It is largely uncontested that institutional Christianity in the West is declining in numbers and influence. Even when you take into account surging numbers in certain large Pentecostal and Calvinist movements, the overall trend is downward.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has confirmed that churches generally have toxic cultures that have provided a safe forum for abuse. The real question isn’t ‘Why did so many priests become abusers?’; the real question is ‘Why did so many abusers become priests?’. And the answer to that question is now crystal clear: the churches provided ready access to children and vulnerable people, a corrupt understanding of power and authority, and an institutional culture that protected the strong over the weak. In the past, it was easy to say there were a few bad eggs. But we can’t actually say that anymore. The reality is that the institutional church was a bad place, and bad people were drawn to it as a good place to hunt.
Another manifestation of this corrupt understanding of authority has been the marginalisation and disempowerment of women and queer people, and we’re now seeing this play out on an international stage as the old denominations tear themselves apart over those insidious gays and their dangerous female allies.
Here in Australia and throughout the world, that sick ecclesiastical culture also provided a safe justification for colonisation. The destruction of culture and language, the deliberate extermination of whole peoples, enslavement, and ongoing oppression. The churches were hand in glove with that work, and the oppression is ongoing.
By now you may be wondering why you’re reading an article written by a comedian because there’s nothing funny about any of this.
But the context is important because I am an agent of the Anglican Church, which was (and in many respects still is) the Department of Religion of the British Empire. I’m also that rare creature, a priest who is younger than 40, and who is also a theological and social progressive. When I think of myself as a priest, I like to think of myself as a beautiful unicorn, with a flowing mane and a shiny horn, ready to pierce my enemies through the heart. I’d appreciate if you would do likewise.
On Sundays, I lead worship in a neo-gothic church building wearing Roman civil costume speaking the language of Empire, set in an almost-universally white middle-class village in the Perth hills. I can click my fingers, and a plate of scones with jam and cream will instantly appear. I have become the village vicar that I vowed as a young man I would never become. My parish is small but sustainable. We do good stuff and we’re good people. But we are still part of an institution, which is part of a broader movement, which is badly screwed up, and which is rightly crumbling to dust.
In the Church of England and around the world, a trend of planting new churches has emerged. Variously called ‘Fresh Expressions’, ‘Mission-shaped Ministry’ or ‘Missional Church’, there has been strong grassroots and, in some cases, hierarchical support for new churches. These are churches intended for people who are not currently a member of any church. I am supportive of this movement, though I’m conscious that the new churches can very quickly become infected with the same toxic culture as the old church. There’s also a range of movements seeking to refresh and renew the church, not least through the inclusion of voices previously silenced. I’ve done some of my own work in this area, but there’s plenty left to do before we are a truly inclusive church. Jesus will probably return first.
I’ve done a rough sketch of the context I and many of you inhabit just to lay some groundwork. So what, then should be our artistic response to this context? I’m not sure exactly. But I am pretty sure that it involves pirates.
Now, a quick word about what Pirate Church isn’t. Pirate Church isn’t a pirate-themed church service for kiddies. I know there are Messy Churches and Vacation Bible Schools that would do that sort of thing, but Pirate Church spits on that sort of nonsense. Pirate Church is not a fresh expression of church. It is not an outreach. It is not an evangelistic enterprise that uses Piracy as a gimmick. Pirate Church is art, created by two artists who happen to work in the medium of sketch comedy and immersive theatre, and it’s a somewhat collaborative artform as the audience also gets involved.
Pirate Church is Werzel and me. Werzel is actually a Churches of Christ Minister named Paul Montague. But before he was in ministry, he was ‘The King of Perth Comedy’. We met because there was this extraordinary moment where he was a stand-up comedian exploring a vocation to ministry, and I was a priest exploring a vocation to stand-up comedy. The idea for something like Pirate Church had been brewing in Werzel’s head for some time, and after many long conversations the phenomenon was born.
A Pirate Church show consists of two halves. The first is a kind of sketch and variety show about ‘the wacky world of religion’. It usually begins with a song, then there’s a game show segment where the audience competes based on their knowledge of current ludicrous religious news stories, then there are sketches. So, for instance, over the years we’ve introduced Margaret and Joyce, the vicious matriarchs of the Ladies Auxiliary who hate everyone (but Muslims most of all). Father Hayter, a clapped-out and rather rude Catholic priest, and Pastor Jayden who is hip with the kids. One of our hits is a sketch called Hellsong, which is about a Megachurch of Satan.
