Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Gimmicks Distract – From the Daily Office – January 11, 2014

From the Psalter:

Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the blast of the ram’s-horn; *
praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe.
Praise him with resounding cymbals;
praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
praise the Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalme 150 (BCP Version) – January 11, 2014.)

Clown Presiding at CommunionThe musical Godspell debuted in 1971 (my junior year in college); in it, Christ is portrayed as a clown. Whether it was an expression of or the catalyst for the phenomenon of offering clown eucharists as an edgy, avant-garde presentation of the Christian Mysteries, I really don’t know. The two are inextricably linked in my memory.

And . . . to be honest, I never cared for either. And . . . being further honest, that may be because I have never like clowns. I find them creepy. On the other hand, a bishop of whom I was very fond and for whom I had great respect, loved Clown Eucharists. He had a set of clown-decorated vestments made; he offered a clown eucharist at least once each year (often at diocesan convention) throughout his episcopate. They may have resonated for him because, unlike me, he loved clowns.

But I didn’t (and don’t) and so the clown eucharist was, for me, a distraction. I couldn’t get passed the gimmick, the clown images and the circus music, to the Christ at the center of mass. The clown gimmick, not the foolishness of God to which it was supposedly pointing, took over and seemed to be the point of the whole thing.

Some years later, when the music of U2 became popular and new generation were finding spiritual meaning in the band’s lyrics, someone put together a celebration of the Holy Mysteries in which that music played a part — the major part — it was the only music — and promoted the event as a U2charist.

“Right,” I thought. “The clown eucharist in a new guise.” Again, for me, the gimmick (the U2 music) distracts from the principal focus. I attended a U2charist and, for me, all I heard was the band’s music; I didn’t hear the gospel. That’s not to say it wasn’t there; it may have been. I just couldn’t hear it through the distraction of the soundtrack.

Since then I have heard of (but not attended) celebrations of Holy Communion in which the music was all from the Beatles canon, or all “oldies” from the 1960s, or all Broadway show tunes . . . and I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been other similar “thematic” eucharists. All, I think, the descendants of the clown masses of the 1970s — attempts to package the Christian Mysteries in edgy and avant-garde ways to present them to a target audience, to sneak the gospel message in under the guise of entertainment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Let me hasten to say that I think entertainment is fine. If clowns float your boat, go the circus! If you like the music of U2 (and I do), listen to it! If you like Broadway musicals (and I do), go to the theater! And if you find something of spiritual import in those entertainments (and I do), great! Make use of it in your spiritual life and, even, in church services and celebrations.

The last of the psalms encourages the people of God to make use of many forms of entertainment, symbolized by musical instruments — trumpets and horns (the ram’s horn), stringed instruments, percussion, wood winds — and dance, in their worship. So I believe it’s fine to make use of clowns, to use of U2’s music, to sing the Beatles’ lyrics, to offer the tunes from Broadway shows as part of the liturgy.

But when these things become the reason for the service, when we name the service for the clowns or the bands or the theater district, the tool meant to be used for praising God has become the object of praise. The psalm says, “Praise God with strings and pipe,” not “Praise the strings and pipe;” “Praise God with resounding cymbals,” not “Praise the cymbals.”

Others, I am quite certain, will have found the U2charists a path to God. Other, I know, will have found in the Beatles mass and in the Broadway eucharists the truth of the gospel. After all, that bishop whom I really did love found Christ in clowns no matter how creepy I may have found them!

But for me, these feel “gimmicky” — one or two Beatles songs might be used to good effect, but nothing but Beatles music through the whole service? Not so much. U2’s Gloria could certainly stand as a liturgical piece, but all U2 music throughout the mass? Too much of a good thing. I’m not sure that I can say anything positive about clowns . . . but someone might, perhaps. My point is that themed eucharists like these, in which the theme predominates, feel like gimmicks. It feels to me like we have stopped praising God with the clowns and have started praising the clowns; the gimmick distracts. Praise God with the gimmick, but don’t praise the gimmick!


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

1 Comment

  1. Robert Winter

    I think that the operative question is whether or not the celebration arises out of the shared experience of the celebrating community, or is something imposed on it from the outside (I.e., a “gimmick”). A “clown Eucharist” at a convention of Episcopalians engaged in “clown ministry” (whatever *that* might be!) might have some authenticity. In some other context… um, not so much.

    I suspect your bishop may have been trying to tell his clergy not to take themselves so seriously! “We’re All Bozos on this Bus,” as the Firesign Theater once so brilliantly put it.

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