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05 December 2011

Being a fool for Jesus

Being a fool for Jesus

Ever seen a Church of England clergyman sporting a red nose, oversized shoes and tartan coat? Roly Bain is an Anglican priest who has become a 'holy clown'. His brand of circus performing comes with a Christian message and has taken him to prisons, primary and secondary schools, local churches and other organisations across the nation and around the world.

Roly says: "The work that I do is evangelical." To give an example of this, in a recent school assembly he walked along a slack rope. "It's a lesson about having faith - as the rope is wobbly but I keep looking to the course ahead."

Roly finds that wearing a clown's outfit gives him more opportunities to be outspoken than he would otherwise have. "One of the wonderful things about clowning is that it works at so many different levels at the same time. The jester is the one who is licensed to tell the truth and the only one allowed to get away with it."

Roly was born in 1954, son of Richard Findlater, biographer of the first great English clown Joe Grimaldi. At the age of eight, having read the biography of Coco the clown, he wrote in his school book that he wanted to be a clown in Bertram Mills Circus and make people happy.

He ended up being ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1978 but never forgot clowning. So in 1982 he helped found Holy Fools, an inter-denominational organisation of around 150 Christians that explores how clowning, miming, puppetry, dance, storytelling and allied arts can be used in ministry and worship.

In 1990 Roly resigned his parish in London and did a year at Fool Time, the circus school in Bristol (now Circomedia), and he's been a freelance clown ever since.

He has appeared regularly on TV and radio, and has won several awards, including 1994 Clown of the Year, the Clown's International Slapstick Award in 1999, the Impact Clown Award from the USA in 2001 and the Barbara Miller Award for Precision, Attack and Timing in 2010. In 2003 he was invited to become a member of the College of Evangelists.

Speaking of his current act Roly explains: "I nearly always start with the Christmas story, all through the year, because it puts me in context and lets everyone know why I'm there. For many children it's the first time they've heard it, especially in our schools. I tell it as if I was jester to one of the three kings, and the timelessness of the clown means that kids often ask if I really was there. The power of story is that I can take people into the stable to see the Christ child for themselves. The story finishes with, 'maybe sometimes still people know not just that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but that Christ is alive now, in you, and in me'. If I get it right in a show or a service, people laugh - laughter is terribly important and a great liberating gift; some of them cry - tears are a great releasing gift too."

Roly believes that this releasing of emotions is especially important for prisoners. "Prisons are, of course, difficult places, because laughter and tears and emotion are generally held firmly in check. Many prisoners have said they're grateful to hear the gospel preached or that it is the first time they've laughed in months - genuine laughter, that is. Many have said how much they've been touched."

Wherever he is performing, Roly's entertaining presentation of the gospel is always thought-provoking. As he explains: "I've been doing this full-time now for over 20 years and many are grateful for my ministry. It has brought many people to faith, and many more to see their faith in a completely new way. For some it allows people to see Bible stories in a completely different light. Whether it's a prison or a primary school, I do the same stuff, and I am constantly surprised at how grateful people are. In their laughter and their tears, they and I thank God, for it's the truth that sets us free."