Being sent to Coventry is good for the soul

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
When Gerald Haigh went in search of the spiritual heart of a city, he found that he couldn't walk far without coming to a place of worship most eager to share its faith with new visitors.

A typical manufacturing town in the Fifties and Sixties, Coventry, was often seen as materialistic - car and tractor factories were working flat out and the workers were well paid.

At the same time, though, a very real and diverse spiritual growth was beginning. Not only was the new cathedral going up, but people from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and eastern Europe were arriving and building a church, chapel or temple on almost every major street in some parts of the city.

Basil Spence's new Coventry cathedral made an impact on the city, and the country, when it opened in 1962. It was set alongside the ruins of its Luftwaffe-blitzed, 15th-century predecessor.

For many months there was a permanent queue of visitors waiting patiently to see the things they'd heard about - the "fly's eye" ceiling vault, the daring pillars that taper down to a pinpoint connection with the floor, the glorious baptistry window, the Sutherland tapestry.

But the real beauty of the cathedral lies in its symbolism. It was an astonishingly bold decision to rebuild it in a city that was also crying out for houses and hospitals. So many other symbolic acts followed - the insistence that the blitzed shell of the old cathedral should remain and be incorporated into whatever was new. There was the deliberate focus on the twin themes of renewal and reconciliation, from which so much else springs - the creation of a Chapel of Unity, for example, and the many links, particularly at the level of youth working parties, with blitzed German cities such as Dresden.

Even the massive limestone boulder which forms the font has great significance. It was standing on a hillside overlooking Bethlehem on the night of Christ's birth. It was a generous international effort - uniting Muslims, Christians and Jews - which brought the boulder to where it now stands.

The cathedral is physically the most obvious religious building in Coventry. Look around, though, and you find many more. In this city - as in Leicester, Bradford, and Manchester - you cannot walk far before coming to a place of worship.

Some are converted. A house in Coventry, which once belonged to 19th-century novelist George Eliot, is now home to a Jamaican Pentecostal group, which shares the premises with a Bangladeshi community centre. But many more are purpose-built Hindu, Sikh and Muslim places of worship.

School parties visit many of these, not just because of today's RE syllabuses, but because of the move towards an inclusive society that underpins PSHE and citizenship programmes.

If the visits are to work, though, children have to be helped to look beyond the interesting and exotic.

Canon John Eardley, until very recently Coventry diocesan director of education, says: "The key is not just to see the places, but to meet the people who have a living faith."

Canon Eardley and his team, advisers and the local SACRE, help places of worship to put on special welcoming exhibitions for schools. The faith community is excited and enthusiastic about the level of interest shown.

"A new development now," Canon Eardley says, "is that the churches, temples and mosques are arranging visits tailored for special schools, with wheelchair access for example."

One church which takes part in this programme is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Transfiguration, whose congregation is largely local Greek Cypriot families, as well as some students from Coventry and Warwick Universities.

Many communities have Orthodox churches quietly serving their own residents and yet gratefully welcoming visitors who want to see and learn. This one is a converted Church of England school that closed in the early Seventies and you could miss it passing by. But inside it has been given a loving makeover. In line with Orthodox tradition, the walls are lined with beautiful icons, most painted in monasteries in Cyprus.

In an Orthodox church, everything has meaning. It's right, therefore, that school parties are shown round by Helen Maoudis, a church committee member whose personal faith is very real, and so naturally expressed that no one can miss the connection between the objects that they see and the spirituality which the artefacts and icons express.

She tells the story about the time a school visited as communion was coming to an end. "There were two children of another faith, and as the priest distributed the antidoro (the bread which is not directly used in communion but which is shared with the rest of the congregation) he said to them, 'I know you are not Christian, but will you take the bread as a sign of love and friendship?' "They did take the bread," says Mrs Maoudis. "It was a very moving moment. I thought if these children can be so accepting, across religious boundaries, then why can adults around the world not do the same?" This church is typical in the welcome it gives to school parties.

Dr Eleanor Nesbitt, senior lecturer at the University of Warwick, who has extensively researched the many faith communities in Coventry and organises visits with students and other adult groups, finds that there is a big fund of goodwill in the churches and temples.

"The people in the communities are heartened when schools show an interest," she says. She's keen, though, that good relationships are not compromised by people who don't approach their visits properly. If too many people make insensitive mistakes, goodwill can be put under pressure. Dr Nesbitt gives an example of a Sikh gurdwara which has stopped offering the karah parshad (a gift of holy food) because of visitors refusing or - worse - discarding it.

"If individuals do their best, it'll be more than appreciated," she says, "but too many people getting too many things wrong can have a negative effect."

The list of things that it's possible to get wrong can actually be rather daunting. In Sikh gurdwaras, male visitors have to cover their heads with preferably a clean white handkerchief.

Many churches have places you can't enter, or which only men can enter. In an Orthodox church, you don't sit with your legs crossed. In many places you have to remove your shoes. In others, you can only sit on the floor, segregated by sex. You take a gift of food with your right hand and you don't reject what's offered - which means pupils bring a little bag to take food away to share with friends.

The good news, though, is that none of these courtesies is difficult to remember or understand provided that the teacher has done good preparatory work - including the essential preliminary visit.

Ideally, the contact ought to go beyond this so that teachers, and ultimately pupils, are developing good first-hand experience of a number of places of worship in their area.

"The more sleuthing around you do," says Dr Nesbitt, "the more friendships you make with a wide range of people - and the more you keep in touch with your local patch the better."

Most teachers hardly need to be told about the importance of showing some knowledge of, and respect for, the places they are taking school parties. Dr Nesbitt points out, though, that the teacher's own attitude is at leastas important. The profession reflects society as a whole, which means that there are evangelical Christian teachers, atheist teachers, Sikh teachers. The whole spectrum is there.

Dr Nesbitt says: "Some teachers are anti-religion and don't want to give a donation to a religious group, for example. Others are devoutly involved in their own faith - so some Christians will be reluctant to bow before the scriptures of another faith."

Yet others, she says, seem to display a mixture of attitudes. "There are those liberals who have distanced themselves from theirown Christian moorings and become cynical about churches, but who will bend over backwards to accommodate everythingthat has a South Asian or Caribbean flavour."

There are no easy answers here. What's important is that teachers take the time to examine theirown feelings and attitudes when they become involved in this sort of work.

Of course, there are some places of worship that schools have always visited - Westminster Abbey, the great cathedrals both here and in mainland Europe. Sometimes, especially after a long coach trip, these outings can be like museum tours, with children itching to get into the gift shops.

What Coventry shows us, though, together with the work of people like Canon Eardley and Helen Maoudis and Dr Eleanor Nesbitt - whose equivalents are at work in every centre of population - is that it's possible almost anywhere to go out of the school gates, turn left or right, and find places that might be smaller and less famous, but which bear living testimony to the faith of the people who worship in them.

Useful publications include the Bridges to Religions materials available from the University of Warwick Institute of Education, a series of pupil and teacher books for key stages one and two on the major world faiths. At 75 per cent discount to schools, they are good value. Phone or email Miss U McKenna on 024 7652 2806 Rom and the Internet make virtual visits possible. Latest version of Granada Learning's Aspects of Religions CD Rom (pound;80) for KS34 has virtual tours of places of worship. The RE-XS website ( has virtual visits, classroom material, and is a starting point for finding other RE sites.

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