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Not just a walk in the park

by
28 March 2013

Tomorrow, groups of churches will spill on to the streets in acts of witness to the Passion. John Wall is a veteran of such events, and takes a wry look at his own involvement

THE ARGUS

Wesley Griffiths plays the part of Jesus in Moulescoomb

Wesley Griffiths plays the part of Jesus in Moulescoomb

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 away.'"

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 Day).

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 we went.

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 passers-by.

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 post-glasnost Prague).

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 road.

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 home.
 

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 them.

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 Salvation Army.

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 turn.

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 do."

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.


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