Jane reminded me that I haven’t posted anything for a while. In my defence I have been enjoying myself too much. However, I wanted to think a bit before I wrote anything about Coventry Cathedral. So here it is.
Coventry is best known to petrol heads as the birth place of some of the best and worst vehicles of all time; cars and motorcycles alike. It’s also known as being one of the worst bombed cities outside London in WW2, culminating in the Allied bombing of Dresden. It was hardly justice though. About 1400 people were killed or maimed in Coventry, while Churchill’s plan killed some 25000 in Dresden. The two cities are twined these days working towards prosperity.
As a result, Coventry Cathedral has had a major emphasis on peace and reconciliation, and it all stems from the Dean who got himself in to spot of bother shortly after the bombing. He wandered into the ruins of the Cathedral and wrote, “Father forgive” on the remains of the wall behind the Altar. The locals were furious because he didn’t add the word “Them” to the sentence. His point war clear: in war we are all in need of forgiveness for the suffering, chaos and pain we create.
I went to Coventry with rather high expectations, afterall it’s know around the world for its ministry of peace and reconciliation, and encouraging churches to paticipate in the movement. Our Cathedral has the Coventry cross of nails framed at the top of the chancel steps. However, I came away surprised.
It was a privledge to be there, and also to preach at one of the services. I enjoyed finding the ways in which our two churches are similar. Age of the buildings, struggles to manage the cost of the infrastructure, connecting with the community and adapting to a new society in a system that doesn’t do change very well. Likewise, the thrust of the diocese isn’t always to the likeing of those who attend Cathedrals, as I well know. However, even though there were connections, I didn’t come away with the inspiration I was expecting, and I was saddened by it. I attended all thier services and was dismayed by the attendance: 6 people at the first service run by the poor university chaplain struggling to get past the very old language. 120 in the second service, many who were visitors for a special lunch (according the the verger, 80-100 was normal). Choral evensong had 28, and the contemporary service consisted of 12 people, mostly over 50. What happened? I had a reality encounter, that’s what. It seems Coventry wasn’t supposed to be insprational, it was a catalyst to address my own ministry context.
The issues Coventry faces are similar everywhere: people come because it suits them personally rather than missionally. Ironically, the message of peace and reconcilation is not engrainined in the people of the church. Yes, there are prayers each day, but there are prayers in every church to that end. Yes, the building is a beautiful testimony and voice towards peace and reconcilaition, but I didn’t get the impression that emphasis was owned by the regulars of the church. It felt as if a once powerful movement in Coventry had become something of a slogan. Talking to people in the reconciliation office, the message and power of thier story has been overshadowed other peace voices in recent years. It’s now the “in” thing and Coventry has to find it’s voice again. It’s a bit like technology, you might come up with a bright idea, but you need to keep developing and renewimg. If you don;t, someone else will.
Before it feels like I’m ponting the finger, I’m not. Really, it was sobering. Conventry Catehdral has so much potential for impact within the community, it’s surprising it’s not happening as significantly as I think they hope it will. There’s a universtiy next door, but there is little connection between the two. There are adverts everywhere, but very few attend. The cathedral stands for something wonderful, but I’m not sure the people of the Cathedral own it’s historic vision. Dare I say it, I think they just like the music and litrugy. But thats a common problem too. Style over substance is a danger for all of us.
In this case, I get the be the critic, but really we face the same hurdles. Cathedrals can often be safe havens for refugees from churches that are actually trying to be incarnational in thier communities. It’s the old problem of form over function.
Coventry also displays a characteristic that I have found in nearly all Cathedrals I’ve been too (except Southwark) – no childrens ministry of any note. I’m serious, parents fend for themselves nearly everywhere I have been. I find it quite staggering for churches wanting to find a path to the future.
So what did I come away with. I met a dedicated clergy and staff. They are all wanting the Cathedral to be a place that enables Jesus to be experienced through their ministry. However they fight resistance in the church toward significant change and adaptation. They face the usual limitations of finance with the unabalanced force of the building over and against ministry. And like all Cathedrals, balancing the needs of tourism and it’s income with the task of connecting to the ordinary people of the city where they live is never easy. The building can be a means to an end or an end in itself. I found myself more enamoured with the building, and that’s why I came away surprised. I liked the city. My hotel was an adventure. I really enjoyed meeting the staff because they are good people. However, the community of the church, from which its ministry flows, felt disconnected from it’s powerful story. So, I am left wondering how people would describe a lengthy experience of our Cathedral if they had an eye toward mission and growth. When you’re imersed in something, you see one side only. To see clearly, you need many lenses, but also a lot of courage to face reality. But as we all know, reality sucks.
It just goes to show that expectations and outcomes are not always what we hope, but God speaks through all our experiences.
I need to add that not everyone will experience Coventry the way I did. I am coming with a set of questions and hopes that will not mirror those of other people. To that end I am not making a judgement, just personal observations. Conventry is a cathedral with enormous potenital and I pray that they, like all of us, will find their way in it.