I WAS standing on the Green
in the drizzling rain, with water dripping off the end of my nose,
trying (I shudder at the thought) to be hearty.
Unable to use the sound
system because of the weather, I was bellowing encouragingly at the
semi-circle of dejected people standing around me. As service
sheets disintegrated into mush, I bawled: "OK, troops, let's try
the next hymn - all together now, 'There is a green hill far
It was, of course, the
ecumenical act of witness at midday on Good Friday, and I was
thinking, with some desperation, and not for the first time: "What
on earth am I doing here, and why?"
I came - blessedly, perhaps
- fairly late to all this act-of-witness lark. My home village
didn't do it (or if it did, I was oblivious to it, and as a churchy
kid I would have volunteered like a shot if there had been anything
that involved dressing up); and nor did my theological college (I
suspect we were too busy polishing the thurible for Easter
Similarly, in my title
parish, although we did a pretty nifty children's Stations of the
Cross around the old village, complete with togas, plastic swords,
and tea-towel headdresses left over from the nativity play, it was
really an in-house do, with no ecumenical input.
My first proper walk of
witness was by the sea, some 20 years ago, and all I can really
remember was the remarkable performance of one minister who, every
year I went, insisted on reading the Passion narrative in the style
of Dame Edith Evans on acid, which always enthralled me, but
probably for the wrong reasons.
SO, MY first considered
engagement with the event was when I was a new vicar in Newbury, in
the late 1990s. Every year, in the town centre, a goodly crowd of
us solemnly processed from the Methodist church at one end of the
High Street to the Anglican parish church at the other, singing as
It was during this time that
an important change happened, and, to me, the event began to have
real resonance and meaning - not just for us, but for
Why was this? The answer is,
the advent of seven-day-a-week shopping. In 1994, Sunday trading
became legal. To begin with, Good Friday was immune, but, as the
'90s progressed, more and more shops opened, which changed the feel
and nature of what we were doing.
When I first went on the
walk, there was a handful of people around the echoing, empty
shopping centre. By by the time I left, in 2005, it was, as a
National Shopping Day Off, packed.
Quite simply, there were
people around for a walk of witness to witness to. Up to this
point, it had been an in-house exercise in solidarity for people
who liked to do that sort of thing. Now, it became a real
engagement with the busy world around us, which - despite a couple
of hundred marchers wandering amiably and noisily down the middle
of the pedestrian area - remained largely oblivious.
Yes, some people took our
offerings of mini sugar-coated chocolate eggs, and ecumenical
Easter cards, and one or two even borrowed a hymn sheet and joined
in. But most just pretended we weren't there, and avoided
eye-contact at all costs.
And so it has continued. It
is the one time in the year that I feel a sense of "them and us", a
band of gathered Christians in an increasingly secular world. It
brings a faint sense of embarrassment and vulnerability, which I
think is salutary.
I ALWAYS remember, during
one of these Newbury walks, as we were clumped around the graveyard
at our destination, and before the compulsory spirited rendition of
"When I survey the wondrous Cross", asking a minister from another
denomination how he was getting on. I was expecting the usual
"tired but chirpy" response. "OK," he said, smiling wanly.
"Learning to live with failure."
Trying to do the job of
three people in his ministerial role, he was painfully aware of the
gap between expectations and achievement. As I reported in the
Church Times at the time, I found his honest humility
chastening, and continue to do so.
In an ecclesiastical world,
where electoral-roll numbers, "smart" targets, and strategic
management-planning at all levels are becoming increasingly
importunate, the old maxim that we are called not to be successful
but to be faithful becomes increasingly hard to hold on to. I think
the walk of witness reminds us of that each year we do it.
