Early in the morning of 9th July 1984 it was discovered that York Minster was on fire. 150 fire fighters from across North Yorkshire took two hours to bring the blaze under control. Apparently, the cathedral was struck by lightning shortly after midnight. Bob Littlewood, Superintendent of works at the time, believes the fire was started when lightning earthed through an electrical panel in the roof void.
Because the exterior of the roof was effectively sealed with lead and the fire was well established at the only entrance to the roof void, it was impossible to tackle the fire effectively. The large quantities of tinder-dry oak in the roof burned hot. A great deal of stonework was seriously damaged, as was the famous Rose Window. It is known the Rose Window itself reached temperatures of around 450 degrees centigrade. The Rose Window, a stained glass masterpiece high in the South Transept of the Minster (though not the best example of such in the UK), was nearly lost after the lightning struck. IT was a very old window. The stonework was completed in the mid 13th century but the stained glass was not added until near the end of the 15th century to commemorate the end of the War of the Roses (1486) and honor the Tudor dynasty.
After fire destroyed the South Transept roof, inspection revealed that the stained glass in the Rose Window was severely cracked. The 73 panels, containing 7,000 pieces of stained glass had crazed into about 40,000 pieces. Miraculously, it was all still in place.
Craftsmen secured the stained glass with adhesive film before removing it, one section at a time. Special adhesives - which would mimic the refractive properties of the glass - had to be researched and were specially developed by the 3M corporation before the window could be restored. Each restored section is sandwiched between layers of clear glass and the whole is further protected by more sheets of glass. The stained glass restoration process, along with the restoration of the roof, took about four years and cost $4 million.
At the time there were speculations on how the disaster might have happened out of a clear sky. It was remembered that York Minster had just been used for the inauguration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham. Jenkins was a controversial figure who apparently did not believe in an actual resurrection. He called it "a conjuring trick with bones." Some Christians thought that the lightening bolt was an act of Divine retribution.
My knowledge of the Church of England is sketchy. Although baptised into it as a baby, I never attended C of E services, though I was once on an appointments committee for a C of E Chaplain at my hospital. I worried everybody by asking each candidate whether he believed in Hell. The other members of the interview panel were the hospital chief executive and a Rural Dean and an Archdeacon. They did something that I have only seen women do before. They got up and went to the 'bathroom' together. I followed them out and found that they were having a private meeting about whom they should appoint.
It was this encounter that gave me the character of the Dean in whose voice I have written this poem.
The Dean’s lament after the York Minster fire.
Did you really rain fire down merely for a doubt?
Really flame that antique, Gothic window out?
That is some pique! Because a bishop spoke
out of turn? It was a sort of joke
that ‘conjuring trick with bones’, a bit of wit,
only designed to get a headline hit.
Did you even think about the cost?
All those visitor takings that we lost.
Four mill for the repair and at 3Ms
research on plastics, the price condemns
poor curates to more penury, I fear;
no pay rise now for many another year.
What sort of God do you suppose we want?
An old-style, concentration camp commandant
deriving pleasure from unmaking art,
with us quaking, knees shaking, falling apart?
Some sort of vandal, mannerless and rough,
who then responds to scandal by talking tough?
No, God is love and meekness, kindness: who
shows complete, benevolent blindness to
our foibles. He forgives, forebears; does not
take notice when we sin. A big blind spot
to forty-wink at deviation, short-
falling, or reprobation. That’s the sort
of God. The kind who’d never make a fuss.
Now, more important matters to discuss:
the type of God we’d really like to see
would be more like the archdeacon or me;
I hope, sir, that my pleading words won’t chafe,
we must ensure that Sodom would be safe.