Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Coventry Cathedral
Location: Coventry, England
Date of visit: Monday, 8 December 2008, 10:30am

The building

The earliest cathedral at Coventry was founded in 1043 as a Benedictine community by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Lady Godiva. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the See of Coventry and Lichfield was transferred to Lichfield and the former cathedral fell into decay. In 1918 the modern diocese of Coventry was recreated and the church of St Michael, dating from the late 14th century, became its cathedral. In November 1940, the cathedral was ruined by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. A new cathedral was begun in 1956 and consecrated in May 1962. The architect was Sir Basil Spence, also known for London's Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks and the executive wing of the New Zealand Parliament Building (which locals call the Beehive due to its shape). Outside is a large statue by Sir Jacob Epstein, noted for his bold, harsh, massive sculpted forms, of St Michael's victory over the devil. The nave is 420 feet long and can seat 2,000. The walls are built in zigzag fashion with concrete panels alternating with windows facing toward the altar. The concrete ceiling is broken up by the diamond pattern of its ribs. A large tapestry of Christ in Glory, designed by Graham Sutherland, the British painter of imaginative landscapes, portraits and still lifes, towers above the high altar. The baptistery window is by John Piper, arguably the greatest name in 20th century stained glass design, and has 195 panes, one sadly with a large hole, presumably resulting from vandalism. The font is a huge boulder carved by Ralph Beyer, who also carved inscriptions known as the Tablets of the Word into the cathedral's walls. The choir stalls and bishop's throne are topped by a spiky wooden design that now looks very dated, very 1960s.

The church

The Cathedral Church of St Michael has a very relevant ministry to both the city and the international community and is a centre for imaginative liturgy on "normal" days as well as on this day. The community that gathered for this day had come on pilgrimage from all over the country.

The neighborhood

The new cathedral was built on a north-south axis next to the ruins of the old cathedral. The two buildings are separated by a busy thoroughfare, through which many students pass to and from the nearby university. Just up the road is Broadgate, with its bustling shops, a statue of Lady Godiva and the medieval church of Holy Trinity with its famous doom painting. The 15th century St Mary's Hall, which survived the bombing, is south of the cathedral and has been the headquarters of the Merchants' Guild since 1342. Also nearby in Priory Row is Blue Coat School, one of very few specialist music colleges in the country, and the remains of the 12th century cathedral. Further away are the bus station and a sports hall.

The cast

The principal concelebrant was The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan David Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Other concelebrants included the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, just recently enthroned as the ninth Bishop of Coventry; the Rt Revd John Stroyan, Bishop of Warwick; the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading; and Dom. Stuart Burns, OSB, Abbot of Burford.

What was the name of the service?

Mass of the Fresh Expression (the centrepiece of the National Fresh Expressions Pilgrimage). The pilgrimage had as its goal to explore fresh expressions of the contemplative and Catholic traditions, and had been organised through the work of the Fresh Expressions Round Table 5, which sought to develop fresh expressions of church that draw specifically on sacramental traditions.

How full was the building?

Although the cathedral claims to be able to seat 2,000, the nave looked fairly full with 300 people who had booked a place and possibly an extra hundred who had come just for the main service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. As it was a ticket-only event, a very friendly person on the entrance desk welcomed me by name and invited me to get a cup of coffee. I then spotted another Shipmate whom I had previously arranged to connect up with at some point during the day.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. We had chairs in an oval layout, with the altar and two lecterns in the middle. There was plenty of space, which we needed because we had to accompany the Lord's Prayer with sweeping arm movements.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lots of anticipation. Several laptop computers projected images onto screens. Various clergy in black suits made last minute adjustments to items whose use we wondered about. I noticed several people whom I had not seen for a long time, and had to restrain myself from waving furiously to catch their attention.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The opening words were from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Shema Israel ("Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one") – a sort of call to prayer accompanied by drumming. The Shema was in Hebrew and sung to the traditional chant used by synagogues worldwide. We were encouraged to gather at the baptistery to renew our baptismal vows, prostrate ourselves, and be aspersed. The Archbishop introduced the new bishop of Coventry, who welcomed us.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Everything we needed to know was projected. It is great to be liberated from the small library of books that one usually gets at an Anglican service.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, oboe, saxophone, a drum, cymbals, gongs, along with lots of recorded music to accompany the images projected onto screens.

Did anything distract you?

A very efficient master of ceremonies who was trying not to distract! He used his hands to signal standing and sitting, and I was highly amused at how efficiently he bossed the Archbishop about, vested him, and gave him his microphone (which was identical to the one used by the chief checkout worker in my local supermarket). There were several contemplation stations, for use later, around the nave and I wondered what they were about. I was seated next to somebody who had nearly become my vicar ten years ago (and who remembered my name!) and I was preoccupied with wondering how life would have been very different had he become so. Good distractions included a twin track gospel read by two deacons, interweaving Luke's Annunciation story with John's prologue; the generous hunks of bread and large carafes of wine; and the warm, engaging smile of the Bishop of Coventry as he ministered communion to me.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Unfussy but highly organised Anglo-Catholic. Much was non-verbal – for example the intercessions consisted of projected images as people came out of their seats to put grains of incense into six bowls on the floor. Some of the hymns made me want to raise my hands in charismatic fashion (which is so not me). The event ended with strobe-lighting flashing around the monstrance as Benediction was given.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There were two: one of 28 minutes by the Archbishop, the other of 16 minutes by Abbot Burns.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 for the Archbishop; 8 for the abbot – The Archbishop always had a glint in his eye and he amusingly ended quotations from obscure writers with comments like, "as you all know." Abbot Burns' style was warm, relaxed with an engaging smile.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Archbishop: Fresh Expressions is not just for evangelicals. Catholics can contribute because of our use of sacrament, symbol, our sense of time though the Church's year, all of which can speak whole truths to the whole person. In our stress on the community and not just the individual, we are "like iron filings drawn toward the magnet" of God's love. The ecclesiastical turbulence caused by Pentecost means that we bump into each other on the way. The abbot: John Keble (one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement) reminded us that the Church is not an arm of the state but the Body of Christ. This ushered in a time of mission, sacrificial ministry and renewed worship, but we have become fussy. During the credit crunch, more people have come to church – but do we meet their needs? We need to be more inclusive and offer space for silence.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

All of it. I first encountered the beauty and richness of Catholic worship as a teenager and instantly fell in love with it. Like all loves, it has become jaded and cynical over the years because of over-familiarity and boredom. This day moved me to tears and rekindled that first love.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Loud feedback over the speakers at the start (but this was quickly dealt with). Also, a priest asking us to stand up at the climactic moment of Solemn Benediction at the end and, thus, ruining the atmosphere.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I met several Shipmates (as we hadn't met before, we had been texting on our mobiles to locate each other).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It wasn't fairly traded but it was welcome on a cold, wet day. There was also an ample free lunch, which must have cost considerably more than our ticket price.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – As part of a church that puts on multi-media worship occasionally, I am only too aware of the hours that it takes to set up and would not want to be over-involved in it. However, I would love to attend this cathedral on a regular basis with no involvement other than turning up.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Absolutely – glad to be alive, breathing in God's love and receiving it from other people and trying, falteringly, to return it.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Our being like iron filings drawn to the magnet of God's love.

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