The Pierrot Priest

As a church minister, the historical figure with whom I feel most kinship is Pierrot the clown with the tear in his eye. Pierrot and the church minister are kindred spirits because we both understand the pain and the glory of being human. We both know that difficult lives can produce impressive people; those who celebrate with others are often lonely themselves. Joy and sadness are a part of each other. The language for the two emotions crosses over into each other: people cry with laughter and shed tears of joy – hence the tears in Pierrot the clown’s eye. As a church minister I live out the ultimate story of grief and joy, as a follower of the crucified and risen Lord.

In origin Pierrot was a European figure. He was a member of the Commedia Dell’ Arte, a wandering troupe of actors travelling from town to town performing as they went. Pierrot was the warm up act, there to attract people to the show. He was watcher, first and foremost; he observed human behavior; he understood the mood of the audience. He would provide easy laughs to soften up the audience. He was laughed at and then ignored, as the main show got under way without him.

Pierrot and church minister understand how apparent opposites blend together because we see what happens in other people’s lives. Pierrot served as an understudy when members of the cast were ill, drunk or temporarily shut up in prison. People talk with me about their situation. I was, once in a cafe, dressed in my formal clergy attire and a man asked if he could buy me a coffee. He explained that he had never brought anyone a coffee before in his life but had just been given a diagnosis for cancer. He realized that he could not take his money with him and he wanted to change how he related to people.

Pierrot and the church minister are kindred spirits because the menial tasks fall to us both. Pierrot looked after the animals, the dogs, monkeys and bears that were part of the performance. He slept on the same straw, if straw was available, as these half starved and ill used beasts. I felt Pierrot-like when I spent my August Bank holiday with my hand down a blocked toilet, unable to get hold of a plumber in time to clear the toilet ready for a church full of worshipers and a church hall full of party goers arriving later that day.

Pierrot and the church minister are kindred spirits because we both have a passion for life, a hunger for truth and a desire for communication. Pierrot knew, wrote Kay Dick (1960), what made the people laugh, what made them angry, what they anticipated, what they feared, what they loved. He knew why men beat their wives, got drunk, and was tender and cruel with their children, how they contracted debts married off their children and how they died.

Pierrot had a fundamentally optimistic nature; he believed in people’s ability to come through the most difficult of circumstances. This optimism sprung from a resilient nature, a tough life and a natural instinct for joy. His knowledge came from understanding people’s experiences.

Pierrot has a particular resonance for the UK at the moment. The height of his fame held within it the beginning of his decline. He was imported from Europe to England, following Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo, and was reinvented as an English clown. England had been at war with France and her acquisition of France’s Pierrot and was a triumph in international power politics and propaganda.

As a clown and clown alone Pierrot was no longer watching human behavior but simply performing to the crowd. Pierrot was the symbol of a defeated nation. After Waterloo there was no holding back the Englishness of Pierrot and his translation from being an observer into an entertainer marked the height of Pierrot’s popularity. England could only accept him as a clown. He became more popular but less relevant to the surrounding society. Over the next 100 years Pierrot was to fade into obscurity, nothing more than the object of ridicule at seaside towns and resorts.

It is a recurring temptation for the Church to substitute popularity for relevance, in our search for larger congregations, and now it is a temptation for the country to substitute populism for politics. As the clock ticks down towards Brexit, we will need Pierrot-like-figures, both in politics and in the Church, with insights drawn from experience and a deep understanding of humanity to be able to draw together different races, classes, genders and types of people into a healthy and harmonious whole.