What can I tell you about York Minster that will really convey the beauty of the place?
The place is full of light. Sound echoes away, but light seems to flood from every window and corner. Walking inside, I was overwhelmed by the light that I could see. The walls are bright white, reflecting more of the light coming in from the amazing stained glass windows. I kept thinking there must be a skylight or something to bring in all the light I could see, but there isn't.
Unlike every other church and cathedral I've been in, I managed to get on a tour of the Minster, and I really recommend them if you get the chance. They're offered for free and are about an hour. The one I went on was hosted by this lovely lady (also a Yorkist, like me - we talked a bit about Richard, of course), and there were several others ongoing. The sense I had is that each person has their own way of running the tour, and each one really loves what they're doing. They describe different things, but in that way that carries you along with their enthusiasm. She pointed out all sorts of things, like the carving near one of the windows of Aristotle being (a-hem) 'ridden' by his favorite harlot (she's holding a whip and smacking him as they go along) and that the Victorians, when they did their own restoration of parts of the ceiling, replaced an image of Christ being suckled by the Virgin with one of him being bottle-fed. Which is very surreal. (She also advised that we'd have to take her word for it - it's a very high ceiling, after all.)
The result of this is that I'm full of details on the Minster. I'm quite fascinated by the wooden roof, for example. That's why it's so wide, and the ceilings so high. It's not as heavy as other churches I've been in. This lead to problems fairly early on, and those problems have continued to this day. The first bells they set in the ceiling fell, which is why the're now in the towers instead. There have been multiple fires that have lead to extensive restoration and rebuilding, most recently in 1984. Only through an amazing coincidence were they able to spare the stained glass in that fire. The whole window on that side had been repaired a few years earlier, and the fire was put out about 10 minutes before the lead would have given way, shattering the glass.
As I did with Westminster, I went to Evensong again. It's interesting to compare the two. I don't know if I can put my finger on just why, but Westminster felt much more welcoming in their Evensong than York did. Maybe it's just the way they layout the service for the non-initiated, though. I'm not familiar with Anglican rituals (my friend calls it "High Anglican"), so I'm often lost at these things. The music wasn't as nice either, but that may be because instead of an entirely adult and mixed choir, like at Westminster, it was mixed boys and men... and the boys seemed very bored. There's also that the psalm they sang was very, very, very long.
In thinking about it, I specifically remember that Westminster said prayers for other people - for those persecuted for their Christian faith in China (yes, this still happens, don't let anyone tell you differently), for those fighting in wars and those suffering and dying in poverty, and for the Queen. I don't recall that at York. I know they prayed for the Queen, but not for anyone else. I wonder if that's why I felt it less welcoming.
But there's something about listening to prayers being sung that is very moving and beautiful. The organ music was amazing, and the voices seemed to echo out into all that space and up to the ceiling. Everything was much darker and more somber than when I had been in earlier, and it was very beautiful. I do recommend making it out to an Evensong if you get out to either of these places. It's amazing, and moving.
The real beauty here is in the stained glass. I can't tell you enough about it. It seems that they still have medeival style stained glass workers in York, and they carefully remove, clean, and restore all the glass in the Minster every so often. Right now they're working on the East windows, and the west window (The Heart of York) has recently been cleaned and repaired. The entire Cathedral seems to be under constant restoration work, which means I got to the see facades when they're still bright white. (This makes up for the fact that the east facade is entirely under scaffolding at the moment.)
It just find it outstanding to think of some of this. There are people who learn how to make stained glass... and they make entire careers out of the churches and cathdrals in Europe. There are families who pass down the skills required to ring the bells in proper time for the services, volunteers who do this for their lives. There are people who put their lives into caring and maintaining and playing the amazing organs at these churches. On some level I think I should be pondering the waste of time, money, effort, support that goes into these old cathedrals. A lot of money has been spent on the restoration work, millions of pounds in donations was given when it seemed it might come tumbling down, and shouldn't that money be spent on more 'worthier' projects?
On the other hand... these buildings are works of art, are works of history, and are important in their own right, not just as churches and cathedrals, but as important parts of our past. We learn so much from examining them, and they do awe and inspire so many.