Revd Canon Jonathan Baker reflects upon the contemporary issues relating to sanctuary.
‘Sanctuary’ is one of those words that has outgrown its ecclesiastical origins and has found a place in everyday speech. A sanctuary nowadays can be anything from a garden shed to a home for retired donkeys. It can be a shelter for the victims of domestic abuse or a city showing welcome and support for refugees and asylum seekers. ‘Sanctuary’ describes a place of safety and security, a place where there is no pressure or threat, a place of freedom and peace.
Yet the idea of sanctuary has never quite lost its original meaning as a place of worship or encounter with God. Such a place is set apart, otherworldly, where the normal rules no longer apply. Beverley Minster is such a place. Its architecture and size declare it to be a building with no ordinary purpose. It surrounds the visitor with a sense of beauty, harmony and majesty, qualities which are often in short supply in the wider world.
Visitors often remark upon the special atmosphere in the Minster, the sense of calm and peace which is encountered, even when there is activity going on inside. It is a place where it is possible to be still, to reflect, and to find a measure of freedom and release from the pressures of daily living, and many seek it out for precisely those reasons. It is important that the Minster is kept open for 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and that it is open to everyone, free of charge.
The Minster is of course still the home of a sizeable worshipping community who come week by week in response to their sense of God. The original meaning of the word ‘sanctuary’ as a holy place is therefore still valid at Beverley Minster, and many people who know little of the Minster’s history find themselves naturally using the language of sanctuary to describe their experience of the place.
The idea of churches as places of sanctuary for felons on the run grew up in the early medieval period as a response to the rough justice of the day. Anglo-Saxon law codes were imperfectly enforced, so that communities often took the law into their own hands. The result could be the rule of the lynch mob and a cycle of blood feud in which the administration of any proportionate justice was the last thing in anyone’s mind.
Against such a background the Church offered a distinctively Christian understanding of justice, with its focus less upon exacting vengeance, and more upon the restoration of relationships within the community. Fugitives seeking sanctuary did not escape punishment, but were given a breathing space to allow due process of law to take place.
The right to claim sanctuary was abolished in the early 17th century, but the principle behind it continues to inspire the Minster community today as it seeks to engage with the needs of those on the margins of society.
Such needs are very different from those of bygone days, and carry no moral stigma. However, there are all sorts of people today for whom the sanctuary of home is no more than a distant hope. This may include those who are literally homeless, for whom the Minster can be a place of shelter during the day, or those relying on the East Riding Food Bank, for whom the Minster community collects food and other necessities.
There are also those for whom life in their homeland has become untenable and who seek a place of safety in this country. As part of its vision to be a sanctuary, the Minster partners with a range of agencies and charities, local and global, including the Open Doors refugee organisation in Hull.
The ambition to offer sanctuary prompts reflection on all kinds of people who need to feel safe. Developing a culture where safeguarding procedures are taken seriously and the needs of the most vulnerable are addressed is important. This includes considering the needs of those living with autism or dementia.
After 1300 years Beverley Minster is still working out what it means to be a sanctuary. In this place where the right of sanctuary could once mean the difference between life and death, the vision continues to evolve and to inspire practical action on behalf of those who are most vulnerable, and to offer space for those still seeking a spiritual home.