Today was a great day! We spent the afternoon in Stratford-upon-Avon – otherwise known as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We finished at Oxford College, where we are spending the night. But for me it was our stop in Coventry this morning that was most moving.
During the Second World War, Coventry was an industrial center specializing in the production of aircraft and munitions. This made it an attractive target for German bombers. And there were a number of raids on Coventry during the war. But none was as devastating at the Luftwaffe attack on November 14, 1940. That night, the Germans dropped over 36,000 incendiary bombs. 4300 homes were destroyed. Two thirds of the city’s buildings were damaged. Power, water, and sewer were all destroyed. There were almost 1700 casualties in this one raid alone.
One of the buildings that was destroyed in the bombing was St. Michael’s Cathedral which, at the time of the war, had been around for over 500 years. Bombs pierced the roof, blew out its windows and destroyed its central pillars. All that remained was blackened and pock-marked exterior walls. And yet the decision was made not to rebuild the ruins, but rather to build next to the ruins. The people of Coventry wanted to remember what had happened. And so now the ruins of St Michael’s cathedral stand next to the stunning new sanctuary of St Michael’s. The result is a powerful retelling of the story of the church and its ability to overcome darkness and death! Today St Michael’s is deeply involved in ministries of reconciliation – particularly in situations where civilians have unjustly suffered.
Most profound for me were the words scrawled on the wall behind the altar and charred wooden cross at the front of the bombed out sanctuary. It is said that the pastor of the church, Richard Howard, wrote the words “Father Forgive” with the charcoal of the burned timbers. It is also said that he intentionally did not say – “Father forgive THEM.” Meaning the Germans. This would have made sense in light of the bombing. But Father Howard wanted to remind the people that everyone has something they need forgiveness for! As you can guess, this wasn’t an easy message for the people of Coventry to hear in the weeks and months following the bombing.
As I walked around the ruins this morning, it struck me that this is a powerful example for the church today. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in what we think the church should be doing or not doing. Or who we think the church should or should not be ministering to. And this results in division and even self-righteousness. But when we remember that we all stand in need of forgiveness, we find ourselves on common ground. It is when we live out “Father forgive” rather than “Father forgive them” that we are able to focus on being the church that Christ calls us to be!