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Nazi-ravaged English cathedral site of reconciliation meeting

COVENTRY, England (BP)–In what leaders called “a profound opportunity,” 300 Christians came to England’s Coventry Cathedral Sept. 1-7 for an international reconciliation conference while English neighbors came to the same cathedral to mourn the death of Princess Diana.
“Reconciliation ’97” drew ministers, lay leaders and representatives from six continents and a variety of denominations, ministries and cultures for a week of workshops, forums and encouragement from other reconciliation workers. Their presence, prayers and testimonies provided a soothing balm for the steady stream of grieving people who came to the church to lay flowers or light candles. Conference organizers reported some visitors renewed their faith commitment as a result of the simultaneous events. At least one woman accepted Christ.
But Coventry’s cathedral has long been recognized as a refuge of comfort and restoration. Bombed by Nazi war planes in 1940, church leaders responded by collecting medieval nails from the rubble, wiring them together to form small crosses and sending them to German Christians as a symbol of friendship. From that simple act, the International Centre for Christian Reconciliation was born and today partners with Christians in 75 cities around the world.
Conference leaders chose the historic site saying it provides a living visible witness to the power of reconciliation. Yet it was the timing that offered a unique ministry opportunity for conference participants: As Cathedral Provost Paul Oestreicher said, “Having a group of this caliber with such a high Christian commitment has been a gift to us, especially during this week.
Still, Reconciliation ’97’s history was not without its own conflicts. Although a now-retired Southern Baptist Home Mission Board staff member, Reid Hardin, played a key role in initiating the gathering, the agency withdrew its support after concerns were raised over its growing ecumenical nature. In June, HMB trustee William Streich warned other board members and incoming leaders of the new North American Mission Board, which replaced the HMB in an SBC restructuring, to reconsider their involvement in the conference, claiming “plenty of time exists to nullify a move in a very dangerous direction.”
“The problem too often has been that we only know each other by our theology rather than knowing each other as people,” responded Hardin, who remained a conference organizer after retiring as HMB coordinator for renewal and reconciliation. “Reconciliation ’97 really is a pilgrimage of repentance and renewal working out reconciliation in relationships,” Hardin said. “Reconciliation is not an ideal for the Christian; it is not optional.”
Participants of Reconciliation ’97 voiced consensus that reconciliation did not require theological compromise in working together for the sake of the gospel. As Wendy Ryan, director of communications with the Baptist World Alliance, acknowledged, “God is both the cause and the effect of reconciliation. We feel a move from God to be involved in reconciliation wherever that happens.”
Through daily workshops and evening sessions, participants discussed a variety of reconciliation issues and explored new strategies for evangelism and Christian unity. Reports also were given on reconciliation efforts in countries such as Australia, Canada, Northern Ireland and South Africa.
Antoine Rutayisire from Rwanda, a team leader with African Enterprise Ministries, urged Christians to forgive those who have done evil. Rutayisire survived numerous massacres while watching family members murdered, yet he came to recognize “healing only comes with forgiveness. We can rebuild houses and buildings but if we don’t have healing and repentance, it’s not the same.” And one former IRA member from Belfast, Northern Ireland, told participants how he formerly terrorized and burned houses; now he’s rebuilding them with Habitat for Humanity.
In his workshop titled, “Reconciliation: A Prerequisite to Evangelism and Renewal,” David Laubach, associate executive director of evangelism and church renewal for American Baptist Churches, said of the need for reconciliation efforts: “You can’t tell we’re saved if we stay in homogeneous settings. It’s in our diversity that we have our witness.”
Frank Ruff, a Catholic priest working in Catholic-Baptist relations, provided several principles for reconciliation, including acknowledging hurts and praying, serving and worshiping together. “I think the Spirit is moving powerfully among Southern Baptists who want to seek reconciliation,” Ruff said.
But no one suggested the road to reconciliation would be an easy one. Raleigh Washington, a Promise Keepers vice president and Chicago- area pastor who gave the conference’s final charge, said, “Change will only happen as we come together as one. I have a new dream that churches around the world will come together in a unifying love.”
Even former South African President F.W. De Klerk, in a special lecture sponsored by the cathedral, appealed to “the victims of our (South African) policies (to) find it in their hearts to forgive us.”
De Klerk also stated: “One of the central realities of our histories has been the utter failure of most Christians and most Christian countries to carry out this commandment (of forgiveness). … Until we truly forgive our enemies, we carry within our hearts a bitterness which can poison every other aspect of our lives.”
Perhaps no one listening knew that better than conference participant Johnson Philip Mlambo, former deputy of the Pan African Congress who spent 20 years in prison with Nelson Mandella. “It is important to me to be here because some of the bad things that happened in our country happened in the name of religion. This has deepened my commitment to the worth of the human being.”
Plans are already under way for a similar conference in Louisville, Ky., in November 1998. St. Matthews Baptist Church will host the conference sponsored by Reconciliation NOW (Networks of Our World), an informal of the Coventry conference’s organizers.
“When a global event of reconciliation comes to the U.S.,” said St. Matthews’ pastor Leslie Hollon, “the local ministry efforts will be challenged. This is a bottom up, not top down, grassroots experience reflecting the mystery of God and his healing.”

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  • Jo Kadlecek