When 32-year-old computer programmer Rowan Laurence Instagrammed a photo of a man carrying a large wooden crucifix on his back under the caption ‘Jesus Lives’ at 12:30 pm last Friday, nobody expected a social networking flurry to ensue.
It was only after the people of St. Matthew’s church in Tower Hamlets realised their historic cross was missing from the altar a few hours later that the pieces fit together.
“I said ‘That’s it’,” said Church Rector Kevin Scully after he was sent the bizarre photo of the crucifix-carrying man on Brick Lane by a local blogger aware of the theft.
He said: “The crucifix is extraordinarily beautiful and very distinctive. I felt a mixture of awe and distress really.”
Scully emailed his parishioners for help, gave a copy of the picture to Bethnal Green police, and sent a copy to two journalists who sang in the church’s choir. Joshi Herrmann of the Evening Standard planned to write a story for the following Monday’s paper, but there was no need.
“I tweeted a crop of Laurence’s picture that evening” said Herrmann.
The caption read: “If anyone recognises this bloke walking away with the cross from my local church in Bethnal Green, pls email me.”
Within a couple hours it had more than 300 retweets, and by the evening the picture had been circulated to hundreds of thousands of people online.
Sister Judith Blackburn SSM of St. Matthew’s church said: “It’s amazing really. You hear lots of negative stories about social networking but this was such a positive response. It is good to know that people felt so strongly about it.”
‘Strong’ responses on Twitter included: “Blimey, that’s blatant. #daylightrobbery,” from @melaniebien. Kim, under the account @therotisserieco said “What a git! … Hope you find the bugger” and @maryharristw said: “That is shameful.”
The wall behind the altar was still empty by the 9:30am prayer and reflection session the next day, but that soon after a taxi pulled up outside the gates and the mystery man from the Instagram picture emerged carrying a sheet-wrapped crucifix. Reportedly in tears, the man rehung the cross back on the wall himself. Scully said: “He repeatedly expressed regret, apologised and said he would expect us to ring the police.”
Blackburn believes the culprit was not aware of his online presence. She said: “When he came back he was very upset but he seemed unaware of the social networking response.”
The church warden said the man was clearly educated, but it seems he must have been troubled. “He said to my colleague that he was very angry, and in a moment of passion he took it off the wall.”
Scully believed that man might have been drinking before the incident, but he was “delighted and rather amazed” that the historic cross had been returned.
The church remained closed for the rest of the week while the council and its people reassessed the situation. Blackburn said: “We like to keep it open as a place of quiet and reflection, but we need to take other precautions to balance people’s future of freedom and minimise the risk [of another theft] as much as possible.”