In The Minster (part IV)

I was in marketing for five years but wanted to do something away from computer screens.

After the decision to find her vocation Vic started her training which began with a residential course which gave her an academic foundation for her work. After two years she was placed in an apprentice scheme which enabled her to put into practice the theory of her previous study.

Those first few months were both exciting and scary. The work demanded so much of me; physically and emotionally… It highlighted my weaknesses and that’s always frustrating but slowly I grew stronger and more confident of my capabilities.

Vic now stands at the top of the East Window of York Minster painstakingly restoring old, decayed stones and sometimes replacing the ones who have ‘passed on’ with new, fresh ones. She washes stones that have been mistreated by past conservers and lovingly restoring stones left to the elements.

The truth is the similarities in the training of stone masons and of clergy is by no means the end of the parallels. I was struck as I walked round the workshops how much the two vocations speak to each other. The attitude and commitment towards their work, the holistic impact the work has on the person and the humility developed by working in a tradition established over centuries and the call to play a part in building the legacy further, all map one onto the other.

I want to acknowledge first the clear connections between working with the Tadcaster stone in restoring a building like the Minster and working with the ‘living stones’ that make up the Church of God. I want to briefly highlight the loving care that a stone mason takes over one stone to make it sing with beauty and the call for us as ministers to spend time in helping a child of God sing of God’s beauty in them. All these connections are wonderful and amazing but I want to hone in on the masons themselves.

Dave showed me round the Stoneyard with a quiet and generous spirit. He took me to meet John, a man who has worked for 30 years with the Minster. He knows this building, its history, its quirks. He can predict the anomalies in the design before anyone else. He can tell, from looking at a stone whether it is an original or a stone from one of the many restorations over its long history (and which restoration it’s from!) When I asked him,

So, you must be something of an expert of the building?

I don’t feel like one. Every day I learn something more about the building. In some sense I’m always an apprentice.

What a beautiful sentiment. Even those who have worked for so long in building the Church should understand themselves always as an apprentice.

Dave then took me down to look at the untouched stone which will soon be prepared to go into the colossal building over the road. He told me about yellow veins. The yellow veins are the places where the rock hasn’t bonded together in the ground. One strike of a chisel and the whole piece will break into two. He took me into his workshop and showed me one stone that he has been carving for six weeks.

At anytime I could come across a yellow vein. I won’t know until it’s too late.

Six weeks work could come to nothing as the rock gives up and breaks.

It really humbles you. Every chip has the excitement and fear. Could this be the time it breaks… You’re no longer in control.

There’s no amount of technical training that will develop Dave into a mason who will never find a yellow vein in his work. He can learn all things and still be at the mercy of the complex and hidden forces that have got that piece of rock to that place at that time. There’s an element of trust on something that is beyond him.

He showed me the plans of that stone. A necessarily detailed design which he needed to follow to the letter or the building would be unstable because of that one stone. I asked him about the sense of connection with the masons of the past who carved the original design in the stone.

I’m just one mason in a long line of masons who have been involved in this building. It’s like they speak to us through the stones. It’s hard to explain… I can look at a stone in the Cathedral and get a sense of what that individual mason was feeling or what kind of day he may have been having when he carved his stone. We’re connected over the centuries… in a way.

I guess that makes your work seem dauntingly important.

I asked.

Yes to know that in centuries time some mason of the future looks at this stone I’m carving now and can tell so much about how I approached the stone. Makes you think about your attitude to the work, kind of calming yourself down before picking up your tools.

As a future member of a priesthood given the authority and responsibility of Holy Orders, I too will be joining a long line of priests who have gone before me. The difference for me as a priest is my legacy won’t be as tangible as Dave’s. That connection with tradition, however, does help me appreciate the need to prepare every time I minister to God’s people, for my attitude will affect how that ‘stone’ is, in response to my care.

I was then shown into the carver’s workshop. Here is where the intricate detailing is done. The two men stopped their work and asked me lots of questions about my training. After each stage was described they nodded and exclaimed,

That’s just like us.

They are clearly excited about the connections between their work on the outside and the work of the clergy inside the building. I asked them whether the Stoneyard is like a family.

Yes with all the family issues. We have rows.

Dave chipped in,

One of the masons, Les, is ill at the moment and we all take it in turns to visit him and help each other out to cover his work.

The problems usually occur when someone has an opinion about how you should handle a particular stone. But if you just concentrate on the stone you’ve been given responsibility for then we all support each other. Does that make sense?

How we as a Church could learn from that sentiment. As a parish priest I will be given responsibility and care for a small section of the Kingdom. We enter into disputes when everyone steps above their station and takes on the role of oversight of the whole building too soon. There’s a call to trust in those in authority knowing that it’s, by far the most difficult jobs. I witnessed that in Synod early this week; so many members, given half a chance, want to tell fellow workers how they should and shouldn’t treat their stones. The ‘masons’ questioning those who have been given the difficult task of keeping track of the meta-narrative and in a way taking their eyes off their stone. I remember John, up in the studio, pawing over the plans of the whole building knowing each stone but in relation to the much bigger building. Being responsible for the task of making sure the individual aspects fit together cohesively and will stand the test of time; entrusting the detailed work to the masons. I remember his humility and gentleness as to how he holds his responsibility. It reminded me of ++Rowan Williams.

Any final reflections that will help me get a sense of your work?

I asked.

We find it important to know that it’s no one person’s building… it’s everyone’s building.

Dave then took me to Vic, who I spoke of before. She took me up the scaffolding to the top of the largest window in Europe (I think!) She showed me the work they had done on one of the spires; beautifully carved and crafted work. Then she showed me the window itself and, again, the intricate detail that the masons of the original Cathedral had created. Then it struck me; the masons work on painstakingly carving the intricate detail would never be seen by those hundred feet down. The only people who may see that six or seven weeks of work would be themselves and, potentially, future restorers (and, of course, God Himself). The extravagance of the craft!

As a man called to participate in the building up of His Church I must remember the extravagant, secret and private work of the diaconal priest. I guess I want to end on the reading of yesterday from John’s gospel.

The story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet has become the story of the diaconal order. What does this story say to my role as a deacon? The work of cleaning the dirt from people’s feet is a work done away from the crowds in a private space. The cleaning of the dirt is a necessary work. It’s a work that requires humility of the one washing but also vulnerability of the one being washed.

It is necessary and it is a privilege to see the fragile, stone behind the layers of corruption and decay and to be called to restore them and make them sing!