Wednesday, 5 April 2017

A Sermon in Stone: on being back in Coventry Cathedral

We spent last weekend in Coventry. I'd been invited to speak at the Cathedral on Sunday morning and at Warwick Parish Church in the evening. The Midlands are at their best in spring. The roads were lined with blackthorn. There was a profusion of magnolia in parks and gardens, and dandelions on every lawn.

April 1 was 30 years to the day since we moved to Coventry from Northumberland. I can be certain of that since the date we left Alnwick is recorded on a sampler we have on the kitchen wall. I remember thinking how lovely Shakespeare's county looked that spring. A few weeks later I was installed as a canon of the Cathedral. The abundant cherry blossom was breathtaking seen against the pink sandstones of the city and its churches in the clean washed light of spring. It was the weekend Coventry City won the Cup Final, so there was Sky Blue on every building too.

Last Sunday, then, I preached a sermon at the sung eucharist. The text was the raising of Lazarus in St John's Gospel (11.1-45). Looking back through my sermon archive, I was amazed to discover that I had never preached on this famous story - how could that be in 42 years of ordained ministry? So I welcomed the opportunity to put it right. (It's never too late to learn.)

I was struck by a coincidence of two texts. One was from the story itself: “This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.” The other was inscribed into the fabric of the Cathedral itself, in uneven letters just by the glass wall at the west end, “To the glory of God this Cathedral burnt". They were of course linked by the word glory which is what leapt out of the page as I imagined myself speaking from the Cathedral pulpit. But I was intrigued by an apparent connection of meaning in elliptical nature of both statements. How could you find  glory in either a mortal sickness, or in a mortally destructive act of violence?  

You can read the sermon to find out what sense I made of this intriguing alignment of texts. But I was also aware that it was Passion Sunday. So the placing of the story of Lazarus just before the events of Holy Week in St John is clearly reflected in the lectionary's placing of it on this Sunday of the year, a week before Palm Sunday. So this sermon would need to point forward to the events of Holy Week, the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.



And of that, both Lazarus and the Cathedral itself are powerful images. Let me speak about the Cathedral. The obvious conception of it is as the new rising, phoenix-like, out of the old. Provost John Petty always said that to walk from the ruins into the new Cathedral is to make the journey from Good Friday into Easter. I don't dispute that. But I think a deeper reading invites us to see how old-and-new belong together inextricably. Physically, this is represented by the way the architect, Basil Spence, linked the new Cathedral to the ruins of the old by an immense porch whose canopy overtops and embraces the north wall of the shattered medieval church. It's a mighty statement of how death-and-resurrection are a single redemptive event as Christian theology understands it.

And when you look out from the west end of the new Cathedral, what you see is the place of ruination and destruction: the bombed out medieval St Michael's of which all that survives are the tower and the walls. You feel a palpable sense of what Wilfred Owen called the pity of war. For Spence, it symbolised the idea of sacrifice. But that isn't all. Above is the great sky, like a huge crack in the fabric running from end to end. When I used to preside at acts of worship out there, I felt I was standing in some kind of vast empty tomb. This was especially true when we would stand before the Charred Cross, a symbol of Golgotha if ever there was one, and pray the words inscribed on the wall behind it, Father, forgive. That ruined sanctuary spoke as much about resurrection as it did about the passion.


Which is why it isn't strictly correct to talk about the old Cathedral and the new. They are one Cathedral whose message is: reconciliation happens when we enter into the paschal movement of God's love which Holy Week proclaims to us. The ruins are still a unified sacred space. Perhaps there's an analogy with the eucharist. In bread and wine, we rehearse and celebrate the whole work of God in Jesus, especially his death and resurrection. It's a feast of the cross but also of the resurrection, the memory of the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died, but also of the Supper at Emmaus on the evening of Easter Day, and of the breakfast by the lakeside a few days later.

In the same way, Coventry Cathedral is a truly paschal cathedral. The whole of it proclaims the three tenses of Christian faith. Love's work has been accomplished in Jesus' death-and-resurrection. It continues to be accomplished in the present as the risen Christ is among us to transform our ordinary days. It will be finally accomplished when "all things are put in subjection under his feet" and his kingdom is finally realised. Every eucharist at the high altar, beneath Graham Sutherland's tapestry of Christ in Glory looks forward to that consummation.

I love Coventry Cathedral for many reasons. But best of all is its capacity to be a sermon in stone about death-and-resurrection, a sermon for these solemn "days of awe" we are about to enter. It's a place where you glimpse the glory of suffering that is healed and transfigured. I think Lazarus would feel at home here.


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