By Win Bassett
On November 14, 1940, 515 German Air Force (Luftwaffe) planes dropped bombs on the city of Coventry, 95 miles northwest of central London, during World War II. Operation Moonlight Sonata destroyed factories, utilities, roads, and more than 4,000 homes in the English city. Among the buildings consumed by flames was the Cathedral Church of St. Michael, more commonly known as Coventry Cathedral.
The next morning, a local priest named Arthur Wales and Coventry’s provost, the Very Rev. Richard T. Howard, walked among the ruins. Wales picked up three roof nails from the rubble and bound them into a cross to set on the altar. Howard then wrote in charcoal on one of the half-standing stone walls behind the altar, “Father Forgive.” He did not write “Father Forgive Them,” only “Father Forgive.”
The Coventry ruins remained too abstract for my unforgiving mind when I was in divinity school. We displayed a cross of nails in our small chapel and prayed a litany of reconciliation that resulted from the atrocity each Friday, but the reality of the incident didn’t touch me until our pilgrimage to the site in my final year of seminary training.
Father forgive. The ambiguity of this message remains essential in recognizing that we all continue to require forgiveness — from that day in November 77 years ago and well into the long arc of time. What comprises our collective transgressions? Forgive us for continuing to allow the United States to claim the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Forgive us for typing 140 characters when more thoughts, actions, and words need consideration. Forgive us for letting homeless peopleslip through the cracks while our property values rise. Forgive us as we forget those we send to prison,only to remove them from our mind’s eye. Forgive us for waiting until too late to acknowledge those lured by the escape of opioids, and forgive us for not paying attention, decades ago, whenothersfounda similar flight from life in crack. Forgive us when we try to decide which lives matter.
On Christmas Day a few weeks after the Coventry Blitz, Provost Howard delivered a sermon on an empire-wide BBCradio broadcast. “[W]e are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge,” he said. “[W]e are bracing ourselves to finish the tremendous job of saving the world from tyranny and cruelty; we are going to try to make a kinder, simpler — a more Christ-Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”
In the years spent rebuilding the cathedral, Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write a choral composition for the consecration of the new building in 1962. His resultant work, War Requiem, weaves poems by Wilfred Owen, an English poet who died in World War I, into the Latin Mass for the Death often offered for the repose of souls in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. On the title page of the opera’s score, Britten copied a few lines from Owen’s verse: “The Poetry is in the pity. …/ All a poet can do today is warn.”
Coventry Cathedral took these words to heart and founded the Community of the Cross of Nails as “a powerful and inspirational symbol worldwide of forgiveness and reconciliation.” Today, more than 200 partners worldwide work and pray for peace and reconciliation within their communities. One need not be a member, however, to work toward continued forgiveness for all — mass shooters, terrorists, provocateurs, marchers, and always ourselves. One needs only to be human. After the debut performance of War Requiem, Britten wrote in a letter, “I hope it’ll make people think a bit.” Father, forgive us for thinking nothing enough.
Win Bassett teaches at a boys’ school in Nashville. He also serves as co-director of Camp Gailor-Maxon, a 90-year-old Episcopal summer camp for youth in Monteagle, Tennessee. He’s a graduate of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.