Oh the Places You’ll Go: York – and Starbucks

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Not a single medieval cathedral is what today we’d call a “church start.” Each one marks a spot where there had been a church for centuries – and that history is often mind-boggling. When you visit York Minster, you learn Christians have been in York since the year 180. Think about it: Christianity had spread from a few dozen uneducated individuals without a business plan far away in Palestine all the way to the north of England within a mere 150 years of Jesus’ death. And then, after a few centuries, Voila! They built an astonishing cathedral.

York Minster is big. It is the largest medieval church in England by volume, with the widest vault and the greatest square footage of stained glass; the great East window is the size of a tennis court. I first went there as a young man, singing with the Pfeiffer College choir – although I was merely the pastor in Pfeiffer’s neighborhood, not a student!

My most memorable return visit was with my family. It was unseasonably hot as we walked out of the extraordinary Jorvik Viking museum. I spotted a place to get a cold drink: a Starbucks, which I’d never heard of somehow. I ordered a Frappuccino, which was almost as heavenly as the Minster, where we went next. As we gawked at the place’s nooks and crannies and vast expanses of air and light and stone, I learned that Evensong would be happening at 5:30pm. I wish I could say my little children were enthralled with the idea of returning for – prayer? and to hear a small choir sing sacred music? But we came. Lots of fidgeting and yawns…

But afterwards, they had noticed that we were forced in that service to pray for things we might not normally pray for: the Queen, hunger, peace, the unemployed, the lonely, all prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. A lovely lesson for my kids – and for all of us. Praying isn’t just praying your needs. Prayer is getting caught up into the needs of God’s world.

As we exited, my oldest bounded ahead to open the door – one of those massive, tall, wide wooden kind you pull with all your might. And then she screamed. The door had raked over the top of her toes. Blood, loose skin, maybe broken bones… Mind you, she was in flip-flops. Earlier that morning I’d made an extended case for her to wear actual shoes with socks, but her persistence wore me down. Heroically, I refrained from saying “I told you so,” although I could see in her tearful eyes she knew what was bottled up inside my head.

We have personal ties to York Minster. Nicolas Haigh was organist there before he joined our staff! And then when I made a quick journey to the U.K. for the funeral of a dear, longtime friend, my flights and the train worked out best for me to overnight in York. Nic put me in touch with his friends Chris and Teresa who offered to put me up for the night. Their address, “Minster Yard,” was a clue: they lived in a very old building attached to York Minster!

Chris was a verger at the Minster. Hopefully without boring you too much… a verger is an attendant at a cathedral. My first professional encounter with one was when I lucked into preaching one Sunday morning at the National Cathedral in Washington. Lisa and I parked, and I was greeted in the parking lot by a guy in a robe with a staff: the verger. He led me into the building, showed me where to go, provided me with water, and any and everything else I might require. I asked for directions to the bathroom. He led me there, and was waiting when I exited. He led me in the grand processional to open the service. When it was time for me to preach, he materialized at my sort of throne-like seat near the altar, and led me to the steps winding up into the pulpit. This journey was maybe 10 feet… When I finished my sermon, there he was, waiting to lead me back to my seat. I think United Methodists should have vergers…!!

Chris took me on a guided tour of the Chapter House, an octagonal meeting and prayer space to the left of the high altar, and into the attic, where we saw not only the massive, ancient wood timbers of the type that hold up all medieval cathedrals, but also the actual workshop that the masons and carpenters used when building the Minster. There’s always hidden stuff like this in all churches – perhaps reminding us that there is always more to God and the life of faith than what’s obvious and out in the open.

Chris sings in a marvelous vocal group of folks attached to York Minster: the Ebor Singers. This past Christmas, he alerted me to the fact that for their concert and CD coming out, they were singing an anthem by Dan Forrest that our church had commissioned. The proverbial small world… God’s church works just like that. There’s a death. One Christian marks the death by going to the funeral, is introduced to another Christian by a fellow Christian, who exercises hospitality and then years later you’re sharing music across the globe. God’s church isn’t a little local club. It’s the worldwide Communion of the Saints, extending across space and time.