The Chapel of Unity -
still witnessing in the tent
Among the architectural highlights of Coventry Cathedral is the Chapel of Unity, whose shape evokes a crusader’s tent, approached either from the south-west corner of the Cathedral nave or through its own external door. The latter access affirms the independent nature of the Chapel, owned by a Joint Council now representing Anglican, Free and Catholic churches. Few visitors realise that, as early as 1945 a “Chapel of Unity” was established by ecumenically-minded Church leaders in Coventry and a space found for gatherings in the West Crypt of the “old” Cathedral.
Thus the Chapel that we see in the “new” Cathedral design represented a new home but not a completely new start for this initiative for Coventry’s Christians. The tent-like structure is no accident as it in turn evoked the theme of a temporary dwelling: both for the group and for the idea of church unity. Surely unity, once begun, would continue to spread? But as a minister of the United Reformed Church, many of whose elder colleagues expected such a momentum to prevail when our own denomination was formed in 1972, I know that unity and union is not un-stoppable.
I wonder, what do visitors to the Chapel think, who come in and wonder at the imagination of Einar Forseth in designing the mosaic floor, or on a sunny day appreciate the projected colours of the recessed stained glass? What do they visualise when they take note of the weekly ecumenical services that are held? They may look around at the Chapel seating and imagine a stream of workers on their way to their daily employment dropping in on Wednesday mornings, shoppers perhaps filling the place on a Tuesday lunchtime. Not so. The numbers are not at all large and depend very much on the week-to-week availability of the “regulars”, augmented some of the time by a small number of Cathedral visitors or by the personal following of a visiting worship-leader!
Should we take this as some barometer of low enthusiasm for things ecumenical? I don’t think so. It is just that, although a special place, the Chapel is like many of our local churches today. We are seeking a new way to “do” ecumenical cooperation in the context of the Chapel while still catering for those for whom the old regular routine still serves. “The Church is its people and not the buildings” may be a cliché, but it is still true. As with many local churches, so in the case of the Chapel we remain dependent on long-standing supporters and enthusiasts to maintain momentum while we discern what the Christians of Coventry actually need the Chapel to do. We have to acknowledge that the Chapel is not the only route by which Coventry Christians are cooperating and that to travel into the city centre to “do” ecumenism in a sometimes-cold worship space is not always appropriate, however iconic the building.
But I take heart in the life of the Chapel (as I do in the life of the smaller of my own churches), maintained by its faithful supporters who each give from their own gifts. The regular ecumenical witness to God continues. Talented people ensure it is also an almost constant showcase for displays highlighting short- or long-term issues of justice and peace, and there is much that those visitors of ours would have to have tried hard to ignore, if all they took away was thoughts of mosaics and windows.
To my mind the beating heart of the Chapel, and its strength, lies in the lay participation in its management and organisation. Also in the fact that its day-to-day running is placed in the hands of faithful Christians who are there not as appointees but because they want to be, whose role is to try to make things happen* and not to beat a denominational drum. It is not unusual – anywhere - for local ecumenical enthusiasm to ebb and flow depending on the preferences of the local church leaders. But in the Chapel of Unity there is a permanent route through which church members’ enthusiasm can be channelled and Coventry Christians of different traditions come together to worship and witness.
Revd Bill Young is a non-stipendiary minister in the United Reformed Church, in shared pastoral charge of four churches in Coventry alongside a career in Mechanical Engineering. He is a member of the Coordinating Group of the Chapel of Unity at Coventry Cathedral.
Link to Coventry Cathedral Chapel of Unity
Note: This year the Chapel of Unity initiated and facilitated the planning of the special service in the Cathedral to mark “Reformation 500” which is being held at 4pm on Sunday 29th October.