Coventry Cathedral’s Message of Forgiveness

by David Douglas

David Douglas lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he writes on environmental and religious issues. He is the author of Wilderness Sojourn, Harpers, l987, and heads the non-profit organization WATERLINES that provides clean drinking water to villages in developing countries.

This article appeared in Review for the Religious, November-December l999, volume 58, number 6, 638-648. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


A visit to Coventry Cathedral teaches the author to understand forgiveness in a new and deeper way.

I walk into the bombed-out nave, its windows empty of stained glass, only its roofless sandstone walls revealing the medieval cathedral that crumpled under Nazi explosions.

A few yards away rises Coventry's new postwar cathedral, but I begin here in the ruined shell's sobering chill. On the night of 14 November 1940, Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe, unleashed nearly four hundred fifty bombers from bases in Brittany for the air raid on Coventry. Timed to the full moon and perversely code-named Moonlight Sonata, the operation dropped five hundred tons of high explosives and forty thousand firebombs during eleven hours. It was the first attempt in history to destroy an entire city in a single air attack.

Coventry suffered enormously. The bombing killed or seriously injured more than fourteen hundred people. Goering added a new word to the lexicon: other British cities, he warned, would soon be "coventrated."

One of the buildings destroyed was this cathedral, which traced its roots to the 12th century. The new cathedral could have been built over this same site instead of adjacent to it, but the architect resolved to retain these walls as a memorial. In the open air, with its tracery empty of glass, the ruined shell stretches toward the sky in perpetual Calvary.

The hum of traffic and smell of diesel fuel drift through the ruined nave, hinting of the very industriousness that drew Nazi bombers in the first place to Coventry, the center of Britain's motor and aviation industry a hundred miles northwest of London. The cathedral's losses were not unique; the building shared the fate of other portions of Coventry. Firewatchers had attempted to quench the incendiary bombs, but too many fell, water and sand ran out, and flames spread. With water trucks busy over the city, the men salvaged what they could as fire fed on the wooden pews, organ, and roof beams. It was "as though I were watching the crucifixion of Jesus upon his cross," Provost R.T Howard recalled as he witnessed a place where Christians had worshiped for hundreds of years being destroyed in one night.

The morning after the bombing, the cathedral's stonemason took two charred oaken beams from the debris and tied them together into a cross. Another man, a local Anglican priest, plucked from the ruins three medieval nails and fashioned them into a second cross. These two images became Coventry's postwar witness, symbols of both Good Friday and Easter. Physical destruction, the burnt crosses insisted, does not have the final word.

In the chill of an early December afternoon, I work my way slowly down the ruined nave. A charred cross, a replica of the original, surmounts the stone altar, its burnt blackness in startling contrast to the clean polished wood of most church crosses.

A damp breeze blows through the roofless sanctuary. In the wall behind the altar, two words have been carved into the red sandstone, their letters a foot high: FATHER FORGIVE. Using Jesus' words from the cross, the provost chose to echo in stone the cathedral's postwar mission. Inscribed in the days following the bombing, they seem to point to the men flying the now-silent planes and to the people below as well.

The prayer invokes not human aid but divine will. The petition is only two words. By not adding the word them, the contemporary traveler finds another interpretation: "Father, forgive us."

Coventry's message is a timely one for me, preoccupied with forgiveness as I have never been before. A church in my own life has been metaphorically shattered as destructively as Coventry; anger and distrust have explosively fragmented the worshiping community. Former friends have wielded the mandate to forgive like an ax in the confusion of who has committed wrong.

Perhaps in Coventry I would find hints of what forgiveness is and demands of us. It is not simply forgetting -- the stark presence of the ruined shell prevents that. And, as a sign in large letters reminds visitors, "Forgiveness Is Not Easy." But that says only what forgiveness is not.

I have a flash of anger. What right had the provost to order these words inscribed? It is easy for a cathedral to forgive, for a provost who has not lost a child in the air raid. 'What of those families who suffered deaths and injuries? Disabled survivors still hobble through Coventry. Why extend forgiveness to bombers uncomprehending and unrepentant?

I still feel anger for a church upheaval far away, for betrayal and falsehood. Nursing those grievances, I put forgiveness off till another time

Shortly before I visited Coventry, while staying at a Scottish inn, I encountered a middle-aged tourist who praised Britain's cathedrals and extolled in particular the architectural drama of Coventry's new, postwar cathedral. Over our breakfast at a common table, I asked her what she thought of Coventry's emphasis on forgiveness.

