My wife Annie reflects below on our visit today to Coventry......
We have just come back from an afternoon in Coventry – we thought we'd visit an exhibition on peace-making in the art gallery then go to the cathedral for evening prayer or our our own quiet prayer and reflection before heading home. It all seemed to be going according to plan, simple as it was: the bus and the train both ran on time, we enjoyed good conversation, spotted a friend on a video presentation in the exhibition and even found a vegan café. It was dark, damp and foggy by the time we came to the cathedral at 4pm.
Much of my 20s and 30s revolved around Coventry and I have a jumble of memories of the cathedral, I was always particularly drawn to the Gethsemane Chapel and this was the place I imagined praying in this afternoon, in candlelight.
A sign pointed 'visitors ' 100 yards or so further away, to a large entrance, while a door to the left labelled for people wishing to pray was roped off. A third door – a middle way – opened onto the main body of the worship space, dominated by the Sutherland 'Christ in Glory,' which to be honest I never liked much. Barely over the thresh-hold, we were met by a robed verger (I assume it was a verger), who said, 'have you just come to look round?'
'No,' I said, 'we've come wanting to sit in quiet...' and with that, he directed us firmly to a side chapel on the left, 'you can go in there. People use that for quiet prayer.' Heavy laden in his voice was the implicit message, 'but you may not go wandering about anywhere else, because you have not paid. You have sneaked in, trying to get a free visit.'
Well, we obediently went to the chapel – it is dedicated to peace and unity I think, and was hung with paper cranes, but the candles were unlit; a bright spotlight glared from the wall, leaflets preached good causes and a piano sat closed. Something made me want to open it up and play it, but otherwise, my prayerfulness had transmuted into shocked and disappointed disillusionment, and I scribbled a poem on a piece of paper I found lying around,and left it on the piano for the verger.
Coming out of the chapel, we thought we might be able to join in an evensong service or use the service books ourselves to say evening prayer, and headed for another side-chapel. 'So are you having a look around now?' asked the verger, with more of the air of a bouncer than the guardian and host of a holy place.
'Why do you ask? Are you locking up?'
'No, but there is a charge for looking around …'
'but this is a place of worship, we have come here to pray...'
'Well it's not fair on the people who have paid to look round.'
I never got anywhere near the Gethsemane chapel but I could see its crown of thorns and the candlelight. It is a sad state of affairs that tourists are more welcome in the cathedral than people seeking holy ground to pray, and it's a shame to put a price either on prayer or on the possibility of sight-seers having a spiritually moving experience. What if I had been going through some crisis or for the first time had dared to enter a place of worship hoping to discover Jesus, or a welcome in his name, at least ? What a message to be giving out to the public, I felt like weeping with shame – this is my church.
The shock comes in the comparison I find myself making with the places of worship of other faiths. In any Gurudwara for example, I could pray in peace and receive a free meal too, gladly and graciously given. The regular worshippers stream in and out night and day,with their offerings of food and money to keep the place alive because it is a beautiful hub of community life, weaving together service, sharing, scripture and prayer. I don't see that energy in this cathedral,the money-pinching and cynical reception betrays a spiritual poverty, a material fear of making ends meet, a forgetting of the gospel message that renders this an unholy place concerned first with money, at best an art gallery with an interesting past. Next time I visit Coventry I will do better to say my prayers on a city-centre bench, surrounded by people and pigeons, and whatever the price is for an entry ticket to the cathedral, I'll spend on lunch for a Big Issue vendor.
Annie Heppenstall is an artist and author her books Reclaiming The Sealskin - Meditations in the Celtic Spirit and Wild Goose Chase are published by Iona Books. Her latest book The Healer's Tree - a series of reflections upon trees in the Bible and more - is due out in the Spring