No one is immune from the Pirate Church treatment – the hippy earth mother Christians are satirised by Margaret and Dennis at Laughing Goanna Retreat Centre, and the Orthodox by Brother Gyorgiy who is a missionary trying to correct the date of Christmas in Australia.
Senator Troy Pendleton-Coombs, Minister for Freedom, is a Bible-believing Christian politician who sees no conflict in ultra-nationalism, and white supremacy low-level fascism. He’s obviously a very unrealistic character who bears no resemblance to anyone in real life.
The second half of the show is a liturgy on board a pirate ship. It’s a little hard to explain without experiencing it, but perhaps it’s helpful to think of the pirate realm as a bit of a Narnia-style alternative universe. The Armada holds sway there, but there’s a group of rebels who sail aboard the Good Ship Fisher’o’men, living life free and wild and somewhat drunkenly. The Captain, who built and founded the ship was actually murdered by the Armada and nailed to the mast, but he did not stay dead and is returning. Surrounding the pirates on every side is The Deep, which is both the ocean and a kind of terrifying yet benevolent force who shapes their lives. And accompanying them on their travels is the Ghostly Parrot, who provides both a tender comforting presence and a tendency to peck at the eyes of people who do the wrong thing. When the ship’s crew gathers for church, there’s a reading from the ship’s log, which contains records of stories from the time of the Captain, and then Reverend Squall or the Saucy Jim the ship’s mate expound the log to explain it to the gathered throng. Rum is shared. All must share and none are left out. And, of course, the liturgy is punctuated by sea shanties.
Pirate Church is unashamedly theologically orthodox. We work very, very hard to sustain a commitment to trinitarian theology. So even when we are writing a Log Reading or a Saaarrrrrmon set in an alternative universe, it has to pass a test against the historical formulations. We are also faithful to the scriptures, sometimes slavishly so. Even though we are operating in the world of allegory, it’s important that the characters and narrative are recognizable, and speak intelligibly to the scriptural experience. We are creating satire, not mockery. There is no end of people who take the piss out of religion, but we are actual believers who genuinely love and follow Christ, and our aim is to provoke both laughter and reflection inside the bosom of the faith.
Now, the way I see the world, artists create art which attempts to integrate the world they inhabit, their own experience, their particular creative gifts and skills and the real or perceived needs of an audience. Art should be provocative and somewhat transgressive. Great art is both beautiful and discomfiting. For six years of the Pirate Church project, my work as an artist was affirmed by my peers – many clergy including bishops came to see the shows, we were nominated for and won awards, we appeared at national Christian conferences, and were interviewed in various media. Not once from my own institution was any concern expressed.
I guess I should have seen it coming, but I genuinely didn’t.
At the start of 2017, the day after we finished an amazing few days performing and teaching at Yurora, the National Christian Youth Convention, I received a letter from the Director of Professional Standards of the Diocese of Perth which began a descent into a rabbit hole that took fifteen months to finally resolve, and involved me being stood down from ministry for six months. The short version of this story is that the Professional Standards Director personally made a complaint against me to the professional standards committee, which then sort-of investigated. They ultimately referred the complaint to the Professional Standards Board, a kind of tribunal. All of this, of course, while the Royal Commission is at its peak and the churches are being publicly critiqued, and while my own Archbishop was ‘stood aside’ having admitted to letting down survivors of child abuse.
After a national media and solidarity campaign, which included my beautiful parishioners protesting on the steps of Church House, the complaint was withdrawn. But the trauma remains, and the sense of betrayal remains. I, and many others, still find it unfathomable that the Church in 2017 deployed tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of staff time, and significant positional power, to attack and try to silence an artist. And it did so in the middle of a massive genuine crisis in the life of the church.
But, on reflection, I think it was important that the institutional church exposed its agenda in this way because it made it clear that a Pirate Faith is absolutely necessary. A faith that is wild and untameable and fears no one. A faith that goes on adventures seeking buried treasure. A faith that sings, and shouts, and fights, and gets dirty, and has a place for everyone, no matter how munted, is a faith that we all need right now. It is no mistake that totalitarians always come after artists because we are dangerous people.
Creating art is a political act. It is a holy act. It is an act of faith to create, devise, construct, draft, perform, exhibit. Art is the work of the pirate, not of the Armada.