Dr Alex Albans of the Reconciliation Ministry Team at Coventry Cathedral talks to us about war, peace and landscape design…
You recently visited the Commonweal Collection, Alex – how did that come about?
My colleagues and I were invited to visit the Peace Museum in Bradford by Clive Barrett, who is the chair of trustees of the Peace Museum, because the cathedral’s Reconciliation Ministry has a partnership with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, which Clive helps to run.
On the trip we visited Special Collections at the University of Bradford’s JB Priestley Library to look at various documents, including some on the Bradford Reconciliation statue (there’s also one at Coventry).
Alison Cullingford of Special Collections also showed us up to the Commonweal Collection on the first floor of the library.
What work do you do in Coventry, Alex?
I work for Coventry Cathedral’s Reconciliation Ministry based at St Michael’s House next door to the cathedral. The cathedral’s ministry grew out of the then provost’s response to the bombing of the cathedral in 1940, during the Second World War. Provost Howard reached out to ‘the enemy’ – to various German leaders – in hope of future reconciliation.
Nails from the cathedral’s medieval roof were collected after the bombing and made into crosses that were sent to leaders in Dresden and other cities across Germany as a message of hope for future reconciliation.
This gesture ultimately led to the Community of the Cross of Nails (CCN). It mainly had partners in Germany to begin with, but since then it’s become international, covering most continents, with well over 200 partners.
So who do you reach nowadays?
We have just launched another, linked organisation – Together for Hope (TforH). It shares the same priorities as the CCN, but it’s for secular and multifaith communities. As a non-religiously affiliated organisation, the Peace Museum could partner with us through TforH, as could Commonweal.
Its first partner is a multifaith organisation called Faithful Friends, in Sandwell, West Midlands. It’s a group of faith and community leaders who came together to build a community of reconciliation.
This group of friends are journeying together to visit places of special meaning and sharing their experiences with children and families.
We’re also exploring partnership with a national Muslim charity, and an organisation focused on LGBTI reconciliation within the Episcopal Church. Together for Hope also allows institutions (such as universities), who can’t be seen to be religiously partisan, to join our international network of reconcilers and peacemakers.
The St Michael’s House programme has events, training courses, lectures and round table conversations. The most recent was ‘War and Pacifism’, an open conversation with a senior RAF chaplain and the chair of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.
We’re also involved in direct intervention work in this country and abroad, for example grass-roots reconciliation training in the Great Lakes region of Africa, and reconciliation and mediation for a UK diocese.
In Coventry we are working to establish a community mediation service based on one established in Wandsworth (London) – a partnership between community and professional mediators.
The cathedral Schools Team run tours and workshops that are linked to the curriculum but with an integral focus on reconciliation.
Schools can also join CCN through the International Cross of Nails Schools network (ICONS). We have ICON Schools in the UK, South Africa, the Holy Land, the USA and elsewhere.
What led you to this work, Alex?
I experienced a pretty unpleasant conflict in a community I was part of some years ago, and I didn’t have the skills to help work through the conflict. Later on, a friend of my parents, who is a professional mediator and facilitator, invited me to work with her on conflict resolution at a church in the South of England.
We worked on this project for about six months, visiting the church once or twice a month. It was the first time I’d been involved in the ‘resolving’ side of a conflict, so I was on a steep learning curve. I was largely trained on the job, with really good mentoring and development in mediation, group facilitation and leadership coaching.
A while later, I attended an international conference on faith in conflict, and learnt about the reconciliation work at the cathedral. I signed up for an ‘Introduction to Reconciliation’ course run by the cathedral’s Canon for Reconciliation, Rev. Dr Sarah Hills.
I was close to finishing my PhD and wondering what to do next, so I asked Canon Sarah about opportunities to get involved in her ministry. Three years ago, at the end of my studies, I offered to volunteer for a year, and was invited to work on developing and revitalising the ICONS project.
In January 2017 I was employed part-time to run the Reconciliation Associates’ Programme, which seeks to engender a culture of peace and reconciliation across our ‘City of Peace and Reconciliation’. I’m also responsible for developing Together for Hope and taking the community mediation programme forward.
As well as my work at the cathedral I’m a Research Fellow at Birmingham City University on a project to redefine landscape as the mechanism through which we can improve regional identity. My background is in landscape studies – my PhD is in landscape architecture, exploring how stakeholders interpret sites and how designers make creative decisions.
I still do some direct intervention through the same friend, working with church congregations and leaders who are experiencing conflict.
Why is there is much of this kind of work going on in Coventry?
Coventry’s identity as a city of peace and reconciliation grew out of the cathedral’s activity, via the provost there during the Second World War. He put the city on a path of peace and reconciliation, in contrast to the nation’s experience of conflict and war.
This work gathered steam and became an important part of Coventry’s story. The new cathedral was built as symbol of reconciliation – this is embedded in the architecture of the cathedral’s campus. The design was chosen in a competition, and the winning entry kept the ruins of the old cathedral as a reminder of the hope of resurrection and peaceful change.
That memory and ethos are completely integral to the present-day cathedral, and it’s grown from there.
Coventry Cathedral’s inspirational story of reconciliation continues as the Cathedral ruins are designated a memorial to civilians killed, injured or traumatised by conflict worldwide. We seek to educate and raise awareness of the continued impact of war, to reflect on these issues through prayer, pilgrimage, and call for positive change.
There are several peace centres in the city, and Coventry University, with its Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, has international influence.
The cathedral also partners with Coventry University to run the RISING Global Peace Forum.
How does your work link people of faith and others?
Together for Hope is the formal means – we also have strong links with the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Coventry, and the cathedral has good relations across the city, and is on various interfaith panels.
What will be your focus in the coming years? Will you be linking with the 2021 City of Culture events?
The cathedral is one of the key 2021 partners in the bid, so various events are planned. All the updates can be found at the Coventry 2021 website.
The Reconciliation Ministry as a whole has a range of goals – developing St Michael’s house as a world-class centre for reconciliation, developing training for leaders and practitioners who are keen to learn practices of reconciliation, and inviting people and groups to Coventry to share in our story of hope.
It’s also the diocese’s 100th birthday in 2018.
What do you do outside your work at the cathedral?
I mentioned my work on landscape – I love studying old maps and the local history of Coventry and the West Midlands, and walking in the area’s beautiful landscapes. I’m also thinking of going back to studying, perhaps a master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies at Coventry University.
I also enjoy reading sci-fi and fantasy novels, collect contemporary ceramics and relax by gardening and practising yoga.