Until November 14, 1940, the English midlands town of Coventry was probably chiefly known to the wider world for the legendary (and highly improbable) story of “Lady Godiva”, who was said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry to persuade her husband to lower the taxes on the poor. But on that November night the Luftwaffe bombarded the city with incendiary bombs, and both the cathedral and the city burned
We will rebuild
The very next morning, as the shocked people surveyed the damage all around, and the devastation to their beautiful 12th century cathedral, which had taken several direct hits, the decision was made to rebuild. This decision was made, so the cathedral history tells us, not as an act of defiance to the Germans, but as a sign of “faith, trust and hope for the future of the world” – in itself a courageous act of faith during that period which Churchill named “Britain’s darkest hour”. This response was led by the provost, Richard Howard, who made a cross from 3 nails from the roof of the destroyed building. Another man, Jock Forbes, noticed that two charred sticks had fallen in the shape of a cross. He tied them together, and the “charred cross” placed on an altar of rubble, became the symbol of their resolution, not only to rebuild, but to deliberately turn away from hatred and bitterness and seek peace and reconciliation instead.
A Ministry of Reconciliation
The following Christmas Day Provost Howard spoke on national radio about his commitment, when the war was over, to rebuilding the world on this basis, rather than revenge. From this choice sprang the development, when the war was over, of Coventry Cathedral as a world Centre for Reconciliation. One of the first things they did was send over teams of people to help rebuild the cathedrals in such cities as Kiel, Dresden and Berlin, which the Allies had heavily bombed; and those cities, likewise, sent teams to help with the rebuilding at Coventry. It also led to the formation of the (now) worldwide Community of the Cross of Nails, which now has 170 partner organisations in 35 countries, committed together to the ministry of reconciliation
My own visit
I went to Coventry cathedral one late afternoon, knowing very little about it except that it had been bombed during the war and rebuilt. I was quite unprepared for what I found there. The remains of the old cathedral, open to the sky, still form a place that is set aside for prayer. Within a partial enclosure of warm red stone, interspersed with the shapes of the original windows, now bare to the light of heaven, you walk across the ancient paved floor, knowing that this is a place where men and women have come to pray for centuries. You ponder the significance of a striking modern sculpture of St Michael defeating the devil, just outside the new cathedral, encouraged by the reminder of the absolute ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God. You go through the modern cathedral, touched by its spare, modern beauty, and go down to the section where you read the full history of what has taken place here down through the centuries, from the original Benedictine monastery of Saxon times, down through the Reformation and various political shifts of fortune to the events of the Second World War and all that followed from it. It is a story of hope, but also a story that sets out starkly the horror and evil that occurred. You see a lovely carving that signifies reconciliation: two kneeling figures in embrace.
All of this was deeply moving, and a great inducement to prayer, but it wasn’t the thing that has stayed with me and had me pondering its implications for these many months afterwards. The charred cross, emblem of their deliberate choice to choose mercy, is displayed upon a wall, and underneath are two stark words, “Father forgive”. It was the missing word that arrested me, and has haunted my understanding ever since.
For what do we expect to find? The words that Jesus uttered on the cross, “Father forgive them”. But here there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, because, unlike Jesus, we are not innocent victims. Please do not misunderstand me, of course there are situations of injustice and one-sided malice, (some of us have experienced them), where one is clearly the wronged and the other one is the offender. But this is a bigger picture, another place, where, whoever may have started it, we all stand together, guilty. We all stand together, helplessly mired in the escalation of wrongs, and that charred cross is the symbol of the answer. For it was there that Jesus became sin in our place, so that through Him, and only through Him, we might become the righteousness of God. It is here that we stand, not enumerating either our rights or our wrongs, but seeking and finding mercy in the very place where judgement was outpoured. And so, we all stand together, receiving mercy and passing it, tenderly, one to another. Thus we are healed and thus, as we carry to others the precious mercy of Christ, we too become healers.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5: 17-19