The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the liturgy

Last Sunday’s clown Eucharist at the Episcopal Church’s powerhouse congregation of Trinity Wall Street has miraculously eluded any coverage in The New York Times, though it picked up a squib in the Daily News. That paper’s headline made the inevitable reference to Judy Collins’ hit song: “Rev. sends in clowns to teach a lesson” (to which I feel compelled to add, “Don’t bother [maudlin pause] they’re here.”

Trinity Wall Street’s rector, the Rev. Dr. James Herbert Cooper, came prepared with theological reflections on living the clown life. “Clowns represent the underdog, the lowly, the remnant people. Their foolishness is a call to unpretentiousness,” Cooper said in the Daily News article. “As St. Paul said, ‘The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world.’”

The niche-market Downtown Express nabbed this remark by Cooper from Trinity Wall Street’s website: “In the clown, God has shot from his cannon for us a vivid symbol of divine foolishness.”

Hey, speak for yourself, brother.

If you’ve been eager to relive the days of Godspell, there’s a streaming video (requires Windows Media Player) of the clown Eucharist — every ostentatiously unpretentious minute of it — on Trinity’s website. (If you prefer the mime-only sermon, clown-walk here instead.)

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  • Bob Koch

    Sigh. This is what happens when you are a parish church that happens to *own* Wall Street. Anything you want to do, you do.

  • Achilles

    It’s great to see Christian Clowning is still around. My mom was one for years.

    I remember the Daily Show did a piece on Christian Clowning in its early days and of course it was a complete hatchet job; “look at these bizarre fundies trying to deceive people with makeup.” There was not even an attempt to see the underlying message of gentleness.

  • Brian

    Don’t these folks realize that they look, well, rather clownish? Perhaps not.

  • tagryn

    Sacred? Holy? Dignified?

    Sorry, not in our dictionary.

  • David

    But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Phil. 1:18).

  • Darrell Grizzle

    The “holy fool” has a prominent role in the history of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Maybe these folks are trying to bring a little of that holy foolishness into the Episcopal Church (to which I belong), a church which has been taking itself way too seriously lately…

  • Stephen A.

    A couple of points on this, one of which looks at this concept of “divine foolishness” a bit deeper.

    First, I’m not so sure that Christians celebrating the Lord Jesus’ last meal in greasepaint and big shoes isn’t highly irreverent and disrespectful, but that’s their call to make.

    That said, this “divine foolishness” angle can be, and is, overblown by some fundamentalists who take it to a more complex level altoghether: the glorification of ignorance. I’m surprised to see others jumping on that bandwagon and I hope they’re not going that route, too.

    This virulent strain of anti-intellectualism starts by taking this one isolated verse about being a “fool” to extremes, with some interpreting it to mean that it’s beneficial to reject “the World’s” knowledge of God’s creation.

    Now, to take a totally secular view of the world is a mistaken and incomplete worldview. That truly is foolish because it cuts God and faith out of the equation. But to misunderstand what was meant by “foolishness” by Paul and pretend it means a glorification of willful ignorance is equally misguided. Yet, that’s just what some conservative Christians do, to their discredit.

    If clowning is meant to drive home a point, I hope it’s a narrow one about being unpretentious and humble before God (a good message) and not one that ends up encouraging and promoting a shallow, willful ignorance – something I can’t believe God wishes for His creations.

  • Achilles

    “If clowning is meant to drive home a point, I hope it’s a narrow one about being unpretentious and humble before God (a good message)”

    That would be it, yes.

  • tmatt


    You need to do some reading on the holy fools. That has nothing to do with liturgy and sacraments, but with the ability of some saints to mock those who think too highly of themselves and/or start messing with the holy traditions of the faith.

    Maybe that would be timely in ECUSA. (cue: SLAP!)

  • Darrell Grizzle

    tmatt, thanks for telling me what I need, but I have done quite a bit of reading on the holy fools, not only in Christianity but in other traditions as well (Sufism, Hasidic Judaism, Zen). Using your own definition, though, these Episcopal clowns do indeed seem to be mocking “those who think too highly of themselves” in their ECUSA church. I agree with you about this being “timely in ECUSA.” Now if only we could get some holy clowns to mock journalists who think too highly of themselves. (cue: pie in face) :o)

  • Charlotte Allen

    I’m all for being a fool for Christ–but the holy liturgy isn’t the place for mockery, even of our most mockable human foibles. It’s a sacred event in a sacred place, reenacting the most solemn events in salvation history. St. Francis of Assisi wanted his brothers to be “God’s jongleurs”–but not at Mass. Save the clown suits for outside the church, please.

  • Kerry Wood

    Watching the service (thanks for the link to the streaming video), I am having a hard time finding anything irreverent or mocked. This worship service appears to be a very creative way of expressing the Gospel in an environment more impressed with Industrial Light and Magic special effects.

    The real questions are these: how will this church follow up with all of the visitors to the service? How will they encourage those visitors to become more than just one-time attenders to a unique service? How will discipling take place in the long term?

    Real Christianity is about living daily in faithful response to GOd’s love expressed through Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. These “clowns” are exhibiting that response in a creative way. The mockery would be failing to move forward in ways that do not create disciples.