The Coventry Cross of Nails: A Symbol of Forgiveness and Working For Peace

 on October 25, 2022

In our diocesan Cathedral, there is a small cross of nails above the pulpit. For some people, it may be a reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus, but this cross is also a symbol of forgiveness and working for peace.

On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry in England was devastated by bombs dropped by Nazi aircrafts. St. Michael’s Cathedral, the medieval Cathedral church of the Diocese of Coventry, was completely gutted by fire, having been hit by several incendiary devices. Only the stone walls remained standing.

Shortly after the destruction, a stonemason noticed that two of the charred roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the sanctuary wall. Another cross was created with three medieval nails. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry Cathedral’s international ministry of reconciliation.

It was decided that the destroyed Cathedral would be left an open-air place of worship and prayer as a sign of faith and hope for the future. After the war, a design for building a cathedral adjacent to the ruins was commissioned. In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II laid the foundation stone. Gifts and donations poured into Coventry from many countries. The new Cathedral was consecrated in May 1962. In the floor of the newer building, there is a brass maple leaf which commemorates the gifts made by the people of Canada. The ruins remain hallowed ground and together the two, old and new, create one living Cathedral.

On the night of February 13, 1945, the city of Dresden in Germany was destroyed by a massive fire-bombing by the Allied air force. The Lutheran Frauenkirche, Church of Our Lady, was an architectural and engineering masterpiece. Built in 1743, it had a bell-shaped dome of solid stone which was compared in importance to Michelangelo’s dome for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The organ had been played by some of the most famous musicians of the 18th century, including Johann Sebastian Bach.

For 45 years, the ruins and rubble of the Frauenkirche laid in the centre of Dresden because the communist government of East Germany refused to rebuild it. After the reunification of Germany, non-profit organizations from around the world, including the Britain Dresden Trust, raised funds to rebuild the great church. The restored magnificent church, an exact replica of the original 18th century design, was consecrated in November 2005.

The 25-foot orb and cross on top of the dome of the Frauenkirche was made in London by goldsmiths, one of whom was the son of a pilot involved in the 1945 Dresden raid. The altar cross is the only object that is not of the original 18th century design. The altar cross is a Coventry Cathedral Cross of Nails symbolizing the international ministry of reconciliation that the Frauenkirche now shares with Coventry as a member of the worldwide network of peace centres.

Over the years, this work has expanded into some of the world’s worst areas of conflict, including areas of the Middle East. Another organization based at Coventry Cathedral is the Community of the Cross of Nails which has over 160 centres around the world, all working for peace and reconciliation within their own communities.

The Cross of Nails in our Cathedral was brought from Coventry after the war. Every Friday, a few volunteers gather at noon to say the Litany of Coventry Cathedral. The response is the same as the phrase written on the wall of the ruins: Father Forgive. If we are to have peace in our world, we must work against prejudice, hatred, and violence, and actively strive for peace, neighbour with neighbour, community with community, nation with nation.

  • Sharyn Hall

    The Reverend Canon Dr. Sharyn Hall is an honorary member of the clergy at Christ's Church Cathedral, Hamilton.

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