Mystery Worshipper: Dolly Rosa
Church: The Crucifixion on Victoria Street
Location: Westminster, London
Date of visit: Friday, 6 April 2012, 12:00pm
This service was a Good Friday walk of witness. It wound up in Westminster Abbey, which has been described here many times before. This service, however, was not about being centred in any given space, but about replicating Jesus' walk carrying his cross. The cross was carried by people from a charity called The Passage, which works to assist (and challenge) homeless people in London and help them get off the streets.
This was an ecumenical service involving the Methodist, Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations of the big churches that bookend the street running from Parliament Square to London's Victoria Station. It was interesting to look at people in the crowd and try to guess which church they came from, and the nature of the event gave it a genuine sense of community with Christians from different denominations. The beneficiary of collections taken at this service was The Passage, so the entire event was also a community outreach project. The cross-carriers and others from The Passage were given a high profile at all the stops.
This is the heartland of London. Every tourist has to see Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, and the route of the walk was squarely between them. The street down which we processed is lined with shops, which were (irritatingly!) open for business on Good Friday. However, they were by no means busy, and generally the staff and customers stood in the doorways to watch the procession. We also passed the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, Westminster Town Hall, and other big offices.
The highest ranking was the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, who walked with us and spoke outside his cathedral. There were many representatives of the other two denominations, as well as the Lord Mayor of Westminster Locum Tenens, Councillor Jan Prendergrast, who gave a greeting at the start. The Revd Tony Miles of Westminster Methodist Central Hall gave the opening remarks. The chief executive of The Passage, Mick Clarke, took part in the procession. Meditations or reflections were given by the Revd Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey; the Revd Martin Turner, Superintendent Minister of Methodist Central Hall; Archbishop Nichols; the Revd Mike Rayson, an Australian-born United Methodist Minister from Illinois, USA; and the Venerable Dr Janes Hedges, Canon Steward of Westminster Abbey. Others too numerous to list were involved in readings and intercessory prayers.
What was the name of the service?The Crucifixion on Victoria Street.
How full was the building?
Its difficult to count a moving crowd. I was quite far forward and I certainly couldn't see the end of the procession. When we arrived at Westminster Abbey, all the seats in the nave were taken and people were standing (more about that in a moment). So I would guess a good few hundred took part in the event.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Amazingly, yes. A jolly young woman wearing a steward's high-visibility yellow tabard handed me a service sheet when I arrived outside the hall.
Was your pew comfortable?
No seating. Walking and standing. I never sat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was expectant, with people waiting, milling around, taking pictures. The clergy and other worthy dignitaries had an elevated position with a public address system, but they were similarly chatting amongst themselves.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Big Ben struck noon. That was the cue for the service to start with the first hymn, "The Servant King." There had been some notices beforehand about keeping silence, keeping to the pace, not running ahead, and things like that. The first words came after the hymn in the form of the first prayer, led by Sister Rosalie, chaplain to The Passage.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A bespoke 12-page leaflet covered the walk and the Way of the Cross service in the Abbey at the end, even including the musical melody for the hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
There was a four-piece brass band for the hymns in front of Methodist Central Hall and Westminster Cathedral (they processed with us). There was a drum beating time for the walking parts, and the organ played in Westminster Abbey at the end.
Did anything distract you?
At one point we had a heckler. He was a born-again Christian shouting from the sidelines, who accused us of being Ecumenical! Corrupt! Unrighteous! With friends like that, Christians don't need enemies.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was amazingly reverent. We were exhorted to keep silence, and by and large we did. I heard some muted conversation among walkers, but really not much. Passers-by, even those whose way had been blocked from crossing the street, were respectful. The marshals were handing out flyers explaining our purpose and people were taking them and looking at them. At the second service we had the chanted St John Passion plainsong it was lovely. We also venerated a plain cross sans corpus. Some went right up to it and touched it, genuflecting and kissing it. All the clergy did. And I did. And lots of others did.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were multiple meditations, and I didn't time them. Most were short and sweet.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – I cant grade this because there were four (five if you count the short service afterwards), of which most were good, so I have split it down the middle. Generally, they were appropriate, dignified and on-message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The first meditation, at the gathering point, came from the Revd Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey. It was about the suffering of others on Good Friday, not just Jesus but also his mother, the beloved disciple, and even the thief who was given the extraordinary act of forgiveness. The second, in front of Westminster Cathedral, was given by the Revd Martin Turner, Superintendent Minister of Methodist Central Hall, who talked about the ongoing persecution of Christians. We have it easy in this country compared to some, but we mustn't be complacent because the current government is working to erode the traditional bedrock of our faith. Before we moved on, Archbishop Vincent Nichols gave a reflection on peace, talking about the meaning of Good Friday (God's Friday) and how remaking love in the world is the ongoing work of peacemakers. Back at Westminster Abbey, the Revd Mike Rayson from the Methodist tradition in Brighton, Illinois, talked about Mary's agony at the foot of the cross. And lastly, in the short service called the Way of the Cross that followed, the Venerable Dr Janes Hedges of Westminster Abbey talked about the words from the gospel of John: "It is finished." The total sacrifice made by Jesus may be complete, she said, but we know this is not the end of the story. It is only Friday.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
In the Abbey, a soloist named Jagoba Fadrique sang the wonderful American spiritual "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" He sang six verses a cappella, and it was a total-body goose-pimple experience. I wanted it never to stop.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Some of the events of the day got a little shouty, which always loses me. And at Westminster Abbey, it seemed as if the few seats available were all taken by young able-bodied souls, despite the fact that an announcement had been made about letting those sit who most needed to. I wasn't the only one who would have been thankful for a seat but who had to make do with leaning against a pillar at best.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was another service taking place elsewhere in the Abbey shortly afterwards, a solemn sung Good Friday liturgy. So there was no hanging about. Some people left, and some starting queuing to get into the quire for the next event.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None. I didn't check the cloisters to see whether the coffee shop was trading, but I would hope not on Good Friday.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – We went inside only one of the three churches. Westminster Abbey is magnificent I always notice some new statue or memorial stone or window, something I never saw before.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes. I love Good Friday and it was wonderful to share it with so many people who obviously felt it important to commemorate it in a big way.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The sense of community in the big city.