Hannah Rich reflects on the meaning and value of ‘vigil’ in light of events at Clapham Common on Saturday night. 15/03/2021
On Saturday, a crowd gathered on Clapham Common to mourn the disappearance and death of a young woman. It had initially been planned as a peaceful vigil, but this was deemed to be against current lockdown restrictions. Organisers went to the High Court to challenge this judgment but were unsuccessful and the event was officially cancelled. Nevertheless, hundreds came bearing flowers, candles and tributes. In the course of the evening, tensions rose. This resulted in police officers handcuffing a number of women and removing them from the gathering. Four people were arrested for offences of public order and breaching lockdown regulations. The involvement of the police in proceedings has since drawn criticism, but also discussion of where the line falls between vigil and protest.
This has been framed primarily as a question with legal implications. The lockdown rules on mass gatherings are driven by public health considerations, but are at best ambiguous in whether they preserve the right to protest. A peaceful vigil was considered illegitimate as a mass gathering, but to enforce a ban on peaceful protest veers into more difficult legal territory.
This difference might be a nuance too far for public health, but it is also an essentially theological distinction. There is a place for activism and protest, and faith traditions including Christianity are rightly full of that. However, vigil has a meaning and spiritual value that risks being lost in the miry conversation around the legitimacy of police intervention on Saturday night.
In its religious sense, vigil is about marking the eve of a major feast day or festival. Whether in prayer, liturgy or silence, it is specifically a time of staying awake and keeping watch in the dark of night. It is a practice as old as the scriptures themselves. In Psalm 130, the psalmist writes about waiting for the Lord ‘more than the watchmen wait for morning’.
In just a few weeks’ time, churches will celebrate the Easter Vigil – perhaps the heaviest of all, marking the night before the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Anyone who attended the Easter Vigil past bedtime as a child might know it as the longest and most draining service of the year, despite its beauty. There are over a dozen bible readings and accompanying prayers, tracing the entire Old Testament cycle of creation, destruction and restoration of goodness.
At Gethsemane, Jesus kept vigil and wrestled with the anguish of his impending death. His disciples struggled with this, in different ways. Simon Peter succumbed to the temptation to protest instead, when he drew his sword in anger and cut off the soldier’s ear. We might empathise with him in this, feeling the frustration and apparent incongruence of waiting patiently rather than actively responding to injustice. The rest of the disciples simply gave in to the exhaustion of it all and fell asleep rather than keeping watch with Jesus.
In vigil, rather than protest, we might also face our exhaustion head on. The weariness of a world in which violence against women is so prevalent that walking home is a risk we calculate instinctively. The fatigue of a whole year since lockdown began, compounded by the anniversaries of the last time life approached normal. Even the collective trauma of the pandemic itself is exhausting.
The complications around Saturday’s gathering are particularly poignant as the nation approaches twelve months since we were able to commemorate death properly. Every funeral since, every memorial of loss during the pandemic, has been marked by its inadequacy and the thwarted tributes to Sarah Everard were no different. Is it any wonder, then, that amid such heightened emotions, the line between peaceful protest and vigil became blurred? Differentiating between the two is not a mere legal triviality, but an important aspect to consider in our processing of grief and anger.
Protest is important, as is collective action to seek justice and right the wrongs of the world. In dwelling first on vigil rather than protest in the face of violence, we do not negate that. But as people of faith who wrestle with the question of evil know, there is much to be said for returning first to the place of vigil. There we push through exhaustion to process our grief – something all of us might learn from right now. As we await a more just world, we might all take inspiration from the vigilance of the watchmen waiting for dawn.
There is a time for cursing the darkness, but also a time for waiting, and lighting a candle in the dark. Contrary to the usual adage, we don’t have to choose between the two.
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