Simon Cuff recounts how clergy from the Diocese of London took to the streets on Ash Wednesday

‘Remember you are but dust and unto to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel’ – words the average commuter does not often hear as they make their way to work. This Ash Wednesday, members of the public were offered the sacramental imposition of ashes as an Ash Wednesday devotion. Prebendary Andrew Davis, vicar of Christ the Saviour, Ealing Broadway, and Fr Simon Cuff, assistant curate, manned a position on the station forecourt from 7am to 7pm between the Masses of the day. Volunteers from the Parish joined them to hand out details of services during Lent and Holy Week, which also explained the significance of Ash Wednesday and the sacramental itself.

They were not alone in their efforts. Other churches in the diocese did the same (including St George’s, Campden Hill) making it the second year that clergy in the Diocese of London have taken to the streets, inspired by the ‘Ashes to Go’ initiative. ‘Ashes to Go’ came out of The Episcopal Church in America in 2007, where it has spread rapidly. While it continues to increase in popularity, with an increasing number of churches taking to the streets each year, it has also proven extremely controversial. Many worry that offering only a small part of the Church’s liturgy is misleading or fear that people will mistake the fleeting imposition of ash for a fulfilment of their obligation for church attendance that day.

Positive reactions

It was with great trepidation that the clergy in Ealing took up their post and with no sense of whether anybody might actually approach them to receive the imposition of ashes. Just before 7am, Fr Cuff put up a sign that read ‘Ashes for Ash Wednesday’ and waited. The reaction that followed was the exact opposite of that which they feared. From the moment the sign was displayed, a near-constant stream of commuters came forward to be ashed. For some, the sight of clergy in choir dress simply reminded them it was Ash Wednesday in the first place. or others, aware it was Ash Wednesday but unable through long hours and working days to make it to a service at any time, the ashing was a welcome and unexpected moment of prayer.

Generating goodwill

Their presence also gave rise to positive discussion on the meaning of Ash Wednesday, the importance of faith, the need for us to be confidentin our mission. Most touchingly, it enabled some who had not been ashed for many a great years to experience again the power of the sacramental. For others, it was the first time that they had the opportunity to experience it. The response from families was noticeable. Parents were eager for their children to be ashed and to understand the importance of the ashing as a reminder of their human frailty and need for God’s love and redemption.

Of all the unexpected consequences of the day, the sheer feeling of goodwill generated was breathtaking. Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike all made known their appreciation of this public witness and made sure that Frs Davis and Cuff were made aware. Many who did not wish to be ashed told them where they were going for ashing later in the day, or where they had been earlier in the day.

Intimations of good will were a constant feature of the day. In all, over 500 people received ashing outside Ealing Broadway station on Ash Wednesday. Most markedly, those who came forward did so of their own accord – not once were they verbally encouraged by the clergy or volunteers.

Ancient and modern

So why this desire, both in London and America, for this reminder of mortality? Why should a penitential act which can be traced back to the eighth century and beyond be so popular in our post-modern society? Ashing, clergy in traditional dress, and the keystones of the liturgical year are all cultural deposits which are the gift of the Church. They speak powerfully to the cultural and personal history of many people who may not have been to church for a long time or indeed ever. The Church has for a long time prioritized attempts to re-invent the wheel, to express freshly the Faith as the Church has received it. The success of ventures such as ‘Ashes to Go’ encourage us to be generous in sharing the resources in our tradition which it has been our privilege to receive.

A lively and robust, or ‘fresh’, expression of the Faith need not be a novel one at all. Whatever it means to live in a post-modern world, ‘Ashes to Go’ suggests at least this: when it comes to the modern, the potential of the ancient should not be overlooked. As @Beccameriel tweeted: ‘There’s a priest outside Ealing Broadway station offering to daub you with ashes. It’s all very medieval’.