The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has stirred up a mini-storm of controversy by his comments at a service held yesterday in the Lutheran Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The Archbishop’s comments were made in the presence of German President Joachim Gauck and German church leaders during a service commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden.

The Most Rev. Justin Welby acknowledged in his speech that

Seventy years ago our nations and peoples were at war. Over three days in February allied bombers brought death and destruction on a scale and with a ferocity it is impossible to imagine. In the rage of war our hearts inevitably harden and increasingly brutal and devastating force is unleashed.

He then went on to emphasize the importance of absolute honesty in dealing with the past if we are to find our way forward to healing:

Walking together as friends requires talking together in truth. As Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf challenges us: “To remember wrongdoing untruthfully is to act unjustly.”

So far, the Archbishop remained on fairly safe ground. But, having acknowledge the need for honesty about the horrors of the past, he went one step further and expressed regret for the tragedy that befell Dresden between 13 and 15 February 1945:

Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here seventy years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.

Healing such wounds requires enemies to embark on the journey to become friends, which starts with our memories of the hurt we have suffered and ends with a shared understanding of the hurt we have caused each other.

According to the “Daily Express”:

Tory MP Philip Davies blasted the remarks.

He said: “These remarks do sound to me like an apology.

“For the Archbishop to make an apology for our defeat of Hitler is bizarre.

“I would have thought the last thing we should be doing is apologising. We should be praised for defeating Hitler.

“These words are an insult to the young men who gave their lives in the defeat of Germany.”

The “Daily Mail” sought to inflame the conversation with a particularly provocative headline announcing,

“Archbishop ‘says sorry’ for bombing the Nazis: Justin Welby attacked for ‘bizarre apology’ for Dresden raids, but makes no reference to RAF heroes killed by Hitler.”

In response to criticism of his comments, a spokesman for the Archbishop said,

“Any suggestion that the Archbishop was apologising is manifestly false.

“The Archbishop’s comments were a reflection in a solemn ceremony on the tragedy of war. 

“They very carefully avoided apologising, and those present, including the president of Germany, recognised the difference. In his speech the president also recognised the fact that there is no equivalence with Nazi war crimes and that the war started with Nazi aggression.

“In broadcast interviews immediately following his speech the Archbishop refused to say he was apologising, but repeated that war is always tragedy. He also referred to the terrible losses in Bomber Command.

To express “a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow” could only be construed as an “apology” by those who are hoping to gain Dresdenpolitical advantage by their interpretation.  Profound “regret and deep sorrow” is the only thing any sane person could possibly express standing in a city where 70 years ago between 20,000 and 25,000 peopled died over a period of three days of bombing and the resulting firestorm that engulfed the city.

It is sad that in this heated debate, the final words of the Archbishop’s speech have not been heard. He concluded by quoting German Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said before he died,

“The only way to overcome our enemy is by loving them.”

The Archbishop hoped to leave a message of love. How tragic if the profound call to love, even our “enemy”, is missed by those who cannot bear the thought that a leader should feel “regret and deep sorrow” at the heartbreaking scale of violence in the Second World War.