Sunday, 14 November 2021

‘As the Father has loved me,
so I have loved you;
abide in my love’

‘Father Forgive’ … the cross in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 14 November 2021

Second Sunday before Advent, Remembrance Sunday


9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Castletown Church

11.30 a.m.: Remembrance Sunday Service, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

Readings: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 4; Revelation 1: 1-7; John 15: 9-17

The Reconciliation statue in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I was growing up, and in my early adult years, Coventry Cathedral had a very interesting influence on my ideas both about architecture and about practical expressions of my faith.

The architect who designed the chapel at my boarding school based his plans and designs on the designs and plans by Sir Basil Spence for the new cathedral at Coventry.

Although there is a significant difference in size, both were built at the same time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both have tall, frosted glass forming the entrance, and both have side coloured windows that pour in light from behind the congregation.

Both the chapel and the cathedral have a large wall behind the altar rather than the traditional east window – although the statue in Gormanston bears no comparison with Graham Sutherland’s overwhelming tapestry in Coventry.

The opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 was an impressive live televised moment that many of us still remember from our childhood. I was a ten-year-old at the time. I visited the cathedral a few years later, and all my expectations and anticipations were more than met.

In my late teens, I was impressed too by the ministry and outreach of Coventry Cathedral, with the emphasis on reconciliation and peacebuilding. Later in life, it turned out, for many years my friend from CND days, Canon Paul Oestreicher, was the Director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, working with the Community of the Cross of Nails (1985-1997). He was later succeeded by Justin Welby (2002-2005), now Archbishop of Canterbury.

Now, as an adult of mature years, Coventry Cathedral continues to be impressive and attractive. So, after a few days retreat and time off at Lichfield Cathedral last month, two of us visited Coventry Cathedral one afternoon, and stayed on for Choral Evensong.

The new Coventry Cathedral celebrates its sixtieth anniversary next year (2022).

But this is not the first – or the second – but the third cathedral in Coventry. In the closing days of World War I, when a new Diocese of Coventry was formed in 1918 to cater for that part of the expanding, heavily industrialised West Midlands, an earlier mediaeval cathedral had long been destroyed. So, the city’s large mediaeval parish church, Saint Michael’s, became the cathedral of the new diocese.

Saint Michael’s had been one of the largest parish churches in England when it became a cathedral in 1918. But it did not remain a cathedral for very long: 23 years later, on this night, the night of 14 November 1941, the German Luftwaffe blanket bombed Coventry.

The city was targeted because it was known for its industries, including factories making aeroplanes and munitions factories, and it was at the heart of the motor industry. The Coventry Blitz continued into the morning of 15 November, and Saint Michael’s Cathedral was among the many buildings in the city centre razed to the ground.

The Provost of Coventry Cathedral, Richard Howard (1884-1981), was one of four firefighters who went on the roof to try to save the cathedral. At around 8 p.m. a fire broke out in the cathedral and despite extinguishing the initial fire, other direct hits caused fires that ultimately led to the destruction of the city.

In just one night, more than 43,000 homes, the entire city centre, two hospitals, two churches and the police station were destroyed by around 500 tons of explosives. About 568 people died in the raid, and more than 1,000 people had serious injuries.

The heart was ripped out of the city. All that remained of the cathedral was its tall, 300-ft Gothic tower and the shell of its red sandstone walls.

In the morning, Jock Forbes, the cathedral stonemason, found two wooden beams lying in the rubble in the shape of a cross and tied them together. This became the Charred Cross and was first placed in the ruins of the old cathedral on an altar of rubble.

That morning, Richard Howard used a piece of chalk to write the words ‘Father Forgive’ on the sanctuary wall of the ruined Cathedral. He was recalling Christ’s words on the Cross, ‘Father Forgive them.’

But notice the subtle omission: In dropping the word ‘them,’ and instead saying simply ‘Father Forgive,’ he was reminding us, reminding everyone, that we all need forgiveness, not just those who have harmed us.

Later, after the Blitz, Richard Howard formed the Cross of Nails, made of three three large mediaeval nails from the roof truss of the old cathedral. It is now placed in the centre of the cross on the High Altar.

The Cross of Nails has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation around the world. There are over 330 Cross of Nails Centres all over the world, all of them bearing a cross made of three nails from the ruins, similar to the original one. When there were no more nails, a continuing supply has come from a prison in Germany.

All around the cathedral today are signs of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The statue ‘Reconciliation’ is linked to the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, and was presented to the cathedral in 1987.

The ‘Choir of Survivors’ is a sculpture presented to the cathedral as a gift from a church in Dresden, the German city that was also blanket-bombed during World War II.

But, for me, the most moving part of the cathedral ruin is the area around the former east end and high altar. Here Richard Howard’s words, ‘Father Forgive,’ were carved on the wall behind the rebuilt altar in the spring of 1948. On the altar stands a version of the Charred Cross, in a shape similar to the Cross of Nails.

Under the Cross, we are all offered God’s forgiveness, and we too need to offer forgiveness and reconciliation.

‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ (John 15: 9-10).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The ‘Choir of Survivors’ by Helmut Heinze at the west end of the ruins of the Old Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

John 15: 9-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 9 ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

‘Age shall not weary them’ … fading poppies among weeds by the roadside in Comberford village, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the king of all:
Govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Blessing:

May God grant to the living Grace,
to the departed Rest,
to the Church and the world peace and concord,
and to all us sinners Eternal Life, Amen.
and the blessing...

Dismissal:

Go in peace. Love one another as Christ has loved us.
Thanks be to God.

A prayer for peace at the west front of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Hymns:

62, Abide with me (CD 4)
537, O God, our help in ages past (CD 31)
494, Beauty for brokenness (CD 29)

The World War I Memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The World War II Memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Material from Common Worship is subject to copyright © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Further information on this copyright is available at this page.



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