75 years after the devastating "blitz"

Coventry is a city of reconciliation

November 13, 2015

The former interior of Coventry Cathedral, Britain. Photo: epd-Bild/akg-images

The former interior of Coventry Cathedral, Britain. Photo: epd-Bild/akg-images

Coventry (epd). "Coventry - city of peace and reconciliation" reads a road sign at the entry to the 10th biggest city in England. Since the Second World War, the city in the West Midlands has been a symbol of reconciliation.

It all started 75 years ago. In the night of 14 to 15 November 1940 the German Luftwaffe made its heaviest attack on a British city. Large parts of the centre were destroyed, including the cathedral from the 14th century. Only its outer walls remained standing. Over 550 people died in the Coventry Blitz. German propaganda then spoke cynically of 'Coventrising' the British cities.

Cross of carpenter's nails from the destroyed church

And yet, in 1940 Provost Richard Howard called for reconciliation in a Christmas Day radio broadcast from the ruins of St Michael's Cathedral. He had the words "Father forgive" carved onto the smoke-blackened wall. Three medieval carpenter's nails rescued from the ruins were fastened into the Cross of Nails.
Cross of Nails from Coventry, fashioned from the remaining nails of the cathedral roof Cross of Nails from Coventry, fashioned from the remaining nails of the cathedral roof
 Photo: epd-Bild/Rainer Oettel

Howard founded a network for peace and reconciliation - which in1974 turned into the Community of the Cross of Nails. Crosses of nails were taken to Kiel, Dresden, Berlin and many other cities destroyed in war, as a symbol of peace. The Community now has members from all over the world, including, in Germany, the Dachau concentration camp memorial, the Church of our Lady (Frauenkirche) in Dresden, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

In Coventry itself, practical peace-building is today firmly rooted in the church life of the city. Yet it is not always a matter of resolving international conflicts. The church has vowed to promote reconciliation in all areas of life: "We help people to see things from a different perspective," says Dean John Witcombe.

Many visitors are inspired to hear the story of Howard's call for reconciliation during World War II, so soon after the Coventry Blitz. "We bring conflict groups together and do very practical work," he adds.

"I simply brought them together at one table"

If asked about his most successful work for reconciliation in past years, Witcombe gives a very secular answer. He says he got the local football club, Coventry City, back into the local stadium. For over a year the club had to play in a neighbouring town because the city of Coventry and the new owner, a private hedge fund, could not agree on the rent for using the stadium.

After three months mediation by Witcombe, agreement was finally reached. "I simply got them together at a table and after a while they all agreed that it was acceptable," says John Witcombe. Yet almost everyone had warned him not to meddle in football matters.

The issues are not always about something as worldly as football. The Centre for Reconciliation has also helped to clear up interfaith disputes by initiating talks between Christians and Muslims. And when the Church of England argued about the question of ordaining bishops, the Centre was also connected with the solution, when women were finally allowed to become bishops in 2014.

Often the reconciliation work is about just that: initiating the dialogue and bringing people to the table. "That is why hospitality is also very important to us in Coventry," says John Witcombe. "The cathedral is the ideal context as it offers a lot of space. That has an effect on people - quite apart from why they have come to Coventry and what their faith is."

Ruins of the old cathedral in the open air

After the war the city and church bodies decided to keep the ruin and erect a new cathedral right next to it. This was consecrated in 1962.
The ruins of Coventry Cathedral in November 1940. Photo: epd-Bild/KeystoneThe ruins of Coventry Cathedral in November 1940. Photo: epd-Bild/Keystone

The ruins of the old cathedral in the open air serve as a monument against war to this day, and indicate what destruction the city had to suffer and the enormity of the step towards reconciliation.

Hospitality in the Centre for Reconciliation is provided by volunteers from different countries. 18-year-old Ricarda Fillhardt comes from Germany and belongs to the organisation "Action Reconciliation Service for Peace" in Coventry. She wanted to go to Britain after finishing secondary school. "But I wanted to do something positive, that is not only good for myself," she says. That is why she opted to do peace service in Coventry, where she shares a flat with volunteers from different countries.

She keeps up contact with Germany, organises visits, interprets for German visitor groups and receives guests. "The person who greets the visitors first is enormously important," agrees Richarda Fillhardt, who comes from Walluf in Hessen. She is convinced that a warm welcome creates an atmosphere that fosters the process of reconciliation; in this way, she too can make a contribution to working for peace.

Christiane Link (epd)



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