Coventry Cathedral: A place of reconciliation

Filed in Gather Travel Essential by on November 10, 2008 0 Comments

At about 7 PM on November 14, 1940, about 500 German planes began dropping explosive and incendiary bombs on Coventry, England, an industrial town about 90 miles northwest of London.  When the German blitz, cruelly named “Moonlight Sonata,” ended shortly after 6 AM the next morning, Coventry was in ruins.  Two more raids, shorter in duration but of similar magnitude followed in April 1941.

Known for its engineering and manufacturing capacity, which could help Britain in its war effort, Coventry was a likely target for a raid, but the scale and effects of these early World War II attacks were devastating. These and subsequent air raids on Coventry wreaked destruction on the town of 240,000, killing more than 1,000 civilians, damaging or destroying 60,000 buildings, and ravaging thousands of acres of land.  Of those killed, 808 are buried in a mass grave.  All total, Coventry underwent 41 raids during World War II.

Like the rest of the town, Coventry’s St. Michael’s Cathedral was severely damaged by fire in the November raid.  Although St. Michael’s had only become a cathedral in 1918, its roots go back to at least 1138, and the edifice that was left in ruins dated to the 14th century.  For hundreds of years, the people of Coventry had gathered at St. Michael’s.  After the November 1940 raid, St. Michael’s Cathedral was in shambles, a weakened shell of what it had been.

In sorting through the wreckage and wrestling with their tremendous pain and loss, the people of St. Michael’s turned away from bitterness and hate to forge a path of reconciliation.  On the morning after the raid under the leadership of the Cathedral’s provost Richard Howard, the Cathedral’s members decided to rebuild the Cathedral. The Coventry Cathedral they built in the wake of the violence done to them speaks a message of the power of reconciliation to forge peace that transcends time and space.

My daughter Pam and I visited Coventry Cathedral as part of a tour in late August.  Visiting the Cathedral and learning about it was both an uplifting and humbling experience for me.

Although the raids left the inside of St. Michael’s in rubble, some of the outside structure of the medieval building remained standing.  Basil Spence, the architect for the new structure, insisted that what remained of the medieval structure should not be torn down, but become a part of the new Coventry Cathedral.

Outside view of a wall from Coventry’s medieval St. Michael’s Cathedral that remained standing after the November 1940 blitz and that was incorporated into the rebuilt Cathedral.

The entryway to the Cathedral is more than an entrance.  It also connects the remains of the ravaged medieval cathedral with the new Cathedral structure.

The entrance to Coventry Cathedral connects the old and the new cathedrals to make them one cathedral.

After ascending the steps at the entrance, I go to the left into the old cathedral, which has no roof.

Inside view of remnant wall from the old St. Michael’s Cathedral, now a part of the new Cathedral.

A few months after the raid, Provost Howard asked the Cathedral’s stonemason Jack Forbes to build an altar with a cross from the rubble.  Forbes tied two charred oak beams from the ceiling of the old building into the shape of a cross.
A replica of the cross made from charred oak beams stands behind an altar of forgiveness fashioned from the debris.  The original cross is stored in the basement of the Cathedral.

Beneath the altar and cross of what remains of medieval St. Michael’s Cathedral is Coventry Cathedral’s Litany of Reconciliation.

Coventry Cathedral’s Litany of Reconciliation.  While the Litany is based on Christian scriptures and uses Christian terms and symbolism, its message and the values it evokes to deal with human failure are universal and timeless.

Coventry began building its new cathedral structure in 1956.
Coventry’s new cathedral. Designed by Basil Spence, the new cathedral was dedicated on May 25, 1962.

A large bronze sculpture of St. Michael defeating the devil hangs on the wall of the new building near the entrance.  Mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, St. Michael is an Archangel who leads the fight against evil.  Designed by Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein, it artistically tells the story of the triumph of good over evil, of the path the people of St. Michael’s took toward forgiveness. Sadly, Epstein died in 1959, a year before the sculpture was mounted on the Cathedral wall.

