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Polari a transgression, says Westcott Principal

10 February 2017


“Considerable disquiet”: Westcott House

“Considerable disquiet”: Westcott House

THEOLOGICAL students at Westcott House, Cambridge, had been wrong to create an order for evening prayer in Polari, because the slang language was a “transgression”, the Principal, Canon Chris Chivers, said on Tuesday.

“The difficulty here is that Polari isn’t a translation: it’s a transgression,” Canon Chivers said. “It’s not like saying ‘Let’s do liturgy in French.’ The point of Polari is it deliberately subverts. It’s code language. I understand how it originated, but in the context of liturgy, that can never work, because that’s not what worship is. It’s not about transgression, but about finding language within which all can find themselves, because it’s directed to God.”

Polari is underground gay slang that dates from the period before 1967 when adult male homosexual acts were offences punishable by imprisonment. By then, some of its terms had become familiar to large radio audiences from the “Julian and Sandy” sketches in the BBC comedy series Round the Horne.

The Polari evensong, which took place on Tuesday of last week in the college chapel, was held “in anticipation of LGBTI+ week”, the order of service, posted on social media, said. It was “a liturgical experiment in which we may explore what happens when a language of, and from the fringe, a language that may be considered transgressive, is used to express worship and prayer. It is an attempt at queering the liturgy of Evening Prayer . . . recovering for Christian tradition a sense of its own intrinsically subversive jouissance. . . The hope is that, just as Jesus welcomed the outcast . . . today we might follow in the footsteps of his daring.”

The “transduction” of the office text was undertaken by Erich Erving and modelled after the Polari Bible, a project of the Manchester chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a activist group formed in 1979 “in response to attacks on the queer community by fundamentalist religious organisations”.

The liturgy included: “O Duchess, open thou our lips. And our screech shall show forth thy praise,” and “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy.”

Canon Chivers said last week that the contents of the service were “at variance with the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England, and that is hugely regrettable”.

The service had caused some members of the college “considerable upset and disquiet”. He had spoken to the organisers, and was “tightening the internal mechanisms of the house to ensure this never happens again”. The college hoped “to make a creative contribution to setting a different tone for the debate on human sexuality in the Church. But this was not it.”

He said: “It needs to be recognised that theological colleges are places of experiment and enquiry where people do make mistakes. There is much to learn from this experience, and we will keep enabling members of the house to do this learning.”

On Wednesday, Canon Chivers said that the organisers had failed to submit the order of service to the Chaplain for approval. The concept of the service was “far too horizontal. The question here is: where is the verticality in this? We understand ourselves only in the context of our worship of God, and, if we are spending all our time pointing to ourselves, we are missing the point.”

Using a language that “belonged to a particular set of circumstances and was seeking to subvert particular norms” was “never going to work”. The organisers understood this, and were “very regretful of the pain it’s caused”. It had “not helped the conversation” happening in the Church. “Worship holds us in space where we are able to listen to one another. If we subvert it, it makes that difficult, and that, tragically, is what happened.”

Some have defended the service. The Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Nottingham, Dr Jem Bloomfield, argued in a blog that there were “serious theological and religious reasons why the Polari Evensong was suitable, and right”.

“If Polari is a form of speech people use, then it must be capable of connecting with God’s presence,” he wrote. “If not, I worry that this calls into question the universal scope of God’s action in Christ.” Polari might “give another turn to the kaleidoscope and present another refracting vision of the glory”. It was a “very suitable language for Anglican prayer”, given its focus on the body, and the fact that it was “devised by outcasts and oppressed people”.

The Professor of English Language at Lancaster University, Paul Baker, who has written a book on Polari, said that it was a “shame” that Canon Chivers regarded it as a transgression.

“I view all languages as codes,” he said. “To see Polari as a code is maybe picking on it unfairly. It was a language used for safety and protection, used by group of people who were oppressed and had no voice. If there is a God, I am sure he created everybody and loves everybody, and I don’t think he is too concerned about the words used to worship him, but worship itself, the intent behind it.”

He suggested that the intent was not to “mock religion”, but to say “Let’s be inclusive.”

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