80 years ago this coming Saturday, November 14th 1940, Operation Moonlight Sonata took place in the skies over Coventry.
The town boomed in the 1920s and 1930s, mostly due to the numerous factories producing vehicles, electrical goods, textiles, engines, and a wide range of components and other items. But by the beginning of the Second World War Coventry was engaged in making weapons. Its former car factories were turned into armament factories. And an enemy target.
400 bombers attacked Coventry for nearly 12 hours. 600 were killed. Over 1000 injured. 46 000 homes wrecked. The city centre turned to rubble. And at the heart of it all, the beautiful mediaeval Cathedral was razed to the ground, with the ruins, and extraordinary 270 foot high spire, standing in a stark silhouette against the red, acrid sky.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction.
Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words 'Father Forgive' inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three large mediaeval roof nails by a local priest. This has led to the name of the cathedral's Ministry of Reconciliation, the Community of the Cross of Nails, bringing together those who, through hatred, through war, through violence, through hurt, through suffering, have been driven apart. I am wearing the cross of nails that was given to me at my installation in Coventry Cathedral as I write these words. It is one of my most precious possessions.
In Coventry this weekend, they will be remembering the 14th November 1940 as a date that changed their view of the world, and their view of the God in whom they still dared to believe. Provost Richard Howard, who risked his life in his attempt to save the old cathedral, reflected later that:
through the ruined Cathedral we became aware as never before that God is love, and that his love is indestructible. However real and dreadful evil may be, God is infinitely greater. He can make Good to triumph over evil. He is ruling in love to that end.
God ruling in love. That’s what I believe. The love which is costly, real love, the love that pays the price, and knows about human hurt. The famous 76-foot high tapestry in Coventry Cathedral depicts Christ in Glory. But look hard at the hands, and the feet, and the wounds are there for all to see. God ruling in love.
We are his ambassadors. And our credentials are not hatred but love. Not anger but peace. Not revenge – but reconciliation. Which is why Coventry's prayer is not 'Father, forgive them', but 'Father, forgive'. I hope that, this weekend especially, we can make Coventry's prayer our own.