25 April 2024

"Is there fire under the ashes?"

Coventry Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St Michael)—the ruins remaining from World War II and the new cathedral building, consecrated in 1962.
Provost Richard Howard had "Father Forgive" inscribed behind the altar of what remained of the cathedral after the Luftwaffe bombing of November 14-15, 1940. Later he participated in building a relationship between Coventry and Kiel, Germany, which had suffered similar bombing.

Last week, Judy and I visited Coventry Cathedral. The ruins left by the worst night of the Coventry Blitz of 1940 still remained for visitors like us to walk through, trying to imagine the horror of that night.

In the days and years since then, this extraordinary cathedral was reborn as an international center of reconciliation. Is it too soon to ask whether a witness to reconciliation will arise from the ashes of the Gaza Strip?

That may seem unlikely now, but imagine how unlikely it must have been in the heat of World War II's mutual destruction to envision the Coventry Cathedral of today. Just listen to these crushing words from that war:

Adolf Hitler, Germany: The other night the English had bombed Berlin. So be it. But this is a game at which two can play. When the British Air Force drops 2000 or 3000 or 4000 kg of bombs, then we will drop 150 000, 180 000, 230 000, 300 000, 400 000 kg on a single night. When they declare they will attack our cities in great measure, we will eradicate their cities. The hour will come when one of us will break – and it will not be National Socialist Germany!

Arthur Harris, Britain: The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive ... should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany ... the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

But despite the terrible cruelties they inflicted, their voices did not prevail. The very day after the destruction of Coventry Cathedral, its provost made a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation—a commitment that, by human persistence and God's mercy, survived the hatred and revenge of total war.

After Coventry, we had a wonderful visit with Diana and John Lampen, who promised to show us a cathedral of a very different sort. We were not disappointed. In the National Trust's Kinver Edge, just a few minutes' drive from their home in Stourbridge, we followed a trail that soon emerged into a space that took our breath away. Huge beech trees formed what really did seem like a natural cathedral—not only in appearance but in a sort of quiet grandeur that invited reverence.

Earlier that morning, the Lampens had given us a tour of the Stourbridge Friends meetinghouse, the main part of which dated back to 1689. The outward contrast between that beautiful little meetinghouse and Coventry Cathedral was impossible to deny, but the deeper kinship was also very evident. As soon as the four of us sat down in the quiet meetinghouse and entered into a meeting for worship, I knew that we were in a place where many generations of prayer had built an unquenchable flame.

(If you've kept up with this blog, you've seen the Lampens' names before, most recently in my review of their book Inner Healing, Inner Peace: A Quaker Perspective. We first got to know the Lampens when I was a new member of Reedwood Friends Church's pastoral team, back in the year 2000, and they came to Portland for several weeks as guests of Reedwood's Center for Christian Studies. For more about their interests, activities, and concerns, visit

The title of this post, "Is there fire under the ashes?", seemed to me to be very applicable to the spiritual fire that survived the ashes of Coventry, but the question is actually a quotation from John Lampen's novel, Hester and Sophie.

There are several reasons I'd very much like it if you would get a copy of this novel and read it yourself. (See the Hope Project's publications page.) In part this is because it would be hard to avoid revealing too much of what Hester will tell you in her own wonderful timing. But mainly I want you to experience the way Hester draws the reader into her life with her utterly believable thirteen-year-old voice—whether she is musing on the peculiarities of the Friends meeting her family attends, considering Ariane Grande's lyrics after the Manchester concert bombing, or trying to cope with the devastating loss of Hester's best friend Sophie.

At the beginning of her story, Hester wakes up from a vivid dream. Before she forgets the dream, she uses a blank book, a gift from Sophie, to write it down. She then locks up the book, but later that day, she goes back to read what she had written, and to her astonishment, the words "Is there fire under the ashes?" had been written below the Sophie's handwriting

Thus begins a crucial week in Hester's life. It's a week that she describes in her own engaging way, sometimes deadpan and sometimes wry, as she discovers capacities in herself and unanticipated depths in others, and a growing realization that Sophie is still in her life.

As I was reading Hester and Sophie, nothing made me stop and think, "Hey, this was written by an 80-year-old man!" But I wonder if you'll agree that, even so, John peeks out from the pages in the form of quiet little hints and maybe one very brief cameo appearance, gently linked to the concerns that he and Diana have devoted their lives to.

I began my own diary when I was just a year older than Hester. I didn't have mysterious writings appear in my diary's pages, but some of what I wrote in those first years of my diary had a similar combination of directness, receptivity, skepticism, and hope.

After I finished the last page of the novel, I found Hester's voice continuing to echo in my mind and spirit. It was a deeply refreshing experience.

George Lakey, at age 86, is still getting into "good trouble." Here's what that looks like to the Philadelphia Inquirer. (My thanks to Keith Barton for the link.)

Here's the latest epistle from Friends Peace Teams.

Rwanda's own experience of organized reconciliation, following the genocide of 30 years ago.

A fascinating, sometimes intense, video: Frank Schaeffer interviews Christian ethicist David Gushee. Normally I don't have the patience to watch long video interviews (I much prefer reading the transcript, if there is one), but this interview really drew me in.

More from David Gushee—on a gathering of the Post-Evangelical Collective.

Young Adult Quakers are invited to gather at Jordans Friends Meetinghouse and Centre, August 21-25, at Beaconsfield, not far from London, UK. Information and registration form are here.

Voyager I is back in business. It's transmitting coherent data again.

"I can't stay at your house no more because you quit drinking." Buddy Guy and Charlie Musselwhite jam.

1 comment:

  1. The Coventry Cross of Nails was formed from nails which fell from the cathedral roof when it was bombed. Coventry developed links with Dresden which was also destroyed in WW2. The Community of the Cross of Nails has international links.