It was awarded for my prowess in the three-legged race. Somehow, a friend and I succeeded in remaining in step and co-ordinated for the duration of the course, whilst those competing against us all fell over. We were the exception to prove the rule that if one leg is tied, progress is all but impossible. We'll return later to that theme.
Meanwhile, for ten years now, I've been leading the journey around the Stations of the Cross in All Saints' every Good Friday morning. The stations are depicted on plaques spaced in the normal way around the church, and we move from one to another in turn. The simple, austere service includes a brief Bible reading and a response at every station. 'We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.' At some stations there's also a brief meditation or a hymn. Afterwards we share hot cross buns and coffee.
The plaques were in St Alban's Church on Warwick Street until it closed, when they were transferred to All Saints'. I looked at them more closely today. They're made of plaster, with very sparing use of colour: gold and red for the halo around the head of Jesus, and gold for the cross. Gold for other occasional details too, but everything else is white, against the background of a dark blue sky.
Today I'm particularly struck by the cross. It features in every one of the plaques, a sort of leitmotif threading the story together. It's there, ready and waiting, in the first plaque when Jesus is condemned (see photo); it's still there in the final plaque, small and in the background, as Jesus is laid in the tomb. As one would expect, it's much larger and more prominent in most of the plaques in between. It's a reminder that for Christian people, the Cross is inescapable: inescapable for Jesus at the heart of our faith - 'He was crucified under Pontius Pilate' as we say in the Creed - and inescapable for us, called as we are to 'deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow' Jesus.
Two years before St Alban's was built, the Rev E B Pusey, a noted leader of the Oxford Movement, preached a University sermon at Oxford entitled 'Christianity without the Cross: A Corruption of the Gospel of Christ.' It includes these words:
'Real self-renunciation is in all things, and as one tied by one leg may walk for miles, but quit not the spot where he is tied; so one unrenounced evil habit keeps the soul Satan's prisoner, that he cannot follow Christ.'
Pusey makes the point that true discipleship is not the renunciation of one vice along with the retention of another, but a complete surrender of self. Otherwise we're as hampered in our walk of faith as if we were tied up by one leg.
Of course, it's a counsel of perfection; an aspiration that few if any of us will achieve. If by the grace of God and the exercise of our will, we overcome some particular sin, we soon become aware of another - or fall prey to pride at our success. Perhaps the desire and the effort at least to be facing in the right direction is the best we'll manage most of the time. Seeking to run in a three-legged race with our sin is unlikely to get us very far very quickly - but let's at least make a start.