I saw her stiffen as she cut into her eggs. In my sleepy state I realized belatedly that her accent was German. She paused before replying, then said evenly that Dresden, too, was wantonly firebombed. Forgiveness, she suggested, runs two ways, does it not? She implied that the bombings of Coventry and Dresden canceled each other in equivalent blame, as if there were no original fault, no first blow thrown. And we reached an impasse over our breakfast.

Before entering the new cathedral, I pass the former vestries, now, a sign explains, an International Center of Christian Reconciliation, the rebuilding done after the war by young volunteers from Germany "making amends for suffering caused by their parents' generation." Coventry Cathedral, in its first project for reconciliation, helped construct the wing of a hospital in Germany. Its location: Dresden.

Leaving the ruins, I pass under the canopy that links the weathered red shell at a right angle to the modern sanctuary, built between 1954 and 1962 out of the same Staffordshire sandstone.

A clear glass screen seventy feet high and etched with figures of angels, apostles, and prophets serves as the new cathedral's back wall. I peer through it into the lighted nave, a sanctuary offering warmth on a darkening December afternoon. Architect Basil Spence wrote that his desire to design a cathedral stemmed from a wartime incident after D-Day in Normandy: he had seen tanks destroy a beautiful church to kill several German snipers. In postwar England, as a little-known architect, he had submitted his drawing for Coventry's open design competition without "the faintest hope of success."

He received with amazement the news that he had won, later recounting in Phoenix at Coventry":It was lunchtime but I felt I had to go to Saint Paul's Cathedral for a while. I went in and stayed under Christopher Wren's great dome quietly for about an hour. I felt a period of dedication was called for as I had a desperate need to be alone and to meditate quietly."

The first British cathedral built since the Reformation received global publicity. The world peered over his shoulder to see what green shoots he could coax from the ashes.

Spence later recalled that, in the postwar era of disillusionment, the mayor of Coventry had suggested that "acts of faith" were more than ever needed to pierce the gloom. Spence adopted the phrase himself, viewing his design as a response to God. "The new Cathedral Church of Coventry," explained Spence, "is our Act of Faith."

Once inside, I step to a quiet corner in the back of the nave, out of the thin stream of tourists entering in the late afternoon. Ahead of me the cavernous sanctuary soars up to a diagonal grid of concrete vaulting, with spruce laths forming shallow pyramids in between. Except in the slenderness of its tapering columns, the cathedral seems vast. Organ pipes on balconies ascend four stories while the tapestry behind the altar, reputed to be the world's largest at seventy-two feet by thirty-eight feet, depicts the risen Christ on his throne.

I am vaguely cognizant of the niches harboring Coventry's renowned works of art on biblical themes of justice and reconciliation. But what I am unprepared for is the floor-to-ceiling wall of stained glass to my right. Known as the Baptistry Window, it consists of hundreds of panels of blues, reds, and greens that surround a central orb of gradually lightening yellow panels. Even in the dusk of December, the window summons enough light to give the impression that it is lit from within.

Designer John Piper and glassworker Patrick Reyntiens intended to suggest the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit. The abstract pattern conjures up for me a long-buried dream of a mountainous Dantesque ascent into light. I am unprepared for its beauty. I find myself suddenly seated in a pew, having been gently knocked off my feet by light.

I have arrived well in time for Saturday's choral Evensong and planned to sit in one of the pews, but an usher directs me instead to the clergy stalls in the choir. To one side of me sits a white-haired, genial Anglican priest, and a nameplate indicates that I occupy the Bishop of Warwickshire's chair. My fellow parishioners number five, with the choir itself ten times that number. I revel in the intimacy of the gathering, awash in song, prayer, and silence, all under brilliant nave lights that keep the grey of the December afternoon at bay.

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem had its premiere here, shortly after the cathedral's consecration in 1962. The composer linked verses from World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen to the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, dedicating his work, in Owen's words, to "Whatever shares/The eternal reciprocity of tears."

I look down the dark sanctuary, past its glass screen, to the ruined shell of the medieval cathedral. In days following the bombing, the provost admitted that Christians in Coventry had agonized about how to respond to the hatred caused by the city's destruction. A number of possible options were open to the community. Quoting C.S. Lewis, the provost recalled, "The angels of God hold their breath to see which way we will choose to go."

