27 August 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (91) 27 August 2023

Coventry Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, opened over 60 years ago in 1962 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and today is the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII, 27 August 2023).

Later this morning, I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton. But, before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth and Lichfield. This week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Coventry;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

‘Christ in Glory’ … Graham Sutherland’s 72 ft tapestry in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Coventry Cathedral (new):

When I was growing up, and in my early adult years, Coventry Cathedral had a profound interesting influence on my ideas both about architecture and about practical expressions of my faith. The architect who designed the chapel at my boarding school based his plans and designs on the designs and plans by Sir Basil Spence for the new cathedral at Coventry.

Although there is a significant difference in size, both were built at the same time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both have tall, frosted glass forming the west front or entrance, and both have side coloured windows that pour in light from behind the congregation.

Both the chapel and the cathedral have a large wall behind the altar rather than the traditional east window – although the statue in Gormanston bears no comparison with Graham Sutherland’s powerful tapestry in Coventry.

The opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 was an impressive live televised moment. I was a ten-year-old at the time. When I visited the cathedral a few years later, all my expectations and anticipations were more than met.

In my late teens, I was impressed too by the ministry and outreach of Coventry Cathedral, with the emphasis on reconciliation and peacebuilding. Later in life, for many years, my friend Canon Paul Oestreicher was the Director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, working with the Community of the Cross of Nails (1985-1997). A later successor was Justin Welby (2002-2005), now Archbishop of Canterbury.

The new Coventry Cathedral, the third cathedral in Coventry, celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year (2022). When Coventry was destroyed by German bombs on the night of 14 November 1940, the cathedral hit by several incendiary devices and burned with the city. The decision to build a new cathedral was taken the next morning.

Shortly after the destruction, a cathedral worker, Jock Forbes, noticed that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the sanctuary wall. A local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales, made a second cross from three mediaeval nails. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation.

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was not an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. The vision of the Provost, the Very Revd Richard Howard, led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred, and the cathedral developed its Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation which has spread throughout the world.

Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation stone in 1956 and the new cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962. The ruins of the old cathedral remain hallowed ground and together the two create one living cathedral.

The new cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976) is one of the great iconic architectural works of art of the 20th century, and in a national poll in the 1990s Coventry Cathedral was chosen as Britain’s favourite 20th century building.

But if the new cathedral stands as an integral work of architectural art on its own, it also contains many outstanding individual works of art. Large artworks commissioned by Spence include the stained glass baptistery window by John Piper, the bronze sculpture of Saint Michael by Jacob Epstein, the large tapestry behind the main altar by Graham Sutherland, and the Great West Window or ‘Screen of Saints and Angels,’ engraved directly onto the screen in expressionist style by John Hutton.

Inside the cathedral, the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, the Baptistery and the Chapel of Unity, although physically attached to the new Cathedral, are unique spaces that stand apart as important works of art and architecture.

The main body of the cathedral is built of red sandstone. Projecting out are the circular Chapel of Unity and the Chapel of Industry. Zigzag walls let angled windows, designed by Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, direct light down the nave towards the High Altar.

The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane is approached by following the aisle from the Baptistery window towards the altar with Graham Sutherland’s majestic tapestry of Christ above. The intimacy of this chapel is in stark contrast with the size and majesty of the cathedral nave and the High Altar.

Canon Adrian Daffern, in a Lenten sermon in Coventry Cathedral in 2010, spoke of the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane as ‘my favourite part of the Cathedral.’ But he asked people to stop calling it ‘the Gethsemane Chapel’ for short … ‘It is the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane.’

This Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane is a beautiful and serene place within the cathedral, and offers a place of prayer for those who wish to withdraw from the focal point of the cathedral.

The chapel is first glimpsed through a screen in the shape of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. This screen of the Crown of Thorns was designed by Basil Spence and made in wrought iron by the Royal Engineers. Through this circular crown, we see the small chapel with the angel who offers the cup of suffering to Christ as he prayed and a separate panel showing the sleeping disciples.

The chapel is the best-known work by Steven Sykes (1914-1999), a war veteran and war artist who taught at the Chelsea School of Art. Sykes was invited to contribute to the cathedral by Basil Spence, who had also been a camouflage officer in World War II.

The figure of the angel – which has been described by the architectural historians Sir Niklaus Pevsner and Alexandra Wedgwood as ‘consciously Byzantine’ – and the panel of the sleeping disciples by Steven Sykes are modelled like his pottery figures in reverse relief, but then cast in concrete. The background is covered in gold leaf and blue tesserae, forming a mosaic.

In her obituary of Steven Sykes in The Independent in 1999, Tanya Harrod said ‘the result was dazzling.’

As an adult of ‘mature years,’ Coventry Cathedral continues to be impressive and attractive, and even ‘dazzling’, and I have returned there a few times in recent months.

The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 16: 13-20 (NRSVA):

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

The 81 feet high Baptistry Window was designed by John Piper and contains 195 lights of stained glass in bright primary colours (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is the ‘República de Jovens Home in Brazil.’ This theme is introduced today:

In Brazil, state fostering services place children in institutions not families. What’s more, when these young people turn 18, they are released from the system with little public policy to support their reintegration into society or financial stability. The Anglican Parish of Inclusion (of the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil), located in the city of Campo Grande, Missionary District, Mato Grosso do Sul, has acted in response to this difficult reality.

In mid-April, they launched the República de Jovens (Young People’s Community House) project. This new initiative, supported by USPG and the first of its kind in the region, accommodates young boys aged 18-21 after their release from governmental foster care. The home is run in partnership with the Diocese, local government and individual volunteers.

For Bishop Mauricio, the Bishop in Charge of the Missionary District of West Brazil, this initiative is the expression of the love of God for all and God’s calling to love and serve always. Bishop Mauricio said that the community is fulfilling its calling to pray, to be present, to listen and to serve.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (27 August 2023, Trinity XII) invites us to pray in these words:

Creator God,
you fill us with the breath of life.
May we use our lives for your purpose,
Loving others and loving you.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s Saint Michael and the Devil on the façade of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire or deserve:
pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
but through the merits and mediation
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of all mercy,
in this eucharist you have set aside our sins
and given us your healing:
grant that we who are made whole in Christ
may bring that healing to this broken world,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral, reflecting the ruins of the old, bombed cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Matthew 16: 15) … the Chapel of Christ the Servant in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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