The guidebook for York Minster – where I have been privileged to sit entranced many magical afternoons listening to the choir practice – tells us the magnificent Cathedral “since the 7th Century has been at the centre of Christianity in the north of England and today remains a thriving church rooted in the daily offering of worship and prayer. The Minster was built for the glory of God. Every aspect of this ancient building – from the exquisite, handcrafted stone through to the unrivalled collection of medieval stained glass – tells the story of Jesus.”
I confess to feeling a little unsure about claims regarding that first York “church” in the early centuries other than that it would have been a primitive shelter-from-the-elements meeting place for the first Christians in Northumbria. The early missionaries’ priority would have been keeping warm and dry while they prayed, remembering that their faith-founder, a young Jew named Jesus, had taught that “where two or three are gathered together in my name,” he would be with them in spirit.
It was only centuries later, as readers with a penchant for dates can discover with a leisurely Google of York Minster that the massive stained-glass windows of today were installed to tell biblical stories. Solid stone walls, window frames and strong foundations support the ever-higher bell towers built, presumably, to get the bells a little closer to Heaven.
I haven’t been able to find a total cost to keep York Minster in good shape for tourists like me to visit and enjoy. However, relatively modest maintenance in recent years cost £2 million to replace, repair and maintain its glorious organ, with another £11 million to dismantle and restore major stained-glass in leaded windows. At the time of this writing, £1 million converts to $1.7 million Canadian. And I’m sure anyone visiting York Minster would say it’s worth every penny.
But a £13 million ($22 million) price tag to repair an organ and stained glass windows does tend to raise eyebrows and force us, reluctantly, to engage in the always-unpleasant debate on what a country, or community, can afford when ancient monuments start to crumble. This debate is particularly germane when the once-traditional beliefs of misguided church and state leaders leave a legacy of damage and despair that raises pressing questions about the inadequacy of our governments’ spending on Indigenous social programs.
We are facing that unpleasantness in Canada today as we wrestle with the findings and recommendations of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the ever-growing list of unmarked graves of children who died – some hastened to their deaths by poor diet, abuse and neglect – while forced to attend Indian residential schools.
Several church organizations were involved in the failed attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Only one – the Roman Catholic Church – has failed to resolve recommended compensation payments.
CBC Television and the Globe and Mail have been reminding audiences and readers since early October of tangled negotiations. On Oct. 13th, CBC claimed it, and the Globe and Mail newspaper secured the release of hundreds of pages of documents “revealing new details of Catholic Church compensation for residential school survivors.” The same day, CBC stated that in 2012, some $300 million was budgeted nationwide for Roman Catholic maintenance and building projects. Included was $28 million for the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.
In 2022, there is a hope that Pope Francis, head of the wealthiest church in the world, will be visiting Canada. Should he get to British Columbia, I’m sure he will be welcomed, and doubly so if the continuing debate on who pays compensation to the victims of historic evil decisions by government and churches has been resolved. There is no guarantee that it will. Last Friday, Oct.29, the federal government, minutes before the deadline for Appeal out, filed for another look at a Supreme Court ruling approving a compensation formula. The need for a formula has been a matter of debate for years now and Friday’s appeal of the ruling with the promise that a bi-partisan committee will now be established does not inspire confidence.
Prime Minister Trudeau has promised a solution will be found, Indigenous Nations will be compensated. Maybe he could confirm the sincerity of that message by imposing on his public servant team a firm, short, deadline.