On the high altar, the crosses of nails and charred beams insist that sacrifice and pain have occurred here, only to be transfigured by God. It is not a message I easily embrace as I look out into the dusk of Coventry. My mind still slips into grudges, rehearsing ripostes, picking at memories like scabs trying to heal.

The bishop of Coventry had urged Basil Spence "to design an altar and build a church around it." But the unremarkable altar, built of black marble and dwarfed by the Graham Sutherland tapestry, seems to me the least imposing part of the new cathedral.

In part the scale of other works draws the eye: the height of the nave, the luminous baptistry window that dwarfs a font of Palestinian limestone at its base, and the tapestry itself of Christ on the throne clothed in white robes.

My attention radiates out to pieces of artwork donated from around the world, each sculpture in itself an act of faith. The images seem less to decorate the cathedral than support it, clarifying biblical messages with tactile directness. There is the carved wooden Christ sunken in wood, given by a former Czech prisoner, as well as a metallic model of the city of Coventry set beneath an oversized, divine-like plumb line. Startlingly impressive is a small chrome sculpture of a head of Christ, eyes closed, wearing a crown of thorns. The sculptor used metal from a car crash that took three lives. I had read of this particular work of art and expected to be repulsed by it. But I find instead that the sculpture, like the cross formed from the cathedral's charred roofbeams, seems to convey an inexhaustible meaning: nothing can separate us from Christ.

As he designed the cathedral, Basil Spence kept in mind the words "Only the very best will do for God." Two small chapels, projecting out into the world, encourage visitors to unite faith and work as Spence himself did.

The slender Chapel of Unity, built in the shape of a ten-sided crusader's tent, extends hope for all Christian denominations to be brought together by common prayer. The Chapel of Industry, composed of clear panes looking out on modern Coventry attempts to shrink the distance between spirit and commerce in daily life.

Like the various sculptures, the chapels nudge visitors to consider how they themselves are to respond with "acts of faith." I look out the glass at the city's evening traffic. Is forgiveness, I ask myself, an act of faith?

The cathedral's ministry extends far into the world. For decades it has sponsored an international network of people devoted to reconciliation. Under the rubric Cross of Nails Ministry, participants have sought to pray, teach, and fund-raise on behalf of projects to reduce conflict in Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Members have met in small gatherings, often committing themselves to a simpler way of life. Active chapters evolved in several countries, notably the United States and Germany (though, ironically, financial constraints recently caused the United Kingdom branch of the Cross of Nails Ministry to disband, with membership now supplied from the Friends of Coventry Cathedral).

"The ministry helped people to come to terms with their enemies and to see a mirror image of themselves in their enemies," says the Reverend Canon Paul Oestreicher, the cathedral's former director of international ministry. Like Coventry itself, Oestreicher's experience with forgiveness transcends the abstract. "My father was Jewish," he explains, "and relatives died in Auschwitz. I had to come to terms with forgiving the German people." Oestreicher chronicles part of that passage in his book The Double Cross whose pages "focus on 'the love that will not let me go.'"

I spend Saturday evening outside the cathedral, walking nearly deserted downtown streets of Coventry where Lady Godiva once rode -- presumably in a warmer month than December -- trying to persuade her nobleman husband to lower his subjects' taxes. Much of the city's current architecture stands in dispiriting contrast with its cathedral. Bleak concrete boxes rise as testament not only to postwar reconstruction but also to prewar urban planning that demolished much of Coventry's medieval charm.

After a supper of fish and chips in a nearby restaurant, I return to my small bed-and-breakfast a fifteen minute walk from the cathedral, just beyond where bombs fell in November 1940, and sleep restlessly.

Early Sunday morning I return to the cathedral, entering the small Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane through a wrought-iron gate shaped like a crown of thorns. On the wall ahead, a dazzling bronze-on-gold relief represents a kneeling angel offering the chalice in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Only a handful of people attend this service of Morning Prayer. In the stillness of the chapel, several thoughts accompany me. It seems that we avoid extending forgiveness for several reasons: first, we worry that we may be opening floodgates, acceding to future injury poured in upon past wrong (although, as C.S. Lewis noted, "there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing"),and, second, less commendably, we hesitate to surrender outrage. It is when we guard grudges like heirlooms that we demand retribution and vindication.

And then, of course, there is memory. The ancient axiom "Forgive and forget" has been modified by the contemporary slogan "Remember and forgive." And yet, if there is a room of forgiveness which I occasionally enter, memory seems to open under me like a trapdoor.

