Canon Edmund Newell writes:
THE Revd David Roualeyn Findlater Bain, who died from cancer on 11 August, aged 62, was a priest and clown who captured the public imagination.
There are some clergy who, one suspects, play the fool for egotistical reasons. This was not Roly. Beneath the greasepaint, he was mildly reserved, and his clowning was as much a vocation as his priesthood — a fulfilment of his childhood ambition to be a clown, and his later calling to ordination. This ensured that his ministry was authentic, not a gimmick; and this perhaps explains its effectiveness and the deep affection in which he was held.
Roly was the son of a theatre critic, Richard Findlater (biographer of the clown Grimaldi), and a journalist, Romany Bain. He was educated at St Paul’s School, London, his faith was nurtured by the school’s Christian Union, and his involvement with the local church, St Mary’s, Barnes. It was at St Mary’s “that I learned you could laugh in church”, and that church ritual “had to be done in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way”, he wrote. These lessons served him well.
After studying theology at Bristol University, Roly trained at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and was ordained in 1978. It was at Cuddesdon that his distinctive ministry began to develop, after he preached on “Jesus as Clown”. The sermon was well-received, and he was encouraged to research the topic for a thesis, which introduced him to “clown ministry” in the United States.
Roly’s fascination with clowning continued into his curacy at St George’s, Perry Hill, and during his time as Succentor of Southwark Cathedral. It was in 1983, while at the cathedral, that he and another priest and clown, Patrick Forbes, formed Holy Fools — a network for clown ministry in the UK.
In 1990, after six years as Vicar of St Paul’s, Furzedown, Roly took the bold decision to train at Fool Time, the circus school in Bristol. Equipped with professional skills, he then embarked on a highly unusual ministry that took him across the country, across Europe, North America, and Australia, and into schools, hospitals, prisons, big tops, and churches. Besides being popular, he was respected both by his clowning peers (he was Clowns International’s Clown of the Year in 1994) and as a Christian communicator (he was a member of the College of Evangelists).
A service involving Roly in clown mode was fun and yet profound. There was always a sound theological reason for his antics, often to do with the subversive nature of the gospel — whether it was pushing a needle through a balloon or throwing a custard pie at a bishop. But it was not all about humour. The intercessions he led while blowing and catching bubbles were deeply moving, and he was as capable of giving worshippers permission to cry as he was of making them laugh.
Roly described a clown as “a vulnerable lover”. Roly’s ministry made him vulnerable. It was financially insecure, itinerant, and physically demanding. He was acutely aware of these pressures, and grateful to those who supported him in various ways, not least at St Mary the Virgin, Olveston, where he was Associate Vicar. Here he was held in high regard, and known as “a friend to everyone” in the village community.
Roly will be remembered and cherished as a priest whose pastoral sensitivity and gently subversive theology touched the lives of thousands. He is survived by his wife, Jane, née Smith (the couple separated in 2008), and by their two sons, Jack and Sam.