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Remembering the past for the sake of the future

06 November 2015

Seventy-five years after the bombing of Coventry, Sarah Hills celebrates the work of reconciliation which has flowered from the ruins of the old cathedral

Coventry Cathedral

Status symbol: this boat recently installed in the nave of the post-war Coventry Cathedral represents the plight of refugees

Status symbol: this boat recently installed in the nave of the post-war Coventry Cathedral represents the plight of refugees

THIS year is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry on the night of 14 November 1940, when two-thirds of the city was destroyed, and the medieval cathedral was left in ruins. The day after the bombing, the cathedral Provost, Dick Howard, famously said: “Father, forgive,” meaning that all people are in need of God’s forgiveness — not just “the enemy”. Three of the medieval roof nails that were found in the rubble were bound together to form a cross of nails.

Using his Christmas Day broadcast a month later, Provost Howard said: “What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge. . . We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, more Christ-child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”

Two years after the end of the war, after a meeting with a British army officer, the Mayor of Kiel, in Germany, writing in a local paper, asked: “What do you think of the idea: we should combine to form a Society of Friends of Coventry?”

Coventry responded to the appeal. On 14 September 1947, a delegation from Coventry — the Mayor, a trade-union representative, and Provost Howard, bearing a Cross of Nails — made the first official Anglo-German inter-city exchange.

Since then, Coventry Cathedral has pursued a message of reconciliation through its work locally, nationally, and globally.

The Archbishop of Canterbury (himself a former Canon of Coventry, engaged in the reconciliation work here) has made reconciliation one of his three priorities; and we at the cathedral have been asked to provide a particular “safe space” for this ministry.

In addition, from this space of reconciliation, the Community of the Cross of Nails now has 190 partner churches, schools, and other organisations in 30 countries around the world, all working and praying for peace and reconciliation in their own context.

This ministry stems from our threefold commitment: to healing the wounds of history; learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity; and building a culture of peace.

We see reconciliation as a journey from the past, through the present, to the future — about “re-membering”; about living honestly; about looking forward in hope.

I AM writing this on a flight to Dresden, one of our sister cities, which closely shares the story of the bombing that we both faced in the Second World War. This is a significant story of reconciliation for both of us.

In February, my colleagues travelled to Dresden to support them in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Dresden firestorm-bombing by the Allies, which resulted in the loss of 25,000 lives, and the devastation of the city.

The friendship between us was forged in the late 1940s, and continued through the Cold War, when Provost Bill Williams, after a long and complex diplomatic process, sent a team of young British people to Dresden, to help rebuild the Lutheran Deaconess Hospital.

Never before had officials allowed a group of young people from the West to live and work— and even travel freely — for up to half a year in the German Democratic Republic. Often, people of faith can gain access where a politician cannot, and so begins the healing process.


AS PART of our 75th-anniversary observances, we are gathering together stories of conflict and reconciliation — of hope, of reconnection, and of God’s transforming grace.

One such story is that of Thérèse Mapenzi, the winner last year of our Coventry Peace Prize. Thérèse works with victims of sexual violence resulting from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through projects such as the “Listening Rooms”, she creates a safe space for both men and women to talk about the abuse they have faced. After her visit to Coventry, she was so inspired by the Coventry’s “Father, forgive” narrative that she went home to start “a new Coventry” in the DRC. In turn, we provide a safe space for dialogue and conflict transformation for those in need from around the world at our centre for reconciliation, St. Michael’s House. Another such story is that of the Cape Town teenager who belongs to a mixed-race and faith youth group, which has allowed him to tell his story of abuse, and has empowered him to work for reconciliation in a township school.

Or there is the story of the clergyman from conflict-torn Central Africa, who knocked on my door asking for help with conflict resolution in his churches and nation.

Visitors, pilgrims, and staff alike share stories of personal reconciliation, as they come to the ruined and rebuilt cathedral to seek peace in turbulent lives. I think of the army chaplain who wants to talk about how reconciliation might be made present in his base, and the curate working out a difficult relationship with her training incumbent

Or the story told by the film Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives, showing the effects of war on the earth, at our conference “Reconciling a Wounded Planet” this September.


MUCH of the reconciliation work from Coventry arises from the need of the moment. In the 1980s, the Netherlands were torn by a debate over whether two very old men, both Nazi war criminals, should stay in Breda prison until their death.

After half a century of imprisonment, the humanitarian case for their release was overwhelming; but, in the light of public opinion, the government was reluctant to act. John Petty and Paul Oestreicher, from the cathedral, visited the men, and a plea from Coventry broke the log-jam. The men did not live much longer, but they died in their own homes.

