Tuesday, February 1, 2011


To be “cathedraled out” is a cliché of tourism. I have not yet reached that point (but then I am not that well-traveled). My continued interest in touring churches is connected to my conviction that the greatest work of art in the history of the western world is the Christian Church – the architecture, the poetry, the painting, the music, and the rest – a grand work of art.

Penelope At Rest, St. Oswald's Church
Many church buildings are living museums, “living” in the sense that they house the religious artistry and music of the ages while continuing to be centers of active congregations. When we visited the 12th century St. Oswald’s Church in Ashbourne, England (which displayed the oldest church key in Britain, no kidding), we were moved both by the heartbreakingly lovely seventeenth century marble tomb effigy of five-year-old Penelope Boothby, and by the lively children’s art display that was going on in the narthex.

November 14, 1940
But an even more arresting juxtaposition of the church ancient and modern is Coventry Cathedral. Established a thousand years ago by Leofric and his wife, Lady Godiva, the cathedral was bombed to rubble by the Germans in 1940, with just a shell of walls and the spire remaining. (It is said that the equally ancient Oxford, just forty-five miles away, was spared by Hitler because he intended it to be his seat of government when he conquered England.) Walking in the empty space of the old church – which has now become an open-air amphitheater for the production of plays and concerts – is an emotional and reflective experience. In the shattered altar space is a shrine to peace, with the words “Father Forgive” inscribed behind two charred beams that fell in the shape of a cross. (Churchill may have ordered the bombing of the magnificent Frauenkirche in Dresden in retaliation for Coventry. Today, the two congregations are sister churches in a ministry of reconciliation.)

The old (left) and the new
And the “modern?”  A short passage across from the blasted walls is the entrance to the new Coventry Cathedral, which was begun immediately after the war and dedicated in 1962. It is magnificent. The 1950s and 60s are usually not recognized as the paragon of architectural design, and, indeed, the “magnificence” of the new Coventry has not so much to do with an upward-oriented heavenly grandeur as with an inviting and welcoming sense of breadth. (I am reminded of an analysis I heard somewhere: “Church design prior to 1945 emphasized ‘God’s holy place;’ since 1945 it has emphasized ‘God’s holy people.’”) Caryl and I were thoroughly absorbed in exploring its interior spaces, including the striking "Gethsemane Chapel." New Coventry is not trying to recreate something out of the middle ages. It is what it is: a center of a vital community and a place that will seem “modern” for a long time to come. (And there is nothing of the museum about it.)

Gethsemane Chapel
Someday I want to return to evensong at York Minster or an organ recital at Westminster Abbey. But what I really want to do is pay my grateful respects to Lady Godiva at her statue in the Town Square, and then worship at her new Coventry Cathedral.

(Click on the link above and take the Virtual Tour of the cathedral.)

Lady Godiva, Town Centre, Coventry

No comments: