7.15am Ash Wednesday and the Rector, Curate, retired priest, 2 Readers and half a dozen church members walk down the few yards from St Michael and All Angels, Houghton Le Spring to the bus station. Robes are being worn; small pots of ash are in the hands of the 3 of us in priests orders. Only Sue, the Rector, has done this before and that was in Washington DC, a very different social setting.
Over the next 2 hours we have quite a number of people who ask to be ‘ashed’. The sign of the Cross is placed on their foreheads and they are reminded, ‘Remember that you are to dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and follow Christ / know the forgiveness of Christ.’
Everyone does so with proper seriousness and reverence. They potentially carry the sign of the cross through everything that they do for the rest of the day. People will ask them questions about it. So I later had a conversation with 2 Muslim boys about the cross on my forehead. There was no antagonism; plenty of bemusement and also clear indifference. Some simply wanted to talk; others asked for prayer. The latter was largely with lay people not the clergy.
Inevitably there has been criticism from some within the church (I haven’t yet had any from outside it). There is the accusation of it being a stunt. There is also an accusation of it being cheap grace.
In one sense it can be seen as a stunt but I think rather it is us trying to take out into the public realm the truth and reality of the good news. I struggle to see how this is cheap grace when the emphasis lies on our frailty, mortality and sin. Too often I think we may be in danger of underplaying the reality of sin, but not here. No one could go through this unaware of acknowledging human sinfulness and the need for turning from it to find forgiveness in Christ.
I am happy to admit that it was experimental for me. Would this work as a way of taking something of the good news out into the streets? Well the people involved have already said that they cannot wait for next year. They say they have had their confidence in the gospel strengthened; they feel more able to talk about their faith. I saw ordained ministers offering something that enabled the people of God to share their faith and minister the good news to others.
I am certainly ready to do it again in 2016 and hope others will join in.

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