As the Procession of Witness reached Lambeth Bridge, London, as part of a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in England, a large choir sang Amazing Grace, the hymn written by John Newton, himself a reformed slavemaster. It was from this bridge that some 2,700 ships set sail on the first leg of a journey which would ship slaves and other cargoes between Britain, America and the West Indies. Two out of every 10 slaves died on the ships.
The pier lies in the shadow of Lambeth Palace, home to successive Archbishops of Canterbury. A wreath was laid on the River Thames as the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams prayed, "...grant to all those who inherit this history of greed and cruelty, that we may be brought to newness of life, reconciliation and commitment to you and one another."
The marchers, led by Archbishops, gathered in Clapham, south London, home of the Clapham Sect and Christian leaders such as William Wilberforce, and at Whitehall near Parliament, in central London. The two groups converged on Kennington Park, after a walk of an hour, for a two-hour program.
Banners, and processional crosses, were carried and people of all ages and races joined the march. There were clergy in cassocks and capes and children in prams or in the arms of parents. The Lord Mayor of Westminster and ecumenical leaders were present, including Joel Edwards from the Evangelical Alliance.
Among the dioceses represented were London, Chelmsford, Oxford, Southwark, Portsmouth, York, Exeter and Canterbury, as well as representatives of agencies such as USPG, CMS, WMA, Anglican Communion Office, Anglicans in Development, the Church Army, Lambeth Palace staff, and religious communities.
There was a large press and media presence, and hundreds of tourists in Parliament Square rushed to watch the march pass through these famous streets. In front of the Buxton Anti Slavery Monument in the Victoria Tower Gardens, walkers from the "March of the Abolitionists" were being symbolically released from chains and yokes by the Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies.
This week London hosted the premiere of the feature film, "Amazing Grace," telling the story of William Wilberforce and the struggle to bring an end to the slave trade. Already it is drawing crowds to cinemas and is being used by parishes around the country as a tool for evangelism.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York offered reflections, while readings from the Bible were followed by Afro-American spirituals and traditional freedom songs and hymns including a new text by retired Anglican Bishop Timothy Dudley Smith.
The thousands of people gathered in the park joined in a prayer written by Clare Amos of USPG, "...grant us courage to name injustice wherever it appears, and to speak your word of truth." One parishioner from All Saints Church, South London, said, "I wonder whom the church will be apologizing to 200 years from now."
People were moved by the occasion. A member of St. Matthew's Church, Westminster, said, "It is so good for the church to be seen in great numbers outside the safety of the building. What a witness!"
The organizers provided commitment cards and suggestions on what can be done to keep alive the momentum of this gathering in the church, not least noting and expressing concern for those caught in the slaveries of our times.
The Archbishop of York led the crowds in a prayer titled "Set All Free" as the activities of the day closed.