Profile: The Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry
A Warrior-angel and his Mission of Peace: the irony in the Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry...
Before the Covid-19 pandemic derailed my Year of Pilgrimage plans, Coventry Cathedral had been high on my list of sites to visit. Specifically, I wanted to visit today, the 14th of November, because it's a big day for the Cathedral Church of St Michael.
While I haven't been able to visit this year, I thought I'd explain why it was important to try and do so, especially given the aims of this website.
When I first visited, on a school trip years ago, one thing I enjoyed was the clash of architectural styles at Coventry, and the way that the old was used as an almost living exhibit of the past and the cathedral's mission. More on that later. Another highlight – for a teenager about to encounter Milton's Paradise Lost for the first time – was the cathedral's dedication to the Archangel Saint Michael, and the prominent Epstein statue by the front door, in which he's shown triumphant over the Devil himself.
There's an irony in Coventry's choice of St Michael as patron, though nobody could have known that when the first, Medieval, church of that name was built on the site. St Michael is the Archangel who, in the Book of Revelation, is tasked with leading the armies of Heaven into the final battle with the armies of Hell. He's God's top general and warrior-angel, and it's his victory in personal combat with Satan that is depicted on the front of the newest cathedral. But his opponent isn't killed, or cowed and humiliated; the Devil of the statue appears bound, for sure, but this is an enemy allowed to live (in exile) and repent of his ways. Even the Devil, after all, is one of God's creatures.
So, where's the irony in Coventry's adoption of the warrior-angel? Pull up the church on an image search, and look to the left of the statue. The first Cathedral Church of St Michael has seen the effects of war first-hand and up close.
Many churches have their histories hidden away, somehow. You might have to look closely to find, say, the early Saxon cross built into the wall at Bradford Cathedral. Some are built on top of their predecessors, like St Paul's, or are formed from the very materials that made the fabric of the nearby buildings (I'm looking at you, St Alban's). But few wear their history so openly as Coventry Cathedral.
There are, in effect, two churches on the site in Coventry: the shattered remains of one lying next to the modernist hulk of the other. The modern design and aesthetic of the newer cathedral might be eye-catching, but for my money, it's always the roofless former cathedral, window frames missing all their glass, that sticks with the visitor.
St Michael's had only been a cathedral for just over twenty years, since the end of the Great War, when the next great war imposed itself on the city. In 1940, the Nazi war machine had rolled up most of Europe and was pressing in on Britain as its next target. With the likelihood of invasion fading, wave after wave of Luftwaffe planes swept the country in an effort to bomb the civilian population into submission. London, famously bore the brunt of these raids, but was far from the only place to suffer. In November, the Blitz was raining down on Coventry, which was one of Britain's most significant industrial centres (the local car manufacturing industry, in particular, had been turned to support the war effort).
On the night of the 14th, 80 years ago today, incendiary bombs fell on the Medieval wooden roof of the cathedral, and, despite the valiant efforts of firefighters and the Cathedral Guard, the bombs had their intended effect. The cathedral, along with much of the medieval city centre, was lost to the blaze.
Picking through the rubble the next morning, the Provost, Rev. Richard Howard, who'd been one of those shovelling bombs off the roof in the night, is supposed to have found three nails lying in the shape of a cross. I say supposed, because it's a lovely story, but one that does seem a little convenient. Whatever the catalyst, that morning the Provost decided that the cathedral must be rebuilt, and that this would send a powerful message to the world. What's remarkable, and what struck me even as a schoolboy also wandering the ruins, is that the message wasn't to be in the triumphant spirit of St Michael – he who defeated the Devil in combat – and it wasn't to be a symbol of defiance against the enemy. In 1940, don't forget, the war was still going very much Germany's way. With my twenty-first-century schoolboy's hindsight, I had expected a Blitz spirit resilience to manifest in a building project that showed the city unbroken and very willing to continue the fight (which of course, they had eventually won).
But that wasn't Howard's intention. For one thing, I suppose, he didn't know the war would be won. But for another, he saw in the cross of nails a sign of Christ's sacrifice, his forgiveness, and his love for humanity. Howard might not know the eventual outcome – whether his Michael would triumph over a Nazi devil – but he knew the war would one day be over, and that people would need to live together again. His new cathedral was intended to be a symbol of God's love for all his creation. It would be a symbol of peace, of forgiveness, and a way to move on from the division and bitterness of the war, a way to help the people of Coventry put the struggles and privations of those difficult years behind them. In the twenty-first-century, the cathedral leads a global mission and community dedicated to spreading peace and fostering reconciliation, driven by that morning of November 15th, 1940, when God's house appeared to lie in ruins.
Standing in the hollowed-out heart of that old church, I couldn't help but be amazed at the big-heartedness of that gesture, of the big-picture thinking, and of the compassion it must have taken to recognise that St Michael, in triumphing over the Devil, was magnanimous in the way that a victorious United Kingdom would have to be if they wanted to live alongside the Germans after the war (and vice versa). And Howard was prepared to think and accept those thoughts in the smouldering rubble of the cathedral he'd spent the night trying to save.
The architect overseeing the new cathedral, (later Sir) Basil Spence, shared Howard's vision for a cathedral that looked forward to an era of peace, but could also look back to remember the horrors of the war that had brought it about. Spence was therefore clear that the remains of the old cathedral would stay, and that both structures would form a collective site of remembrance: one combined church. And so today, Coventry appears to have two cathedrals, the past and the future, side-by-side.
On that morning of November 15th, 1940, God's house appeared to lie in ruins...
The Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry, is therefore an important place for this project, because the two buildings, and the decision to preserve the old alongside the new, tells a story about not only Britain's experience of the Second World War, but our attempts to heal and recover afterwards.
I hope to visit (again) in the near future, and be able to talk in more detail about not only the ruins and the ongoing mission in global peace, but also the striking new building itself.
All images from Wikimedia Commons, under CC Licence.
Coventry Cathedral: Image credit: DeFacto, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia CommonsSt Michael and the Devil: Jim Linwood, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia CommonsCross altar: sannse, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia CommonsRuins and Rainbow: Andrew Walker (walker44), CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons