It was an especially soggy Good Friday, the sky grey as a pavement. Nevertheless, the small band of believers went ahead with their customary walk around the parish. This year, the mood was dampened not merely by the weather, but by the fatal shooting, five days previously, of a young man named Ezra Mills, on the Central Hill Estate, the huge (and now doomed) housing project that spreads in brutal beauty around the slopes of Gipsy Hill, South-East London.
With sopping songsheets behind a rough cross, we formed our familiar, quiet crocodile, halting here and there to read a scripture and arriving, finally, at the alley where the lad had been gunned down by six youths, on the day after his birthday. The significance of being on the precise spot, the wooden cross, the impossible command to love our neighbour – all converged in that one bedraggled moment, as we began to sing ‘When I Survey’. A couple of windows opened as the hymn continued, guttering the mood; a pause as all stood still, then mingled down and away.
This experience touched and tagged everyone present: and though we left SE19, a splinter of the scene still snags. Poignant as the brown flowers of a wayside shrine, such ‘acts of witness’ tap deeply into England’s Christian past. The high or standing cross was our original sign of hallowed ground and represents a unique tradition in British and Irish vernacular art. In the seventh century, as English kingdoms were converted, stone or wooden crosses became the local focus of spiritual meaning in most parts of the country, often pre-empting the building of a parish church. At their foot, prayers would be offered, the Eucharist celebrated, gatherings held. Unhoused – a spiritual commons predating later acts of enclosure – the standing cross mapped our places of worship, staking the claim that God was here, known or not.
The cross is the church’s point of orientation in time and space: we return there to gain our bearing, our heading. Attractive or repulsive, it has always been magnetic: the Christian’s true north, setting their course for ‘a better place’, raising inevitably parochial sights towards an eternal home. When they survey, the authors of the New Testament find in the cross not only a key and compass, but also their sense of scale, linking locality to the broad, blurring cosmos. They portray Jesus as one pulled apart in a turf war, yet simultaneously drawing together a torn universe – such a stretching claim, far-reaching more than far-fetched.
Viewed through this theodolite lens, human locale becomes both more and less important than we are usually given to think, at once demoted and promoted to glory. And where no memorial, mossy cross stands, there we affirm Christ in our place: under the sky’s slab, propped up like an impromptu signpost for the lost.