Northside - Andrew Martin prays for free entry to God's house

The people of York are praying for free entry to God's house

It has been announced that there will be an admission charge to York Minster from next summer. The administrators defend this by pointing out that most cathedrals now charge for entry or "ask for a donation in quite a robust way". Just inside the door at Lincoln Cathedral, there used to be a team of particularly muscular Christians who wore big smocks and handed out leaflets about the history of the cathedral. As you took one they would give you what was technically a smile while manoeuvring you into a position where you were blocked by a big glass tank for donations. Now there is a straightforward entry fee of £4.

At Canterbury, you have to pay to enter the cathedral, but are exempt if you live in Canterbury or, as I once discovered, if you say you live in Canterbury. I also once gained admission to this cathedral by saying, truthfully, "I don't live in Canterbury but I'm thinking of buying a house here."

As yet the exact scheme of charges for the minster has not been decided, but I hope York residents will be allowed in free. Otherwise a whole generation will miss the childhood experience I had of casually using the greatest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe to get out of the rain, or as a meeting place.

Once inside, I would sometimes listen to the music or sleep briefly on a pew, read a book, pore over the covers of the second-hand LPs I'd just bought or, in extremis, listen to a service. I also liked to go up the tower. (A couple of days after the fire of 1984 which badly damaged the south transept, I approached a nun in the minster and asked if, despite the conflagration, the tower was open to the public as usual. "Don't be so stupid!" she snapped, in a way that's made me wary of nuns ever since.)

The accessibility of York Minster put you on its side. If, in the surrounding streets, I overheard an American tourist pointing up at the tower and saying: "Oh look, and there's the castle," I would intervene and correct their terminology. When the road alongside the minster was closed to traffic because of damaging vibrations, I refused to make polite noises of agreement from the back seat when the local minicab drivers began complaining about it. And when a fellow pupil at my secondary modern got an apprenticeship as a stonemason on the minster, I was secretly jealous.

I had one very close friend who, although very impious, seemed always to be drifting towards the minster during our trips to the centre of town, and he grew up to become the vicar of St Mary's Norton, Stockton-on-Tees and, I might add, a Times preacher of the year. So the Church of England could be losing more than it thinks by closing these places off to the local urchins.

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