On a Thursday morning just a couple of weeks before Christmas, various school parties and guided tours are filling up the aisles of York Minster. It is one of the busiest times of year for the cathedral and come Friday there will be a new face amid the celebrations. Ellie Bangay is the country’s youngest curate and, having taken up the post earlier this year, she’s had just a few months to find her feet before the Minster goes up a gear with its succession of carol concerts, masses and services.
“Yep, as your first place of work, this isn’t bad, is it?” says the 23-year-old who grew up not far from York, in Guisborough. “The last few weeks have been one of successive firsts. I have delivered my first sermon standing on that lectern over there and the other Sunday I conducted my first baptism. In some ways it’s an easy crowd, you don’t get any hecklers at the Minster, but that doesn’t mean it’s not daunting. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel nerves, particularly with something like a baptism. It’s such an important day and you want to make sure that you make it as special as possible. Fortunately, I was baptising an adult, so the risk of tears was minimal.”
While the Minster might be home for Ellie, who has settled in one of the properties in the cathedral grounds, she cuts an unusual figure in any clergy line-up. It may be more than 20 years since the first women priests were ordained into the Church of England, but it’s still a vocation that is dominated by men.
“I don’t come from a particularly religious family,” she says. “My dad’s an electrician and my mum worked in HR. When I was younger I used to sing with the local church choir, but it wasn’t until I was about 18 that I started thinking seriously about a life in the Church.”
It was while studying theology and religious studies at Leeds University that Ellie began to explore joining the priesthood. Having given herself a year to decide whether it was something she really wanted to do, she began training at Cranmer Hall at the University of Durham.
“I think my family were a bit surprised when I told them that I wanted to become a priest. Teacher they might have expected, but yes I guess it is an unusual career choice, but they have all been incredibly supportive. My mum has loved coming to see me in York, I think she thinks of it as her holiday home.”
Ellie has not only brought down the average age of the Minster clergy by some years, she is also blessed with a 20-something’s social media nouse. Her own Twitter profile describes her as “Reverend, Deacon, follower of Jesus, tea lover and puppy mummy.” The later refers to her new dog George, who also comes with his own hashtag, #georgeoftheminster.
“Honestly, he looks like a bear and he has already been a huge hit with the Minster School children. Historically, the Church has had an issue with attracting younger people and having curates like me will hopefully make a difference. While I was the youngest in my intake by a few years, there were quite a few in their 30s and certainly at the Minster there is quite a diverse congregation. In some ways, age shouldn’t matter, but of course if you come into a church and see someone who is broadly the same age in the clergy then it perhaps makes the whole experience more easy to relate to.”
It’s almost six months since Ellie walked through the doors of the Minster and while the people and place are now familiar, she knows that it’s a very different experience to being an average parish priest.
“I could have ended up anywhere, so I am incredibly lucky to have ended up at the Minster. We get hundred of visitors a day and part of the challenge here is to get that balance between a working cathedral which is a place of spirituality and a tourist attraction.”
She’s hardly finished the sentence when a tour guide enquires whether a certain part of the Minster is off limits.
“In many ways that’s the exciting thing. The Minster means so many things to so many people and there is always something going on. We had the children from the Minster School in the other day to watch the advent wreath go up. It’s one of the verger’s Christmas traditions and he makes them believe it’s magically raised to the ceiling and it’s really wonderful to see their faces.
“It’s at those times that you realise that everything here is done on a massive scale.”
She’s not wrong. The Minster wreath, suspended above the main nave, is three metres wide and each of the five candles is a metre tall.
“It’s funny because the build-up to Christmas is actually quite a sombre time for us. I can see visitors coming in here and looking a little disappointed because there’s no huge tree or twinkling lights, but in a few days time we will be in full celebration mode.
“On Christmas Eve we are expecting 2,000 at our crib service. A lot of the children come in fancy dress and, aside from a few shepherds, I’ve been told to expect a lot of Harry Potters. It might not be straight from the Bible, but it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that the Minster is part of their Christmas.
“Later in the afternoon there will be our Nine Lessons and Carols Service and finally the day will come to an end with Midnight Mass, after which I’ll hopefully be able to catch a few hours sleep before the morning services begin.”
For Ellie, Christmas Day will begin at 8am with Holy Communion, followed another two services before midday and finally Evensong at 4pm. After that she will head back to Guisborough to spend some time with her family.
“I suspect I will be pretty exhausted by the time I get home, but I can’t think of anywhere better than to spend Christmas and to be able to share it with so many people is just a real privilege.”
As curate, Ellie is now doing on-the-job training, but with so much to learn she admits that she hasn’t thought too far into the future.
“It’s early days and it would be silly to map out a career plan so soon. I do know though that I’ve really enjoyed working with the children at the Minster and being a chaplain of a school or hospital is something that really appeals.
“There has been a lot of publicity surrounding the first female bishops and of course the younger you start out in the church the more chance you have to reach those lofty positions. However, I’m very aware that I’m on the very bottom rung of a very long ladder and while I am incredibly grateful for all those who have gone before and held the door open for people like me, I am also just content to see where life takes me.”
What she does know is that next year will be even busier than normal at the Minister. In the late spring the cathedral will be transformed into a giant auditorium as it hosts a five-week run of the Mystery Plays. Opening on the Feast of Corpus Christi on May 26 and closing on June 30, the medieval plays return to the Minster for the first time since the acclaimed 2000 Millennium production, when over 28,000 people attended the sell-out performances.
In keeping with the tradition of the Mystery Plays, the cast will be primarily amateur, with just one professional actor yet to be announced.
“Everyone keep saying: ‘You do know that as the newest female curate, you have to play Mary, don’t you? I’m hoping they’re joking as I am pretty sure that my acting skills wouldn’t be up to the job.”
Maybe not, but you get the impression that should they be in need of a few extra cast members, Ellie would give it a good go.