The autopsy duly revealed a large brain tumour which seemed likely to have influenced his behaviour. So, did he freely choose to do evil, or was he the helpless victim of an illness?
Philosophers debate whether human beings have genuine free will, or whether our actions are entirely pre-determined by our genes and circumstances.
So many issues seem to have this binary quality: Should politics promote the good of the individual or the good of society? Is Reality ‘out there’ or ‘in here’? Do I find greatest satisfaction in choosing my own path or in seeking a higher purpose?
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, when Christians celebrate that God has revealed himself not simply as One, but as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, is God One or Many? Changing or Unchanging? The Creator of a universe which is free or predetermined?
A fascinating element in modern culture is the phenomenon of ‘Godless religion’. This affirms some of the benefits of religion, such as the sense of feeling connected to a bigger reality, the importance of morality, and the instinct that the most important thing is love, but it rejects belief in God. Religion is perceived as at best sterile and at worst oppressive, its institutions hierarchical and patriarchal. But ‘spirituality’ is still important.
Worship of only One God can lead to conformity and oppression. Seeing divinity in all things can mean the individual loses significance. Do away with God altogether and we may become mere consumers, each of us the centre of our own Universe. But what if God is Trinity?
The Christian faith that God is love means not only that God acts lovingly towards the world, creating it and then entering it to redeem it, but that God is himself a community of persons, bound together in a loving unity which respects the freedom of each. This community spills over into human history, both in the coming of Jesus the Son of God and in the sending of the Holy Spirit, who gives life.
The God who is Trinity, is both Unity and Diversity, transcendent and immanent, near and far away, mysterious and revealed, the unchanging source of change. Whilst this may sound abstract, it is only a shorthand way of talking about how people in the Bible experienced God over the centuries. What in other religions and philosophies sound like either/or choices, in Christianity become both/and possibilities; a Creator who has entered his creation; a Father who sets his children free; a conductor who composes as he goes along, taking account of the improvisations – and mistakes – of his orchestra.
If we are made in the image of the God of love, we shall be both free and constrained, as lovers often know. Our choices will matter, but can be woven into a wider purpose. The past will shape us without imprisoning us. We can look forward hopefully without wishing away the present. We shall play our part in human history, whilst having eternity in our hearts. And we shall want to love and to be loved, to connect with a bigger reality without losing ourselves, and to find stability and home whilst still looking for everything to be made new.
Those who have not encountered this may not appreciate its power. This is no dry doctrine, but a living experience to satisfy heart and mind. So, when you meet someone who wants to be spiritual without being religious, why not ask them whether they have ever considered exploring the Trinity…
15 May 2021
Keep calm and carry on
We find ourselves now in Ascensiontide, the ten-day period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. It is a season with its own particular mood, a complex mood mixing victory with defeat, hope with despair, glory with the mundane. Ascensiontide may resonate with us all.
Theologically, there is a note of victory and triumph. We have celebrated Easter and the good news of the resurrection. Death has been defeated, the taproot of sin has been severed, the future need no longer fill us with dread. The Ascension itself sees Jesus exalted in glory to be seated at the right hand of the Father. His work is done, and everything has been accomplished.
For us there may not be such a decisive sense of triumph, but there is still some mood of victory in the air. An effective vaccine has been found, it is being swiftly delivered, restrictions are gradually being eased, and despite an upswing in the UK of the so-called ‘India variant’ of the virus, it feels as though life is opening up again. The pandemic is of course still raging in many parts of the world, but in our little corner the threat seems to be receding.
On the other hand the ascension of Jesus leaves the disciples bereft. Jesus has gone, the Holy Spirit has not yet been given, and there is a real sense of poignancy. Are we on our own now? What are we supposed to do next? Where is the manual?
The disciples are like students leaving home for the first time, left by themselves in their new hall of residence surrounded by suitcases as the parental car disappears down the road. It is supposed to be an exciting new beginning, but it feels like being abandoned.
Perhaps we have also felt something like that over the last year. We know God is still there, we know that the church is still worshipping online, but it has been months since we last met together, we are fed up with being by ourselves, the vicar hasn’t phoned and it’s a bit like being abandoned.
There is a story that Christopher Columbus sailing across the Atlantic for the first time wrote in his journal day after day the same words: ‘No land in sight. Kept sailing.’ Ascensiontide encourages us to embrace the same kind of stubbornness. In the absence of reassuring landmarks you keep doing what you’ve always done. Say your prayers, read your Bible, reach out where you can to those in need, and prepare for things to change.
When the Spirit came at Pentecost, the disciples were empowered to live in the name of Jesus. They were able to take responsibility for their lives in a new way. They no longer needed Jesus there in person to tell them how to live. They had a sense of him living through them.
