The Very Reverend John Witcombe - Dean of Coventry
London Bridge, and Southwark Cathedral next to it, has become one of those places which - especially from farther away - has joined the litany of places associated with tragedy. Like Hungerford, Hillsborough, Dunblane, Bataclan, Kigali, the world trade centre, Dresden … and Coventry, it is a place which has life pouring through it every day, but one day, two days - a period of time - in particular stands out in memory as a defining moment
I’m so sorry, visiting preacher’s sermons are supposed to start with a joke. But mine probably wouldn’t be as good as Dean Andrew’s anyway, so it’s properly better if I don’t even try.
What the opening lines of a sermon should always do is establish some common ground between preacher and congregation … whether through humour, or a remark about the weather, or something in the news, we need to know that in the next few minutes, we are somehow seeking to negotiate the same experience of life. Our common ground, between Coventry and Southwark, is the experience of the brokenness of the world, of the agony at the heart of God’s creation. The experience of wishing that things were different. You carry in your walls and doors the marks of brutality, the memory of fear. We carry in our Cathedral ruins the empty windows and open roof from the bombing of our city almost 80 years ago.
But of course that’s not all we carry, is it? That experience is our calling card - the basis on which we have anything to say to anyone. It’s a story, but it’s not the whole story: as Isaiah says, and we proclaim to the world in this season of Epiphany, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, this who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them a light has shined.”
I’m often told that we should stop talking about the Coventry Blitz. It was 80 years ago, for goodness sake. But we will never stop talking about it. It was not the only thing that defined us as a city: but it was, at least, at the heart of what defined us. And the reason it’s important is that it represents something that defines all of us: all of us, without exception, have experienced loss, destruction, devastation. It is an unavoidable part of the human condition - what Paul Tillich called existential estrangement. That heartfelt cry that says, “this isn't how it’s supposed to be”. “I don’t belong here.” “This is not my home!”
It’s not always an easy thing to admit, to ourselves or to others. But it’s not just a personal thing - it’s true of our communities, our society, our nation … our world. Please don’t get me wrong, this is not one of those “we’re all doomed” sermons, in the style of an exclamation from Private Fraser. I believe firmly in the fundamental goodness of both people and creation. But it gets skewed, and we find ourselves saying, “how did we end up here” … “how did I end up here?” Francis Spufford calls it ‘the human tendency to mess things up’ - that’s a paraphrase, actually, as you may know.
What happened on London Bridge in June 2017 and again, in Fishmonger’s Hall, in November 2019, should not have happened. What happened in Coventry on November 1940 shouldn’t have happened - but it did, and things like that will keep happening, again, and again. So the first challenge is to admit that - and sharing our history will help others share theirs, and admit, and acknowledge, their experience of brokenness. People stand in our ruins and weep.
The most profound Christian ministry most often starts with the gift of honesty. We do it, of course, in funerals. And we are able to bear the honesty because it leads to grace: if we did not acknowledge we were walking, stumbling, falling over in darkness, we would not be able to rejoice in the dawning of the light. And it is only the presence of hope that enables us to admit the reality of the darkness - to be honest about the one helps us be honest about the other. Crucifixion and Resurrection frame our view of the world, as we look out with the eyes of faith. Present experience and future hope go had in hand: as the preacher Tony Campolo used to say, “It’s Friday - but Sunday’s coming.”
Today’s gospel reading describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. If you set the reading in its context - it’s always a good idea to do that, I find - it comes directly after Jesus’ preparation by God in the wilderness, the 40 days of being tempted, tested to give up his calling. To be challenged in relation to what he was made for. The spark for Jesus beginning to speak words of hope into a place of despair was in itself a tragedy, or at least the beginnings of one: the arrest of his cousin, John the Baptiser. Now the word used for arrest is instructive: it’s the Greek word paradidonai - given up, and it’s the same word, used in the same way, when Jesus is given up to death through Judas’ betrayal. It points to the playing out of God’s purposes - it is, in truth, God who is the primary actor in this unfolding of the story of our salvation.
It put me in mind of some brass letters in the floor at the West End of our Cathedral - twenty meters wide and several high, they proclaim, ‘To the Glory of God this Cathedral burnt November 14 1940, and is now rebuilt, 1962.” How on earth can we say that a Cathedral burned ‘to the glory of God’: could we, perhaps, say, ‘to the glory of God - for the playing out of his purposes - our Cathedral in Coventry was given up to the flames’? These are deep mysteries - if we could fathom the depths of God’s life in the world, we would be more like God than we are. What we do know is that it is most often through brokenness that God reveals Godself - and in brokeness that we are found by God. The destruction you experienced, and witnessed, should not have happened. Yet it is now through that story as much, perhaps more, than any other, at least for a time, that you have the chance to witness to the hope and life of Christ, breaking through in the darkest places - the places who long for light to shine.
The story of Coventry is a story not just of destruction, but of hope realised in what will Gompertz called “a magnificent, optimistic and bold response to the horrors of war … a building born out of love and hope made from the rubble of hate and despair.” The day after the bombing, Provost Howard committed to rebuild, that the Cathedral would rise again to the glory of God. It is not just in being broken that God is revealed - but in rising again. We do not wallow in despair. The symbol you are receiving today, the cross of nails, is a symbol which arose from the brokenness of the cathedral - a symbol, made of nails falling from the burning roof, released if you like by the destruction of what had gone before, now available to be used to build something new. These nails help us know God in our brokeness, but invite us to use them to rebuild what Provost Howard called a “kinder, a gentler a more Christ child kind of world.” Wherever Christ is to be found, there too is love, and hope - so these nails are our gift to you, a sign of Christ’s hope in a place which has known despair.
What will you build with them? They are symbols - and if they just remain on the altar, they will gather dust, become just another memorial. You, my friends, have been chosen, through the events of your history. It’s not always what we would choose, to be chosen by God: but just like Peter, Andrew, James, John, you have encountered Jesus passing through your midst and he has turned and looked at you and invited you to follow.
Where will that lead? I can’t begin to say. But I do pray that this cross of nails will be like a cairn on a path, helping you find your bearings. In accepting this cross, you have accepted, as a Cathedral community, a call to reconciliation. A recognition that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, and that you are to be messengers and ministers of that reconciliation. We understand that to mean a calling to work with God in God’s people to heal the wounds of history, learn to live with difference and celebrate diversity, and build a culture of peace. This is not an aspect of the gospel, something for those that like that sort of thing. This is not even at the heart of the gospel. This is the gospel. Rebuilding lives, communities, nations is the work of the gospel and your particular history now affords you the opportunity which other places who can only demonstrate privilege and success simply don’t the right to speak about. You have been chosen to speak with authentic and integrity of the way of Christ, a way which reaches out with open hands, outstretched arms, even to those who would tear our lives from us, and with them to God, with the words, “Father Forgive”, a prayer of confidence, for us and the whole human race, one family under heaven.