Sunday, 5 December 2021

How Coventry Cathedral
rose from the ashes to
shape its peace ministry

Coventry Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, opened 60 years ago in 1962 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

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 west front or 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 powerful tapestry in Coventry.

***

The opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 was an impressive live televised moment. I was a ten-year-old at the time. When I visited the cathedral a few years later, 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, for many years my friend, 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). A later successor was Justin Welby (2002-2005), now Archbishop of Canterbury.

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 recently, two of us returned to Coventry Cathedral one afternoon, and stayed on for Choral Evensong.

‘Christ in Glory’ … Graham Sutherland’s powerful, 72 ft tapestry in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

60 years of Basil Spence’s
New Coventry Cathedral


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.

Instead, the city’s large mediaeval parish church, Saint Michael’s, became the cathedral of the new diocese. Saint Michael’s was one of the largest parish churches in England when it became a cathedral in 1918.

But it did not remain a cathedral for long: 23 years later, on 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.

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The Provost of Coventry Cathedral, Richard Howard (1884-1981), was one of four firefighters who went on the roof to try save the cathedral from incendiary bombs designed to cause firestorms.

A fire broke out in the cathedral at around 8 p.m. and, despite extinguishing the initial fire, other direct hits caused fires that ultimately led to the destruction of the city.

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.

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, with over 1,000 people had serious injuries.

The 81 feet high Baptistry Window was designed by John Piper and contains 195 lights of stained glass in bright primary colours (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Cross of Nails and
the Ministry of Reconciliation


The heart was ripped out of the city of Coventry that night. 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 chalked 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 there was a subtle omission. In dropping the word ‘them,’ and instead saying simply ‘Father Forgive,’ he was reminding everyone that we all need forgiveness, not just those who have harmed us.

***

‘Father Forgive’ … reconciliation is at the heart of the ministry and outreach of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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

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, perhaps, 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.

The ‘Choir of Survivors’ by Helmut Heinze at the west end of the ruins of the old cathedral … a gift from the Frauenkirche Foundation in Dresden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

City of Culture with
some surviving memories


Coventry survived its war-time devastation and is now much more that a pulsing heart of the industrial midlands. It is a university city, a city with a football team with waning and waxing measures of success, and this year (2021) Coventry was the UK City of Culture.

But standing inside the shell of the bombed cathedral, it would be wrong to presume that nothing of the old Coventry has survived. Priory Row leads from the linked cathedrals to Holy Trinity Church, one of the few major buildings in Coventry that escaped destruction during the bombing raids in World War II. The Vicar of Holy Trinity, Canon Graham Clitheroe, and a team of firefighters bravely averted the danger from the falling incendiaries during the heaviest raid on 14 November 1940.

Holy Trinity Church was built of red sandstone between the 1200s and 1400s, replacing a much older chapel built on the site by the Benedictine monks of Saint Mary’s Priory. The church first looked like nearby Saint Michael’s. However, with several major restorations, much of the original brickwork was replaced with a paler coloured sandstone.

The spire is 237 ft high and was erected in 1667 to replace an older one that collapsed during a storm in 1665, killing a young boy. Inside, the stained-glass windows are full of colour, especially the great west window above the main entrance, glazed by Hugh Easton in 1955. The east window behind the High Altar was added in 1956 to replace the original window, blown out in World War II.

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Lychgate Cottages on Priory Row seen from Holy Trinity churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Beside Holy Trinity Church are three 15th century cottages, Lychgate Cottages. Originally one house known as Lychgate House, they have long since been split into three separate, jettied houses on Priory Row.

They take their name from the lychgate through which funerals made their way to Holy Trinity churchyard. Using tree ring dating, the timber in these houses has been dated to ca 1414-1415. This timber may have come from houses taken down before the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. The cottages were restored and extended in 1856, survived the Coventry Blitz in World War II, and were repaired again in 1997-1998.

Coventry is also known for the statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate by Sir William Reid Dick, unveiled in 1949. She was known as a generous benefactor of abbeys and churches. With her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, she endowed churches and religious houses throughout the English Midlands, and they founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043 on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1016.

Although Leofric was regarded as a wise and religious figure, he was involved in the brutal pillage and destruction of Worcester in 1041 after the town defied a royal tax collector.

It is said Lady Godiva made her famous naked horse ride as a bargain with her husband to free the people of Coventry from heavy taxes. But that story of her naked ride was first told in the 12th century, 150 years after her death, while Peeping Tom is a later addition to the story, making his first appearance in the 17th century.

The statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate is one of the few statues of horses outside London to be listed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

This two-page feature was first published in the December 2021 edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), pp 10-11


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