‘Sent to Coventry’
To send someone to Coventry is an English idiom meaning to deliberately ostracize someone. Typically, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding their company, and acting as if they no longer exist. Victims are treated as though they are completely invisible and inaudible. Basically, it is to shun and isolate someone. The Coventry in the phrase is the iconic cathedral city in the West Midlands. Mistakenly, many people connect the phrase with the 1940’s blitz in Coventry, a sense of sending someone where no one would wish to go. The Origin of The Phrase Sent to Coventry, however, comes from The English Civil Wars of the 1640s. The Royalist troops,(the Cavaliers), who were captured in Birmingham by the Roundheads, led by Oliver Cromwell, were sent to a Parliamentary stronghold prison in Coventry.
I am pleased to say that my very recent experience of being sent to Coventry owed nothing to the original meaning of the phrase and it was somewhere I very much wanted to go. More accurately it was somewhere I was pleased to be asked to return to. Prior to coming to Wembury four years ago, I was based as Associate Minister at Coventry Cathedral. Celebrated as the UK’s favourite 20th Century building, Coventry Cathedral is known all over the world as an icon of peace, and a truly stunning venue. It was with a sense of deep privilege that I was back in the cathedral to preside at Holy Communion and, something that was always the highlight of my time there, to take an open-air Service of Reconciliation in the old cathedral ruins.
After the World War Two , in which the original cathedral was bombed beyond further use, the Cathedral Community resolved that the Christian message of forgiveness should be followed in the rebuild of the Cathedral. Maintaining the biblical imperative to “love thy enemies”, they wanted to extend the hand of friendship to those with whom they had been at war. Basil Spence, the architect chosen for the design of the new Coventry Cathedral, insisted that the ruins of the old cathedral should be kept as a “garden of remembrance” and the new cathedral built alongside it.
Following the bombing of the mediaeval Cathedral in 1940, Provost Howard had the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the wall behind the Altar of the ruined building. Three medieval nails which were rescued from the rubble of the ruined cathedral were welded together to form a “Cross of Nails”. As soon as the war was over, similar crosses were sent to the German cities of Dresden, Kiel and Berlin, and later Japan, whose people had also suffered and whose major cities had been destroyed.
The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, which is prayed in the new Cathedral every weekday at noon and at the open-air service in the Ruins every Friday, is used throughout the world by the Community of the Cross of Nails. As a cathedral minister I wore, and still wear, a Cross of Nails. It is a symbol of peace and reconciliation across the world.
Here at St Werburgh Church our Sunday service frequently includes that same Coventry prayer of confession and reconciliation with the congregation joining in the words in bold print ‘Father Forgive’:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from
nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and
nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of
human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness
Our indifference to the plight of the
imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies
of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in
ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
But, back to that open-air service I led recently. It was raining heavy, yet there was a good crowd, albeit huddled under umbrellas. There was, and is, an awesome challenge for us all to build a better world, as I pronounced those final words, words that mean the same in any language and in any location, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”.
Wishing you every blessing, Martin