"It is impossible to forgive unless we recognize our own need for forgiveness," suggests Bruderhof pastor Johann Christoph Arnold, "and acknowledge our faults to someone else." As the poet and priest George Herbert warned long ago, "He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven."

Ultimately, the breathed prayer "Father, forgive" may become "Father, forgive. . . me." After the flurry of outrage and accusation, we pause, no less convinced that others have committed wrong, yet down on our own knees in penance.

The choir prepares to process for the Sunday morning Eucharist past chairs that could seat a thousand people barely a quarter filled. As the cathedral's current provost, John Petty, waits in line to begin the processional, I talk with him. He welcomes me and speaks briefly of his predecessor who had ordered the words "Father forgive" engraved.

"Many people seriously criticized him for his call to forgiveness," he admits. We agree that his was a brave response. Visionary as well, he responds, "and terribly difficult."

Huge stone tablets, eight in all, line the sides of the nave. They are engraved, a brochure notes, with "the most profound words spoken by Christ," like verbal stations of the cross. I stand under one that begins, "Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest," briefly considering what I would excerpt for such tablets, in this ultimate red-letter edition of the Bible.

Words that have been on my mind (yet curiously absent from these tablets) come from Matthew 6:14. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." C.S. Lewis insisted unequivocally, "There is no doubt about the second part of this statement. It is in the Lord's Prayer: it was emphatically stated by our Lord. If you don't forgive you will not be forgiven. No part of his teaching is clearer: and there are no exceptions to it." I think of the parable of the unforgiving servant. I hear a harshness to the words, and a terrible truth colors the parable for us who have been forgiven much and who forgive little.

"There is a hard law," noted Alan Paton, "that when a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive." I have tended to think of forgiveness parsimoniously, as if it were a gift to withhold from others. But here in Coventry forgiveness strikes me more along the lines of a key, given to us by God to open a prison cell locked from inside.

I have a train to catch in a few hours, but before leaving I climb the surviving steeple of the ruined church, up its one hundred eighty winding steps to a parapet that looks out over the grey sea of Coventry.

The spire is the third highest in Britain, and from this crow's nest it is possible to see for miles in all directions. There are few points of the compass where the cathedral's role as reconciler has not been felt -- Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe, most notably in Germany itself.

Before retiring as the cathedral's international director, Paul Oestreicher was honored by the German government for his own work in Anglo-German relations. "Through no other sustained aspect of my ministry," he writes in The Double Cross, "could I better demonstrate to myself and to others my understanding of reconciliation and peace." He speaks now of the "prayer and inner process" that allowed him to forgive, adding, "I wasn't a free human being until I came to terms with forgiving the German people."

Corrie Ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place, writes of an incident in Munich after the war. On a lecture tour during which she had preached of the need for forgiveness, she was confronted by a "beaming and bowing" former S.S. jailer of Ravensbruck prison, where her beloved sister perished and she herself barely survived. After the man stretched out his hand, she tried to raise her own hand and could not.

I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.

The wind buffets me as I stand in the tower's parapet. Querulously I pick at the fringes of her story, troubled by the image of a "beaming and bowing" guard. Was that contrition? But the guard's demeanor is not her point (and, in any case, as writer and teacher Kyle Pasewark suggests, "repentance is a response to forgiveness, not its precondition").

As practiced by men and women like Paul Oestreicher and Corrie Ten Boom -- and by places like Coventry Cathedral -- forgiveness mutes the objections of bystanders. And perhaps this is a quality of forgiveness. We depend on others who have suffered more deeply to show us the way out from the debris of anger.

From the steeple on this overcast Sunday morning, I take a last view down into the old cathedral where a few figures move about, lost in thought. At noon this coming Friday, and every Friday, visitors will gather around the altar in the roofless nave for a short service that begins with the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation.

"All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," the prayer begins before traversing a confession of the seven deadly sins. Canon Heather Wallace, who has taken part for years in the services "in sun and pouring rain, with two people present or fifty" notes the litany's particular impact in being uttered simultaneously at noon on Fridays throughout the world in conflicted settings. The prayer ends with another echo from St. Paul, quoted as well on signs in the new cathedral: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."

In all Britain there is perhaps no better setting than Coventry to reckon with forgiveness. Yet, if the power to forgive comes from God, our ability to forgive begins with prayer. And that can begin anywhere.

In Coventry we confront the paradox that we have postponed that which we profess to pray for each day: ". . . as we forgive those who trespass against us." A tenacious wind carries up sounds of traffic from streets far below. It is time to descend the steeple steps and return home.