Last week we took a short break of four nights in the beautiful and historic city of York. This was a gift from my parents; a much-delayed 25th wedding anniversary present. Mary Ann had never been to York before and the last time I was there was in 1984 with a group of students from Nottingham University who went to see the Mystery Plays. I don’t recall how much sightseeing we did then; as I found York totally unfamiliar, probably not very much.
We stayed at the Best Western Monkbar Hotel just outside the city walls, which turned out to be a good choice. It was a great base for exploring the city. Although the weather was pretty wet, it meant we could easily go back and forwards to the hotel to rest and/or dry off.
There were a number of places and attractions we wanted to see, and we managed them all: the Minster, the city walls, the Jorvik Viking centre and the National Railway Museum. But we also enjoyed the atmosphere of the Shambles and the surrounding centre with its many surviving mediaeval and Tudor shops and churches.
As we were there over the weekend, on Sunday we went to church. In the morning we attended worship at Central Methodist Church in St Saviourgate. Built in 1840 in neoclassical style, one enters through an imposing portico with four pillars. Inside is a traditional nonconformist preaching house with an oval gallery and box pews that can seat a congregation of 1,500. The focal point of the church is a mahogany pulpit which was apparently reduced in height for the Wesleyan Conference of 1907 and above it an even more impressive organ, also finished in mahogany, which according to the church’s website has 2,500 pipes. Expertly played, this provided a fitting accompaniment to worship, alongside the small choir that sang an introit and led the congregational singing. Inevitably the congregation today does not even begin to fill this splendid chapel, but has done a splendid job of keeping it in good repair. After the service we enjoyed fellowshipping with the church members over a cup of coffee.
There could hardly have been a greater contrast with the second service we attended, which was evensong in York Minster. We had visited the minster the previous day and done the tour of this magnificent building. On Sunday we returned for worship.
For evensong the whole congregation was seated in the choir. There were many seats available so we picked a spot right next to the choir. We were sitting opposite an older gentleman who was obviously a regular congregant and followed his cues when to stand up and sit down. The choir was, of course, superb. I didn’t recognise any of the settings, but then I am an infrequent visitor to choral evensong. The sermon was preached by the Dean, the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, and was on the subject of music. Taking her cue from the first reading (Ecclesiastes 3 ‘there is a time for everything…) She spoke about the importance of pauses and silences within the liturgy – the words are not just to be rushed through in the shortest time – and likened this to the rhythm of life and the importance of making time and finding space.
It so happened that in our position facing ‘sideways’ across the choir the pulpit was behind us and to our left, which meant that we could only see the preacher if we were willing to put up with a crick in the neck – very different from the Methodist chapel, which was designed with all eyes on the pulpit. Different styles of worship have a profound influence on different styles of church architecture, and you don’t get much more different than a neoclassical preaching house and a gothic cathedral choir. We enjoyed both types of church and both types of worship. York Minster was special, and the quality of singing technically superior to that in the Methodist chapel. But I missed the fellowship that we found in the morning with the people of Central Methodist. And for me, the tradition of singing just one congregational hymn at the close of evensong just isn’t enough. I love to listen to a good choir. But I also want to sing along.