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Interview: Mark Townsend magician and priest

31 July 2007

byRachel Harden


I once entertained 300 Roman Catholic nuns on a three-day retreat. I received some lovely comments from them afterwards. The retreat was all about imagination and giftedness.

I was known as the conjuring curate when I was in Ludlow. I took up magic as a new hobby to stop myself being swamped by the Church when I was training for the ministry [at Cuddesdon]; I had always been interested in it.


When I was a team vicar, my magic took more of a back seat in church; I think sometimes one has more freedom as a curate. But I did perform in the community in local pubs and clubs. But I used it as a relational tool rather than as direct evangelism.


Over the past ten years, magic has become so much part of who I am. I had always had a dream of taking it on full-time, when I would not have to worry about the red tape of the Church of England.


I am excited, but aware of the risk: will my new career be financially viable? I have been a full-time magician only since last month. I was due to go to a new post in Ross-on-Wye, but felt this was the right thing to do; so I have set up Mark Townsend Magic, or Magic of Soul, as my website is called*. But I have not ruled out returning to parish ministry in the long term.


My style is very different from in-your-face evangelism. I focus more on developing the imagination and people's own magic. I could teach anyone to do a trick, but you have to really want to do it and believe in it for it to be convincing. I am hoping to develop a ministry around quiet days and retreats.


When I lead a retreat, I am there in my capacity as magician and priest. I base a lot on my book The Gospel of Falling Down, which is about failure rather than success, which I believe is at the heart of the life of Jesus and his message. He came to liberate us from the "gospel of success". It is not in "climbing the ladder of perfection" that we meet God, but in falling from it.


Right from the word "go", I have had letters accusing me of witchcraft. I don't reply, as it is pathetic - and, anyway, many are not signed. It is the same type of Christians who criticise the Harry Potter books, and yet the books are incredibly spiritual and moral. In the first one, it talks of those who hold power but do not use it, and there are lots of little anecdotes about good overcoming evil. The story is no different from legends like Arthur and the Round Table. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis had no problem with imagery.


I have trained under Paul Daniels. I did a course with him and his wife Debbie. They are lovely people. I have also trained with Jeff McBride, who is really big in America. Magic is an art, and, for it to be really effective, it has to be a passion or vocation. It is far more than just doing a trick.


I once did some impromptu tricks with a group of Masai warriors. I was in Tanzania with a group from my church in Leominster, as we had a link with the village of Tengeru. We just came across them as we were driving along. I did a trick with some coins. They loved it: their faces were a picture.


Weddings can be great places for magic. I do a number of tricks that illustrate two becoming one, including getting two different coloured rings chosen by the bride and groom and joining them into one. I have done this as part of a sermon or at the reception.


Greenbelt is a great festival: I will be doing tricks around and about, and talking about my book. I hope to have a second one - a novel this time - published next year.


I love all sorts of books, from serious theology - James Alison is a favourite - to Terry Pratchett; and I adore Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy - a wonderful work of metaphorical art. At the moment, I am reading a Giant Magic Text Book, The Mystery School Book.


My wife, Jodie, two children, Aisha and Jamie, and dog, Charlie, are my immediate family, and they mean everything to me. They have been really supportive of my career.


The most important choice I have made is the very recent decision I took that led to my going freelance as a professional Christo-magician. But I regret taking so long to start believing in myself.


As a child, I wanted to be a kung-fu superstar like Bruce Lee, a rock-and-roll legend like David Bowie, a lead-guitar hero like Steve Vai, and so on. Funnily enough, I can't ever remember a burning ambition to be either a priest or a magician.


I would like to be remembered for being an imperfect but nice guy who wants the best for people; for being tolerant and compassionate; and for performing magic that makes people feel special.


Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and writer, has been a great inspiration, and my mentor and "hero" as far as the spiritual journey goes. I also have to say: Jesus of Nazareth. Not the Jesus that the Church often preaches about - who comes across all too often as a master and a judge - but the simple Galilean preacher who loved those the world had rejected, and lifted sinners back up into grace.


I can always remember Richard Rohr's sermon on "The Spirituality of Imperfection".


In the Bible, I love the parable of the Prodigal Son (which is the entire gospel in a nutshell). It is hard to say what I dislike, because even those bits have their place. They remind us that even "inspired words" are human and therefore flawed.


I don't often get angry, but I do flare up inside when I see ungrace dished out in the name of the Church. I am happiest when I am truly me, and therefore not worrying about what people think.


My favourite spiritual place is my local forest. I often go and sit on the wonderful "reading chair" that lives in the heart of the forest. It is a magical place, and more like a cathedral to me than any building made from stone. But I must say, I adore real cathedrals, too, especially Hereford. I just feel very connected to God within a natural forest or wood. I wrote my new book, The Wizard's Gift, there.


I would most like to get locked in a church with a reincarnation of Harry Houdini, because he can get out of anything.




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