York Minster, York, England

York Minster, York, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: York Minster
Location: York, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 August 2009, 10:00am

The building

In a word, huge! It dominates the skyline at York. Damaged, redesigned, rebuilt and repaired countless times, the present minster is the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and an architectural delight. The north and south transepts differ in design and are separated by a lantern tower. In the north transept is a memorial to women, the Five Sisters window, said to be the largest lancet window in the world. In the west wing is a window known as the Monkeys' Funeral, depicting a procession of monkeys carrying a coffin, with the border occupied by a fox stealing a chicken, a dog chasing a stag, a cockerel reading a lesson, and various other animals. The window is thought by some to be a parody of the Dormition of Mary, but by others to signify that just as animals mimic man, so must man mimic the divine.

The church

The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter, York, is the seat of the Archbishop of York, but is also an active worship community. Most services are open to the public, although some special events are ticket-only. The Minster conducts regular pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, offers a rich series of courses and lectures, operates a Sunday school, and maintains an active pastoral care and counseling program, among other ministries.

The neighborhood

The ancient Celts called this place Eborakon, meaning "place of the yew trees," and the Romans Latinised the name to Eboracum. The Angles and the Vikings gave the name their own spin, and by the 13th century the name York had evolved. During the Middle Ages, York became known as the ecclesiastical capital of northern England. In addition to its prominence in the Anglican church, York today boasts significant Roman Catholic, Quaker, Methodist and Unitarian presences. The cathedral is surrounded by space: the Minster gardens on one side, and a wide paved area around with other medieval buildings close by.

The cast

The Revd Canon Glyn Webster, canon chancellor, presided. The preacher was the Very Revd Keith Jones, dean.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist

How full was the building?

I was surprised to see a congregation of 250 to 300, which took up about half the seats in the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. The greeters on the door were very friendly. First, they asked us very nicely if we were there for the service, as the Minster is closed to the public whilst services are in progress. They then said that we would find service sheets on the chairs. An announcement was made that because of the swine flu epidemic, the congregation should limit itself to verbal greetings during the exchange of peace. A number of people did turn to us and smile as they wished us peace.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The chairs were quite comfortably padded. The backs of the chairs had a small ledge to balance your books on.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reasonable. The organ was playing and there was a certain amount of noise as people spoke to each other.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everybody. Welcome to our eucharist."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

On each seat was a New English Hymnal, a booklet entitled York Minster Eucharist, a notice sheet for the week which included details of the services, a Gift Aid envelope, and a kneeler.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ only, but nothing else was necessary! The guest choir were the Cathedral Singers of Ontario, Canada, who were on a tour of Britain.

Did anything distract you?

A certain amount of movement, e.g. a young child running down the side aisle being chased by its mother. Otherwise just the amazing building itself.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Very formal, but enjoyable. The congregation took part in singing the hymns, so it didn't come across as a performance where the congregation were simply an audience.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Very erudite but well pitched; simple but not condescending.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The dean spoke about Jesus being unrecognised in his own area, and that success is only recognised locally when it becomes a source of local pride. He felt there was a culture of discouragement, to despise attainment. The "spirit of Nazareth" was that Jesus' neighbours only saw the son of Mary and Joseph, whereas Jesus spoke of himself as being a divine presence in this world that he wanted others to share. We need to look for the heavenly in the ordinary.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The singing – the choir singing the Gloria and the Sanctus, and the congregational singing with the amazing noise of the organ – real surround sound! It felt like you were caught up in the sound, at least partly because of the echo and acoustics of the building.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The acoustics and echo worked for the singing, but they didn't work for the preaching. You had really to concentrate in order to hear what the preacher was saying.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

There had been an announcement that there was coffee in the chapter house, with the comment that if anyone didn't know where that was, they should follow the crowds – which we did. I have a very unusual mobility scooter, and one of the ladies of the congregation stopped and asked about it, as did a member of the choir.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee came in plastic cups in holders, served from three or four trestle tables. Biscuits were in a basket at each point. I don't know if the coffee was fair trade, but it tasted quite reasonable.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – I would go back to services at the Minster, but I'm used to something rather more intimate. I like the fact that I know just about everyone in my usual church back home, and I think it would be difficult to do that in the Minster congregation.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes. There was a sense of being part of something huge and awesome.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The amazing singing.

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