A Season of Forgiveness and Reconciliation
My friend and mentor, Rev. Dr. Steven M. Sheeley, preached a Good Friday sermon using this familiar story of the city of Coventry:
The city of Coventry rests quietly in the middle of England. By the mid-20th Century it had become an important cog in the machinery of English industry. And in 1940 much of England’s munitions were being manufactured there.
For, you see, war was raging over Europe, and bombs were falling over Britain. In the early evening of November 14, 1940, 515 German bombers began multiple bombing runs over Coventry. They dropped their bombs, returned to France to reload, and returned to drop some more. The first few waves of bombs were explosive in nature, designed to damage rooftops, roads, and water mains and to obstruct the actions of firefighters and other first responders. The succeeding waves of bombs were incendiary, intended to ignite the town in a firestorm. 4300 homes were damaged and over two-thirds of the city was destroyed.
The center of the city was dominated by the Coventry Cathedral, built on the site of a former Benedictine convent and dedicated to St. Michael. Its steeple towered over the city, an imposing landmark. By the end of that evening in November 1940, the steeple and the Cathedral’s outer walls were nearly all that remained of the holy structure. In the aftermath of the evening’s fiery destruction, a firefighter noticed two of the massive roof beams lying in the shape of a cross amidst the rubble. These two beams were fixed together and placed on the altar, which was miraculously still standing. In the days that followed, the Provost of the Cathedral called the people of Coventry to a response of reconciliation, rather than retaliation and had the words “Father Forgive” engraved on the wall of the ruined church behind the altar. The Germans, the English, the soldiers, the civilians… all needed to hear the words… “Father, Forgive!”
Today, we feel the strong vibrations and the harmful destruction of the bombs of theological intolerance, political polarization, and racial inequity. We feel as if our lives are in ruins. Yet, even as the ashes of grief and loss pile up, we must remember the smudged sign of the cross on our foreheads and that we are dust and to dust we will return. Rather than possessing a spirit of retaliation, this Lenten Season we need to hear and act the words of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In 1958, Canon Joseph Poole wrote The Litany of Reconciliation and today it is prayed regularly around the world. The Litany is intoned at noon each weekday in Coventry Cathedral and in the Cathedral ruins on Fridays:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.