I first visited this cathedral as a small child – one of the many who came in the 60s to see the wonder that was quite unlike anything else .
We DID engage with the ruins first. I remember touching warm stone and thinking “These aren’t ruins – not like my local castle in Hastings at least”...and I’m told that my first reaction on entering the Spence Cathedral was to plonk myself firmly on the floor with my back to the West Screens and announce, with some indignation, “You never told me God was THIS big”.
I don’t remember very much about the rest of the visit. I was distinctly alarmed by the tapestry and I obviously liked the Tablets of the word enough to demand a postcard – which found its way into my school Bible...but the moments that I would now expect to be highlights of any tour – the texture of the font, the glimmer of the mosaic in the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, and the moment of amazment as the hidden glory of the windows is revealed when you turn at the High Altar...All that passed me by.
I was still intrigued by the place, though – and took care to revisist whenever practical through the years. But the human journey which we hope to offer to our visitors just wasn’t part of my experience...not as a child and not, indeed, as a periodic visitor. Certainly my early visits were unmediated by anything except, perhaps, a Pitkin guide. It didn’t worry me. Something was still going on, an inner journey enabled by the space, and it was only when I became an insider , joining the staff, that I realised that there might be a “right” and a “wrong” way to experience the Cathedral.
Of course, now I take care to lead them the “right” way – but I’m beginning to think that perhaps I could just trust the building to do its work. If each visit is a conversation between the visitor and the building, perhaps we should sit light to what they want to talk about…understanding that there will be as many different motivations for a visit, as many different needs to be met as there are feet crossing the threshold.
Of course this doesn’t mean that an absence of interpretation is acceptable. This building has many stories to tell – of 20th century art and architecture, of the Coventry Blitz and post war co-operation, of enmity and reconciliation, death and reresurrecti – all held within the over-arching Christian story without which there would be no Cathedral at all. We long for visitors to grasp something of each of those – for everyone who comes to have some sort of transformative experience and to realise that there is room for their own story to find a place too.
“This is our truth – tell us yours” might be a theme to consider as we present the different layers of meaning, inviting visitors to explore on their own terms, to arrive at places we might not have envisaged, either spatially or theologically, but trusting that the over-riding story of reconciliation hope will speak to them through the very stone, no matter how that