I have, to date, attended my full share of demonstrations, some loud and during the day, others much quieter, in the evening, perhaps torch-lit. Regardless of which political party has been in power, I have been ready enough to take to the streets. Anti-war demonstrations, demonstrations against nuclear weapons, demonstrations against education cuts, anti-apartheid demonstrations, demonstrations in favour of cancelling debt to the poorest countries of the world. Demonstrations in London, Glasgow, Newcastle, Durham, Fylingdales Moor. The demonstration in Glasgow involved a dramatic symbolic enactment of the effects of a nuclear explosion.


In contrast to a noisy demonstration which is, amongst other things, intended to draw as much attention as possible to its cause, a vigil is a form of personal silent witness. Like prayer, a vigil serves to affirm for the vigiler the values of which the vigil is in support. A vigil may serve as a public witness to those values, not least so that passers-by who also support those values can know that they are not alone. A vigil may also serve as a vehicle for publicly standing alongside the people of whom the vigil may be in support. The success of a vigil is not measured in terms of minutes of television coverage, or the prominence of reports on the radio, or the length of columns in the newspaper, or the number of leaflets accepted by passers-by, or the number of converts to ‘the cause’. The success of a vigil is expressed in terms of the strengthening of the spirituality and faith of each vigiler. There are direct parallels between vigiling and pilgrimage.


Apart from the two vigils for equality held by Canterbury Quakers in March 2015 and October 2015, I also recently attended the vigil for the refugees at Calais which was organised by Canon Claire in Canterbury Cathedral in September 2015. Back in 1984, I was the Quaker representative on an ecumenical group that planned, organised a 24 hour vigil regarding unemployment held in St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle, and involved people from many church congregations. From time to time Durham Quakers would hold an hour-long peace vigil, often in conjunction with Peace Action Durham, in Durham Market Place.


Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller, who became a prominent anti-Nazi during the 1930s, is frequently quoted as saying:


First they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the Trade Unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left to speak for me.


This quotation lends itself to re-writing, and has indeed often be re-written. Some people object to the re-writing, suggesting that nothing in the modern day can compare with the unspeakable horror of the Nazi holocaust. This may be true, but the poem does not speak only of the holocaust: it also speaks of the fact that all that is required for evil to prevail is for good people to say nothing (a quotation variously ascribed to Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill). For socialists, migrant people could be substituted; for trade unionists, homeless people could be substituted; for Jews, Muslim people could be substituted. The manner in which migrant people, whether refugees, asylum seekers, or fugitives from grinding poverty, have been spoken about in modern Britain is dehumanising both of the speaker and those of whom they speak. The manner in which laws are changed with the effect of increasing the number of people living on the streets is dehumanising both of the law-makers and of the people forced out onto the street. Public discourse, in print and on the internet, as well as casual conversations, regarding Islam and Muslims is dehumanising both of the public and of Muslims. Quakers have long traditions both of compassion and humanity, and also of speaking the truth. A vigil is a quiet way of speaking our truth.
Peter Hughes, 2015