Sisters in Reconciliation – a piece written originally for the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin for this weekend
On November 14th 1940, St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, along with much of the city around it, was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing. Although the destruction and loss of life was later exceeded in many other places, especially in Germany, the destruction of Coventry came to symbolise the loss and tragedy of war. It also came, uniquely in the United Kingdom, to symbolise the rebuilding of relationships between former enemies, as the Cathedral and City communities reached out to the people of Germany, first in Kiel, and then later in Hamburg, Berlin, and famously Dresden along with many others, with a message of forgiveness and an invitation to reconciliation.
I visited the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church for the first time in February 2013, soon after becoming Dean of Coventry. Your church feels like our sister in the work of reconciliation: we share similar architecture and beautiful modern glass windows; we share the preservation of a part of our ruins; our new buildings were consecrated with a year of one another; we share an image of your moving ‘Stalingrad Madonna’; you have one of our ‘Crosses of Nails’. I was very moved by my first visit, and was hoping to be with you as you mark the 80th anniversary of the Coventry Blitz in your annual service of remembrance.
Sadly, Covid-19 has prevented my travelling to you. The invitation, and the expectation of sharing with you as you remember an event which could have torn us apart for ever, but instead led to our reconciliation and friendship as cities and as places of worship, was welcome, surprising, and very moving. In how many other places in the world do people choose to remember and memorialise the suffering they have caused to others? This is something about which I have learned a lot from our German friends.
Our shared witness to reconciliation is a message of hope to the world. It is a message that says, whatever happens, knowing that we all need forgiveness, we can find a way forwards towards a shared future. Our own definition of reconciliation is this: journeying from a fractured past towards a shared future. In Coventry we do this through our three priorities of: healing the wounds of history; learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity; building a culture of peace.
The world is presently even more divided than ever. The pandemic is not the great leveller we at first thought: instead, it is revealing our inequalities and our tendency to be selfish as people and nations across the whole world. Brexit is a word my autocorrect still does not recognise, but is an all too present reality for us in Europe. Racial injustice is an abhorrence to God who would have his children learn to live together as sisters and brothers, whoever they are.
Our friendship and fellowship is a sign of the possibility of a different and a better future, and I look forward very much to being with you again as soon as this virus has passed and we are once more free to travel. Our two churches, ruined and rebuilt, remind all of us that even when things look their worst, there is a future, even though rebuilding may take many months, many years.
Mirosolav Wolf describes hope as ‘love stretched out into the future’. Our love for one another is exactly that – a love stretched out into the future, which we offer freely to the world.
Very Revd John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry