by Chris Birch
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 26, Spring 2001
A Cathedral of Paradox
Coventry Cathedral is the most popular twentieth-century building in Britain, according to a survey carried out in 1999 by English Heritage and Channel 4. But the building and the institution it houses are full of paradox. The architecture and art are starkly modern, but the shape is inflexibly Gothic, so your eye is drawn from the entrance right up to the huge tapestry of ‘Christ in Glory’ on the east wall. The high altar is huge but remote, so the original concept of ‘an altar for the whole people of God’ is impossible to express without using a smaller, portable table for the Holy Communion.
The building is full of Christian symbols: even the side-chapels are named after Gospel-centred concepts or stories (e.g. Chapels of Unity, of Christ the Servant, of Gethsemane). But the story we tell can easily slip from the Christ-centred gospel of his death and resurrection to our own experience of destruction and rebuilding, as if the link did not need to be made. We live in at least two worlds, with two quite different stories. The original Benedictine foundation set great store on prayer and hospitality. We still aim to be a place and a community of prayer – but we run a choral foundation to help us pray, which takes over half my time and a goodly percentage of our budget. (I do not resent this – but it is not the most obvious way to pray.) We aim to provide hospitality to our many visitors, and to be a centre of pilgrimage, so that tourists have an opportunity to become pilgrims and meet Christ. But this aim is set alongside the need to encourage these same visitors to spend money with us – they are our single biggest source of income, and the decline in their numbers has caused us real financial troubles. We have inherited a ministry of international reconciliation – but the office of the International Director is called the Navy Room, and is filled with naval memorabilia, not least from our links with successive warships bearing the name HMS Coventry. We are a Christian church, whose ‘bottom line’ purpose is to be the spiritual HQ and prayer-support for the bishop and his mission in the diocese. But we are also a secular institution, with a place in the city, nation and world; with financial and cultural opportunities and demands; with a stake in the present world order, as well as a hope in the world to come.
The Christian gospel is the gospel of grace and peace – peace between estranged and hostile people, deriving from the ‘grace-gift’ of peace with God. Anabaptist history is full of stories of people living and witnessing to the gospel of peace, both within their own communities and far away, in situations of conflict and danger. Coventry Cathedral’s story is a bit different. It started after the bombing of the old Cathedral in November 1940, when Dick Howard (the then Provost) vowed to seek reconciliation, not revenge, as a response to the destruction. After World War 2, links of friendship were formed with cities in former enemy countries, Germany and the USSR – Kiel, Stalingrad and, most famously, Dresden. They involved not only leading citizens but young people, who went on exchanges between Dresden and Coventry and worked on rebuilding projects in both cities. The ministry developed in ways that emphasised world and church leaders more than local communities and people, and when I came to Coventry the International Ministry was coming over as remote from the cathedral congregation.
Even then, however, small groups got involved – I went with a dozen people to Romania in 1996, to present a cross of nails (our symbol of reconciliation in Christ’s name) to a peace centre. The following year the cathedral choir’s tour to South Africa developed a reconciliation flavour, as we sang in a township church and visited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Since then, the International Ministry has been shared with members of the cathedral congregation and across the diocese.
We were delighted to meet a group of ‘Cape Coloured’ people from South Africa, who are trying to get back the land from which they were evicted under apartheid. They came to our international conference last August and won our hearts by their charm and simplicity, their direct faith and love for God’s people. At the same conference we met community leaders from Arab and Jewish Christian groups in Israel/Palestine, and church leaders from Iraq, for whom nothing, political or religious, is simple. But they were there, and they were talking to each other, however hard that was.
Underneath all this peacemaking activity, the Cathedral is not at all good at being reconciled within itself. We have traditionally sought an acceptably easy outcome with no thought to process – the opposite of what I learned as a vicar in Leeds, over the Remem-brance Sunday issue (see Coming Home) – and have been poor at listening to each other. Justice is talked about but often not practised, and some members of the community, both paid staff and congregation volunteers, are more or less permanently aggrieved. Are we a Christian community at all? – yes, despite all I have said, there are marks of Christlike grace about. And things are getting better: it seems that a new culture is seeping in, with tolerance, forgiveness and mutual respect at its heart.
