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Sent to Coventry, Called to Windsor

Having been “sent to Coventry” in 2008 to be Bishop of the Diocese of Coventry in the West Midlands of England, I found myself called to Windsor in 2023 to be Dean of the College of St. George. There was a certain irony in the journey. The English idiom “Being sent to Coventry” has its origins in the 17th century, when England was torn apart by civil war. Royalist prisoners captured after the nearby Battle of Edgehill were sent to the Parliamentary City of Coventry to be incarcerated in the crypt of St. John the Baptist, a beautiful city-center church that, in former times, had made much of its connections with the Royal Family. The citizens of Coventry, liberated from monarch, prayer book, and bishop, were instructed to shun the defeated Royalists as they cried out from the crypt into the streets around the church.

By the mercy of God, I was by no means shunned by the people of Coventry when I arrived some 360 years later as their new bishop. Indeed, after 15 happy years in the diocese there was a good deal of heartache on my part as I laid down my diocesan crozier and miter on the altar of Coventry’s great modernist Cathedral, to be installed a few weeks later as Dean of Windsor in the ancient, medieval Chapel of St. George. The twists and turns of history became clearer to me as I made my promises to serve God in this new ministry near the tomb of Charles I, executed by the Parliamentarians in 1649, and as I made myself at home in my study, where the table on which his decapitated body was laid so that it could be reunited with his head before his burial. I was glad that in the 21st century, God still seemed to have a purpose for monarchy, prayer book and bishops, in this land at least!

I confess that for some time I was struck by the sharp differences between living then in the post-industrial city of Coventry, with all its deep social challenges, and now within the walls of a working castle, still a royal residence where grand and profound events are etched on the national consciousness. The contrast was symbolized in the “beautified brutalism” of Coventry Cathedral, consecrated in its present form in 1962 after the destruction of its earlier manifestation in the horrors of the Second World War — the opposite of the exquisitely fine shapes of the early perpendicular gothic architecture of St. George’s Chapel. But I began to realize that the resonance between these two great and holy places murmured through the deep history of Christian saints.

Coventry Cathedral, both in its pre-war stone and post-war concrete, is dedicated to St. Michael and All Angels. Among several of its artistic treasures is a magnificent statue of St. Michael defeating the devil. The 15th-century chapel at Windsor Castle is dedicated to St. George. It was built to provide a spiritual home for the Knights of the Garter, founded by Edward III in the previous century, together with the College of St. George, established at the same time to offer prayer for and spiritual counsel to the king and his company of noble knights.

St. Michael and all the angels proved to be truly providential patrons for Coventry Cathedral, and for the surrounding city, as Coventry was pummeled by enemy bombing throughout much of the war. St. Michael would have no truck with evil and he stood against it — as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” (Eph. 6:10). The fatal flaw of evil is that it presumes its own power, and its followers are beguiled into foolish idolatry through its false and dangerous promises. The strength of those who “stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11) is to rely on the power of God, believing in the promises of God, wielding only the weapons of God’s peace. It was in that spirit, the spirit of St. Michael, the Spirit of God, that the provost of the cathedral was able to declare to the world on the Christmas Service broadcast by the BBC from the ruins of cathedral only weeks after the worst bombing of the city,

What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ, born again in our hearts today, we’re trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge. We’re bracing ourselves to finish this tremendous job of saving the world from tyranny and cruelty. We’re going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ-child-like, sort of world in the days beyond this strife.

No doubt King Edward chose St. George for the saint’s martial associations. Edward was busy both defending his kingdom against threats from the Scots and securing his claim to the French throne; and he knew his knights were inspired by the stories of St. George their comrades had brought back from the Crusades. Nevertheless, Christian sainthood, rooted in the “strength of God’s power,” will not be seduced by worldly causes. After all, George laid down the weapons of Roman war to be a soldier in Christ’s army of peace.

To be sure, there are several depictions of St. George around Windsor Castle heavily clad in armor and fiercely wielding his sword. I am struck, though, by a very old icon of which I have a become a custodian, in which St. George looks strikingly unprotected as he rides his steed. The only weapon he wields is the thinnest spear the iconographer could depict. Try killing a dragon with that! It would split in a moment and the fiery head of the beast would rise up in a second to devour you. But that’s the point. The way of defeating the one who pretends to be “the ruler of the world” (John 12:31), is not through matching its ways but, as followers of Christ — crucified, risen, ascended, and returning — through trusting in God’s ways.

The deprivations of COVID and everything that has followed have given rise to a sense of permacrisis. The crisis of health (which remains present and overshadows our future in multiple ways) has been followed by a crisis in the cost of living, the crisis of war in Europe and the Middle East (with real risks of escalation on both fronts) and the ever-deepening ecological, environmental, and climate crisis (that threatens our existence). To add to the turbulence is what appears to be a crisis of democracy in many of the places where we have taken it for granted, my own land included. The list could go on and we can argue about the relative strength of each of them. What is indisputable, though, is that the world faces many evils. It always has, of course, but these are evils on our watch, and it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by their scale.

Here in the College of St. George, founded to pray for the ways of God to be seen in this nation and throughout the world, as I look to the inspiration of St. George, I am strengthened also by the witness of the two saints that King Edward III invoked alongside St. George in the combined patronage of our historic chapel — St. Edward the Confessor and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The confession of faith in the victory of Christ displayed by Edward. The hope of a new, transformed world sung in Mary’s prophecy of the redemption of the world that her son would bring. The armor of God that George found safer than even the best technology the Roman army could offer: truth, righteousness, and faith, the gospel of peace and the word of God (Eph. 6:14-17). These are the ways of God that bring the salvation won by Christ to the world.

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