The Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of St George, set in the grounds of Victorian built Shephalbury Manor, was not just the first Coptic Cathedral in the UK, but also the country’s first purpose-built Coptic place of worship – in fact, there is only one other Coptic Cathedral in Western Europe.
Built in the shape of a crucifix, the Cathedral was inaugurated by His Grace Bishop Angaelos in September 2006 and incorporates traditional Coptic style and decoration. The two main icons, produced by iconographers were, however, first used the year before at the Westminster Cathedral Memorial Service for Brother Roger of Taize.
The main area of worship seats 350, but the design brief to architects S&C Molina was to accommodate congregations of 500 -1,000 at least three times a year. The adjoining multi-purpose hall provides the additional floor area by means of a movable wall. Otherwise used for conferences and a variety of social purposes, it can accommodate a five-a-side football pitch with ease. Additional rooms are available for elements of the Ministry’s youth work, discussion groups, Bible studies and other smaller scale activities, and there is also an upper floor, serviced by lift.
In terms of design and decoration, the cathedral is complemented by a mix of modern functionality and traditional style. From the exterior, this is dominated by the curved, standing seam, zinc roof construction. Zinc was chosen ahead of other metals for its ease of maintenance, colour retention and sustainability. The pre-weathered mid-grey quartz-zinc requires no painting or associated maintenance and will retain its appearance for decades.
In addition to the vaulted roof over the length of the structure, other distinctive elements include a traditional Coptic domed bell tower and design stationed over the building, crowned with a Coptic cross. Dormer style roof windows were also positioned equidistantly along either side of the roof. The interior is decorated with an iconostasis and highly decorative mouldings and altar decoration, and finished with a traditional marble floor. The ceiling is particularly noteworthy as it includes inlaid, hand made ceiling panels, each around 12 inches square. In additional to the altar screen and other hand carved woodwork, they were designed and crafted by skilled craftsmen in Egypt.
Members of the Church took an active role in the design, which initially covered just the building shell. The Bishop’s brief specified use of geometrically decorative, pure forms such as triangle and squares, the ceiling panels being a good example. In addition, to suit the unusual roof design it was necessary to minimise its overall depth. The dramatic visual identity of the roof covers 1700m2 with radii of 3.77m, 4.3m and 1.2m radius.
The standing seam construction was used with cellular glass insulation, pre-cut for the two larger sections and site-cut for the smaller one. Panels with a patented underside protective layer were fixed to the substructure using galvanised steel plates set within the 160mm thick cellular glass system. Fixing of the outer sheet to the cellular glass was by means of special stainless steel clips screwed into the fixing plates. Specialist contractor Richardson Roofing commented: “The zinc system design is intrinsically simple, but ideal for such curved roof panel detailing”. A single ply system completed the remaining 350m° of flat roof.
Despite the Coptic Church being an ancient one, its role within the community very much reflects that of a living church. Its contemporary design also reflects the emphasis on youth and diversity of pastoral, social and individual activities and services. The largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, this truly unique building and its accompanying facilities are set to serve the community in a much greater capacity than ever before.