Faith, hope and hilarity;Religious education

Martin Whittaker

God, that's funny! Britain's only cleric clown is spreading the gospel in schools with a large dose of juggling, tickling and tight-rope walking. And pupils seem to be getting the joke. Martin Whittaker joined Holy Roly and his appreciative flock.

Roly the clown peers round the door and the children start to giggle. He takes his first faltering steps into the school hall, stumbling here, dropping his hankie there, stopping to tickle a teacher. By the time he reaches the front of the hall he is greeted with gales of laughter.

He wears huge boots, bright green baggy trousers, spotty braces and a long tartan coat. He looks just like any other clown... apart from the big floppy dog collar, black cleric's cap and the red crucifixes painted on his cheeks. Roly is a clown with a mission.

The Reverend Roly Bain preaches God's word with a tickling stick. Not to mention juggling hoops and some great religious one-liners. An ordained clergyman who once ran a parish, he now makes his living touring schools, hospitals, prisons and churches.

On a Wednesday morning at St Barnabas C of E primary in Bristol, he has the children in stitches and one member of staff in tears. Yet amid all the slapstick and buffoonery, Roly tells stories from the Bible and slips in a few religious asides and irreverent jokes.

He tells a tale about being in Bethlehem during the birth of Christ. In mid-story he balances a tin cup of water on a long pole, perched on his chin. He snatches the pole away triumphantly - and the cup hits him on the head and drenches him. "Ah well," he says. "It rains on the righteous as well as the unrighteous."

Then he jokes about his costume. "I look lousy in sequins - I'll never make a bishop."

The grand finale sees him juggling on one leg on a "slack rope" strung between two poles bearing the symbol of the cross. "Now it's just a question of letting go," he says. "I call this my slack rope of faith because it's narrow, it's wobbly - but it's great fun!" After the show, St Barnabas headteacher Carol Jones says: "It was excellent. He had everybody captivated." But did the religious element hit home with the children? "I think so. I don't think it would have offended any of the children who weren't Christian, and yet it worked well for those who were."

Roly bills himself The Church's Jester - A Fool For Christ's Sake, and believes his religious messages do sink in. "I get feedback from a lot of schools. They say the children get the story. But it's like all storytelling - as long as we believe it, the kids can."

Roly's love of foolery began in his childhood. "Clowning was always my first ambition. My dad always used to take me to the circus and I had read Coco's autobiography - he was a great children's clown. When I was eight we were asked at school 'what do you want to be when you grow up?' I wrote clown in my school book."

But his career followed a different path. Roly took holy orders. He first made a connection between Christianity and clowning while studying theology. "It started off with a sermon we had to give at college. I thought a lot about the humour of faith. There's lots of humour in the Bible - the absurdity of faith. It's absurd that God should be born at all, absurd to believe that man should rise from the dead.

"I knew I wanted to be a clown, but the sermon just seemed to make sense theologically. It was all based on this thing about humour, the absurdity and that clowning was about comedy and tragedy, death and resurrection. You have to have both sides - comedy and tragedy - and you have to be prepared to be vulnerable. And all religious faiths have had their clown - their truth-tellers, the wise ones."

He was ordained into the Church of England in 1978 and became a curate in a succession of London churches. During his six years as a vicar in Tooting he introduced clowning into his services.

How did their vicar playing the fool go down with his congregation? "Like a lot of things, if it's done well people can see what it's about. If it actually speaks with the truth it's acceptable."

In 1990 the clown in him took over. He resigned from his parish and moved with his wife and two children to Bristol where he enrolled in the Fool Time circus school. After a year of learning to juggle, walk a tight-rope and fall over, Roly emerged as Britain's first clergyman clown.

Since then this has been his living. He is not attached to a diocese, but he and his wife Jane rent an old vicarage in Olveston, near Bristol. The Church seems to love him - he is much in demand for Sunday services, and so far he claims to have publicly "custard-pied" eight bishops. The religious message is turn the other cheek.

As well as his shows and workshops he has published books and videos. The latest video is called Only Fools and Heroes - Roly's Old Testament Tales. But performing in schools now takes up most of his time.

So why is he doing it? "I'm trying to make people laugh. Help them cry quite often, especially in prisons. But to teach at the same time. To preach in my own sort of foolish way to keep the whisper of God alive.

"In a sense although I say I want to make people laugh and cry and to teach, it doesn't matter what I say - it's what I am. That's what affects people. Because the clown just holds up a mirror to people and says hey, this is you, and allows them to laugh at themselves."

Contact The Rev Roly Bain at The Vicarage, The Street, Olveston, Bristol, BS35 4DA, tel 01454 616593

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Martin Whittaker

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