Out of the Ashes — Hope and Reconciliation

On our way to Cambridge we stopped off for a tour of Coventry Cathedral. We’ve already seen many cathedrals in our almost four weeks here, each one being truly unique. But Coventry (or the Cathedral Church of St. Michael) has a powerful message of reconciliation built into the very stones, stained glass, sculpture and other art that comprise the sacred space.

The present cathedral was finished in 1962. It is the third cathedral to stand in the general vicinity. The first one was associated with a Benedictine monastery and endowed by Leofric and his perhaps more famous wife, Lady Godiva in 1043. By the middle of the 13th century, a much larger cathedral had taken the place of the smaller one. This building remained one of the largest parish churches until it was bombed during the blitz of Coventry during World War II.

Our guide told us a very dramatic story about the November night in 1940 — the four wardens on the fairly flat roof of the cathedral, trying to throw the incendiary devices off using only garden forks, or covering them with sand if they caught fire. After hours of this futile work, they had to abandon the roof and the cathedral to its fate.

All that is left today are the ruins of what was once a beautiful midieval church — and contemporary monuments to the Christian concept of reconciliation.

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After the blitz, in the burnt rubble, a stone mason found two charred beams of the midieval roof that had fallen in the shape of a cross. He attached them together. Immediately the bishop ordered a new worship space to be made amidst the ruins, with the Charred Cross standing behind the altar itself. Engraved on the old stone walls, now stained with smoke, are the words, “Father, Forgive.”

Of course these words are an echo of Jesus’ dying words from the Cross in Luke: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34). The bishop deliberately shortened the quote to remind all who read the engraved words that each one of us, not just our “enemies”, are in need of forgiveness. This was a bold and courageous statement to make during time of war.

The new cathedral was designed by Basil Spence and stands adjacent to the ruins of the old one. Especially effective for me was the western window, known as the “Screen of Saints and Angels.” Figures of saints and angels are engraved on the window, creating images that you look right through. When inside the cathedral, you look through the saints and angels to see the ruins of the bombed church, as if to see the “cloud of witnesses” that worshipped through the ages in this location. When you are outside you can more clearly see your reflection, as you look into the sanctuary. As you see your own reflection you are placed in the midst of the saints and angels! What an effective reminder of our place in God’s Kingdom and our role as ambassadors of the reconciliation this Cathedral so effectively embodies!

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