Yorkshire Post


75 years ago tonight Allied bombers destroyed nearly 90% of buildings in the German city of Dresden, killing around 25,000 people. Dresden became synonymous with death by firestorm. I have spoken with people who were there and survived.

This is the text of an article published today in the Yorkshire Post to mark the anniversary.

Several years ago I stood in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden and addressed an audience of 1200 Germans. It was a poignant moment for me. My parents had endured bombing by German aircraft over Liverpool from 1941 and I was familiar with the stories of destruction, death and fear. But,here I was, in an iconic German church in a different world, but with the scars of war all around me.

Let me put this in context. That same morning I had preached in Meissen Cathedral and had shaken hands with several hundred people as they left the service. The last man to leave refused to shake my hand. When I asked why, I was told that “I come from Dresden and what you did there was a war crime”. I replied that (a) I didn’t do it, and (b) no one wins in war … as my parents could confirm. After a silence he extended his hand. He was in the congregation in the Frauenkirche later that afternoon.

The event he described as a ‘war crime’ was the bombing of Dresden during the night of 13/14 February 1945 which caused a massive firestorm, the destruction of the historic city and the deaths of thousands of people. Allied bombers flew in waves and the cumulative effect of the bombing of the civilian population was devastating.

Of course, Dresden wasn’t the only city to be targeted in this way by the Allies. Arguments have continued to rage ever since as to whether there is some moral culpability – whether it was, in fact, a war crime – that has yet to be acknowledged. Should civilians have been deliberately attacked in this way?

Well, moral culpability in war is not an easy or straightforward matter. One German friend of mine, an academic theologian, wondered why I was spending time thinking about this: “We started it,” she said, “and have few grounds for complaint about what was done to us.” Not everyone agrees.

Frauenkirche, Dresden, with Pfarrer Sebastian Feydt

The Frauenkirche was almost totally destroyed during the attack of 13/14 February. It stood as a ruin in the centre of the old city until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990. Local citizens were asked what they would like restored first and their answer was unequivocal: rebuild the Frauenkirche, the symbol of spiritual and moral repentance, resilience, and hope. Reconstruction was completed in 2005 and I first visited it in 2009.

But this was not some nostalgic, overly-sentimentalised restoration. If you stand in the pulpit of the beautifully restored building to lead worship or speak to the congregation, they are looking past you to the Baroque altar. What they see is the original altar restored with new stone and carving, but with original scorched and blackened stones integrated into it. In other words, their eyes are confronted with that shattering remembering: that renewal cannot escape a coming to terms with the past. Healing involves confronting the guilt and the pain of past agonies – received from or inflicted on others – and not trying to whitewash a common moral responsibility.

Dresden has now been almost completely restored to its pre-war glory. Which is a little weird. Like Warsaw and some other destroyed cities, they have been rebuilt to look exactly as they did before the bombing. Rather than build something new, they went back to what was there before. I am not a psychologist, but this must be interesting for those who are. Is it a way of trying to imagine that the Weimar Republic and Third Reich had never happened? Or does it represent a determination to remember a golden age (as if there was ever such a thing), the memory of which reassures them that there was something good in their culture in the past?

This is complex stuff. What I have always encountered in Christians in Dresden – and I have good friends there – is a courageous commitment to face the past, but move on in the light of it. The Frauenkirche stands as a symbol of that commitment. At the heart of the city, the scorch marks in its very fabric cry out with the pain of lost lives and lost decades whilst beckoning us to not repeat the crimes of an earlier time. The black streaks in pale stone confront us with what happens when power lies in the hands of liars and charlatans who see other people as commodities to be traded or extinguished.

But, the wounds also speak of forgiveness and reconciliation. The scars – like those in the hands and side and feet of the risen Jesus Christ – don’t romanticise the pain, but whisper that pain and death do not have the last word. Reconciliation is possible. Healing is not impossible.

It will be interesting to see what role this church plays as Far Right political movements, founded here in Dresden, gain traction amongst the populace. Do we ever learn from history? Perhaps the Frauenkirche might continue to stand as a challenge to sloganizing populism of the sort that, in the hands of those powermongers who exploit chaos and fear,  quickly slides from indifference or selfishness to a dehumanising cruelty.

