Westcott House, Cambridge (Loren Kerns/Flickr)

When I was visiting Cambridge University some years back, one of the oldest Anglican churches in the town was hosting a ridiculous “Goth Eucharist” for the pale and trendy. Now Westcott House, an Anglican theological college there, has gone even further:

A leading theological college that trains priests for the Church of England has apologised after it hosted a service to mark LGBT history month that referred to God as “the Duchess”.

Student priests at Westcott House in Cambridge organised the evensong service on Tuesday in the college chapel. Advertised as a “Polari evening prayer in anticipation of LGBT+ history month”, it was described as a “liturgical experiment”. Polari is slang used by some gay people.

A prayer referred to the “Fantabulosa fairy” and ended: “Praise ye the Duchess. The Duchess’s name be praised.” Psalm 19 was reworded to refer to “O Duchess, my butchness”.

The service was “an attempt at queering the liturgy of evening prayer, locating the queer within the compass of faith, and recovering for the Christian tradition a sense of its own intrinsically subversive jouissance,” said a printed explanation.

The organisers said that just as Jesus welcomed the outcast, “Today we might follow in the footsteps of his daring, boldly and outrageously welcoming the Queer (both human and divine) in a way never before attempted.”

That “printed explanation” must have been restated from this one, introducing the “Polari Evensong” service at Yale Divinity School in 2015:

What Is Polari?

Polari is a mixture of languages and slangs as diverse as Yiddish, Lingua Franca, Molly Slang, a Traveler language called Palare, Italian, Rhyming Slang, and Thieves’ Cant that were all spoken in and about English cities. It is the language of those in and on the fringes of the fringes: gay folks. A cipher idiom used in Britain at a time when the crime of “Gross Indecency” (homosexuality) was punishable by imprisonment and hard labor, Polari was a way for gay people to identify each other and communicate with each other (see the recent short film Putting on the Dish). Polari can also be quite camp as depicted in the Julian and Sandy sketches from the 1960s BBC Radio program Round the Horn. Although Polari has enjoyed a bit of popularity of late, it all but died out after the repeal of the English sodomy laws in 1967.

Why Polari Evensong?

Polari Evensong” is a liturgical experiment in which we may explore what happens when a language of, for and from the fringe, a language that may be considered transgressive, is used to express worship and prayer. It is an attempt at queering the liturgy of Evening Prayer, locating the queer within the compass of faith, and recovering for Christian tradition a sense of its own intrinsically subversive jouissance.

In transducing Evensong into Polari, the hope is that just as Jesus welcomed the outcast (tax collectors, widows, and sex workers, people on the fringe, people often overlooked by the Church), today we might follow in the footsteps of his daring, boldly and outrageously welcoming the Queer (both human and divine) in a way never before attempted. The Evensong office on which this offering has been modeled is the same as that used in England in the 1960s, at the time when Polari was experiencing its height of use and popularity.

The readings are those appointed for the day in a more contemporary, yet still approved, cathedral office lectionary from England. The only way in which the office text has been changed is in its transduction (by Erich Erving) into Polari. This transduction was modeled after the Polari Bible, a project of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Manchester Chapter, from which the readings of Scripture have been taken. The Sisters describe themselves as “a leading-edge Order of queer nuns . . . devoted . . . to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.”

Right. If you can stomach it, here is a link to the so-called Polari Bible, which encourages its readers to, “Go forth and sin some more.”

How do things like this happen in an actual Christian church? Part of the problem is implicit in this remark, reported by The Guardian:

The college principal, the Rev Canon Chris Chivers, said the service was “hugely regrettable”. It used “a form of liturgy which was not an authorised act of worship in line with the college’s procedures,” he said. “I fully recognise that the contents of the service are at variance with the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England, and that is hugely regrettable.”

“At variance with the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England”?! And that is what makes it “hugely regrettable” in the eyes of the priest in charge of the college?! What contemptible clerical milksoppery. What is hugely regrettable is that that chapel has probably not yet been exorcised after that defilement. Seriously, how can a theological college where something like this is not immediately recognized as blasphemous when it is first proposed be trusted with the formation of priests?

Meanwhile, in December, it was announced that an Anglican Communion cathedral in Wales would host the world premiere of a short film about the pain felt by lesbian nuns who fall in love. Earlier in the year, though, the governing body of the Welsh church received some difficult news:

Average Sunday attendance in the Church in Wales has fallen to below one per cent of the population, the Membership and Finance Report said. And the Governing Body was in no mood simply to “receive” the report, as the motion on the order paper asked it to do.

Surely screening lesbian nun documentaries in cathedrals will turn things around for the Church in Wales. Surely.

UPDATE: Father Lawrence Farley correctly interprets this event:

Fascinating article, Rod. I can’t help but think however that some of the comments are missing the real significance of the event. Granted that it was fringy, the point was that it could happen at Cambridge and only draw the usual “Hugely regrettable” disclaimer from those in authority. The Evensong was not an event so much as a symptom of a wider disease, the apparent absence of any spiritual auto-immune system in the C of E. Talking about the many other places in the C of E that are “just traditional prayers and music” is like an oncologist confronting a cancerous tumour and then saying, “Yes, but just look at all the other places in the body that don’t have tumours!” The discovery of the tumour witnesses to the presence of a spreading disease. It is the same thing here.

This is exactly right. That it was possible for something like this to have happened at all at Westcott House is the story. That, and the fact that the principal of the college regrets not the blasphemy, but the fact that the event conflicts with the C of E’s rules.