Playing the fool for Christ

02 November 2006

THE Revd Roly Bain — real name Roualeyn, taken from a distant ancestor who killed lions — is the only Church of England priest who works full time as a clown. At his ordination in Southwark Cathedral in 1978, he said it was too painful to spell out Roualeyn to the then bishop, the Rt Revd Mervyn Stockwood, even though it was his baptismal name. He is therefore both Roly the priest and Roly the clown.

Roly Bain had wanted to be a clown from the age of eight. So, after a varied 12-year ministry in the diocese of Southwark, he resigned his living as Vicar of St Paul’s, Furzedown, in Tooting, and took his two small sons and wife to Bristol, where he had gained a place at circus school. His wife went back to work full time, his extended family paid for an au pair, and he learnt to walk on his hands (among other skills).

Before then, in 1981, he had founded Holy Fools with other Christian clowning friends. When he left circus school he became its first full-time member. “That is the only sort of clowning I do: getting across the Christian message to different audiences in different ways,” he says.

He describes how, in these early clowning days, he accepted work and then often panicked afterwards, wondering what he really had to offer. But 13 years later he is still clowning, and has won a host of awards. His working week can include schools (he has just returned from Eton), prisons and churches, as well as conferences and clubs.

He rents a vicarage from Bristol diocese, has the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, as one of his trustees, travels 38,000 miles a year, and has custard-pied nine bishops. He is proud of this fact, as “not taking oneself too seriously” is a cardinal rule of a clown. He believes this should — but often doesn’t — prompt others to laugh at themselves. Take the bishops, for example: the list should be longer, he says, but, “Well, some you just can’t.”

WE MET at the 58th International Clown Service at Holy Trinity, Dalston, in east London, where we agreed that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, might be added to that custard-pie list before long, despite his beard. “I definitely think he’d be up for it,” says Roly.

But slapstick humour is only a small part of his repertoire; clever clowning, he says, is as much about tears as laughter.

More than 50 clowns attended this year’s service. Many said they had no particular church connections, but found the occasion “important” and “helpful”. They felt it was their celebration to mark yet another year of clowning.

Tweedy from Aberdeen said it was through the service that he first met Roly. “He married me, and baptised my daughter. I felt it was important that he was a priest and clown.” The wedding took place at All Saints’, Blackheath, and the baptism in a big top in the same part of London.

Plummie from Manchester, a member of Holy Fools, said it was wrong to assume that clowns did only the children’s spot in church. “I often do the prayers, because it puts people at ease. We always make sure we are respectful.”

The annual service, organised by Clowns International, the oldest clowning organisation in the world, began just after the Second World War, to mark the beginning of the circus touring season each spring. The first venue was St James’s, Pentonville Road, in Islington, the church where Joseph Grimaldi described as “the British father of present-day clowns” (1778-1837) is buried.

The church is now offices, and the service moved to Holy Trinity, Dalston. Over the years the service has evolved, using more clowning techniques. Roly put his stamp on proceedings when the service moved briefly to his own church in south London in the 1980s, after a fire at Holy Trinity.

This year the church was full to capacity, with more adults than children, when the 50-strong choir of clowns processed up the aisle. The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Vicar of Holy Trinity, gave the welcome and preached. Roly, robed, and wearing a clerical collar as large as his over-sized shoes, led from the front with a feather duster.

The service had its moments: a live rabbit appeared in the pews; Florence the charlady from Scunthorpe collected sins in a bucket; and “Abide with Me” was played on a megaphoned violin. Candles were carried to the Grimaldi corner of Holy Trinity, in memory of all clowns who had died in the past year.

The essence of the service was summed up in the welcome by Mrs Hudson-Wilkin: “Friends, we gather here today through the desire of many clowns to gather once a year for encouragement and worship. To be able to laugh about the joys and sorrows of life is something we all appreciate, and our prayer is that clowns everywhere may help us to do this in a Christian spirit.”

RELATING to the sorrows of life has been an important part of Roly’s ministry. “I don’t lead normal services as a vicar; I work only as a clown, but I will do funerals. I think the vulnerability of the fool means I can relate to how people are feeling. There are often tears and laughter at a funeral. I do not dress up, but was asked once to wear a red nose, as that particular funeral was on Red Nose Day.”

He describes his character as “quiet and private”: certainly not an extrovert. He said it was unusual to find a clown who played the fool in his or her private life. “A clown needs depth.”

Circus school, which he described as an experience very different from theological college (Cuddesdon), taught him that there is no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity. Theological college had not been an easy time for him: in one of his books he describes it as “the place you had to go to be a bishop, and there were a number of students there who definitely seemed to think they were bishop material.”

It was partly his reaction to the pomp and ceremony of the Church that led him to preach on Jesus the clown for his last sermon at Cuddesdon, which, in fact, he said, went down surprisingly well.

“Clowning is about comedy and tragedy, death and resurrection, laughter and tears. You can’t have one without the other, and that is why clown humour is so profound.”

Playing the Fool by Roly Bain (Canterbury Press, £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 1-85311-439-1)

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