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Transgression

Since Covid-19 restrictions eased York’s ghost tours appear to be more popular than ever. On most days it’s possible to see as many as three separate groups, all well attended, dotted round the Minster. Maybe it’s a consequence of other places of entertainment being closed, combined with recent warm weather, but it’s a niche part of the economy that appears to be thriving.

It’s understandable why York Minster is such a good location for these nightly escapades. The sheer scale of the building lets it sit in the city centre with benign indifference. It is as old and cumbersome as a dragon. There are numerous details around the area which suggest a sense of history and the supernatural. Over a decade ago gas lighting was returned to the surrounding streets, lending a hint of Victorian melancholy. The high walls of the Minster are peppered with grotesques which glower down on the tiny figures bustling around its base. These contorted statues leap out at right-angles from columns and towers, daring lesser spirits to meddle with the sacred space they guard. To all intents and purposes they are ecclesiastical scarecrows, protecting the territory as its custodians sleep.

As you can tell, even writing about it makes me come over a bit Gothic! Into this context the leaders of the ghost tours weave their stories. At dusk the stories are told about the girl who died in the Plague House; the marching Roman soldiers who could only be seen from their knees up; and much, much more. By gas light, and down cobbled streets, the past is conjured into life.

This can all be very entertaining. Yet I wonder if there is a little more to the pull of these invitations to the supernatural? Some years ago I was involved in research into the experiences of people who bereaved due to traumatic loss. Following the interviews I was struck by how many people either had a visceral experience of the deceased, or attended places (such as the Spiritualist Church) where this possibility would be envisaged or even encouraged. The study concluded:

people are reluctant to share their experiences of post-death encounters with health professionals because they fear that they will be diagnosed with mental illness or ridiculed.

Chapple, A., Swift, C., & Ziebland, S. (2011). The role of spirituality and religion for those bereaved due to a traumatic death. Mortality16(1), 1-19.

It was striking that on a visit to somewhere badly affected by Covid-19 one of the first things I was shown was a photograph. In this recent picture of a living person it was said that the image of a person who died from the virus could be seen. In the aftermath of World War One, sightings of the lost were a regular occurrence and shared in the newspapers. When mortality exceeds our expectations we experience things that can seem both comforting and disturbing.

Perhaps when there are few avenues to acknowledge experiences which don’t fit, people find their own alternatives. When the world we anticipate and take for granted is transgressed, it helps to be in a context where we can at least consider other possibilities. As the virus continues to take away so much, we may need new frameworks to articulate and understand our experiences. I’m not suggesting taking a ghost tour (although they can be fun) but churches could do more to give permission for people to speak about things which other contexts implicitly silence.

By Chris Swift

A writer, researcher and speaker on faith, spirituality and wellbeing. Enthusiastic about spirituality and belief in a community setting; challenged and changed by the theological questions raised in daily life.

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