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
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
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.