There used to be excitement when the circus rolled into town, the posters went up and the Big Top was erected on what was normally the playing field. We queued for the tickets so that we could see the acrobats and the tight-rope walkers and maybe (in those days) an animal or two and, of course, the clowns. We all enjoyed the evening out and the spectacle, the thrill, the laughter and then when we got back home our parents would shout at us to ‘Stop clowning around!’ This week we hosted at Southwark Cathedral the memorial service for someone who never did. Roly Bain was a clown for Christ, a holy fool, who made us all think about God differently.
In the parish of what is now Southwark Cathedral there stood some of the most well known theatres in the world, the Rose and the Globe, and the Bard himself, Shakespeare, lived for a time in the parish and, indeed, his brother, Edmund, a player himself, is buried in the choir. The fool is a character in a number of Shakespeare’s plays, characters who use their wits to outdo people of higher social standing.
Feste, the Fool in ‘Twelfth Night’, says
Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those
that are fools, let them use their talents.
Roly displayed both, that divine wisdom and the talent of the foolish to prick at pomposity. But he was doing something much more important than Shakespeare’s fools who roamed the stages in these streets ever did and that was to respond to what Paul says of himself to the people of Corinth
We are fools for the sake of Christ. (1 Corinthians 4.10)
We celebrate that foolishness to which we’re all called, represented by the one who dared to don the uniform of the clown and to combine it with the collar that we wear.
There are some people, of course, who are frightened of clowns. That fear has been given a name coulrophobia. They tell me it’s to do with the appearance of the clown, the exaggerated features, the painted on smile. But perhaps it has also to do with being put in that unsettling anarchic place in which the absurd can happen, in which the normal conventions of behaviour are overturned. Although I went along to the circus, I have to admit to not being a big fan of all clowns, I’ve never been able to bear the white faced clowns with the conical hats that often appear. But that short moment when people were using the fear of the clown inspired by people like Stephen King in his novel ‘It’ and the character, Pennywise, in order to terrorise others seems to have passed and, fortunately I’ve never really suffered from it in any serious way.
But fools have played their positive part in the life of the church. The best example, apart from Roly, was Rahere, an Anglo-Norman of the 12th century who founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London in 1123. He is described in various ways, as a monk, a herald but often a fool or jester in the court of Henry I and a favourite of the king. The story goes that this jester went on pilgrimage to Rome, fell ill and whilst there had a vision of St Bartholomew at the basilica on the Isola Tiberina in the middle of the river Tiber. Alongside that church was a hospital. The island had been a place of healing from pagan times when there was a Temple of Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing, on the same site. Restored to health and inspired by what he had seen Rahere came back to England and founded a Priory and Hospital at Smithfield. The church and hospital still stand and are doing their work, it wasn’t a foolish idea of his at all.
Rahere showed that true quality of the fool, wisdom viewed differently, foolishness used for good.
We stand at the edge of Holy Week and one of the first things that Jesus did after Palm Sunday was to hint at anarchy as he overturned the tables in the temple. A fool? A clown? Or wisdom at work? Well, at St Paul said to the Corinthians
‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom’ (1 Corinthians 1.25)
Perhaps the church, in search for the wisdom of God in this age, needs to learn to clown more.
God of laughter and of joy,
may we learn foolishness
and so find wisdom.