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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Back in Coventry

Today I am in Coventry, with hundreds of others who have come to celebrate the Cathedral’s golden jubilee. It was consecrated on 25 May 1962. Like half the population of England, I came to see it that year as a boy of 12.  I have never forgotten that visit and the impact it had on me.  Years later I first heard Benjamin Britten's War Requiem performed there against the backdrop of the ruins destroyed in the air-raid of November 1940.  It was unutterably moving to think about 'war and the pity of the war' in that evocative setting.     

I used to work at the Cathedral as the canon in charge of its worship and music.  We arrived in the spring of 1987.  A few days later, the Sky Blues won the cup final and the whole city went mad for joy. Not long after that, we celebrated the Cathedral’s silver jubilee.  That was the first big service I had to organise.

Today it was good (very good) to be part of the service without any responsibility for it. Princess Anne was there and read a lesson.  A brass ensemble lent brilliance and colour. Children from a local school performed a beautiful dance to John Cosin (of Durham)’s hymn Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire.  The sun shone gloriously.  We met up with lots of good friends and colleagues.  It was a great occasion. 

Rowan Williams preached the sermon.  He began with Cosin’s lines enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight and suggested that reconciliation always involves seeing the other person or community in a new way.  The Cathedral could help us to do this. He walked us up the nave towards Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory.  Then he turned us round to reveal the array of colour in the aisle windows hidden on the eastward journey; then drew the eye westwards towards the Hutton glass screen, and beyond that, to the ruins.  This, he said, is how Christ on the tapestry sees the world: not as lost in pain and conflict but transfigured by the reconciliation grace brings. He drew attention to the figure of the human being held between Christ’s feet.  That figure, he said, is also looking out to the world, and is seeing it as the risen Jesus sees it. This diminutive figure represents us. If we see the world in this new way, the task of reconciliation becomes possible.  And this has been demonstrated in the history of Coventry Cathedral.

During the service, I reflected on what Coventry taught me. I learned there that liturgy is a divine performance art, a kind of godly play that imagines the kingdom of God as being among us.  The cathedral is a magnificent theatre for worship, but you have to understand it, love it for what it is, work with its grain.  ‘The building always wins in the end’ we used to say when trying experiments that didn’t quite come off.  I also learned that however noble the setting and dignified the worship, it must always have a human face, for it is the offering of God’s people gathered in that place.  Liturgy needs to care for people, touch them, change their lives by helping them to meet God.  And I learned how important it is for a cathedral to connect with its environment, not sit in Olympian grandeur above the struggles and crises its local community may be going through. Coventry is a tough place with a lot of deprivation.  I’ve come to realise how important it is to get to know the social context in which we worship and ritualise our lives. 

After lunch I walked round the city centre in the fierce afternoon sun.  Much has been done to brighten it up since the 80s when it could feel pretty forlorn.  It is still bleak in places. When you compare how German cities were carefully rebuilt after the war to recreate their historic streets and buildings, you wonder how Coventry could have been reinvented quite so brutally. And it’s clear from the shops and offices that it goes on struggling economically just as it did in our day. That’s familiar from what I know all over north-east England with the decline of manufacturing industry. 

Yet at its heart, the cathedral quarter is a pool of greenness and contemplative calm. You go into this wonderful building, surely one of the great achievements of 20th century architecture, and you are strangely stilled and excited at the same time.  The Cathedral puts you in your place, like the human figure between the feet of Christ, which is a safe, restful place to be.  And then it lifts your vision and stimulates you to reflect before God on who you are and who you might become. It is both moving and transformative. As the Archbishop said, it helps you see in new ways.  I felt proud to have been part of its life for 8 good years.  I am sure the city feels proud today. 

I shall try and preach about some of this on Whit Sunday.

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