On the night of 14th November, 1940, Coventry and its Cathedral endured a one-off, but relentless, bombing campaign. Overnight, the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ offensive destroyed much of central Coventry, hundreds of its people and left its Cathedral in ruins. Only the outer shell of the walls and the tower remained standing.
In the days that followed, two enduring symbols emerged from the rubble: two charred roof-beams which had fallen in the shape of a cross were bound and placed at the site of the ruined altar, and three medieval roof nails were also formed into a cross, which became the original Cross of Nails (now located at the High Altar in the new Cathedral). Shortly after, the words ‘Father Forgive’ – deliberately neutral in content – were inscribed on the wall of the ruined chancel, and Provost Dick Howard made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible. During the BBC radio broadcast from the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over we should work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’
The Cross of Nails quickly became a potent sign of friendship and hope in the post war years, especially in new relationships with Germany and the developing links between Coventry and the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin. Many were gifted, in thanks and in friendship, to contacts all over the world. By 1974 such informal friendships were numerous, and they were all drawn into a brand new Community of the Cross of Nails, which has continued to grow globally to this day. By this time, the new Cathedral, a landmark in post-war architecture, had been opened in 1962.
Coventry Cathedral is thus one of the world’s oldest religious-based centres for reconciliation, and its work in preceding decades has involved it in some of the world’s most difficult and long-standing areas of conflict. Today the medieval ruins of Coventry Cathedral, freely open to all, continue to remind us of our human capacity both to destroy and to reach out to our enemies in friendship and reconciliation. They stand today as a memorial to all civilians killed, injured or traumatised by war and violent conflict world-wide. The global centre of the Community of the Cross of Nails is in St Michael’s House, the former Dean’s House; today as well as hosting the CCN, it is a space for learning and intellectual encounter, alongside theological reflection and spiritual resources for reconciliation. St Michael’s House is also a dedicated space for facilitating conversations around questions of identity, difference and conflict in the church and wider society.