To most people who passed it by, the church on Gideon Street was a grim and forbidding place of cold, hard stone. Some of the older residents, still clinging desperately to their faith saw it as part of their lifestyle, their identity and their community. The younger generation however saw it as a symbol of the old ways, an old building that served no real purpose for them, no matter how quaint it seemed. Maybe it had been important a long time ago, but now it was just stones and mortar.
The man inside staring at the altar, the local vicar James Anderson, saw things very differently; this was no grim place but a plain church that had stood for hundreds of years. It was a house of simple purity, a resting place for the weary and a place to seek solace and comfort in the Lord. Even with some of its ancient structure threatening to fall down and the steady dwindling of the congregation, this was still God’s house and its doors were open to all.
James sighed with an air of satisfaction, his hands gripping his Bible firmly like a captain at the wheel of a ship, steadily sailing through storm and wind. He'd been in the church as long as he could remembered ever since his father had died.
James looked round the church casually, taking in its grey figureheads, the organ in its quiet slumber, the stained glass windows which shone with colour even in the dim light. His eye fell on the west window, depicting the Lord Jesus Christ being nailed to the cross while Roman soldiers mockingly saluted and the women fell on their knees, heads bowed in sorrow.
James tilted his head sideways a little and stared at the window. He also felt that, if he looked hard enough, he could almost see it in real life. He remembered reading it in the Bible as a child and his father, himself a parish priest of high esteem, explaining that the crucifixion was more than just a sacrifice. To Jesus and his followers, it was a test of their faith.
James could almost hear the old man’s wheeze as he spoke in that soft yet firm tone, ‘Yes, my son, a test of faith. Always remember, every choice you make is a test of your faith and devotion to God. Though the struggle is hard and long, He will reward devotion to those who pass his test.’
James made his way over to the confessional. Even though the church was quiet and his study was at the back, James felt more comfortable in the confessional for some reason. He would sit there for hours at a time, reading his Bible or just for some quiet thought. He didn’t really know why he preferred the confessional, he just did.
The church door opened slightly and James turned his head in time to see a man slip in, look round and close the door. James watched as the man looked round slowly, taking in his surroundings and James himself briefly before his attention became focused on the stained glass window. He walked over to it before he disappeared behind a pillar and out of James’ sight.
James hovered at the confessional door, silently debating whether he should go over to ask the man whether he needed any help. Then he decided against it. If the man needed help, he must seek it himself. In any case, he knew James was here at any rate.
James entered the confessional and shut the door, hearing the bang of the door echo round the church outside, fading away into nothingness. It was much like a bank vault; close the door and you were cut off from the world. Some people found that sense, that idea of shutting yourself away from the world, disturbing. James had felt that too, but now, in the noise and bustle of the high-powered modern life, the chance for such peace was to be treasured.
James opened his Bible to where his bookmark rested and started to read.
For it is time for judgement to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
James started to lose himself in the Bible so that he barely glanced up when the door to the other confessional booth opened and a figure sat down quickly. James saw a flash of colour and realised that it was the man who had entered the church.
James found his bookmark and was ready to close the book to attend the matter at hand when the man spoke suddenly.
“Forgive me, Father, for I am about to commit a grave sin in the eyes of God.I pray for forgiveness, but what I do is unavoidable and must be done.”
“Father, I am about to kill a man.”
Then the man opened the confessional door and was gone, his hurried footsteps echoing round the empty church.
James couldn't tell how long he sat in the booth or how long he seemed to wander aimlessly through the church, mulling over this unbelievable confession that had been placed upon him. Moreover, he was trying to consider his reaction to this new test.
What was he to do?
Should he tell the police? Should he keep quiet?
Was it even true?
James felt his whole body shake and the world seemed to spin gently around him.
What should he do?
He found himself sweating just thinking about what he should do, burying his head in his hands. Every time he sat down, he wanted to walk about to dispel the nervous energy inside him. He found himself gripping the Bible tightly as if he could squeeze the answer out of the pages. He wanted to read it but he already knew that it could give him no answer to his dilemma.
James felt caught, trapped by this confession. All he could see when he looked around were the cold, stone walls of the church which almost seemed to be moving in, surrounding him.
Then his eye fell on the stained glass window of the crucifixion, the sacrifice of the Lord on the hill outside Jerusalem. That solemn moment when the Son of God gave his life to save humanity as he died according to Roman law.
But now James turned around to face the opposite window to see a different scene. The coloured glass on this window showed Jesus kneeling as if in prayer while men slept around him. Above Jesus’ head was a cup surrounded by thorns.
James could almost hear his father’s voice, full of passion, describing it to his young son from the Book of Luke:
“‘And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw and knelt down and prayed, saying ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Not from my will, but yours be done.’”
The memory of it along with his conflicted feelings almost brought James to tears, remembering the story all too well. Jesus at the Mount of Olives as he prepares to drink from the cup of God’s wrath, to allow himself to be sacrificed and to take the full horror of God’s wrath to save everyone.
‘Remove this cup from me.’
James’ voice was quiet, shaken and sorrowful as he found himself walking towards the altar and looked up at the golden cross, the purple cloth, the candles burning silently on.
James fell to his knees at the sight, tears flowing freely as if the weight of this burden was forcing him down.
'Lord,' He pleaded quietly, 'Could you have given me a greater test of my faith? Could you have brought on such a trial as to test my trust in your greatness?'
All James could hear was silence as the echo of his voice died away.
It felt as if he was no longer in control of his body as James walked into his study. The hand that picked up the phone, the finger that dialled the number, the mouth forming the strange, alien words all seemed to belong to someone else. It was only when he disconnected that he seemed to feel himself again.
His hand clenched and loosened as the gravity of the situation fall upon him, but he could do nothing now but wait and see. He wanted to pray but somehow, the idea seemed unreal to him. How could he pray in this state?
Time passed on, but James was barely aware of it. He wanted to do something with himself, anything that could ease the torment, the storm raging inside him as his decision replayed itself over and over again.
He rubbed his temples and tried to think of something else, but nothing would come.
Then the phone rang. James was startled, unsure whether to even answer it. He seemed frozen in his seat as the phone rang and rang.
He picked it up and listened.
James Anderson had been in the church for as long as he could remember. The upbringing of his father had given him a strong sense of right and wrong, a feeling that God could provide all the answers and reward devotion to His cause.
Now he felt adrift, lost, a man without purpose or meaning. He felt as empty and as useless as the church he stood in.
He walked away from the study and went to the altar. He bowed and crossed himself as he always did, but his movements were mechanical, unfeeling.
He turned round and walked slowly to the door, passing all the empty pews. As he reached for the door, he suddenly realised that he was still holding his Bible.
He stared sadly at its cover and then gently placed on the seat of the back pew.
He would not need it where he was going.
Without looking back, the former vicar of Gideon Church walked out.