More recently we have welcomed schools to the International Cross of Nails Schools (ICONS) network. In 2014, we launched the “Schools for Peace” — “Skole za Mir” — project, which links schools in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the UK.

Its aim is to encourage the schools to work on shared projects that explore identity and peace-building. We support each of the partner schools in all three countries with educational activities that enable young people to remember past events in ways that encourage understanding and co-operation in the present.


THE process of reconciliation can be risky, and there are no shortcuts. It is a journey of hope, healing, honesty, and transformation. Our shared stories of reconciliation do not mean only looking back and commemorating events in the past, but provide us with the means to engage with current situations such as the refugee crisis. Refugees are fleeing from conflict and war, from fear and persecution. They are not “the other”: they are people like us.

At the back of the cathedral nave, we have installed a small sailing boat, like some of those that we have recently seen on our TV screens, overflowing with frightened men, women, and children. This boat symbolises the plight of the refugees, who are risking everything to get to a place of safety.

The diocese of Coventry is currently hoping to open its Retreat House for refugees. Next week, from 11 to 13 November, Coventry is hosting “Rising 15”, a global peace forum; and so the work of reconciliation continues. It needs us all to engage with this work — as Christians, and as people of all faiths and none. In our broken world, reconciliation cannot be left to only a few. There is a Southern African word, “Ubuntu”, which translates as “I exist because you exist.” In other words, we are all connected, and we are all God’s children; and reconciliation is a journey that we make together.


The Revd Dr Sarah Hills is Canon for Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral.


Huchenfeld: a Coventry tale


SOON after an air raid on Pforzheim, as devastating as Dresden’s, a British reconnaissance plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Its wing ablaze, the captain of the aircraft ordered his crew to bail out. His own parachute had jammed. He flew on, expecting to die, but, surprisingly, the fire went out, and he landed safely behind Allied lines.

The five-man crew came down in the village of Huchenfeld. Anger at British bombing was running high. A Nazi officer rounded them up and locked them in the cellar of the village’s town hall.

The next morning he put pistols into the hands of members of the Hitler Youth, probably 15 or 16 years old, drove the airmen through a jeering crowd into the churchyard, and ordered the boys to kill them. Four airmen died, but in the confusion two escaped into the forest and were taken prisoner-of-war as the law demanded.

An East German Lutheran pastor, Curt-Jürgen Heinemann-Grüder, who had retired to Huchenfeld, was determined that there should be a public acknowledgment of this lynching and a memorial placed to the victims. He faced a great deal of hostility but he persevered.

Knowing of Coventry’s work for reconciliation with Germany, he invited me to the village to discuss this with the mayor and with others. The village council was not willing to erect a memorial. It would be too upsetting. Those boys might still be around. But the church council was will-ing.

A memorial plaque on the church wall would be solemnly unveiled, just feet from where the men were killed. This would follow a eucharist in the church, at which I was invited to preach.

Once this was agreed, the mayor was shamed into officially associating the whole village with this act of repentance. The Independent and The Daily Mirror cooperated in finding the widow of one of the men killed. She was deeply moved, and readily agreed to come to the ceremony. The British Embassy sent a senior diplomat from Bonn.

The bodies of the murdered airmen had been buried after the war by the British War Graves Commission not far away. The Nazi officer responsible for the murders had been tried by a war-crimes tribunal and executed. The boys who had obeyed his illegal order were not held to account.

At the eucharist, one man who came to receive communion was crying bitterly. I tried to comfort him. His were not the only tears. But through his tears he managed to say to me: “I’m so ashamed, I was one of the boys who killed them.” He had come for forgiveness, some 50 years later.

After the service, I spoke about this with the widow of one of the victims. Her immediate response was: “Find him. I’d so much like to put my arms around him and forgive him.” We did not find him, nor did anyone know him. He had gone quickly and had probably come from afar.

All this was published in several British papers. On a sheep farm in Wales, the surviving captain of the aircraft read the story. Until then, he had never been told the fate of his crew. Moved beyond measure, he wrote to the mayor, asking what he could do to express his gratitude to the village. A new kindergarten was being planned. He came to its opening, and brought as his gift a Welsh rocking-horse. The children queued to ride it. It was a wonderful village festival.

That led to annual exchanges between Huchenfeld and a Welsh village. In an RAF veterans’ publication, the two airmen who had escaped read the story. They, too, then became an active part of this reconciliation story, part of a new network of friendships.


The Revd Dr Paul Oestreicher is a Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral.

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