A new season in the life of the church is coming. It will be full of challenges, but there will also be freedom and new life, as the pandemic recedes and we discover not everything is the same as it was before. As we wait patiently for that season to begin, we keep sailing, trusting that continents will be there for us to discover.
This Friday (7th May) is the 1300th anniversary of the death of St John of Beverley and therefore a kind of birthday for the town of Beverley.
Why? Because the reason Beverley became more than a remote monastery surrounded by woods and marshes was because John’s tomb became a major centre of pilgrimage, around which grew a marketplace, inns and houses. Beverley developed eventually into a port and thriving commercial centre. But it began with the monastery founded by St John, and it grew because of the popularity of his tomb.
Three things were essential for a place to become a destination for pilgrims: there had to be a shrine containing the remains of a holy man or woman, providing a place and a physical focus; there had to be a date, whether of martyrdom, death or re-burial; this provided a connection with the saint’s story, and the historical reality of his or her earthly life; and there had to be an annual commemoration, ensuring that the feast day had a place within the round of worship of the local community, and that people continued to seek the saint’s intercessions with God on their behalf.
It was this last issue that really mattered. A saint was, by definition, someone who had a place in heaven close to God. According to this logic, prayers offered at the shrine of a saint were physically closer to God and therefore more likely to be heard.
If the theology sounds dubious, that may be because many aspects of medieval religion were based not so much on the official teaching of the Church as on popular practice which the authorities then sought to harness. Saints could fall in and out of fashion, or their concerns could change. For example, John of Beverley was originally a simple holy man exercising a gift of healing. But in later centuries he was co-opted by kings, from Athelstan to Henry V, as a national saint who could help English armies to victory on the battlefield.
At the 16th century Reformation this practice was ridiculed as a superstition. Prayer was an expression of faith in a loving God, not as a pre-scientific tool for overcoming everyday problems. Access to God was guaranteed by faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, not by visiting the bones of a saint. The shrines were dismantled, the gold reliquaries were taken by Henry VIII’s Commissioners, and the bones were sent to Thomas Cromwell who ensured that they were burned.
Veneration of saints dropped out of mainstream English religious life, and the saints themselves quietly forgotten; the only saints mentioned in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer are the apostles mentioned in the Gospels, whose burial places are all unknown (although John the Baptist’s tomb can still be seen in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus). John of Beverley dropped into obscurity, a minor historical figure recorded by Bede.
Beverley Minster is St John’s monument. The size and beauty of the Minster is entirely owing to the prestige of its former occupant. There is a sense in which the Minster is an empty jewel casket; richly adorned but missing the treasure it was designed to contain.
May 7th falls too soon for us to celebrate the anniversary free from Covid 19 restrictions. But we shall get another opportunity on 25th October, which is the anniversary of the translation (or relocation) of John’s relics from his tomb in the nave to a new shrine, probably above the high altar of the Anglo-Saxon church, in 1037.
The cult of St John of Beverley lasted for over 800 years, yet now seems impossibly strange. Even so the Minster stands as testimony to something contemporary. Although religion constantly runs the risk of being distorted to meet all kinds of earthly human needs, the instinct to pray remains constant. It expresses perhaps our human need to know and be known by something bigger than ourselves; it allows us to experience awe and wonder at the miracle of life and the beauty of the universe; and it gives us confidence that we have a meaningful place in an unfolding story.
For these reasons at least we can give thanks for John of Beverley as we remember him on Thursday, and again later this year.
17 April 2021
Bygone era or future hope?
Over the past week I have been struck by the way so many commentators have described Prince Philip’s death as the end of an era, one in which his personal qualities of duty, reticence, service and self-sacrifice now seem hopelessly old fashioned.
In one sense that makes perfect sense. To speak of personal virtues at all these days seems out of step, suggesting as they do something timeless and unchanging in a world driven by fashion and sentiment. When we look at the contemporary public figures who are most admired, too many stand out not for their virtue, but their virtue-signalling, not for their speaking up in the cause of truth, but their saying what is expected to avoid being cancelled, and not for the good they get on with, but their gift of self-promotion.
At the same time, I wonder whether we are not in danger of overstating the case. Our land is still full of people who quietly get on with the job, though it be unglamorous and unrewarding. Over the last year we have become aware of how many ‘unsung heroes’ quietly spend their lives serving others, in the NHS, supermarket cash desks, classrooms and care homes, many of them poorly paid and little recognised, but who get on with the job without fuss but with bags of commitment, dedication and, yes, self-sacrifice.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Prince Philip’s death has touched so many is not because it symbolises the passing of an old and now defunct order, but because he represents for so many their own continuing values, which are too rarely celebrated in public. Maybe it is only the words that have changed; duty and sacrifice sound old fashioned, but someone described as being dedicated and reliable, and who puts herself out to help others, sounds not so much out of date as eminently employable.