This is the text of an article I published today in the Yorkshire Post marking the eightieth anniversary of the abdication of King Edward VIII:

It is not every day that a Church of England bishop sparks a constitutional crisis. Especially not a Yorkshire bishop. But, that is exactly what happened eighty years ago on 1 December 1936.

The then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, delivered a carefully prepared speech to the Bradford Diocesan Conference (today it would be to the diocesan Synod) in which he referred rather pointedly to the rather deficient piety of the soon-to-be crowned King Edward VIII. However, to understand the speech, it is first necessary to know something about the context in which it was delivered.

Edward was not known to be a regular worshipper. Furthermore, his romantic interest in American divorcee Wallis Simpson was causing some scandal around the Commonwealth. The British press had decided not to report the disreputable stories, but the media around the wider Commonwealth did not feel bound to be so morally scrupulous. What was widely known and commented on around the world was largely muted in Britain itself. A self-imposed censorship – unimaginable in today's UK media world – created some space for waiting to see what would happen … at the same time as frustrating the gossips.

And this is where Bishop Blunt came in. In his speech to his Diocesan Conference he drew attention to the imminent coronation of the new monarch, but exhorted him to spend more time more consistently in church. In itself this was unremarkable – after all, the king would also become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and could, therefore, reasonably be expected to show a little more conviction. His speech was a defence of the coronation as a sacramental act.

But, the bishop then said this: “The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”

It is not clear whether he intended this to question Edward’s love life, but the ambiguity of his language allowed those so inclined to see it as a sanction to question his morality. Debate has continued through the years since Bishop Blunt gave this speech.

How do I know this? I have the original text of his speech, complete with pencil-written annotations, in my office. In fact, I have his entire set of speeches in a box in my filing room. Furthermore, I also have a box of the correspondence he then received as a result of his speech.

Coming from all around the world, many letters praised the bishop for having the courage to speak about a scandal that was being hushed up in the press. At last, they said, someone is telling the truth and upholding moral propriety in the face of such public scandal. Others, however, berated the bishop for being such a prig and for behaving in such a moralistic and vindictive manner.

These letters are mostly handwritten in beautiful English. One of the most striking is typewritten by a lawyer at Gray’s Inn in London and condemns the bishop for his “most contumacious and impudent pronouncement,” referring later to “the sole and arrogant opinion of the (for the time being) Bishop of Bradford.” One is addressed to “You worm…” Another complains about “gross interference in his private affairs by the traditionally stupid forces of orthodoxy and stagnation,” concluding “This is 1936, not the Dark Ages.”

If anyone tries to tell you that Internet trolling is a new phenomenon, point them to these letters. They are fewer, took longer to write and send, and are written mostly in excellent and elegant grammatical English. But, they are equally intended to challenge, belittle, ridicule or encourage the man at the centre, who probably had little clue what was going on.

The question is: did Bishop Blunt intend to say what he was taken to have said? In other words, did he intend to provoke the debate that led to Edward abdicating, George VI acceding and, eventually, Elizabeth II being crowned. Or was it a case of the bishop making a comment – almost as an aside – only to find that his words had become incendiary in the wider world, rather than merely mutedly critical for the benefit of a particular audience?

The rest is history. Edward married Wallis Simpson, they flirted with Adolf Hitler, and then lived the rest of their life away from the public glare of a prurient England. Elizabeth began what has become the longest reign of any monarch, serving both Church, nation and Commonwealth with a diligence and fidelity that commands the respect of even the most republican observers. And during her reign the world and the Church have changed. Modern media have changed the relationship between the Royals and the people, and the line between public and private has been blurred beyond recognition.

The world has changed. Human inconsistency and frailty have not changed. The public still love scandal, and elements of the media feed it. The Church is probably less moralistic.

What will happen next time we await a coronation? Who knows? Perhaps there will be a less blunt questioning of morals and motives. We shall see.