I have mentioned the word community quite a lot. Being in the Cathedral has raised powerfully for me the question of what a Christian community is. My parish congregation in Leeds was small and intimate; with all the usual qualifications about people on the fringe, we knew by and large that we belonged together, and that we shared a common story which the wider neighbourhood did not share with us. The cathedral community does not know what it is, or even particularly what binds it together. Nevertheless, the new cathedral constitution calls for a roll of community members (larger than the traditional Anglican electoral roll) that includes congre-gation, paid staff and volunteers. I suppose the common factor between all of us is that we feel we belong somehow to Coventry Cathedral, whatever that means for each of us.
Unlike a small church in inner-city Leeds (or an Anabaptist community in Reformation Europe), we are in no sense a minority. If we want to talk to the City Council we expect to go to the top. We are invited to sit in the front row at civic events, and invite civic leaders to sit in the front row at big Cathedral events: I got a wry laugh pointing this out when preaching last September on James 2. The clergy of the diocese are sometimes supportive, sometimes even deferential, but as often they are cynical about our position in church and society. This isn’t entirely fair, in that the position is expected of us – however, we occasionally ask for it by giving ourselves airs and graces. We seem to live in a constant whirl of short-term relationships, which can be quite intense.
I still remember the service for those who had been involved in adoption; this was a risky venture, which generated a strong team spirit among the planning group, but as soon as the service was over the team and its spirit dissipated. Such a service gathers several hundred strangers, expects them to form enough of a community to worship and maybe share deep emotions together (as this one did, successfully). It then propels them forth into the world, in the hope that they have been reached by a glimpse of God’s glory or a touch of his healing love.
I was brought up in an evangelical environment that would not have approved of the church getting involved in politics, and I am still something of a ‘floating voter’ – reluctant to commit myself to any party or ideology. But I have shocked myself by becoming gradually more and more involved in local politics, usually in pursuit of an objective that seems to me connected with the Christian gospel. The day I arrived at Coventry Cathedral the Provost was invited to be the independent chair of the Coventry Anti-Poverty Forum, a task which he was unable to fulfil with more than token commitment. I was in his study at the time, and offered to help. So I became co-chair of a campaigning and lobbying group of workers in voluntary-sector charities, local councillors and council officers, and health and other statutory workers. Out of that I was asked to chair a programme delivery group tackling poverty for Coventry’s new Community Plan, and my face is familiar to the occupants of the City Council offices.
I suppose this is the area of my ministry where I feel least tension with my convictions and aspirations, and the area where I feel the least hankering after Anabaptist ideas. The reason I am acceptable (and even influential) in the local authority is my position as a cathedral canon. I have no theological right to that position or that influence – indeed, the Church does not have that right – but if a secular society invites me to exercise a ministry in this way, who am I to refuse? I would love to discuss this with a more thorough-going Anabaptist, as I am unsure whether it is heresy or not!
Recently I asked a council officer who has become a friend whether he could think of a two-word mission statement that would express the ‘social responsibility’ concept in a less ‘worthy’, ought-ridden manner. He is far from being a Christian, but replied immediately with the reminder, ‘I don’t think you could improve on “Faith in the City”. It inspired a whole generation of local government people, and we still regard the Church of England highly because of it.’ That report was published 15 years ago – how many other church reports from any denomination have that long an active life?
The opportunity to represent my parishioners (who had no access of their own to the corridors of power) was one aspect of ministry I discovered as a vicar. Now that I have no parish, I am seeking to represent people and communities in poverty, by influencing structures and political decisions to make the fight against poverty a higher priority. My reasons for believing in this are theological, but the language I use is almost entirely secular.
These are personal conclusions, which I hope will serve to open a discussion of the issues that are relevant to the growing Anabaptist identity outside historically Anabaptist denominations. I have found myself in a ‘top-down’ Anglican cathedral which works for peace between world leaders (and sometimes more lowly people and communities) but is still needing to learn reconciliation within its own community. It calls itself a community, but the ties of belonging, shared story and common virtues are loose. Even the story of the destruction and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral will no longer have its eye-witness power, once the eye-witnesses are no longer with us. However, the privilege of being part of the establishment has opened up opportunities to work on behalf of the powerless and marginalised – not to solve their problems so much as to influence minds and decisions, so that they are enabled to work at their problems for themselves.
Chris Burch, whose story ‘The Vicar’s Tale’ appears in Coming Home, met Anabaptist insights and people while he was a vicar in inner-city Leeds. In 1995 he moved to become Canon Precentor of Coventry Cathedral, where he is responsible for the Cathedral’s worship and takes part in the governance of that high-profile Anglican institution. He is also involved in the city of Coventry, as chair of two secular anti-poverty groups and Bishop’s Chaplain to Urban Priority Areas.