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Drag queens find welcome at London church

09 March 2023

Francis Martin attended the first drag-queen gala at St James’s, Piccadilly

Pearl Cook Visuals

Son of a Tutu on stage at St James’s, Piccadilly

Son of a Tutu on stage at St James’s, Piccadilly

THE colonnaded stained-glass east window was bathed in purple light, and Barbara, the hostess for the evening, was dressed to match the liturgical season in a shimmering purple dress.

“Preach!”, the name of the first drag night at St James’s, Picadilly, held last Saturday, had attracted controversy before it began. Some Twitter users and media commentators questioned the appropriateness of holding a drag show in a church.

The church’s Twitter posts about the event received hundred of replies, mostly negative. The Church of England was “lost”, one said. “You all sure make Satan happy. Pretty sure that’s your goal,” wrote another.

Francis Martin/Church TimesBarbara performs at “Preach!”

Barbara, who is a member of the congregation, addressed the critics from the chancel step, in front of a long purple curtain that hid the altar. “This is madness; have you seen the Church? They all look they’re wearing lace doilies!”

Speaking on Monday, the Rector, the Revd Lucy Winkett, said: “We’re not doing this to be controversial, genuinely we’re not; we just think it’s part of our context, and it’s a conversation we want to have.

“It’s quite an organic development,” she explained: the event had been in development for more than a year, and arose in part from the church’s position on the edge of Soho. Along with an active LGBTQ+ section of the congregation, St James’s had had “one or two people who are drag artists over the past few years”. The event, therefore, was “just part of what St James’s congregation’s identity is”.

Ms Winkett, and the Associate Rector, the Revd Dr Ayla Lepine, attended the event, greeting audience members as they filed in.

“We really wanted to say hello, and make sure that people understood that the church was behind this. And what they said was: ‘This means the church is for everyone’ — people just said that all the time.”

The church had hosted an information evening for the congregation as part of its preparation for the event, and invited a drag artist to explain the history of the art form.

“There hasn’t been any member of the congregation who has said that this is something that they think we shouldn’t be doing,” Ms Winkett said on Monday, although she acknowledged that there might be some who — unlike those on Twitter — were unwilling to speak out. About 20 members of the congregation were present at the “18+ only” event on Saturday, she said, including members of the PCC.

Another member of the 300-strong audience was a former Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry. During the interval, he contrasted the event with the last time he had been in St James’s, for a debate between Theresa May and the Archbishop of York. He defended the drag evening: “It’s not hurting anyone, and making tons of money for the church. I just can’t see the problem.”

In the week before the show, St Mark’s, Southend-on-Sea, had defended its decision to host a drag event for children. The Revd Dr Cherry Sandover, non-stipendiary minister of St Alban’s, Westcliff, and St Mark’s, Southend, said that the event was part of the town’s “Winter Pride” festival, was “a family show”, and contained “nothing inappropriate”.

The show at St James’s was of a different character, more similar to a traditional drag night, with some swearing and sexual references. Ms Winkett said that, although the performers were not given a list of things they were not allowed to say, they were asked to be respectful and mindful of where they were, and she felt that they had done this. “There was a bit of bad language that . . . I’d rather hadn’t been said, but it was very much in the minority. I felt, overall, the evening was joyous.”

The performers themselves, she said, had been surprised, but “very moved” at the invitation to perform in a church, and Ms Winkett praised their bravery for performing in a Christian space that some had found “aggressively rejecting” their identity.

“I’ve become more aware, in talking to people who are drag artists, of the real hurt that’s been meted out by the Church,” she said.

“There is such a danger for churches to be self-absorbed and self-referential about this stuff: either we’re doing the right or the wrong thing, or we’re brave or we’re foolhardy — but it’s not about us: it’s about people who have felt hurt by the institution being welcomed into this space. . .

“I feel that, whatever controversy we have encountered — we’ve encountered some of course and that’s fine, people should be able to express their views — it’s nothing compared with the aggression that some people have to handle. . .

“I’m not interested in being involved in any culture war or anything; I’m interested in a theologically rigorous and spiritually open-hearted invitation to people to join the mission of Christ in this place. And, fundamentally, that has to start with [telling people]: ‘You are loved and you are forgiven and you are free.’

“And, whatever our building or community after that will be, it has to start with saying ‘You are more beautiful than you can imagine.’ That that’s how we’ll start every conversation.”

Pearl Cook VisualsRiver Medway on stage at St James’s, Piccadilly

In the course of one such conversation with a drag artist called Fever Dream, recorded before the event and published on the church’s Youtube channel, Ms Winkett observed that there were some similarities between clerical garb and drag. On Saturday night, though, her clerical collar was outshone by an array of eye-catching outfits, from ballgowns and catsuits to a cloak, wig, and staff reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet.

The line-up included River Medway and Veronica Green — two stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, a reality-TV show in which drag queens compete to be the “next drag superstar” — who received a warm welcome from the audience.

Medway, who closed the show with renditions of Lady Gaga songs, made no reference to the surroundings, and Green merely shared her delight at being there.

“How many times in my life am I going to be able to share my beautiful voice with people in a church?” she asked, before threatening to bring the house down with a rendition of “Nessun Dorma”.

In honour of the setting, Green led the audience in an exuberant singalong of “Any Dream Will Do” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The rawest, and certainly the most surreal, performance was the first, by the drag king Angus Chai. The audience seemed slightly bewildered as this parody of a Scottish new-age poet ran through several original songs, ranging from an ode to WD40 to a power ballad in praise of earthworms.

The next act, Son of a Tutu, began her set draped in a long cloak and carrying a staff, walking up the aisle while singing Rag’n’Bone Man’s hit “Human” — “I’m only human after all, don’t put your blame on me.”

“Did you get it?” she asked the audience after the interval, attired now in a colourful dress. The audience didn’t seem quite sure. “The question is where hatred comes from. I don’t know, I just want it to go away,” Son of a Tutu said.

The crowd engaged enthusiastically with the performers throughout the show, singing along and responding loudly when asked to so. “Isn’t it wonderful to come to a space like this, despite the hatred ravaging the world outside, and just have a good time. Can I get an Amen?” Son of a Tutu asked at one point, and received an “Amen” as rousing as any that is ever likely to be heard on a Sunday morning in Piccadilly, though perhaps not on a Saturday night.

Another rendition of “Preach!” is to be held on 3 June, with a new line-up.

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