One of the ways in which we still see such qualities is in the generosity of those who volunteer – most recently those thousands of volunteers managing long lines of people queuing for vaccinations, spending hours in the cold with people they will never see again, maintaining cheerfulness and humanity in the service of others when they could have been at home doing their own thing.
Here at Beverley Minster we are thinking about our own volunteers, not least as we look ahead with quiet confidence to the possibility of reopening to general visiting in May. We shall need new volunteers if we are to open fully, and we have been giving thought as to ways of providing training and support.
As we look forward to the summer and to escaping the confines of the pandemic, there will be more opportunities for volunteering in all sorts of ways: as Welcomers greeting visitors, Guides showing folk round, gardeners keeping the grounds tidy, people with clerical skills helping in the office or on the counting team.
There will be more about this on social media and elsewhere over the coming weeks, so now is the time to be thinking about ways in which you might be able to help, so that we can get the right provision in place before the Covid restrictions ease up. If volunteering at Beverley Minster might be of interest to you, or to someone you know, and if you would like to know more, do get in touch with the Administration Manager, Lauren Simpson, firstname.lastname@example.org
The late Duke of Edinburgh’s unique style was very much of its day and age; but I am quite sure that the virtues he embodied are far from dead, and I remain confident that at Beverley Minster we shall see evidence of them in the selflessness of our volunteers for years to come.
4 April 2021
A Gardener with Ambition
In the National Gallery hangs Titian’s great painting of the resurrection, ‘Noli me tangere’. Without the Biblical context, it might at first seem a slightly bizarre scene. Why is this woman kneeling publicly in front of an almost naked man holding a garden hoe? And why is he recoiling from her so awkwardly?
The painting shows a powerful moment of recognition, that moment described in John’s Gospel when Mary Magdalene, having at first mistaken the risen Jesus for the gardener, hears him calling her by name. Responding with love and amazement, she tries to reach out to him. He leans away from her, saying, ‘Do not hold on to me (in Latin, ‘Noli me tangere’), because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’
This Jesus has not come back simply to pick up where the old Jesus left off. Something has changed, signified by Mary’s difficulty at first in recognising him, and then by his refusal to let her claim him as her own. This Jesus has not come to share his new life only with his old disciples and friends in one place at one moment in history. He has come to renew the whole created universe, including time itself.
That is why the hoe is important. Not only does it explain why Mary thought Jesus was the gardener, the one charged with looking after the graveyard; it also evokes Adam, the first human being, placed in the garden of Eden ‘to till it and keep it.’ The hoe reminds us of the human vocation to look after the world entrusted to us, to care for all creation – including one another – and make it fruitful. The risen Jesus is a second Adam, fulfilling the first Adam’s destiny to bring God’s good creation to completion.
As Spring erupts once more around us, this is good news for all gardeners and farmers! In tending the earth you are answering a fundamental human calling, and walking in step with God’s intention that human beings should work with him in improving the world. But the gardening metaphor runs far more widely than our bedding plants and daffodils.
The early 17th century Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes, puts it beautifully:
A gardener he is. The first, the fairest garden that ever was, paradise, he was the gardener, for it was of his planning. And ever since it is he as God makes all our gardens green, sends all the herbs and flowers we then gather…Christ rising was indeed a gardener, and that a strange one, who made such an herb grow out of the ground this day as the like was never seen before, a dead body to shoot forth alive out of the grave.
Andrewes goes on to speak of the implications of Christ’s rising for us and all creation:
But I ask, was he so this day alone? No, but this profession of his, this day begun, he will follow to the end. For he it is that by virtue of this morning’s act shall garden our bodies, too, turn all our graves into garden plots; yea, shall one day turn land and sea and all into a great garden, and so husband them as they shall in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.
He ‘shall garden our bodies, too’. It is not surprising that Mary does not at first recognise Jesus, familiar to her though he had once been. This Jesus is not offering some private religious experience, but nothing less than the transformation of all things, turning ‘land and sea and all into one great garden’.
Perhaps this is why we still find it hard to recognise him. The Easter Jesus is just too big to take in; we cannot take hold of him and co-opt him to our own purposes; we can only wait, with Mary, in the graveyard of this mortal world, listening for him to call our own names. Responding to God’s gift of life all around us, we gladly offer ourselves as his under-gardeners, trusting in life, rejoicing in life, and sharing life to bring out the best in all around us, and so anticipate the fullness of the resurrection life that awaits us.