Friday, 1 February 2013

A lesson from Coventry

The Corrymeela community has close links with Coventry Cathedral, and the volunteer house where we live is named Coventry house in honour of that link. As we were in the area over the Christmas holidays, a visit to Coventry and its Cathedral seemed a fitting thing to do.

Coventry is actually home to two consecrated Anglican Cathedrals, the old Cathedral, now in ruins, suffered severe damage during second world war bombing raids. When the time came after the war to rebuild the cathedral a choice was made to leave the symbolic ruins and build a new Cathedral, full of symbolism, adjacent to the existing site.

After the bombings of November 1940, the cathedral community made a commitment to seek reconciliation rather than revenge, but this post isn't really about that, or at least, not only about that.

When we went to Coventry on a chilly December day, we visited the atmospheric ruins but did not visit the new cathedral.

As a volunteer, the £8 admission charge felt prohibitively expensive.

I have a general objection to any church charging for entry: Coventry was not the first church I have not been into because they charge admission, nor, I suspect will it be the last. After all, a church's first vocation is to be a place of prayer, a place of encounter with God: and I don't believe a charge should ever be attached to that encounter.

Somehow though, Coventry Cathedral's decision to charge struck an even more sour note than in other places I have been. The Cathedral professes a vocation of peace building and reconciliation: and yet it closes its doors to at least some who would choose to enter through them. While ti claims it has a special ministry to bring the message of reconciliation to the world, it does not fling wide its doors to welcome all who would enter here. 

For me, the vocation to reconciliation is not just professing an anti-war message, it is about drawing circles ever wider: drawing in those who are outside, not by expecting them to conform to our expectations, but by making our circles wide enough that they are included just as they are. It is about breaking down barriers which divide us from one another, brick by brick.

For me, the choice to charge people to enter the cathedral building is symptomatic of building a wall instead of knocking one down; of creating a divide instead of being an open space for division to be healed.

And yes, I am sure that it wasn't reasoned out like that when the cathedral community made the decision to start charging an admission fee. I am sure nobody sat round in a meeting and said, "let us build a wall between those of us who are on the inside and those who are outside." I am sure it was the financial implications of maintenance which were the first consideration. They often are.

But then, that is so often the case, and maybe that is exactly the problem, and exactly what saddened me during my non-visit to Coventry Cathedral. We don't necessarily set out to build walls between ourselves and somebody else: but when we are busy looking in at how to maintain our security and comfort, when we are busy looking in at how to make things work for us, when we are busy looking in at how to avoid too high a cost to ourselves, be that financial or otherwise, we often don't even seem to notice the barriers our actions are building between us and the other.

That may not be conflict but it sure isn't reconciliation either. 

So, I guess if Coventry Cathedral genuinely wants to be a place that promoted reconciliation, perhaps they need to consider how their choices and actions reflect that vocation; how to keep what they claim to have as their primary vocation at the forefront of their collective minds as they choose the direction they wish to walk, how to live the message of reconciliation they speak.

But maybe this blog post isn't just about "them": maybe it's more about me. I am sure that I am just as compromised and just as contradictory as Coventry Cathedral. Maybe everyone is. Maybe what I should take away from my irritation at my visit to Coventry, is the challenge that I too need to look inwards not in order to maintain the security and comfort of my ego, but in order to discern my own primary vocation. And from that looking in to turn outwards, not in order to preach a message, but in order to live life accordingly.

It is not what we say we believe, but what we choose to do that shows our true primary concerns.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that all cathedrals must allow you to enter without charge if you are going to pray / worship (I think it is a legal requirement - which is not advertised!).
    I too object to being charged to enter a church and so I never pay to go in and if I am asked, I say that i am going to pray.
    If having been in the Cathedral and I feel so moved, I will give an offering in response as I leave.
    Thanks for your continued reflections - always worth a read :-)