In The Minster (part I)

At the end of day two of my placement at York Minster there seems to be one big question running through my head and the conversations I’ve been having; “What’s the difference between Cathedral ministry and parish ministry?”

Canon Glyn Webster describes his role at the Minster as “The Parish Priest of the community” despite the Minster not being a ‘parish’. He sees his role as overseeing the pastoral needs of those who work and worship in the hallowed Gothic building in the centre of York. The staff here are amazed (and glad to tell me) that the Minster congregation is growing. Early morning Matins and Evensong every day and all Sunday services have increased their regular number over the last decade or so. This has not surprised me. Having spent the last two years working with Durham Cathedral and listening to many who work in Cathedrals across the country, this trend is shared by most of the Cathedrals. Why is this?

I had a very encouraging conversation with an ex arch-deacon of Cleveland, Ron Woodley today. He spoke passionately about parochial ministry and encouraged me by stating that “It’s the greatest life you’ll ever live. It’s hard but on balance I have never known of a more joyful life!” What a ringing endorsement from someone who had 40 years of active ministry. In the midst of our conversation he said something that rang true and has been helpful in my reflections. He suggested the difference between parish ministry and the ministry of the Cathedral is the Cathedral offers worshippers anonymity where parish life doesn’t.

I believe that to be true but is that a benefit or problem?

I have no doubt that there is a strong sense of community here in the Minster. I sat through a very touching funeral of a staff member and the sense of community was palpable. The packed quire at both the funeral service and at Evensong last night speaks of a committed worshipping community. During the worship, however, you just fade into the milieu of faces. I, personally, love that. I am not important to be individually picked out but I am just one, tiny speck, in a sea of people all worshipping and praising the almighty God.

In parishes, I have experienced a cry to ensure everyone is welcomed and identified and spoken to and acknowledged. This is very important if people are to feel part of a community. Too often we become insular and cliquey isolating and rejecting the new-comer. The sign of peace is a time to speak to and individually welcome each member of the community into worship. There is no anonymity. People want to and need to talk to you, know how you are, who you are before worshipping. There is no fading into the background and having time with God.

Here is the strange paradox; In order to have a personal moment with God, un-hindered by the concern that people might be looking at you, you need to fade into the sea of people. But to make people feel part of the sea of people we feel the need to personally meet and greet each person.

I find it interesting that Cathedral congregations are growing. Is it because that anonymity is important? That sense of a private experience in the protection of the mass of people is an aspect of our culture at the moment, is it not? In the development of evangelism of the last couple of hundred years we have seen a journey from up the front delivery to conversational, didactic forms of evangelism. The issue we face at the moment is no one even wants to ask the questions or engage in conversation. Many people have researched and studied the trends and we find ourselves in a culture that no longer asks questions of faith. I’m not saying that the Alpha model of evangelism, answering the questions of life, is outmoded but the research shows that it is increasingly difficult to get people wanting to even go to the meal!

What Cathedral worship offers which parish ministry doesn’t nor shouldn’t offer is the chance of a private, personal, surprise encounter with God. This may well lead onto the need for Alpha or any conversation with people of faith.

We have been trying to wrestle with this in our ‘Fresh Expression’ in Durham Cathedral ( At the heart of this service is the desire to encounter God in the space; un-intrusive, anonymous, private encounters. We have struggled with the issue of how we create community with people who only want to experience God privately and not in community. How do you establish a Eucharistic community in this individualistic environment?

I’m not sure I can, yet, answer that question but what I can say is I believe that this anonymity in worship is what many unchurched people would be happy with rather than being thrust into a gathering where everybody knows everyone else and you are clearly the ‘stranger’; where in the worship you feel judged and on display. Where you are so busy worrying that you do and say the right thing that you don’t have the chance to experience something transcendent.

Cathedral worship allows you to ease into an experience of God whilst, at the same time, being part of a big group of people, all experiencing the same thing as you. Although nothing is said or physical contact made you still feel a huge sense of a united community, sharing the spiritual realm.

It is this truth that seems to be resonating for me at the moment in my last couple of posts. So I pray that as I continue on this placement that God will bring more revelations that will help me to articulate these thoughts!