But, in Newbury, Good Friday
was very busy. Straight after the town's walk of witness at midday,
in my parish of Wash Common, we then proceeded to do an
all-singing, all-dancing (well, sort of) dramatised Passion in the
streets of our suburb. This was complete with apostles, handmaids,
priests, and soldiers in peaked caps (a useful purchase in
We would start on a Bronze
Age burial mound on the Common that gives the parish its name,
where we would have a tableau of the Last Supper. We would move our
ground along to a field nearby, and enact Gethsemane and Peter's
denial, and then on to a semi-detached house, where Pontius Pilate
would conduct Jesus's trial from an upstairs window. The rest of us
would squeeze into the front garden and spill out on to the
Finally, we would have the
crucifixion in the empty, chairless church, high up on a
scaffolding tower, complete with dry ice. It was dramatic and
deeply moving. I remember the mother of one of the two Jesuses we
used to crucify (who also played Mary) asking if I'd mind not
crucifying her son again, as it was rather getting him down.
Mind you, one Jesus was
ordained a few years ago, and the other is to be ordained this
Petertide; so the in persona Christi bit has had its
lasting effect. All in all, I used to love this enactment, partly
because (almost in opposition to the somewhat alienating midday
experience in central Newbury) we felt really embedded into the
community around us. It was like being in a Stanley Spencer
painting of Cookham, with divine biblical events happening in the
familiar, comfortable, and humanely recognisable theatre of
NOW, for the past eight
years, I have led the act of witness here in Moulsecoomb - very
different from all the above, yet taking something from each of
I have tried to recast it a
couple of times, but it always shakes down to the same format: our
Sunday-school children dress up as the Passion narrative
characters, and duly troop down to the Avenue, a grassy area by our
little parade of shops. Here, we meet people from our sister
churches of St Mary Magdalene (Anglican), St Francis (RC), and the
We sing hymns, do a short
dramatised version of the Passion, and then crucify a teenager. It
is this last bit that seems to have caught the imagination of
Brighton, as it is often front-page news in Brighton and Hove's
daily paper The Argus.
Young people in Moulsecoomb
(known locally as "Scoomers") have a dodgy reputation in town -
these days, completely unjustifiably - and it causes a frisson of
interest that one is annually crucified dressed as Jesus.
It was this that landed me
into pastoral deep water, the first year I was here. I thought I
had to organise who did what. Having persuaded the surprisingly
resistant Jesus, who did it the previous year, to do a reprise, I
was faced with an aggrieved teenager who said that it was his
Apparently, the role is
handed on from lad to lad in a sort of apostolic succession, and
woe betide any vicar who interferes. Conversely, I thought the
post-event teas, coffees, and hot cross buns would be produced by
the mysterious processes that form the coffee rota. But it turned
out that it was something I was supposed to organise; so feathers
were ruffled and trauma was created when I didn't do so.
But it all went well, and
The Argus duly photographed us and wrote it all
up, although they seemed just as interested in pictures of me in
cassock and Ray-Bans, looking like a hit-man for the Curia as they
were in a teenager on the cross.
SO, ON we go, year after
year, a faithful little band gathering to proclaim a crucified God.
Rather like Newbury, we feel a bit exposed and vulnerable.
Sometimes, abuse is hurled at us from passing cars, and one year
someone shouted "Hypoc-rites!" at us from a bus.
But then, the narrow, dusty
streets of Jerusalem would have had their share of jeering and
apathy, of onlookers and shoulder-shruggers, as the carpenter from
Nazareth staggered by with his cross.
Rather like Wash Common, we
feel embedded in our community as people pass, recognise us, wave,
smile, stop, and join in. But there were Simons, Veronicas, Marys,
and fellow-travellers all those years ago, too.
All of which brings me back
to the soggy, exasperating question, what are we doing here? The
answer is that we are here because God is in the midst of us, on
his way to Calvary. And there is a need within us, an urging of the
Spirit, to walk a few faltering steps with him.
Why is this? It is because
he is not just shut up in churches, with churchy people doing
agreeable, churchy things. He is in the streets of Brighton,
Newbury, Wash Common, Moulsecoomb, and everywhere that groups of
fools for God gather to proclaim his presence and his love.
"OK, troops, last verse."
(Mental note to self: next year, source megaphone, and remember
umbrella.) "O dearly, dearly has he loved, And we must love him
too, And trust in his redeeming Blood, And try his works to
The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team
Ministry in Brighton.