Two weekends ago – apologies for not posting last week – a special event took place in Dalston. The Clowns International Annual Service is an act of worship for and centred around clowns always held on the first Sunday in February in Dalston’s Holy Trinity Church.
The service sees clowns from all over the world gather in full costume – shoes, wigs, noses and all, bright in the very gloomiest time of year in London – and mixes readings, singing, clowning and conventional worship, all followed by a performance for children in the church hall (see picture), and tea and cake.
The event always reminds me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Like Mardi Gras, the clowns’ services shakes up the repetitive and humdrum rituals we all go through, churchgoers or not, things turn loud and garish, and we’re reminded of the importance of foolishness.
But, and I’d argue the same about Mardi Gras, the service shows how foolishness functions not just as a distraction from the realities of everyday life, but can also be a crucial tool in engaging with life’s seriousness and, ultimately, our own mortality.
Mardi Gras is indivisable from the solemnities of Lent, and the clowns’ service is also a memorial service, primarily for Joseph Grimaldi, a eighteenth century actor known as the father of modern clowning and commemorated in a window at the church, but also for all the clowns who have died that year, whose names are read out during the service.
Life is short and death is coming, the service and Mardi Gras seem to say, and the best response is joy and laughter. This message has a particular meaning in a Christian context and has been turned into an art form in New Orleans, but I think it’s also one that has a resonance for humans everywhere.