The Dean of York the Very Reverend Raymond Furnell retires on Sunday. He spoke to STEPHEN LEWIS about his thoughts and feelings on leaving York.

THE DEAN of York doesn't seem worried that he may be remembered as the man who, with almost his last act in office, introduced a compulsory entrance charge at one of Europe's great cathedrals.

He doesn't think the fuss will last. Today's news, he points out, is tomorrow's fish and chip paper.

He also thinks the decision was right. The Minster needs in the region of £3.5m every year for maintenance - and without any form of government subsidy to help, it is regularly falling £500,000 short. This can't go on for ever.

Deciding to bite the bullet now, at the end of his nine-year term as Dean, was a deliberate choice. "It could have been delayed," he says. "But it would have increased the debt. I decided I felt the honest thing to do was to introduce it while I was here. Which means that the new Dean, my successor, will not have to carry that."

The decision was not made lightly. He and the Chapter had agonised for years. "It was a very painful decision. We are not dealing with a museum. We are dealing with a church. The whole feel of charging for entry was alien to us."

So he has every sympathy with the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, who expressed disappointment at the decision. "I would not have expected him to say anything else," he says.

Nevertheless, he and the Chapter felt they were left with little choice if they were to be able to maintain properly the great cathedral.

Many people may think the Church of England is hugely wealthy, he agrees. "But that wealth would soon be dissipated if it took on the 42 cathedrals."

The cathedrals have to look after themselves, in other words: and they don't get any help from the Government, either, unlike Continental cathedrals.

Essentially, the Dean says, the Minster has three sources of income: from visitors, from its portfolios of property and from shares. Traditionally, approximately a third of the money it needs to keep going has come from visitor contributions. But in recent years, visitor numbers have been down thanks to Foot and Mouth, the floods, September 11 and the general downturn in the economy, so the Minster has begun to struggle to balance the books.

When he became Dean of York in 1994, there were 2.3m visitors to the Minster every year. Now that is down to 1.3m - and only 300,000 of those have been paying the voluntary contributions introduced last year, he says. Something had to give.

How long a compulsory charge remains in place is another matter. The Archbishop has already expressed his hope that once the Minster is back on an even financial keel, the charges could be dropped. Does the Dean share that hope?

"If we re-establish the finances, there is no reason why it should not be revisited," he says.

We are sitting in the Minster knave as we talk. In his spotless linen jacket, the Dean resembles nothing more than an elderly thespian - apt for a man who only recently retired as chairman of the board of York Theatre Royal.

Once get him talking about the Minster's finances, however, and his conversation is peppered with terms such as downsizing, downturn, rising costs, knock-on effects.

It seems odd coming from the lips of a man of God.

He smiles slightly. Any parish priest will tell you, he says, that if you are going to meet your parish targets, you have to think in practical terms.

But how does he reconcile balancing budgets with his beliefs? "I suppose you are buoyed up by the rhythms of daily worship, which you live by and which you were ordained for. That's crucial."

There remains an essential pragmatism about the Dean, which may have something to do with his background. He was brought up the son of a working-class family in west London. His parents weren't great church-goers, he says, and although he was confirmed as a boy, he jokes it was largely because of the vicar's promise of tea afterwards for those who attended confirmation.

He left school at 16 to work as a shipping clerk. Then came National Service with the RAF, where he reached the rank of senior aircraftsman.

He remembers precisely the moment he realised he wanted to be a priest. He was 19, baby-sitting for an RAF sergeant, listening to music and looking at a Salvador Dali painting of St John hanging over the mantelpiece. "And suddenly it all came together," he says.

Even so, it was another seven years before he took the leap. National Service over, he got a job as a buyer with a firm that built oil and chemical works. Then, at 26, he decided the only way he would ever know whether he was really called to be a priest was to test it out.

"I came to the view that if I was setting out on the wrong road, if what I was feeling about God and being called was not right, something would happen. I would fail the church exams, or something."

He didn't. Ordained at 30, he spent 16 years as a parish priest then rural Dean in the Midlands, before moving to St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Suffolk as Provost. Then came his move to York.

Now, on Sunday, that road he set out on so many years ago will end with his retirement.

He will have mixed feelings at his final Evensong on Sunday. "It will be emotionally draining. I'm a sucker for that. And it will be such a mixture of... I was going to say relief. We've had some wonderful receptions and parties, and it will be a relief I don't have to say thank you any more. I might even get my waistline back a bit, I hope!

"But there will be a sense of privilege, too, that I have been part of this -" he gestures around him at the Minster knave - "for nine years. I hope I have made a contribution."

There have been memorable moments, he says. The extraordinary outpouring of grief following the death of Diana. The service that was held after the Great Heck disaster; September 11. But what stands out for him above all others, which he will take with him to the day he dies, was the "sheer joy" of staging the Millennium Mystery Plays in the Minster.

Sunday may be the last time he worships in the Minster. He and his wife Sherril plan to return to Suffolk for their retirement, where they have many friends. It would have been difficult to stay in York, he says. "You have to accept that you are very quickly yesterday's man. And it would not be right for me to worship here at the Minster if I stayed here in York, I'm sure of that. You have to give space to your successor."

But what he really hopes is that what happened with the Millennium Mystery Plays could happen again: and that, repeated every ten years, the plays could become the centre of a city-wide festival of the arts that would put York on the map up alongside Bayreuth and Oberammergau.

"I think that could be terribly exciting," he says. "I think a lot of people would come to the city. You could even ask me back in 2010...."

Updated: 10:27 Tuesday, May 20, 2003