It’s a shame to live in a place but never really get to see it. I therefore consider myself fortunate that work has required me to visit several cities that would otherwise be easily missed. I’ve had few complaints with any of them, although not all are destined to be tourist meccas.
But my favourite thus far has been Coventry. The reason isn’t because of the old cobblestone streets or expansive pedestrian zones – not that they hurt. Really it is because I loved hearing the story of the half-destroyed cathedral, strikingly situated in the centre of the city.
The cathedral was built as a beautiful Gothic church in the 14th century, which should have brought it a little respect. But as fate would have it, Coventry was a priority target for the German Luftwaffe during in the Battle of Britain due to its role as an important industrial centre. The city itself suffered a great deal of damage, with the loss of many lives, in a series of raids. But the most serious raid hit the city on 14 November 1940. A large number of bombers hit the city with a variety of bombs in the course of the evening, killing 568, injuring 1256, and destroying 4300 homes as well as other buildings. In this attack, the cathedral itself was first set aflame, and then destroyed, leaving behind a broken shell-spire intact, a few walls, but little else.
In the midst of the horror that is war, I doubt that many think beyond revenge, fighting back, taking it to the enemy. But the response of the provost (who oversees the cathedral), Richard Howard, was to do the opposite. Immediately after the scale of devastation sunk in he began to speak of reconciliation, of forgiveness for those who wronged them. It was decided that the cathedral would remain a ruin – a new one was built next door – to act as a memorial. The new cathedral would not be built as an act of defiance, but as a sign of faith and hope for the future.
Two beams that fell from the cathedral ceiling were found in the shape of a cross. They were nailed together in this position with the words “Father Forgive” etched in. This has given a name to the “Community of the Cross”, one part of a Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation begun in response to the war. Churches in Germany and elsewhere were brought into communion, and from this has spread an incredible global work of seeking reconciliation all over the world in all sorts of conflict zones.
I had a chance to spend some time in the old cathedral. I found it a challenging place – it sets a high standard for a faithful response to challenge – but also an inspiring one. Coventry Cathedral is, for me, an example of the church at its best. When the church is as it should be it avoids the well-trodden paths of rights-based individualism and self-righteous indignation. We are called to make the difficult decisions to choose mercy over justice and forgiveness over revenge. Anyone can respond to an insult with a harsh word, or a bomb with a bomb in return, but haven’t we had enough of those? I’m far more interested in living out the mercy of Jesus when he forgave those who had him on the cross, and I believe that we live in an exhausted world starving for the same.
When I get to the peak of discouragement at how far we as Christians fail to live up to the standard of the Bible – and myself as the same – it is a great reminder that, when we really do live in a way that takes Jesus seriously, we can be and do something pretty special.
If you are interested in hearing more about the work done from Coventry Cathedral you can find if here.