Pilgrims, tourists, and a closed door

On a visit to York Minster the other day I saw this sign: “The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in this chapel. It is only open for quiet prayer & not for sightseeing.” It was affixed to a heavy, wooden, firmly closed door, located unprominently part way down the south transept (for those not au fait with cathedral architecture, read “not at all in an obvious place”).

I tweeted a photo of the sign, and quickly got a wide range of responses, including some diverse and obviously strongly-held opinions. Some felt that a quiet place to pray was an essential part of the minster’s ministry, and the sign a sensible attempt to preserve that. Others thought it was an awfully excluding statement.

It took me a while to untangle my own thoughts and feelings about this sign. Something about it instinctively didn’t sit well with me, but what?

I understand the desire for a quiet place for prayer. I myself have frequently been annoyed by being gawped at and/or photographed by hoards of tourists when trying to pray in a cathedral or other “touristy” church. As a teenager whose diocesan cathedral was Canterbury, I vividly remember feeling too embarrassed to kneel in the presence of a whole coach party, and simulatneously guilty for letting them put me off.

But I’m not sure my preferences are really the point. What of the visitor whose only interaction with “church” is to visit historically interesting places of worship for a day out? What of their needs – shouldn’t they trump mine? I can pray anywhere, anytime. Who knows what other opportunities that casual visitor might have for an encounter with God?

I guess what bothers me most about this sign is the rather concrete division between those “sightseeing” and those seeking “quiet prayer”. What of someone who comes in thinking themselves a tourist, finds themself in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and is moved to pray, perhaps even for the first time? With a sign like this, where is the space for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit?

And it does bother me that the Blessed Sacrament is hidden away, separated from the “ordinary” people. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, did not hide away from those who sought him, however unlikely or unsuitable. Nor should we hide away his sacramental presence in our cathedrals, minsters and churches. Perhaps that view comes hand-in-hand with a particular “open table” theology of the Eucharist.

I’m not a fan of barriers in churches generally, physical or metaphorical. Barriers, closed doors, stumbling blocks, call them what you will, they don’t seem to have much place in the good news of Christ or the mission of his church.

(Footnote: And what of those wishing to pray loudly in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament?!)

What are your views? How can minsters and cathedrals balance the needs of those seeking a space to pray, with those of tourists and other visitors?

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