Sometimes it is the little things that catch your attention. In this case it was a worn step.
Stone is a pretty durable substance. I can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands of feet it must have taken to leave an impression, to wear down the step in the choir of York Minster Cathedral.
Like many of the great churches of Europe, York Minster (technically the name is “The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York”) is caught in a struggle, trying to balance its place as a heritage building, as an important monument of English history, with its role as a Christian church. This is not a museum, though admission is charged, but a church very much like any other, despite its size and antiquity.
It is tough to find the balance, as thousands of tourists seek out the church daily. You don’t have to pay admission if you are coming to worship – but worship is not what most people are looking for here. We came to worship.
We had missed church the previous Sunday, though not deliberately. We had decided not to attend the Sunday morning service in the Marienkirche, the family church in Lippstadt, because I don’t speak German. An internet search had turned up a 5 p.m. English-language service at the local Calvary Chapel, so we decided to attend that instead. However, when we showed up at the church it was locked with no-one in sight. Maybe there are no English-speakers around in the summertime. So two days later, in York, we decided to go to Evensong at York Minster. I have always enjoyed the Anglican Evensong service; I find it has an almost timeless beauty to it.
This particular evening the music was being led by a group of singers from Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky. It is an honour to be a guest choir (the singing type, not the architectural one) at York Minster, one of the Anglican Church’s most revered sites. The Minster’s choir takes a break each year and choirs from around the world audition to take its place. The church’s website states that: “Above all else, York Minster is a place of worship,” and that came through quite clearly in the Evensong, the choristers from Kentucky providing uplifting voices to lead the majestic service.
I was struck not only by the quality of the music (which I had expected) but by the attempt to integrate the tourism function of the building into the worship, in a way to make it holy. It’s not just that probably most of us in attendance were tourists. I didn’t notice it when I toured the church, but there is somewhere that tourists can record their prayer requests. Those were brought for the congregation (about 400 of us I think) to consider and pray for. I thought that was a nice touch – so many who come to the church probably have no interest in the spiritual aspects of the building, but the church reaches out to them and makes prayer available. The clergy and staff also include those requests in their private prayer times
As I said though, it was the worn steps leading to the pews in the choir that stood out to me most. (I hope I have the right terminology here – I have never managed to keep the names of church parts straight.) To me the depression where thousands have stepped over the years was a reminder of how long this has been a centre of Christian worship. Evensong has been sung in this room for centuries, as generations of Christians have affirmed their faith through corporate worship. It is a subtle reminder of the endurance of Christianity, of a faith has stood the test of time. Indeed, archeological evidence indicates that Christians have been worshipping on this site almost as long as there has been a Christian faith, even when it was an upstart religion banned in the Roman Empire.
That empire is long gone. York Minster still stands.