Bronze sculpture by Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein on the wall near the entrance to Coventry Cathedral.  The two figures depict the archangel St Michael, an envoy of God, defeating the devil (evil).  St. Michael, for whom the old cathedral was named, victoriously spreads his arms, his weapon silent and at peace, no longer needed. 

The devil in contrast has fallen in defeat.  With his arms behind him, he is disarmed. With his hunched back, he is spineless.  As I walk through the entrance and turn my head to view him from another angle, I notice his male organ, long, flaccid and lifeless.  He can no longer love or be loved. He can no longer procreate his evil on the world. 

I find the sculpture meaningful and powerful in its mythic symbolism.

Just inside the new cathedral, I gaze in awe at the immense stained glass window in the baptistry. I know that in medieval cathedrals, stained glass windows usually portrayed Biblical or other religious stories.  They often served as a teaching aid through which illiterate parishioners could learn the values and lessons of the church.  What does this beautiful window teach me? I don’t have enough time to reflect deeply on the window and develop a meaningful interpretation, but I come away feeling it relates to diversity, beauty, patterns, and the different hues in light, which has long symbolized awareness and consciousness.

Designed by John Piper, the floor-to-ceiling baptistery window at Coventry Cathedral contains 195 stained glass windows that color the light entering the area.  The baptistery is where baptisms take place, but it was too dark for the baptismal font to be included in the picture.

Further inside the sanctuary is another majestic work of art, the Christ in Glory tapestry.

Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory tapestry depicting a victorious Christ hangs behind the Cathedral’s altar.  The tapestry contains 900 colors and is 74 feet tall.

The Cathedral’s new structure is stunning and beautiful, but it is made more beautiful because it incorporates the ruins and lessons of the past to make one Coventry Cathedral that conveys a message of reconciliation.  Even more importantly, the people of Coventry Cathedral live the message.  After the war, they reached out to Kiel, Dresden and Berlin, German cities that had been bombed by the Allies during the war.  They have developed 160 centers around the world that work to bring reconciliation and peace in their local communities.  Looking to the future, the Cathedral plans to open a World Centre of Reconciliation by 2012.

A plaque in the old cathedral area of Coventry Cathedral notes that the Cathedral remembered the November 14, 1940, night of terror at a Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation.

In my travels, I’ve been to many cathedrals, churches, mosques, temples and other religious shrines.  Old or new, each has been unique enough in some way to be of interest to tourists.  I’ve marveled at the architecture, the craftsmanship, the art, and the beauty of these places.  I’ve learned something of the beliefs behind them.  While I am glad to have visited and experienced these sites, none of them has attracted me for the religious or spiritual tenets it follows.  But Coventry Cathedral is different.  With its message of reconciliation in the face of such horrible destruction, it deeply moves me. 

Coventry Cathedral’s message of reconciliation resonates with me because of its holistic approach to justice.  The end result of justice is not that the transgressor receives a deserved penalty or even that the transgressor apologizes and then goes on to live a model life.  The end result of justice is forgiveness–the one transgressed against lets go of blame toward the transgressor and is healed.  Forgiveness brings peace.  Justice is a process, not just a penalty.  Coventry Cathedral testifies that reconciliation is beautiful and that it works.

Previous posts in this travel series on Britain

The Early Residences of Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare.  Posted October 27, 2008. 

Stonehenge:  A place of awe, a source of inspiration.  Posted October 9, 2008. 

For more photos of Britain see my Britain Photo Album

Partial List of Sources

Coventry Cathedral:  History

Coventry’s Cathedrals:  The Old Cathedral, The New Cathedral

History of Coventry

Coventry Blitz

Coventry Blitz

Coventry Blitz

Coventry Blitz

Note:  Although the various sources tell the same basic story, details vary greatly.  I gave the most credence to sources deemed closest to the event.
There is also an allegation that Winston Churchill knew the raid was planned from intelligence sources, but that he ignored it


About the Author ()

I am a retired environmental, health and safety manager who has done some work in communications. I have a knowledge of and passion for sustainability issues. In temperament I am a peculiar mix of stable soul and free spirit.

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