Iona, Coventry and hospitality in the city

By Willard Roth
March 25, 2010

The sixth in a series of 2010 Lent blogs from Willard Roth focusing on places of particular spiritual intensity and interest across Britain and Ireland.


Kurt Neilson practices what he calls “Celtic hospitality in the city” as a parish rector in Portland, Oregon. In Urban Iona (Morehouse 2007), he reflects on his own life story as a pilgrimage, interweaving autobiography with a Celtic spirituality stemming from a visit to Iona. That visit led Neilson to initiate a Columba Center with ten parishioners professed to following the way of Columba—a way that integrates commitment to Christ, common life, prayer, soul friendship, accountability, service and witness for peace, learning, and pilgrim identity.

The 2010 US Mennonite Celtic pilgrimage ** across Britain and Ireland officially ends in Coventry— part of the urban heartland in the centre of England. Since 1963 when I first visited the city with its rebuilt cathedral, and witnessed Coventry’s rejuvenated ministry, I sensed here the Celtic way incarnated in the spirit of Christ. Although not articulated with Neilson’s intentionality, Coventry Cathedral embodies the same marks of Christian discipleship.

To understand the significance of Coventry’s contemporary embodiment calls for review of the early days of World War II. One mid-November night in 1940, the city of Coventry suffered the longest air raid of any British city during the war. The next morning the stately 15th century cathedral church of St Michael lay in ruins; fire bombs had left only the outer stone walls and tower with spire. A few hours’ later two charred oak roof beams were wired together and set up as a cross behind the altar in the ruins. Two simple but potent words were traced on the sooty chancel wall: Father forgive. The decision to rebuild was under way.

In a magazine article, I later wrote, “Although many of the tourists who viewed the new cathedral after its consecration in 1962 saw only startling architecture and avant-garde tapestry, perceptive visitors sensed that there was more behind the scenes. From my initial visit, within the first year after opening, I came to feel that Coventry was not merely a controversial structure, but a community radiating Christ’s concern and compassion.” (Christian Living, August 1969)

After a full week at Iona in 1982, I had opportunity to return to Coventry. There, in the Chapel of Christ the Servant, I mused as I journalled: "As I reflect in early evening quiet, Coventry continues to elevate my spirit, inspire my search, enliven my serving. Coventry’s story encourages in a world of discouragement. For here the way of the Cross and the Servant is lived out among the harsh realities of both war and peace by individual followers in the company of the committed."

I continued to write: "Last night it was Iona ( that offered the setting for renewing faith and commitment; tonight it is Coventry — alike yet different. Alike in being part of an ancient tradition; different in terms of style of architecture. Alike in having been envisioned by men of strong vision and determination; different in relation to the hierarchy of the church. Alike in commitment to linking worship and work; different in geographical setting — one in isolation at world’s end, the other set amid a bustling industrial megalopolis. Alike in commitment to peace and reconciliation; different in styles of worship and expression of faith."

Again, I anticipate spirit enrichment with friends old and new in Coventry come June. Alison Goodlad will introduce Welsh poet R. S. Thomas - a priest whose legacy is a profound, sustained act of Christian communication through the fibers of nature and the sinews of our participation in God's handiwork. Canon David Porter will also update us on Coventry Cathedral’s numerous international initiatives for peace, justice and spiritual renewal.


The first article in this series is 'Iona remembered' (; the second is 'Celtic Christianity revisited' (; the third, 'Crossing many paths in Ireland' (; the fourth 'Glendalough - an awareness of ancient wisdom' (, and the fifth 'Wales - land of saints, comrades and friends (

(c) Willard E. Roth is a retired pastor in Mennonite Church USA, having held many posts for the Mennonite church nationally and world wide. He has also been involved with the Academy of Parish Clergy (ACP), and has a specialist interest in journalism and communications.

** Willard Roth is co-leading, with Marlene Kropf, a Celtic Pilgrimage on behalf of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkart, Indiana. It will take place from 11-28 June 2010. For details, visit The Pilgrimage, which will move across Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, is now fully booked.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.