In 1967 a survey revealed that York Minster was close to collapse, and that something like £30 million (probably more) in today’s money was needed urgently to save it. The money was raised in a week, entirely from contributions from within Yorkshire. Double that was spent over the next five years, to reinforce and strengthen the Minster’s foundations and roof.
The speed of the reaction to this sudden crisis is a vivid demonstration of what this truly wonderful building means to all Yorkshiremen, whether they are “religious” or not. I wasn’t particularly religious myself (indeed, I was still a lifelong atheist) when, one day in the late 1960s, or maybe the early 70s, I visited the Minster (purely to have another look at this extraordinary piece of architecture, for that’s all it was to me then). As I stood in the middle of that majestic nave, and looked upwards, my entire life changed. It was borne in on me very powerfully that I had to ask myself a question: was it really possible that that was based on a lie? The answer was unavoidable: this great anthem in stone to the power and majesty of God could only be based on the truth: there was indeed a God, and nothing could for me ever be the same again.
So the Minster means a great deal to me: and that is why I am very angry indeed with the current dean and chapter of York. My son, who was born in London (who is nevertheless still half a Yorkshireman) decided, with his wife, that they would spend a few days holiday that was due to them, in Yorkshire. They spent a day in York (spend it all in York, I said, don’t bother with Leeds and Sheffield). If you only have a day, I said, the most important thing is to spend some time in the Minster. I asked them when they got back how they had reacted to their visit. Well, my son said, we only saw it from the outside: it cost £9 each to get in, and we were a bit hard up.
The fact is that the Minster authorities have no moral right whatever to prevent anyone freely entering this building. I know that money has to be raised for its maintenance. Nevertheless, this is the house of God: and to charge money for entrance to it is tantamount to simony, one definition of which is “trafficking for money in spiritual things”. I looked up their website to see what possible excuse they had for raising money in this disgustingly secular fashion, like charging for a go on the London Eye or the big dipper. They certainly seem to want people to visit the building: this is their (barely literate) sales pitch:
Visiting York Minster
A visit to York Minster is your moment in the long history of northern Europe’s greatest gothic cathedral. You’ll see traces of every age from the Roman occupation of York onwards to the future of this working and worshipping church.
In this section of the site we’ll show you everything you can do at York Minster, and how to make arrangements to visit us.
A good place to start is our virtual tour or interactive map, which will show you round the highlights of the Minster. Or look at our timeline, which illustrates the Minster’s rich history.
You can also find information on opening times and entrance prices and Concerts.
Well, there’s one thing about the virtual tour: if you don’t know the building, you can have a look (pan up towards the roof) to see what I am on about. But there’s not much on the site that I could find about this great building being a witness to the glory of God, though the mealy-mouthed “mission statement” does include the following (it could hardly say anything less): “… the splendour of the building, and the care that has gone into it over the centuries…. reflects the glory of God. It inspires the pleasure we take in welcoming visitors of all ages, and from all over the world, whether Christian or not.” Welcoming them, eh? For their money, or because you actually care about their immortal souls?
We are told that “Charges are made for those visiting for sightseeing” but that “No charges are made for those who wish to enter the Minster to pray or light a candle: please ask a member of staff on arrival”. But nothing was said to my son by any member of staff on his arrival, about entering “to pray or light a candle”: he was just told he had to pay or be turned away. And what exactly is the mission of these people? “Through all the activities of York Minster,” they gush, “runs our belief that God wants to show the world his love”: oh yeah? By charging them £9 a head to enter His house? And what exactly is this rigid distinction between those who want “to pray or light a candle” and those “visiting for sightseeing”? If sightseers find themselves praying (it’s the kind of effect that a building like this can have; it certainly did on me) or lighting a candle, can they ask for their money back?
I have had this problem before, getting into Anglican cathedrals built by the Catholic Church and purloined at the Reformation. They have no right to stop you (or anyone else) entering: simply refuse politely and go in. I know that buildings like this need maintaining. But I would almost certainly pay more than the entrance fee as a voluntary contribution, and I usually do. A notice suggesting a voluntary contribution, even specifying a recommended sum and with a desk there to collect the money (they could hand out a free guide or something to encourage people to give) would avoid this appalling and deeply secular tourist entrance fee.
Nobody who enters a holy place should be regarded as a tourist, simply there as a source of revenue: each one of them has an immortal soul, and whether they know it or not they are all in search of God. They are more likely, much more likely, to find Him if they are allowed freely to enter His house.