Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A procession of witness - or something

The photographs of Ubeda's Semana Santa procession which Ben sent reminded me of a British Christian procession which I took part in years ago. It was for Pentecost (June 8th this year) which has traditionally been the marching season in several English regions, and which has become a time for a public show of Christian unity.

So here's the setting: our Churches Together area included two separate urban areas on the outskirts of a modest city and those villages represented two CofE parishes, Saint Wendy's and Saint Aethelstan's. At the St Wendy's end was the Salvation Army and at the St Aethelstan's end were the Methodists. In between the two areas was a large park and playing fields – the ideal place for an open air service. We decided to organise a joint procession of witness representing the four churches.

A joint procession, however, was problematic because there was no logical starting point which would be convenient for everyone. We hit upon the idea of two processions which would converge for the final half mile to the park. The trouble with this, however, was that the St Wendy's crowd had the Sally Army and their band whilst we at the St Aethelstans end had, well, nothing. But no, we had Father Cornelius, vicar of St Aethelstan's who was, in his spare time, chaplain to the Sea Scouts so he knew a thing or two about marching and could take care of the music for us.

We of the St Aethelstan's and Methoes crowd assembled at the top of Gasworks Lane. We gathered behind Dave the Metho who was going to lead the way in his car – with the windows open. Father Cornelius arrived looking thoroughly ecclesiastical in his shabby cassock and even shabbier donkey jacket. He handed Dave a tape. Dave inserted the tape into his player, started his engine and moved off slowly as the music began to play. “A Life on the Ocean Wave.”

Eh? What? WTF? Is this really appropriate music for a Pentecost procession? As Father Cornelius pointed out, though, you can't march to “Come Down, O Love Divine,” or “Holy Spirit dwell with me.” Well maybe not – but military marches? Nobody protested too much, though, because there were probably some who would want to march to “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” if they were given half a chance.

We carried on marching to the stirring military music which Father Cornelius had provided but when the opening bars of “Colonel Bogey” sounded through the in-car stereo Dave hit the button and refused to play any more. And Father Cornelius never did understand what the problem was.

The two arms of the march met with perfect timing and merged for the final bit along Foundry Road. By this time quite a strong wind had gathered which was very fitting for Pentecost even though it added to the confusion as we tried to organise ourselves for our open-air service. The Sally Army at least knew what they were doing – must have done that sort of things before. Rev Pete, the vicar of St Wendy's, took charge because we were on his territory. He had said that he would organise the PA system for us and it took no time at all to set it up – all he had to do was switch it on because it was a megaphone.

Rev Pete addressed the Almighty through the megaphone and handed the instrument to me. I was doing the reading. The one from Acts with all the funny names which you are supposed to stumble over because it you don't, people will think you are being a smart-arse. I never colluded with the stumble-over-the-names thing because I didn't think they were all that difficult after all and, anyway, I didn't mind being a smart-arse. But I stumbled that day. Have you ever tried to do a Bible reading on an exposed playing field on a very windy day whilst holding a megaphone? Try it – it isn't easy. I should have known what the PA system would be and come prepared with a polythene bag to put my Bible into.

And then Rev Pete preached the sermon. I can't say that I am all that good at remembering sermons but Rev Pete's Pentecost offering that day was one which I can't forget. He gave a masterly exposition of the parable of the floppy glove. “What is this?” he asked through the megaphone as he held a limp glove aloft. “You can't see? No, of course not. It's just a limp piece of cloth. It does nothing. It just falls and flops about. Useless.” And then he put it on his hand, the non-megaphone hand. Raising his arm aloft, he continued, “Now can you see? It's a glove. A gloved hand. It's dynamic, powerful, ready for action. It has shape, it has purpose...” And this was an illustration of the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit by which Jesus would transform his lifeless followers into dynamic disciples.. You can fill in the rest.

And that, folks, is not a scene for a comic novel. It's a true story. It really did happen just like that. Only the names have been changed. I can imagine someone saying at a Churches Together meeting, “I've just come back from watching the Semana Santa processions and I've got some great ideas for our next...”

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