New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com
Clowns abound at church service
Saturday, May 28th, 2005
The main Sunday service at historic Trinity Church was inspired by
something the Apostle Paul wrote in a letter to Christians in the
Greek city of Corinth.
"We are fools for the sake of Christ," he told them.
And so, in that spirit, the Rev. James Cooper, rector of the
celebrated Episcopal sanctuary at Broadway and Wall St., greeted
worshipers last Sunday in some highly unorthodox vestments - a
checked red-and-white clown suit, red fright wig, rubber nose and
large floppy shoes. Then, in what was almost surely the most unusual
church service most parishioners ever experienced, he presided at
a "Clown Eucharist" that included circus music during the opening
procession, a mimed sermon, jugglers and outlandishly dressed ushers
blowing soap bubbles at worshipers.
"I'd never seen anything like it," said the Rev. Canon Ann Mallonee,
vicar of Trinity parish, who wore a ragged hobo outfit, battered
bowler hat and flapping 22EEE shoes - 14 sizes larger than her normal
footwear - while helping Cooper lead the service.
"The closest thing in my experience," she said, "was when I was a
teenager [in Wichita, Kan.]. We performed 'Godspell,'" a rock musical
based on the life of Jesus.
But to Cooper, the "Clown Eucharist" was more than a liturgical
novelty. He led gospel-in-grease paint services for several years
before becoming rector of Trinity.
In a letter inviting parishioners to wear "foolish garb" to the
service, he wrote, "Clowns are parables in themselves, spending great
amounts of energy uncovering small things, then showing forth the
hidden treasure of life (like the kingdom of God) and, surprisingly
to us, giving their most cherished possessions to others."
In the letter, headed "Note to Self: Bring Big Floppy Shoes and Round
Red Nose to Church May 22," he wrote, "We are all fools of one sort
or another.... Whose fool are you?"
To encourage people to get in the mood, ushers handed out noisemakers
and big red noses to everybody, but only a few of the 450 or so
worshipers, among them several dozen tourists, wore any clownish
accoutrements. "I'm self-conscious about doing that kind of thing in
church," one woman said.
This is not a problem for Cooper, who was installed 10 months ago as
the 17th rector in the 308-year history of Trinity. In his previous
church, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., he fired up chain saws and rode
motorcycles down the aisle to make sermon points.
It was there that he started the clown service, after seeing a film
about an Episcopal priest's clown ministry.
Historically, there is nothing new about clown services. In the early
centuries of the Catholic Church, one annual Mass was called the
Feast of Fools, with priests wearing dunce caps in some cases. It
included much mocking of church authority and a ritual reversal of
roles, for the lowly and their social, political, economic and royal
Nor is there anything especially profane about clown services - no
more, that is, than the blessing of animals in many churches or the
many jazz, rock and hip-hop services around the city. One of the
city's most popular hip-hop services, which draws some of the genre's
big names, is scheduled June 3 at Trinity Episcopal Church of
Morrisania in the Bronx.
"I was surprised at how spiritual I felt about our service," said
Mallonee, who joined the Trinity staff last October after serving as
interim dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Conn.
The idea, Cooper had announced, was to turn Trinity into a circus for
the day, and with streamers and balloons decorating the sanctuary, it
did look a bit like the big top. There was even a ringmaster, David
Jette, whose normal title is head verger (the official charged with
overseeing day-to-day parish life), dressed in spangled tuxedo,
wearing grease paint and waving a noisemaker.
Except for the music, sung by a choir wearing everything from Viking
horns to red wigs and painted-on grins, the entire service, from the
Communion and collection to liturgical prayers and readings, was
Perhaps most startlingly, Cooper acted out the sermon, which was
based on Christ's command to the disciples to go preach to the world,
using only hands, body language and facial expressions.
"It seemed so natural," Mallonee said. "To me, the people who looked
out of place were the ones who did not dress up."