I am something of a feminist and while there are some things – climbing mountains, knowing how a car works and what to do under the bonnet, running marathons – that I am more than happy to leave to men, I nevertheless believe that women should have equal opportunity to achieve them if they are so inclined. I recently enjoyed watching the film, Suffragette, and echo the opinion of many of the friends with whom I saw it that it could well be shown in every secondary school; so many girls have no idea what their forebears went through to win them the opportunities that are now open to them – or how recently this was achieved. And while, to the best of my knowledge, neither of my grandmothers – both born in 1899 – were actively involved in seeking votes for women, they both went on to demonstrate independence, courage and strength as circumstances left them bringing up their children alone. So when I read the email invitation for any ladies attending the local Good Friday Walk of Witness to volunteer to help carry the cross, I was very inclined to offer. In all the years that I have gone along to this event, it has been the preserve of a group of sturdy men and so I had been going to respond. However, thinking that there would be many others – younger and fitter – ready to take up the offer, I didn’t rush to reply.
Good Friday 2016 was a clear, blue-sky and bright day, in marked contrast to both the day before and the day that followed, both of which were wet, windy and chilly. As I have done many times, I made my way to the local Methodist church for the 10am service, held jointly with two of the town’s Baptist congregations. Many folk are away at Easter – and there is also the lure of the large, organised Easter egg hunt in nearby Ashridge (I have no idea why this is held on Good Friday and not Easter Sunday!) – but there were nevertheless about 40 of us gathered to share in a 45-minute service of reflection on the crucifixion. Coming out of the church into the sunshine, we met those who had already arrived from elsewhere and in conversation I let slip that it had occurred to me to volunteer to help carry the cross; almost before I knew it this information had been passed to the rector and I had become a member of the carrying party. As it turned out, no one had responded to the email invitation from Revd Jane! I asked a friend to join me, so that there would be at least two women along with the men, and with another friend hastily enlisted to carry my bag, we all stood in silence for a reading and a prayer before the first beat of the bass drum heralded the beginning of the walk – and we raised the cross to our shoulders.
It was so heavy! That was my first impression, and before I had time to think about it we were walking slowly down the road with hundreds following on behind. In previous years, as a member of the large crowd following the drum and the cross on its journey of just under half a mile, I had enjoyed the sense of solidarity with others, the opportunity to be seen as part of a Christian community that transcends the boundaries of denomination and, to be honest, the quite comfortable act of witness that did not involve so much standing out from the crowd as being a part of a particular crowd. This was something very different. We had been recommended to keep in step with the leading cross-bearer and for the first few minutes I could focus on little other than trying to get in step, my eyes fixed on the feet in front of mine. It was a vain attempt and before long I realised that my stride could not be forced to match someone else’s, even though we were held together by the load we were carrying: I had to find a pace of my own that somehow worked along with everyone else’s. My next thoughts were of Jesus’ words (Matthew 16:24) when he encouraged his followers to ‘take up their cross’ and follow him – not something I had particularly pondered in previous years when watching others bear the load. Suddenly it was all too real and with hindsight I now realise how benign this biblical command seems when we think we can choose a ‘cross’ of our own making, and what a struggle it can be when it is actually the burden that he has asked us to carry. But there is, and was, help available: I had carelessly refused the offer of a spare jumper to cushion my shoulder, something I soon regretted, and I was extremely grateful to accept the repeated offer when we paused briefly part way along our route. I had also wrongly assumed that, with five or six people carrying the cross, the shared load would not be particularly heavy: I could not have been more wrong and after a short distance I found myself preoccupied by the thought that I might have to drop out. Had it been a ridiculous gesture to think I could help carry this, despite fairly recent back trouble, and how embarrassing might it be to ‘fail’? But before too long a slightly strange thing happened: instead of the weight on my shoulder, the cramp in my left hand and the ache in my legs getting worse as we walked, there came a point where they eased slightly and then became less noticeable. I was aware of my own breathing and the breathing of those in front and behind; we were working together, and I knew that I could do this – I could complete the distance.
The friction mark and the tender spot on the point of my left shoulder will soon fade but I don’t think I will ever forget that I was one of the first women to shoulder the Good Friday cross in Tring. As I walk behind the cross in years to come, I hope I will retain the sense of just how very full of metaphors for life this experience was.