*** DEBUG END ***

Angela Tilby: Drag loses its meaning if it is normalised

10 March 2023

Pearl Cook Visuals

Veronica Green sings at “Preach!” at St James’s, Piccadilly, last Saturday

Veronica Green sings at “Preach!” at St James’s, Piccadilly, last Saturday

IN RECENT weeks, we have discovered the part played by sensitivity readers in smoothing out passages in books which could potentially give offence. So, Roald Dahl’s “enormously fat” Augustus Gloop becomes simply “enormous”. I have some experience of this. In a book I wrote in 1983, I referred to an “Irish” salesman, and the “Irish” was removed, albeit pre-publication. Fair enough. But, while we strive not to offend in some areas of contemporary life, in others we seem eager to push the boundaries.

Last Saturday, St James’s, Piccadilly, hosted a drag night in the church with a cast of well-known performers: a tilt at boundaries, no doubt. I have to admit that I enjoy a drag act. But I’m less sure about a drag artist reading to children in libraries or teaching sex education in school. I wonder where the “drag” is when what is intentionally outrageous is normalised.

A healthy society needs to know when it is at work and when it is at play. “Carnival” represents the temporary suspension of boundaries, and the point is that the suspension is temporary — think of boy bishops, and choristers’ having pancake races.

But “carnival” dies when there is no consensus about what is normal and what is exceptional, just as “offence” is meaningless when everything is permitted. The removal of offensive speech in one context seems at odds with the desire to trample over conventional gender roles in another. If drag artists are simply part of the everyday, we lose that sense of ritualised riot which humans need to keep sane in a troubled world. The pantomime dame is troubling rather than entertaining if he/she ends up weeping in a corner because she is not part of the ball.

So, it is a bit naïve for the Church to pretend that its message of welcome is without qualification. We are welcome as we are, of course, but that “as we are” implies a willingness to shed our fantasies and pretences and the desire to control others. Being inconsistent creatures, we need boundaries, portals, gates that let us in and out. Jesus’s image of himself as both gate and shepherd expresses a profound truth about our human need for both conformity and risky exploration.

I sometimes wonder whether the devil has a factory of lesser devils spinning endless bots to demoralise the human race, increasing our unhappiness and destroying our well-being. In 1961, C. S. Lewis added Screwtape Proposes a Toast to his earlier Screwtape Letters. Screwtape’s self-congratulatory remark as he lifts his glass seems today like a prophecy: “Do you not realise how we have succeeding in reducing so many of the human race to the level of ciphers?” In response, our cry to our most merciful Father Almighty might begin: “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)